Brother Ali: The Truth Teller
On Public Enemy’s classic “Louder Than A Bomb” Chuck D claimed repeated times during the song that his phone calls were being listened to by the government. And while many rappers have recently found themselves under the watchful eye of the Hip Hop police, few since P.E.’s golden era heyday have actually incurred the wrath of “big brother” due to the actual content of their music.
But with songs like “Letter From The Government”, “Freedom Ain’t Free” and “Uncle Sam Goddamn" included on his nearly flawless 2007 effort, The Undisputed Truth, it should come as little surprise that one of the strongest voices in independent Hip Hop today, Brother Ali, has found himself getting the Chuck D treatment of late.
A few weeks removed from the March 10th release of his EP/DVD The Truth Is Here, the Minneapolis emcee explained to HipHopDX why he’s “not a political rapper” but the Department of Homeland Security knows his name and is monitoring his music. The author of the celebratory “Mr. President (You’re The Man)” also shared with DX his thoughts on one of his Hip Hop heroes, KRS-One, and his declaration that Barack Obama is merely Bush with a black face.
The show-stealing live performer (included on the bill of this year’s Paid Dues Festival) also revealed how he came to take a legend's place alongside Freeway on “The Truth," and if he’ll ever collaborate with the veteran emcee he is most often compared to.
HipHopDX: I want to start off by getting your thoughts on recent comments made by an artist you’ve cited as an influence. What do you think of KRS-One’s statement that “the new world order just put on a black face” in reference to Barack Obama [click to read]?
Brother Ali: KRS-One’s [click to read] job…or the role that he’s always played, is to give us all a new way of thinking about things. He’s done that from the very beginning… He’s always kinda seen himself as somebody who’s here to challenge us and make us think about things… He said he’s "The Teacha." And so I think he’s here to make us think and to try to stretch us – the people that listen to him. Whether or not I agree is a different story. I don’t.
This is where I’m at with the conspiracy thing in general, I’ve learned about them all my life… My brother spends a lot of his time researching what’s going on behind the scenes. I don’t deny any of it. I think that it’s all very plausible… My thing about that shit is that from where I am in life there’s no way for me to know whether or not those conspiracy theories are real… And even if it was real, what would I do about that? What are we gonna do about any of those things?
There’s a lawyer that goes to the same mosque as me named Keith Ellison. This was a dude who grew up caring about the community. He was somewhat more privileged than everybody else. And so what he did is he went and got a law degree ‘cause he was like, “I’m gonna work within the system and I’m gonna help people.” And he did. He’s from north Minneapolis. Police brutality is a really big problem in Minneapolis, just like it is everywhere else… And he took on the police department over and over again, pro bono, for free for people that I knew. Matter of fact, my first tape, Rites Of Passage, I made that [in 2000] before I was with Rhymesayers. I was just a struggling dude on my own. I wasn’t part of any crew… A close friend of mine got beat up by the police. Keith Ellison helped my friend take the police department to court [and] won a lot of money. And that money is what I used to make Rites Of Passage. And so Keith Ellison was [handling those types of cases], got further and further [in his career] and started realizing there were actual laws [standing] in [the] way of his helping people. And somebody came to him and said, “Look at all the ways you’re able to help people as a lawyer. Imagine what you could do if you actually could shape public policy.” And so he did it. He ran. He’s the first Muslim congressman. He swore in on the Koran.
So when Barack ran… I read his autobiography really early on, Dreams From My Father, and I really saw a parallel to [Keith Ellison]… Real always recognize real. And when I see Barack, I see him [as] an individual who has great intentions. I really believe that in my heart, unless he’s just so evil that he fooled me… I worked on his campaign. I had never gave a fuck about politics [before]. I always followed it. I always voted just because it was our right to do that… Seeing people come together behind this message, and really people feeling like this black man was the best individual to lead the country and how people were united behind that, sociologically what that meant for America is fuckin’ huge! There’s no way around that… And I believe if you look at what he’s done since he’s been in there - signed an order to close Guantanamo Bay – [he’s] trying to change the face of politics in terms of being more open, being more forthcoming, having more rules [in place for] the presidency in terms of transparency.
