Published May 23, 2010Brother Ali is arguably the hardest-working live rapper working today. If you aren't familiar with his rhyming stories by now ― tales of struggle and race, family and religion, love and hate ― then it's not for his lack of trying. Exclaim! caught up with the Rhymesayers performer heading to his Minnesota home on a rare off day during his current Breakin' Dawn tour (alongside freshman phenom Fashawn), between gigs in Winnipeg and Detroit. The self-proclaimed "luckiest sonuvabitch that ever lived" will kiss the wife and kids, grub on a plate of pancakes, and then hit the road again. He's got lives to inspire and stages to drip sweat upon. He believes this music thing is important, sacred even.
You've been touring relentlessly for the last eight years. Is there one show that sticks out as a highlight?
It's weird how much of them you really remember. I remember them based on tours, and I feel I have a relationship with each city. When you say "San Francisco," I can remember every show I've done in San Francisco, how I felt about it, some kind of detail about it. I don't have a favourite one; I just have a lot of great memories.
Have you had a nightmare gig? Ever feel like walking offstage?
The worst I've experienced is when you go to cities that aren't used to live music ― they just don't get a lot of it, and they don't know how to interact with it. So that interaction is strained and weird, and I think, "What are we doing wrong?" But at the end of the night, they're like, "That was amazing!" And you get MySpace and Twitter messages for weeks saying how amazing they thought it was. They just didn't know how to show you when you were onstage. I know in every audience there's a married couple or a single mom that got a babysitter to come to the show, or someone who drove seven hours to be at a show because it was the closest tour stop. I'm like, "I don't know if the rest of you people are having fun, but there's someone here that deserves to get a great show tonight." The other thing is, the crew ― the people that make the show go right ― they didn't do all this work for me to just give up.
Because your songs are so emotional and personal, you have some diehard listeners. What's one of the most surprising interactions you've had with a fan?
There's a dude in Northern Cali who started coming out to shows in 2004. He's come to every show I've done in Northern California since 2004. When he came to his first show, he was on drugs. That's when he discovered the music. And he started writing me physical, hand-written letters saying that he was in rehab and that while he was in rehab, he needed something to focus on. So he focused on my music and made it the centre of his life for a while. I see him every time I go there, and he's travelled to shows in other areas and based his vacations off the shows. There's a number of people like that, that I've been seeing forever since I started doing shows in 2002.
How do you react to such devote followers?
I'm always real with them. There are people that are scary, and I don't interact with them at all. But there's not a whole lot; most people are pretty genuine. I don't think anybody sees me as anything other than I am ― just a person trying to figure it out and make the best music I can. Words like appreciation and respect come up a lot, but I don't think people are following me like that. There have been a few of those, but they don't hang around too long. People who are looking for a saviour, they're going to look for someone who's more image-based. They'll latch onto a strong image instead of me. Not that I don't have an image, but that's not the strongest thing about me.
You've really created a momentum around your last few tours ― given them a name, recorded tour-specific collaborations featuring all the artists on the tour.
Me and [my tour DJ] BK-One came up with that whole approach to touring, and the Fresh Air tour is where we got it right. We tried to do it with our previous tours and just didn't fully understand how to do it. On previous tours we had other acts from Rhymesayers, we had a host, BK DJ'd for everybody. But starting with the Fresh Air tour, we put everybody's set together the way we did ours ― with them, of course. So me, BK and Evidence put together Evidence's set. And me, BK and Toki Wright put together Toki's set. We did the same things we do for our own set, we gave [the tour] a name, a pact feeling, then did a theme song with everyone on the tour. At the end of the night, people want an encore, and they get to see everyone on the tour. But it's not just a bunch of dudes standing around freestyling; it's an actual climax. Those songs are tailor-made for live shows. It's pretty fresh, man. It's one of those things that I know rappers are gonna bite. People will take that idea. But so much of the other stuff I do is not biteable. They're gonna steal this shit; I wish they'd have enough self-respect to give me a couple years of doing it first.
How much of that is purely a promotional tool?
The people are gonna come anyway. They don't know any better; they really don't. You do it because you want that show to be great. This is our time away from our families. This is our life. You spend two or three months making an album, then you spend two years touring that album. The things you do on tour are as important if not more important in terms of the impact it has on your life. If my shows are mediocre, and I'm away from my family, and my kids are missing me, and my wife is depressed, then, fuck, my life is gonna suck. I need my shows to be great so that it justifies everything I'm sacrificing, everything that everybody with me is sacrificing to be out doing it. Because the money's not enough. I have to feel like I'm doing something important.
Is there someone you try to emulate when it comes to the live performance?
KRS-One. But as an MC overall, that's who I patterned myself after, at least early on. Everybody starts off emulating somebody, then you grow into your own person. Me and BK have tried to create this feeling of a band and do the things as an MC that a band would be able to do. The way we approach it is: If we had a full band onstage, what would we want to do? And we make that happen out of the DJ-and-MC thing. The idea of having one DJ for the whole night is like a Stax revue with Booker T and the MGs being the band for the whole night, or Bar-Kays being the band for the whole night. That's something we got from them. My showmanship comes from other places now, other than just rap. It comes from preachers and comedians and great showmen in general.
On the song "Fresh Air" from your latest album, Us, there's a definite feeling that you're happier now than in the past, that you've reached a comfort level in your life and career. What dreams are left for you to chase?
The thing with Us is, there's one song talking about how my life is now and how good it is, but the rest of that album is about the people I care about that are still in the situation I was in when I started and in all likelihood will die in that situation because of different emotional things they're going through or the inequality in the world. There's still lots to tackle in terms of the people; it's not so much about me anymore. It's about what all of us are going through, and I truly want for everybody to experience the joy and freedom and fulfilment that I have. I still love the art of rapping, and I still want to be better than everybody. I still want to have being an artist, have fun being an MC. And there are parts of my life that I haven't touched on yet. I feel I just scratched the surface on love ― there's more to do there. Shadows of the Sun ― there are a lot of things I didn't get to from that period of my life because there was a specific story I was trying to tell. Same thing with Undisputed Truth and this one, Us.
