Hip-hop is a crowded game, and most MCs have to work overtime to find the one thing that sets them apart from the pack. Brother Ali, not so much. On his first two albums, Shadows on the Sun and The Undisputed Truth, the focus fell on race and religion, both subjects on which Ali remains circumspect. On his third album, Us, Ali distances himself from the herd by widening his point of view and delivering a true, tragic, and ultimately life-affirming view of the world in which he lives.
There’s only one way to start this interview. Exactly how bad is Brother Ali?
He’s extremely bad, badder than you could imagine.
Care to elaborate on that?
As my albums have more and more of a theme that has something genuine and sincere in it, I always want to have something on there that’s very real about me. I don’t want to mislead people that it’s positive all the time. It’s important to dedicate that one song to showing that I’m still a son of a bitch. I like that side of myself, and even though I’m making more personal music now and seeing things in a more human way, the shit talking is a thread that runs through all of my albums.
What did you want to accomplish with Us?
On my first album, I was trying to survive. I was nobody. The only people who knew me were outsiders in Minneapolis. I wanted to have a career, but I got married too young, had kids too young. I was going through some challenging shit, and the hope was that music would somehow help me with that. The album sold pretty well. I was able to pay my bills and eat steak, but just having enough money to pay the rent isn’t the end goal. When you can’t make rent, of course that’s what you’re thinking about, but I always felt out of place in my world. That’s where the song “Forest Whitiker” comes from; it’s an emotion that people responded to in a really positive way. Even if they couldn’t relate personally to what was happening to me, people saw that I was delivering it with true emotion. If that’s the case, people will find a way to relate. On the next album, I was homeless, got custody of my son, and had a bunch of friends going to Iraq. I brought that into the music, and people responded to that even more. After The Undisputed Truth, I needed to stretch it, to find a new way for people to relate to me and my life. The bulk of my listeners don’t come from where I’m from, but I can tell these stories that make them relate to people they would never otherwise know. The original title was The Street Preacher, and the idea was me on the street, shouting all these stories. It came down to the last in the studio, and something wasn’t right. I had saved “Us” for last, did it in one shot, and Ant said that was it. I took the title from that song, and even though it wasn’t what I originally aiming for, it opened up so many possibilities. I didn’t want to get trapped into making songs about me all the time, and Us shows all the places there are for me to go in my music.
On “Tight Rope,” you empathize with, amongst other characters, a closeted gay teen. Given that rap isn’t necessarily the most tolerant genre of music, did you have any reservations about that verse?
Yes, for about thirty seconds. That verse was Ant’s idea. I started out about writing some kids in Minneapolis, three people who have nothing to do with each other but are all going through the same thing. I had stories, and I was looking for the third one. Ant said, “You have to do one about a gay kid.” For a quick second, all I heard was other rappers and what they would have to say about it. But I’ve never tried to please them. I really, honestly, truly don’t give a fuck how they look at me. I’m always viewed as being on the outside even though in theory I’m more hip-hop than most of these guys on the radio. And people are always going to talk; they try to pin me down on my identity. Am I really a Muslim? Am I white? Am I adopted? People are on the Internet writing that Brother Ali says he’s blind, but he’s on Twitter, like a blind person couldn’t use Twitter. I know the next thing coming is that Brother Ali is gay, but, you know, fuck it. That song is touching on some truth, but I have a weird history with the gay community. I was ignorant when I was first recording; I used the word faggot twice on my first CD. Since then, I’ve made friends and met people that I respect as artists who are gay. It made me reevaluate my feelings on the topic, and I realize now that if you’re not actively part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. This song is kind of a penance, because there are people walking around in their headphones saying “faggot” because of me.
You go into similar territory with “Baby Girl,” which has a pretty heavy theme. Did you ever consider how the song would be received?
You can’t plan it. Burt Bacharach, will.i.am and Kanye West are able to write a song that majorities of people want to hear, and I think that’s a huge talent. I can respect that type of music. “Baby Girl” was one of the hardest songs I ever wrote, because it comes from a real place. So many women that I’ve been really, really close to have been the victim of some sort of abuse. I’ve been, to varying degrees, the listening post, and I have a very tender place for women who’ve had these experiences. I try to deal with the anger and sadness that I have by writing these songs. It’s one thing if a guy is beating up his girlfriend and you can deal with it physically. The experiences in the lives of these women are in the past, but they continue to affect them. I can’t even begin to try and talk about what it’s like to have lived through something like that, but I can try and relate what I experienced by being close to these women. I showed “Baby Girl” to the main person it’s about, and I told that if she didn’t want me to put it out, I wouldn’t. I asked for her permission, and she said that it needed to be out there. I’ve seen young women at shows, and they’ve come up to me crying about that song. I don’t perform it in concert, though; I’m not sure enough about my connection with the audience to put it out there live. It’s such a personal song, I don’t know what would happen if an audience didn’t accept it.
Do you ever see yourself recording something purely for the radio?
I would like to, but not the stuff that’s forced down your throat by the radio. There’s something about a pop song that gives people joy. I recently met will.i.am, and I was able to talk to him about his music. I straight up told him that I loved some of the stuff he did, especially the early things when he was in the underground like me. Then there’s “My Humps,” which I absolutely hate, and I told him that. There’s something about that song that gets inside my head. I can respect that kind of songwriting, but it’s not what I do. Nobody could do that, except for Slug. He could be mainstream tomorrow, but he chooses to stay where he is. The rest of us here in the underground are here for a reason. Either it makes you bitter or you’re happy for what you have.
You’ve worked exclusively with Ant from Atmosphere. Do you ever see yourself producing your own album?
I’ve given my life to being an MC, and that’s where I’m going to stay. I don’t have a lot of respect for people who dabble. Ant has given himself to making beats. He’s the type of person who builds his record collection instead of his car. He basically didn’t live his twenties; he was in his basement creating Rhymesayers. I’ve made beats since I was 13, and I produced everything on my own demo. That was how I met Ant in the first place. I took him my demo so that he could make some beats for it. He told me to keep what I had for the most part, but what really came out of it was that he knew how I wanted the songs to sound. We have an excellent working relationship. If I ever wanted to branch out, there wouldn’t be a problem. As long as it’s working, though, I’m not in any hurry to mess with success.
Why should people seek out Brother Ali?
I think there’s a certain way that I write songs and present ideas. That’s not to say that nobody else is writing about these things, but being an outsider in so many different ways has given me a unique point of view. Besides that, I think I’m pretty good at what I do.