DX: But a wise man once said that America “pioneered so many ways to degrade a human being that it can’t be changed to this day.”
Brother Ali: Right. And none of “Uncle Sam Goddamn” [click to view] is changed by any of this. “Uncle Sam Goddamn” in a way shows what Barack is up against. Barack’s one person. And he’s not radical. He’s not a revolutionary. He’s a Democrat… By doing this he has joined that system. So if you’re gonna say when anybody joins the system I write them off, well that’s your right to do that. But I salute people when they go in there and try. I think those people deserve our support. Or they at least deserve mine. Now, if you’re KRS-One you have to say if everybody is jumping up and down about Barack you gotta say something else ‘cause you’re KRS-One. And if you’re dead prez [click to read] and you’re saying, "Fuck the system," even if somebody in the system is black, you have to say fuck them. Like, that’s your job. And that role is necessary.
My thing though is that I’m not a political rapper. I had one political song ["Uncle Sam Goddamn"] that ended up being a video and a single. But that even isn’t really a political song. I’m not talking about policies… I’m talking about the greed and the hatred that’s written into the history of this country.
My father-in-law, who’s like a father to me, he used to couldn’t eat dinner in his own hometown at a restaurant. This dude has worked all his life [in] steel mills. He’s from Chicago… People calling him “nigger.” And people calling him “boy.” And then the President and everybody in government, everybody in power, are people that don’t respect him as a man. And now he gets to turn on TV everyday and see Barack Obama and [see that] everybody has to respect that [he’s] the President. There’s something to be said for that, man. That’s not a small thing.
But I love [KRS-One] and I’d never say anything against him. He’s doing what he thinks he’s supposed to do, man. God bless him… And people have dissed me [for my position on Obama in contrast to KRS’]… I try to answer my own messages on MySpace, so people have really used that as a way to talk shit to me… When I put out “Uncle Sam Goddamn,” I got a whole bunch of white dudes with no shirt on, on MySpace calling me a “faggot.” One of ‘em called me a nigger and [told] me to go back to Africa… I’ve had other people tell me I’m so anti-American. I just make songs about what I feel… I’m not thinking about trying to like, “Well I’m gonna work this [political] angle.” Like my Obama song, I made that the night of the election [click to read]. I was sitting in the studio with my wife and my kids and I made that song as states were coming in for Obama… And now people are dissing me for that: “You’re so ignorant.” And then they bring up KRS [like], “Your hero KRS was telling the truth…”
DX: Now you said you’re not a political rapper, but you apparently have plenty to rail against the government about. On “2nd Time Around” [click to listen] you noted that “the Homeland Security gaffled me overseas/Froze my bank account and seized my guarantee.” Was this a real incident you were referring to?
Brother Ali: Yeah, that’s real… Two things happened [that I referenced in that song]. The first one is that I was supposed to go on tour with Gym Class Heroes [click to read]… I had the opportunity to go on tour with them. It was gonna be all college shows – all their fans. So I’m like, “Word. That’ll be a good chance for me to perform for some people who haven’t heard underground rap.” But Verizon was the sponsor for the tour. [And] they just had trouble with Akon [click to read] because he was on a tour they sponsored and he had that whole scandal where he had like a nasty dance contest [with someone] that turned out to be a young girl. So they kicked him off of Gwen Stefani’s tour [click to read]… And so when that happened they went [and] took a look at me and because of that video [for “Uncle Sam Goddamn”], and because of that song, they felt like it was too risky for them to be associated with me [and] so they kicked me off that tour… I lost tens of thousands of dollars from that. Like, I probably lost $30,000 on that.
