The venue is kind of a dump: low-ceiling pseudo basement in the rear of a strip-mall pizza joint. A Rhymesayers banner hangs at the rear of a stage festooned with stars out of a middle school classroom. An assemblage of unicorn pictures decorates the left wall, in case you forget for a second that the bar is called the Drunken Unicorn. To be frank, this seems a little bit beneath Brother Ali. The man has been featured on NPR; his most recent album, Us, garnered universal praise. Ali is big. He shouldn’t be waiting in line with the rest of the patrons to use the venue’s single bathroom. There’s no earthly reason for him to be hanging out in a backstage area that’s essentially a boiler room — except that there is. Brother Ali has been on tour since September, when the album dropped. He’s hit the places where they love him, and now he’s on a leg called the Breaking Dawn Tour. The whole idea is to set Ali wandering among cities that have been, in his words, “lukewarm” for him. Brother Ali isn’t after critical praise. He’ll take the money gladly, but that’s a bonus for his kids. Let the other MCs worry about street cred. Brother Ali is after hearts and minds.
The doors opened 15 minutes ago, but the room’s already starting to fill up. I’m trying to simultaneously stay out of the way and not touch the wall. The tour manager motions me over, and Ali and I walk back to the aforementioned boiler room. This may be the only room in the building with lights, so this is the first time I’ve got a good look at Brother Ali. The most immediately striking thing about him is his size. Part of Ali’s message is to not stereotype, but thoughts of albinism in the music business immediately trend toward Edgar Winter. Not so in this case. If the rap thing doesn’t work out, Ali could probably make a few bucks on the wrestling circuit, especially since he’s now sporting one of the gnarliest beards this side of the Steve Earle neck whiskers experience.
Like most things with Ali, the beard functions on many levels. It was initially the by-product of the age-old European outlet problem; Ali found himself sans trimmer across the pond. After a couple of weeks of letting it go, the beard became art: “I’m an artist. Everything’s symbolic, and if it’s not symbolic, we make up the symbolism. I’ve always worn whiskers, but usually I get up and shape them and groom it, but there’s something about not doing that every day. It’s like me being an albino. It’s part of who I am. It’s me. That goes along with the idea of this tour, I’m just out there doing what I’m doing and letting people come to me. That’s the only way to do shit.”
Doing shit has been easier some nights than others. Ali allows that his career is still a work in progress, and that there are plenty of places that he might not be able to bring in large numbers of people. I point out the door to the crowd, which has grown to one of the shoulder to shoulder variety and is already bumping. Ali, totally sans bravado, wonders aloud if this is natural progression or whether they’re here to see Kaos, the opening act. Whatever the reason they’ve come, the people are there to party, and that’s more than the tour has had going for it some nights.
“I’m not going to say the names of any cities, because I don’t want to dis them” he says. “But there have been nights when it seems like the crowd just isn’t having fun, and you have to say to yourself that somebody out here is a real fan and somebody deserves to see a real show. But the whole time the crowd is just standing there still, and you think these people are just not into this.”
A lesser man might be intimidated by facing these odds, but Ali wades into it every night. He says “there are no bad crowds, but there are people who don’t know how to interact with music.” He talks them through the experience. “I tell them what to say. Sometimes they would rather just sit there and watch, but that’s not what a show should be. I lead them through it. I’ll give them specific instructions. If you feel this, do this. If you’re having a good time, say this.” A lot has been written about Ali as a messenger of truth in a time when groups like the Black Eyed Peas are taking one line of Rob Base song and selling it as hip-hop. Brother Ali will do just about anything to bring the music to the masses the right way.
Despite his mission, there are limits. Ali freely admits to being a showman, but there are certain principles he won’t compromise. Though audiences will hear a wide selection of songs from Us, there’s not chance that one of them will be “Baby Girl,” a song that explores the aftermath of sexual abuse. “I wrote this song about people I love and got their permission to do it, and I just so don’t want to feel like I’m exploiting them. When I’m on stage there’s always an element of showmanship, and I don’t want there to be anything like associated with that song. I don’t ever want to feel like I’m going through the motions with that song. I don’t want some girl to look at me longingly during that song. I know I could so that song and people would cry. People would be leaving the show and talking about how moved they were, but that just doesn’t feel right.” It’s the right thing to say in the situation, but Ali seems genuine. No matter how long the night or how wack the crowd — Ali confesses that there have been a few occurrences of wackness in his trek across America — there are certain things more important than selling the show.
Though he stresses that this tour has been a positive experience, the cumulative effect of time away from home weighs heavily on him. He’s on the road for four months out of a given year normally, and in a year when an album drops, the number shoot up to six to nine months. Ali makes it clear that he has custody of his son, and isn’t one of those fathers that “just checks in every so often,” but admits there’s a significant amount of regret that he “missed fourth grade” for Us and “missed second grade” for his last one. It could sound hackneyed when he says “these things only happen once,” but the genuine feelings he expresses overwhelm any hint of triteness.
He hits the stage a couple of hours later. The basement smells like shoe funk and spilled beer. The crowd’s restive after the two opening acts, and it’s easy to see that this show could go either way. Brother Ali has been at this literally all year; it would be easy to phone one in and focus on the fact that he’ll soon be home in Minneapolis. It’s late and he’s playing in a basement. That isn’t how Ali’s wired, though. His intro kills. The crowd is moving in a unified wave. They’re speaking without being told what to say. His worries are unfounded. Ali has these people in the palm of his hand — a few more souls won to hip-hop.