The Plug One Q&A: Brother Ali

Brother Ali, holding the mic tight. Photo by Jonathan Mannion.

Brother Ali is salt of the Earth, a regular dude who happens to rap. He’s an artist, true, but for him hip-hop isn’t a gateway into something alien and strange. It’s a tool to illustrate his thoughts and ideas, a palette that turns personal insights into music.

When he spits, he spits hard. Even if Brother Ali doesn’t boast that he can mow you down with gunfire (although he will threaten to kick your ass); or engage in the kind of humiliating personal attacks that his longtime hero, legendary MC KRS-One, sometimes indulges in; you can feel his fire when he raps. It’s the reason why, while critics and fans still debate whether Brother Ali’s labelmate and co-owner of Rhymesayers, Slug from Atmosphere, ruined underground hip-hop. Brother Ali gets a fully stamped credibility pass. Both men explore their personal thoughts and feelings in a “truth-telling” style that’s often mis-labeled as “emo rap,” but Brother Ali adds a healthy dollop of booming vocal authority. It’s either his way or the highway.

Brother Ali’s 2007 album is called The Undisputed Truth. One surmises that the truth isn’t exactly relative in this equation. He rhymes with dexterity, but he’s not a wordsmith. His songs, particularly “Daylight” and “Truth Is,” he hits with punchy wisdom like a union worker.

“I want more!” he raps on “Truth Is” over a ska-lite beat from Ant (who is also one half of Atmosphere). “People need more freedom/Children need to hear more truth when y’all teach em/Damn I want to hear a plan from the dude preaching/Got new seeds with new true needs and who’s leading/I truly believe every word i ever uttered on a drum break/Right or wrong life goes on but it wasn’t nothing fake/I demand you start listening to the crowd/If not we gon burn this bitch to the ground!”

This interview was conducted on May 11, 2007, two months after the release of The Undisputed Truth. Unfortunately, I called Brother Ali at a bad time; judging from background chatter, it sounded like he was en route to an airplane flight. He was polite and graciously answered my questions, but he wasn’t really engaged, and we didn’t develop an interesting dialogue. It didn’t help that all my questions addressed the same topics he’s always asked — his racial background, being an independent MC, etc. To him, I must have seemed like another press geek reading from the “stock Rhymesayers questions” list. It was a clumsy and mercifully short conversation.

As often happens with interviews conducted for this site, I didn’t transcribe it for many months. Eventually, the interview lost its newsworthy value, and didn’t seem worth posting anymore.

So why post it now? First, Brother Ali is going back on the road for a new tour called “Truth is Here.” He’ll be accompanied by Abstract Rude, who just signed a deal with Rhymesayers; and his hypeman Toki Wright and DJ BK-One. Brother Ali doesn’t have a new album out; he’s just hitting the road to do some shows. Rhymesayers artists get down like that.

As of this writing, Plug One looks like something of a mess, thanks to a difficult upgrade. (Tech-savvy readers will know what I’m talking about.) With all the intra-site confusion, and the serendipitous arrival of a new Brother Ali tour, it seems like a good time to revisit my talk with the Minneapolis bomber.

The Truth is Here tour dates:

  • 2/29: High Noon, Madison, WI
  • 3/01: Picador, Iowa City, IA
  • 3/02: WMTU Houghton, Houghton, MI
  • 3/03: Pizza Luce, Duluth, MN
  • 3/04: University of Wisconsin-Stout, Menomonie, WI
  • 3/05: Waiting Room, Omaha, NE
  • 3/06: Fox Theatre, Boulder, CO
  • 3/07: Bluebird, Denver, CO
  • 3/08: Kilby Court, Salt Lake City, UT
  • 3/08: Urban Lounge, Salt Lake City, UT
  • 3/09: The Venue, Boise, ID
  • 3/10: Neumo’s, Seattle, WA
  • 3/11: Hawthorne, Portland, OR
  • 3/12: Slim’s, San Francisco, CA
  • 3/13: Troubadour, Los Angeles, CA
  • 3/14: Canes Bar & Grill, San Diego, CA
  • 3/15: Club Congress, Tucson, AZ
  • 3/16: Sunshine Theatre, Albuquerque, NM
  • 3/18: Club 101, El Paso, TX
  • 3/19: Prophet Bar, Dallas, TX
  • 3/21: Orpheum, Tampa, FL
  • 3/22: The Social, Orlando, FL
  • 3/24: Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro, NC
  • 3/25: Ottobar, Baltimore, MD
  • 3/26: World Cafe Live, Philadelphia, PA
  • 3/27: Bowery Ballroom, New York, NY
  • 3/28: Middle East, Boston, MA
  • 3/29: Nietzche’s, Buffalo, NY
  • 3/30: Blind Pig, Ann Arbor, MI
  • 3/31: Abbey Pub, Chicago, IL

2/29-3/31: w/Abstract Rude, Toki Wright, BK-One

Plug One: How’s the album doing for you?

Brother Ali: It’s doing great. People are receiving it really well; the people who have heard it – the press, the listeners and everybody. It’s been really great.

Plug One: Is the response unexpected for you, or is it something that you’re used to?

Brother Ali: I never know how people are going to receive stuff. I try to make something that I’m happy with. Nobody’s standards for myself are going to be higher than mine, and so I just wanted to make an album that I feel good about, and the people that I work with feel good about. And we did that. But I never know how other people are going to respond to it. I know I have a lot of listeners that are really connected with what we’re doing, and I feel as long as I’m true to myself then those people should be able to hear it.