[So] then I went to Australia. We took The Undisputed Truth Tour all over the world… [So] we’re in Australia, [and] the promoter for the Australian show wired the money for the guarantees for the show to the Rhymesayers' bank account in Minneapolis. [Then] the Department of Homeland Security stopped the wire transfer and froze the Rhymesayers business bank account so that nothing could go in and out of that account for me, Atmosphere [click to read], Blueprint, MF DOOM, everybody on [the label]… What we had to do [was] register with the Department of Homeland Security. I had to give ‘em [information on] all my people in my crew, their social security numbers, addresses, [and explain] what we were doing, what the money was for, our schedule. And then they finally released everything to us after that. But it was a few days where everything was just held in this show of force…
[My songs] have had real life consequences for me… And that was my point in that verse [on “2nd Time Around”], somebody like me who sells 50,000 records, there’s no reason why I should be…Homeland Security is looking at me. And then you got most rappers that go to jail, it’s because they got a gun or they got weed… Rap’s not a threat anymore… Rap used to scare the shit outta people and it doesn’t do that anymore.
DX: And are you saying that you believe that [“Uncle Sam Goddamn”] scared the shit out of them and that’s what triggered them to do that? Or did they give you some other explanation?
Brother Ali: They didn’t give an explanation. It could just be the name. Like, the name Brother Ali.
DX: Or was it [because of] the promoters in Australia? Like, some other rationale…
Brother Ali: Nah, it wasn’t the promoters. It was definitely me. I don’t know the exact reasoning. It could just be my name. But once we told them “This is just a concert,” that should've been enough but it wasn’t. They wanted everything.
DX: Damn for not being a political rapper you’re getting the Chuck D treatment.
Brother Ali: Yeah, right? It’s funny, I been meaning to talk to Chuck about that. Me and Chuck actually became friends over the past year. And every time I see him, we always talk about family shit.
DX: I wanna switch gears only slightly to just [say] nearly two years later it’s still hard to believe an album as exceptional as The Undisputed Truth [click to read] didn’t even crack into the Billboard 200. And I just wanted to ask why isn’t Brother Ali’s brand of truth telling more accepted by the masses?
Brother Ali: The first couple weeks it was [on the Billboard 200]. The first week it was #69. When I was in like middle school that would've been my favorite number to be on the charts.
Brother Ali: There’s a lot of things you could say [for the lower sales]. There’s a million and one explanations for why we’re in the situation we’re in. But the reality is I like the situation I’m in. And I’m not just saying that because… Sometimes [guys] they wanna get with a girl and she doesn’t like him, so they say, “Well I don’t like you anyway.” And it’s bullshit. You trying to get with her [but] you just can’t [and] so you go diss her. A lot of underground rappers are that way. I would say 99% of these muthafuckas are that way. Most of us, we couldn’t be mainstream if we wanted to… But all of these dudes that talk that shit [about the mainstream] wish they were in that situation, wish they could do that. I’m in a position where… I made more [money] than my mother for a few years now. [And] I made more [in 2008] than my dad made. There’s nothing lavish about my lifestyle, but I mean, I’ve had a daughter, I’m married again. My wife stays home with my kids. [We] bought a little house – something that I thought I would never be able to do. And my business associates are some of my closest friends. Slug, Ant and [Rhymesayers CEO] Siddiq, those three guys are really important people to me and my life and I value them as people. My deejay is a really good friend of mine… And then I go on tour and my staff and my team that I bring out are all close friends. And the only people that come to the shows are the people who like the music… So my entire life is spent around either people who I love or people who appreciate what I’m doing… I’m living the life that I was meant to live, man.
DX: “Big music industry I seldom get a mention, but the few that do zoom in respect me as a legend.” That’s a pretty good place to be in the game, even if there are no plaques or whatever.
Brother Ali: Yeah, I’m not mad at that. I don’t need a plaque. I don’t need jewelry. I don’t need a symbol of happiness. I got the real thing… I still have the fact that I toured multiple times with Rakim [click to read]. I still have the fact that I’m friends with Chuck D and [was] on stage [with him] in Australia doing “Fight The Power” [click to read].
DX: And you do have the credit of replacing Jay-Z on the song “The Truth” [click to listen]. Isn’t that true?
Brother Ali: No, Jay [click to read] never actually laid anything down to [that beat]. Initially, a lot of people recorded to that beat. Nas recorded something to it… Freeway [click to read] recorded [to] it and he was trying to get Kanye [West] and Jay-Z on the song and it just didn’t come together.