As a pure rhyme-spitter, you're underrated. The focus lands on your conceptual songs because that's an area where so many MCs falter. Battle-wise, what verse or song from your catalogue would you put up against anybody?
"Best@It" from the new [album]. But I agree with you. There are things I can do that could change that [perception], if I specifically wanted people to focus on my skills, being a spitter. But Joell Ortiz holds that crown in my mind. Who is the best at spitting verses? That's Joell Ortiz. How did he get that tile? It's by putting out something new every three days or every week. Shit, the dude is not playing. Him and Freeway in terms of being ferocious, their flow, cadence, everything. I wrote that song "Best@It" [featuring Freeway] because I had been online looking at a lot of Joell Ortiz freestyles and radio appearances; I was on a Joell Ortiz kick for a minute. And every time I do that, it makes me want to rap. There are certain people, when I hear them, I'm like, "Alright. I gotta make something." Joell is one. Freeway's another. Jay Electronica. Mos Def. There's a bunch of young dudes doin' that too, but nobody more than Joell Ortiz.
Do you go through prolific stages where you write daily?
Yeah. I can't be mad that I'm known as the deep rapper or whatever, as opposed to a spitter, even though I can spit. Songs [that focus on solely wordplay], very seldom are they timeless anymore. The life of them is so short ― even mine. I don't like performing [2003's] "Bitchslap," one of my old songs where I'm just spittin'. I never do "When the Beat Comes In," songs like that from my old albums. The whole flood-the-internet thing works well when you do it right. Joell Ortiz: his output is high, he's always consistent, he's always topping himself, always getting better, and that's his shit. Nobody's fuckin' with him. My thing is, I want to make songs that people are going to live with and remember and are gonna make part of their life. My favourite songs are ones I'll perform for the rest of my career. I can do "Forest Whitaker" [also 2003] for the rest of my life, I can do "Picket Fence" the rest of my life. The further on my albums go, the more I load my albums with that kinda shit. Those songs are my stronger moments. To be honest, man, I'm attracting fans now that don't give a fuck about [battle raps]. That's sad to me in a way, but I understand it. A lot of them are just music fans that don't care about rap like that; they want to hear a song that's gonna do something for them. They see me as a singer-songwriter guy now. I'm cool with that. I'm just glad that somebody's listening. For those songs to be the ones that really come from my heart, there's nothing wrong at all for people to gravitate toward that.
Flow-wise, it seems natural for you to rhyme right and on time. How much effort did it take to reach that point? How much of your flow is God-given versus the result of practice?
Every part is natural except for the studio. When I write the song with [producer] Ant, that's very natural. When I perform it, that's natural. But me and the studio are not friends. We work together because we need to, but we're not homies like that. I have a great engineer. I like him and trust him, and he knows how to make me sound right. But I have to work on giving good vocal performances in the studio because there's nobody there to impress, nobody to interact with. It's just Ant and Joe, and Ant is impressed the day I make the song, but after that he's heard it. Joe Mabbott, who does the engineering, he's doing a job. He's not in there as a fan; he's in there to work. So I'm not touching anybody when I'm in the studio; there's no moment. It's not like somebody's gonna hear this and feel how real it is to me. I do have [rare] moments in the studio, like, "Oh shit, that just happened." But usually those moments happen onstage or in Ant's basement.
You and Ant have great chemistry. How much thought have you given to doing an album without Ant, to remove yourself from your comfort zone and experiment with other producers?
I don't know about an album. Those great moments that I have ― I'm convinced I can't achieve those with anybody but Ant, because he loves me. The music that he makes, that's what I need to get there. You can't duplicate that. But I've been doing a lot of songs with Jake One and seeing if me and Jake can have a different kind of moment. So far it's a lot of fun, and Jake's music allows me to rap in ways I don't rap on Ant's music. Me and him have made 12 songs together, and I don't know what I'm-a do with them; I'm thinking probably an EP. It's a fun process. With Ant, it's very sacred and it means a lot. Whereas me and Jake are friends, and we go in like, "How do we make something ill? Let's make some bangers. Fuck the rest of these people." Me and Ant try to find new areas of ourselves to explore; it's a completely different vibe.
Has it ever crossed your mind to release your projects with Ant under a group name since he's so integral to the music and he produces everything?
No. Me and him have never talked about it, but I know we're on the same page. What him and Slug do [as Atmosphere] is some of Slug's personality and some of Ant's personality. What they do is a project. Even Ant's focus in our music is to show me ― that's the way we both approach it. The purpose of his music is to bring me out; the purpose is to bring out parts of me that he wants people to see. He's a fan of my sense of humour, and he wants people to see that, but he feels people haven't seen that yet. So I imagine he'll make it his goal to make music that'll make me want to rap like that. And we've taken a couple stabs at it. Calling it a group wouldn't be accurate, and him and Slug are a group. Ant's not a guy who sells beats to anybody that wants to buy 'em. He could make a lot of money like that, but that's part of why what the three of us do is so sacred. If me and Slug started selling our verses to everybody, or Ant started selling beats to everybody, it wouldn't be the same.
What's next for you, then, after this tour? A Jake One EP? A full album with Ant?
Probably both. Me and Ant will start working when I get back. Me and Jake have made songs with no real focus. I'll probably go out to Seattle and hang out with him and work on some shit and see what happens.
Anything else you want to add?
Nah, man, I appreciate it. This was really cool.