in Madison, Wisconsin, Ali said he spent most of his youth in Michigan,
where he was first exposed to the hip-hop culture. "I was seven
when I started venturing outside of home," he said. "The
first people I met were older kids who did bands, graffiti, rap,
smoke and drink. I thought they were the coolest people I could
He quickly got involved
with the hip-hop staples of breaking and graffiti writing, and got
hooked up to rap through local DJs who went to New York and brought
back mix tapes of vinyl masters like Whodini and Slick Rick. Then
in '88, he noticed how rap styles became more complex and watched
the art go to another level. "That's when I starting doing
it, influenced by KRS One."
He moved to Minneapolis
at age 15 and eventually hooked up with the underground rap world
spearheaded by the Rhyme Sayers collective that includes such artists
as Atmosphere, Musab, Eyedea and DJ Abilities. Ali says the scene
there epitomized the underground hip-hop movement.
is made up of people who don't have traditional resources to make
music -- people who can't sing or play instruments, but make songs,"
he said. "With underground, independent music, we don't have
record companies behind us with big marketing budgets. We make it
our own way. We had to create our own hip hop scene in Minneapolis,
and it consisted of a lot of indie rock and punk kids."
In a move to remain independent,
Ali's label, Rhymesayers Entertainment, has turned down interlabel
offers by Interscope and Red (a subsidiary of Sony). Don't they
want to be a commercial player?
"We want to be respected,"
Ali said. "We want to carve out our niche and have our place
in the industry and go as far as we can without going against what
we stand for. Success is not selling out."
It's a point he stresses
when talking about Shadows on the Sun, his new CD on Rhymesayers
Entertainment released last month. Unlike his debut cassette-only
release, 2000's Rites of Passage, Shadows is more
free form and written "in the moment," and as a result,
Ali says, it's more real and honest.
On the CD's 18 tracks,
Ali tells it like it is without the tough-guy braggadocio, though
there's more than enough boastfulness to make it strong. With plenty
of Atmosphere essence (it's produced by Atmosphere's Ant and includes
guest appearances by Slug), Shadows on the Sun feels more like a
testament to Ali's life than life in the hood, thanks to an honesty
that comes from knowing it's hard enough just making it with a child
to raise and a hip-hop world on your back. He's just as quick to
put it at you (if you deserve it) as to bring it to himself in odes
that border in self-deprecation and self-awareness.
Some of the best moments
are pictures of life on the road. On stand-out track "Star
Quality" he tactfully pushes back on a groupie coming on too
strong: "I ain't trying to be rude lady I'm just passing
the test / Got enough hassle and stress of one woman cashing my
checks / I'll take the compliment and pass on the sex."
While on "Backstage
Pacin'" he tells a promoter to forget about the excuses for
the poor turnout, with the warning: "This is how I feed
my family so I'm not going to forfeit / And if that doesn't get
it I'll go for your wallet."