DX: Well that track is definitely proof that we need more Ali over Jake One production. I think I can speak for all of your fans when I say that we love Ant’s production for you, but is there any chance of bringing in some additional beatmakers like Jake for this next full-length [due in the fall]?
Brother Ali: We’re actually making the next full-length now, and we have some Jake One [click to read] beats. And I know Ant really appreciates Jake’s work. The thing is that the way that me, Slug and Ant make music is [more organic]. I bought my house like five blocks from Ant’s house, ‘cause I’m legally blind [and] I can’t drive. I bought a crib where I could walk to Ant’s house at two-in-the-morning if I feel like [working] and make some shit. And that’s the way that it works [for us]. Like, I’m with Ant three, four times a week – sometimes more, [and] talk to him on the phone almost everyday.
DX: So he would feel like it’s betrayal in any way if you kinda…
Brother Ali: No, not at all. It’s more so just that the way we make music…it’s a collaboration. And just with Jake being in Seattle, it’s just hard. You can’t do it that way… [We don’t] do the, “Send me this [track] in the mail” and all this shit. I’ve only really done that once, [for] the Wale [click to read] [track, “2nd Time Around”]. I never met Wale. [DJ] Benzi sent Rhymesayers a beat like, “Can we get Brother Ali?” And I just wanted to rap. I didn’t even know what Wale was doing [for the track].
And so the [next] one that I just did, and it was really just fuckin’ weird to do it but…Phonte [click to read] is another person that I think [is] amazingly talented. He’s a person I would say, along with Slug, is somebody who probably will be famous. Not just underground rap famous, ‘cause he truly has that gift like that. And every time me and him see each other – we’re both married and we’re both on the road all the time, we both love what we do, we both have kids, and that’s always the conversation that comes up. So I got a beat and I sent it to him. And I was like, “Do whatever you want. Give me a hook, give me whatever.” And he was like, “What do you want it to be about?” And I’m like, “Man, just make it about what we talk about.” And man, he sent that thing back in like six hours, done. I mean, it's damn-near a Phonte song. I figured he’d do a verse or a hook or something. He did a verse and a hook and an intro. I’m like, “Damn.”
DX: That’s a lock for the new album?
Brother Ali: We’ll make a bunch of songs and then [we’ll] put the album together, but…
DX: So are you too early in the process to reveal in this interview a tentative title for the new album?
Brother Ali: I kinda got this concept from Islam that you name yourself, or you name your kid, a name with a lot of meaning and it’s a goal for you to try to live up to… I do the same thing with my albums. I never know until I’m done if I really lived up to that or not… My man I Self Devine, an emcee on Rhymesayers [and] an amazing artist, stepped to me and was like, “You know, all of this shit that we talk about – the community and society and the world and the struggles [of] people trying to be free…” My whole life is about that shit. I haven’t put it in my music ‘cause I didn’t think it was my place to do that. But he was like, “Why leave that part of you out of your music? You could be saying more than what you are about what’s going on.”
[I] started out with the title Street Preacher as being like the guy who has something he believes in, [but] he’s not part of a church, he just goes out on the street and talks to people about what he believes in… But the term “street” is really played out… So it might be The Preacher. It might be something else… It’s a work in progress.
DX: Well, if I can make one suggestion [then], I know you said you don’t like the idea of forced collabos, but I don’t know if you know you get compared to Pharoahe Monch a lot – A LOT – [and] so I was wondering if maybe you’d ever given any thought to you and Pharoahe uniting?
Brother Ali: I went to The Wake-Up Show [last year] and I’m sitting there freestyling and Pharoahe Monch just walks in and sits down next to me… He sits down and he’s like, “Ugh.” Every time I’d hit something he was like, “Ugh!” So afterwards, it’s time for his interview, and he was just like, “Aww that shit was crazy!” I was so in the moment that I didn’t get a number or anything like that. But [collaborating with him] is something I’d love to do.