Plug One: It seems like what you and Rhymesayers does is really speak to the people – meaning, just everyday people.

Brother Ali: Yep, that’s the whole approach. I personally don’t have the music industry in mine when I make my music, because when we started out, the music industry wasn’t involved at all. It was just us and our listeners, and that’s the way that we try to keep it. Not that we don’t involve the music industry at all, but that’s just something to help our listeners access us. We don’t make – or at least I didn’t – make this thinking, “What’s going to be the single? What’s going to be the video? What are the magazines going to say?” I made something that’s true to myself and that the people who really listen close would appreciate.

Then, when we tour, we go directly to the people and we hang out with them, and we play in cities that not a lot of rap tours go to. So yeah, you’re exactly right.

Plug One: I know that Rhymesayers has a distribution deal now with Warner Bros. Has that changed Rhymesayers approach in terms of marketing the album?

Brother Ali: No, it just made it so our music can be available to more people. Before – my last two albums, anyway – were distributed directly through us, and so it was only in the places where we had relationships, like independent stores, online, and stuff like that. There are a lot of cities where there’s not an independent store, and there’s a lot of people that can’t buy music online. So this allowed us to have our CDs in Target, Best Buy, and places like that at reduced prices, so that anybody, if they want the music, can go and get it.

Plug One: Did your first album (2003’s Shadows on the Sun) come out when Rhymesayers had Navarre Distribution, or was it before then?

Brother Ali: No, my album wasn’t distributed by Navarre. Both of mine were before the Navarre deal.

Plug One: Okay…and it was before Epitaph, too?

Brother Ali: Epitaph was only for specific albums. It was just for [Atmosphere’s] Seven’s Travels and Eyedea & Abilities [E&A]. It was never for the whole label.

Plug One: There’s one lyric you kicked on Pigeon John’s album (2006’s Pigeon John and the Summertime Pool Party) where you talked about Little Brother, Def Jux, and a lot of the other players in the indie rap scene. I thought it was a great lyric. It leads me to ask, where do you feel like you fit in as an artist?

Brother Ali: I don’t gauge what I do by anybody else. I just do what I feel is right for me. I’m just adding my perspective, and talking about my own very personal views and feelings and thoughts on things.

I’m independent, so I share that kind of approach with people like El-P, Murs, and [people] like that. But I just don’t think of it like that. I don’t see them as my competition. I just do my thing.

Plug One: When you say “approach,” do you mean in terms of putting an album out on the market, or an artistic approach?

Brother Ali: I mean that when I say we’re independent, I mean that we don’t have a big record company pushing us. So we have to do a lot of it ourselves. I’m saying it in that sense, I’m close to them..

Plug One: I read a story about you in Spin. I didn’t know you went through all of those ordeals to get The Undisputed Truth done. I do know that it’s been a minute since your first album. Do you feel the finished project is worth everything you went through to make it?

Brother Ali: Yes, I think so. I think that it really gives an accurate picture of my life in the last few years: Everything I went through, the choices I made, the trouble and sacrifices I had to go through, and then also the triumphs that I had.

Plug One: How long did it take you to actually record the album?

Brother Ali: It was off and on because I was on tour a lot, and Ant was on tour a lot. I would probably say a year and a half. In terms of the actual time that we spent on it, I would say three to four months. But it was off and on because of our touring schedules.

Plug One: There’s one song on The Undisputed Truth called “Daylight” where you talk about being a Muslim, and then you talk about how people sometimes confuse you for being white. Can you expound on that a little bit?

Brother Ali: On which part?

Plug One: Well, it seems that they’re interconnected since you discussed both things in the same song.

Brother Ali: I mean, that’s a song about people misinterpreting what I’m trying to do, and people misunderstanding what I am. I’m an artist that’s just trying to be honest about how I feel about things. I have a unique perspective on things, and I just try to share it with people.

I’m a Muslim, but I’m not a Muslim artist. My art isn’t Muslim art. It’s not Islamic music, you know. It’s just music, and I’m a Muslim, so that sometimes comes through.

People do a lot of writing about me and race, and most people are just guessing. They don’t know what my real situation is. I made that song just to address those things.

Plug One: It seems like Rhymesayers has been faced with those questions throughout much of its history, because it’s a multi-racial roster. But a lot of people mistake you for being white rappers and white backpackers. Now that you have a track history and an album that’s doing well, do you still face those questions?

Brother Ali: No. I think those are things that were talked about five years ago, and it’s not really part of the conversation anymore.

Plug One: Who are some of the people that inspired you as an MC? Your flow reminds me of KRS-One.

Brother Ali: Yeah, KRS-One would be the main one.

Plug One: What did you get from KRS-One as an artist?

Brother Ali: Just a lot of things: the topics that he spoke about, the way that he was always trying to show you something new and the way he presented himself. He was always a strong influence on me.

Plug One: It seems like identity – seeking to define yourself as a person — is a big theme in your music. Is that a fair assumption, or are you just someone who wants to be a dope MC with dope lyrics?

Brother Ali: No, I don’t think my identity is a part of it. I think that’s what that “Daylight” song is about. There are some people that really don’t get what I’m doing, and I think they are saying, this artist is this race, and this is why he’s saying this. Or this artist is this religion, and that’s why he’s saying this. Or he’s from this part of the country, and that’s why he’s saying this. And I don’t think that’s the case.

I’m just a person. I’m just talking about things that I think about, and things that I feel.

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