Wisconsin MC Brother Ali may be the longest Overnight Sensation in
years. After releasing a self-produced demo in 2000, Ali joined up with
Rhymesayers and dropped 2003s critically-acclaimed Shadows on the Sun.
Since then, a divorce, custody battles, poverty and homelessness have
all dropped Alis way, and the rapper hasnt been shy about dealing
with these experiences in his latest album The Undisputed Truth.
A devout Hip-Hop fan since the age of seven, (Ali wrote his first rhyme
when he was nine), the Christian-born rapper embraced Islam as a teen
(It was everything I wanted to be, he says), and the genre and
religion have since been driving forces in Alis life. On Truth,
Ali rhymes like hes got one day left to live, fitting in everything
from personal struggles and celebrations to political observations and
harsh battle rhymes. Over skilled production work by Ant (Atmosphere), Truth
is the sound of someone putting conviction over consequence and will
probably be on a number of Top 10 lists come December. AllHipHop.com
caught up with the rapper at the beginning of his tour to talk
politics, religion and, oh, almost forgot, Hip-Hop.
AllHipHop.com: Your last full-length album, Shadows on the Sun, came out four years ago. What lessons did you learn since then that you applied on The Undisputed Truth?
Brother Ali: When we made Shadows,
we were making whatever felt right to me and Ant. We didnt even think
about fans. We were just making what we wanted to make. And then,
Forest Whitaker [Alis self-deprecating, celebratory ode to accepting
yourself] was a last-minute song I made to make Ant laugh. Thats why
its so short and it ended up being the song that got the highest
response. Im like, Man, Im just talking about all my own personal
details. So that really showed me that its not just about people
having your exact same experiences, but its the feeling that they get.
Cause everybodys feelings are the same even though our experiences
are different. So, if you just put the way that you feel about this
s**t as thick as possible, people respond to that.
AllHipHop.com: Can you walk me through the process of Undisputed Truth? Did you have any plan on what you wanted with this album or was it more of a natural feel?
Brother Ali: I had a little bit of anxiety about actually starting the
record. I knew that I had to talk about all these [personal] things and
that I didnt want to do them the obvious way. I didnt want my divorce
song to be like, F**k you, b***h. I hate you. I didnt want my song
about my son to be like, Oh, youre my perfect angel. I didnt want
to make the Will Smith song. But in my head, I was trying to concoct
these different ways to approach this stuff. And then finally Ant was
like, Its been too long. Youre finally off tour. Youre coming to my
house and were making this record.
AllHipHop.com: Whatcha Got, the opening track, is one of the fiercest
battle songs in years. Were there specific targets in mind or was it
directed at Hip-Hop in general?
Brother Ali: That song is talking about a lack of appreciation for this
legacy that we are a part of. Emceeing is a really important,
meaningful scene in the history of music and culture. So that song is
directed at these guys who just jump up and go, I used to play b-ball
and now I rap. Its bulls**t. A lot of these guys, Im like, This is
not your story. I know way too many people who really live like this
that its like, When I hear you, I dont think this is really you.
Ive dedicated my life to [emceeing]. Literally. Its the one thing
Ive done since I was nine years old. Its funny that I said [on
Whatcha Got,] Its bad enough that you muthaf*ckas are on the same shelf as Rock the Bells,
talking about LL Cool J. Ive seen a lot of these things like Alis
dissing the Rock The Bells tour and Im like, See, this is exactly
what Im talking about. [Laughs] If you dont know the song Rock the
Bells, you dont need to listen to me. You need to take a history
AllHipHop.com: Do you think this lack of appreciation is the biggest problem facing Hip-Hop?
Brother Ali: No, no. Its the companies. But Im not doing what Im
doing because I think theres something wrong with Hip-Hop. I think
that Hip-Hop is what it is. But we need to really look at what these
predatory companies are doing. All of these big corporations that got
involved with Hip-Hop basically use it to make money and the way that
they market it is whats making it look the way it is. Theyre taking
these kids that have no other options and theyre saying, Youre
talented. You look good. You got personality. Yeah, well sign you as a
rapper, but you have to do this and this and this. Otherwise, if we
dont get a hit from you right away, youre right back in the ghetto
again. You cant blame these kids who are like, Tell me what I gotta
do and Ill do it. So I think that Hip-Hop, and specifically Black
people, are being blamed for some s**t thats not their fault.
AllHipHop.com: Do you think its masking a bigger problem?
