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Brother Ali : This Is Who I Am

story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: June 3, 2003

Brother Ali w/ DJ BK1
w/ PCS from Living Legends, Omni/Gershwin BLX
Thursday, June 12
Sokol Underground

13th and Martha


Minneapolis indie hip-hop artist Brother Ali says for him, being a white guy in a genre dominated by black artists may actually be an advantage. Then again, he's no ordinary white guy.

"Being an albino has never really hurt me," he said via cell phone from Philly, the current stop on tour. "It's the same as being an albino in life. It's something I have that gives me a distinctive look. People are always confused about what I am racially. And I let them think whatever it is they think. There are social connotations that go along with your racial background, and in that sense, it matters. The reality is that white people are more comfortable relating to white artists."

That, however, isn't necessarily the same case when dealing with a black audience, he says laughing.



Born 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 meet."

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.

"Basically, hip-hop 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."

"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."



"Musicians are greedy, selfish motherfuckers. We do this because that's what we love to do. I don't try to justify it."



His style is strong and aggressive, with perfect flow to a perfect beat that makes it all bob just like it's suppose to. Ali takes you inside but keeps you close to his side pointing out where he went wrong, and right. The music is distinctly old school, tapped out with flute or organ or horns, or a simple backbeat, bass and scratching. There's no effort to conform to today's hip-hop trends, instead he opts to honor yesterday's rap heroes.

If Ali's views from the road sound authentic, its because he's done his share of touring, last fall performing 63 times in 71 days with Atmosphere and Murs. His current tour will last six weeks. And for the first time, he says, he's coming across fans who actually know the words to his music. "That's a nice added feature."

But for Ali, there's a personal cost for spending so much time on the road.

"I love the act of performing live, meeting the people that like our music." he said. "The only thing I don't like is having a son at home. Me being gone so long is hurtful, a bad thing in his childhood. People try to justify it, saying I'm doing this for him, but the reality is that the best thing is to not be out rapping every day. The best thing would be having a teaching license and having summers off with him. I definitely have two things I love doing -- music and my son, and those two things conflict with each other."

He's considered taking his family on the road with him (his son will turn three during this tour), but knows the road is no place to grow up. "Is it better for him to have dad be gone or him to be gone? There's not an easy way to do it.

"Musicians are greedy, selfish motherfuckers. We do this because that's what we love to do. I don't try to justify it. It's what I have to do, like an addiction. I can't not do it. And I don't try to make it seem like it's right. As my son grows up, I know that I have to be open to the reality that is who I am."

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Published in The Omaha Weekly-Reader June 4, 2003. Copyright 2003 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.