Brother Ali: If youre looking at the messages that are being promoted
in this music and saying its damaging to the kids, that is true. That
is completely true. But why is it like that? Why is that all the kids
are hearing? Why arent the kids hearing Mr. Lif too? It used to be
that if you were involved in Hip-Hop, you listened to De La Soul, Tribe
Called Quest, N.WA., Public Enemy, and Scarface. Why is it now that all
were hearing is gangsta rap? And its not even real gangsta rap. When
you listen to Ice-T, hes giving you the real s**t of what its like to
be a criminal. When you listen to most of whats on the radio, you
dont hear the reality of it. And thats not our f**kin fault. Its not
Hip-Hops fault. Its not like Mr. Lif doesnt exist. Its not like
Brother Ali doesnt exist. Those companies are the ones that are doing
that. Talk to them about why its like that, not us.
My whole thing has been to continue that legacy of giving a voice to
what nobody else is saying. That story thats been on the radio so much
and on MTV, thats not really my story. I see it a different way. These
are the things that I go through and the things a lot of real people
are going through, like struggling with raising our kids, falling in
and out of love, wanting to be more free and live out our potential,
and struggling with whats going on in politics. Real life stuff.
AllHipHop.com: Lets talk a little about religion. Right now, there
seems to be a dividing line for some people between being Muslim and
being American. As an American who is Muslim, how do you reconcile
these two things?
Brother Ali: I think the thing about America is that were really
cheated out of being connected to the rest of the world. Were taught
that were so great that we dont really have to give a damn about
anybody else. We dont learn about them. We dont learn other
languages. We dont really travel anywhere. Were so disconnected as
Americans from other people and its f**ked up cause then when
something happens, we have no clue how anybody else could ever feel any
other way than how we feel. There are certain people who are really
benefiting from Muslims being vilified and Muslims being seen as one
thing. They just take one aspect of us, which is the very militant,
angry side, and they make it seem that thats what we all are and
thats just not the reality of it.
AllHipHop.com: What would you say to someone who automatically equates Muslim with Extreme fundamentalist?
Brother Ali: Its obvious that thats been a trick thats been used
over the years to be like, These people are the enemy and we all need
to unite against them. They need Muslims to be the enemy right now and
theyve taken a small percentage of what we are which does exist
and theyve painted us all like thats what we all are. Its really
unfortunate that thats a lot of peoples introduction [to Muslims].
Even people learning about Islam now, theyre not learning about it
from Muslims which should be a big red flag. Why would you want to
learn about Islam from a Christian perspective? Thatd be like
something wanting to learn about America from Al-Jazeera.
AllHipHop.com: Is it a question of interpretation of the religion?
Brother Ali: I mean, perception is reality to the perceiver. Especially
within the Arab world, theres a lot of confusion between what is
actually Islam and what is culture and tradition. Being a person who
didnt learn Islam from Arabs, I see a lot of things where Im like,
thats not what the Koran is telling us. Thats not the example of
Prophet Muhammad. This is different. This is your
feelings. But as a human being, you understand those feelings. These
are people with no resources who feel like the whole world is against
them and the whole world kind of is against them. Nobodys really
standing up for them in any serious way. They feel desperate. On a
human level, I dont judge them. I dont judge necessarily a suicide
bomber on a human level. As a Muslim, though, were taught better than
Theres not this big Us vs. Them mentality that I think some Muslims
have and people think all of us have. Thats not something that comes
from our religion. So people reading this interview, its no different
from being involved in Hip-Hop for all these years. Ive been involved
since 84. Ive read the books. I know what Hip-Hop is because Ive
seen it. But you couldnt blame somebody if they just watched TV and
listened to the radio for thinking that Hip-Hop is just this
exaggerated, sex, money and violence thing.
AllHipHop.com: Where do you find the line between conveying your ideas and preaching?
Brother Ali: The thing is that its all personal. Im not telling you
what you should do. Im not telling you what you should know. Im just
telling you how I
feel about it. Im saying that this is how it feels when these things
are in my face all the time and when Im told all the time what a great
country America is, but I know the people who are suffering. This is
what it looks like to me and thats it. Im not the expert. Im
not the leader. Im not the great teacher. Im just saying this is a
point of view that I think a lot of other people have that I think
needed to be expressed.
You see all these people with the patriotism stuff and you say, well,
ya know, theres another side to this. This guy lives on that side and
is giving you a little bit of a window into what its like to be on the
other side. Its hard to maybe always process when theres nobody
speaking for you or when theres no voices out there that are really
communicating the way you feel about stuff. So when you hear a voice
saying, Okay, Im frustrated about this, and I have no idea what to
do, and to have somebody out there speaking for that, is really fresh
to me. A lot of people tell me that it makes them not feel crazy or
makes them not feel alone. I take that s**t to heart because of the
fact that Im really being real. The things that theyre connecting
with in that music, then theyre connecting with my real soul and
heart. Numbers come and go, but I know that I made an album that is
pretty good at representing me as a man. So the people who really
connect with it, thats the biggest achievement to me.