Exclusive: The underground legend explains the narrative-driven half of his new album, including songs about slavery and white guilt.
Minneapolis emcee, and indie-rap superstar, Brother Ali [click to read] spoke to HipHopDX yesterday (August 27th) to provide some early insight into his fourth full-length, Us. Due September 22nd via Ali’s longtime label home, Rhymesayers Entertainment, and following the release this past March of his EP/DVD The Truth Is Here [click to read], the proper full-length follow-up to the everyman emcee’s critically-acclaimed 2007 effort, The Undisputed Truth [click to read], is arguably the most important independent Hip Hop release of 2009. And so in anticipation of this monumental release, DX spoke with “The Truth” himself to learn the truth behind the content of his latest effort. In this first installment of our two-part breakdown of Us, Ali talks about the narrative-driven core of his new album and its eyebrow-raising storylines.
“There [were] a couple of exceptions on The Truth Is Here EP, but on all of my albums, all the way up through Undisputed Truth, every single story I ever told was autobiographical, and everything that I said was about me,” Ali explained to DX about the origins of what has developed into a new narrative direction on Us. “I didn’t make songs about other people. I didn’t make songs about other people’s business. And I developed this really personal way of writing and describing things and telling stories, and everything was about me. And then Undisputed Truth was the most extreme example of that, right? So that whole album is just really about a three-year period in my life, and it’s all about me and my stories… I did that to death. I don’t wanna be kept in that [box]. I wanna be able to move outside of that now. And so the reason why this album is called Us – it was originally called Street Preacher – is because the idea was to not just talk about me but to talk about us. A lot of these songs – almost all of ‘em, there’s only one [“Fresh Air”] [click to listen] that’s really about me, the rest of ‘em are about relationships I’ve had with people, and just trying to give you a little insight into their lives.”
Insight into someone close to Ali’s daring burglary of their neighbor is found on “House Keys.” One of the standout tracks on Us thanks to album producer Ant’s slow-burning groove (containing heavy piano chords, springy guitar plucks and heavenly choral chants that are eventually married with a hard-hitting kick and snare), as well as Ali’s succinct story of breaking back into his old apartment and swiping some very interesting items, “House Keys” is a taking-advantage-of-a-situation, “Got A Story To Tell” highlight that would make Notorious B.I.G. proud.
“That one is told first-person, but it wasn’t me that actually did [the burglary],” Ali admitted. “Matter of fact, it was a woman that did it. This was a close friend of mine and his wife, and they were like working-poor people – get up and go to the job everyday. But yeah, every line of that [song] is true, it did happen.”
Another true story, but one that certainly didn’t happen to Ali or any of his contemporaries, is found on “The Travelers.” Atop a sprinkling xylophone layered with muddied synths, Ali goes in over the moody production about the topic that no white rapper dare touch: the Middle Passage and slavery.
“Where did this rule come from that if you’re not part of the oppressed group that you can’t care?,” Ali asked rhetorically when queried about his motivation for recording his slavery document. “People can think that I’m trying to exploit this topic. But let’s be real about it, my fans don’t wanna hear no song about slavery. What do I stand to gain about making a song about slavery? Am I kissing up to black people and trying to show ‘em how down I am? No. ‘Cause people have already made their decision about whether or not they like me.”
“What I’m talking about in that song is slavery from both sides,” he continued, “and the way that it ruined all of us. So I go through the side of being a slave, and discuss what that must have really been like. And I think that anybody with a heart beating inside ‘em, and a soul in their body, should be able to hear me crying when I’m saying those words. That’s a first take. That song has lived inside me for a long time… And at the very end of the second verse you hear me just [getting choked up] ‘cause I was so emotional about the whole thing, so passionate about it. I think you can hear in my voice that I’m not acting. It’s coming from a very genuine, sincere place. So the first verse is what was that really like? Because we think about [slavery], and talk about it, like it’s not real, like it’s a story out of The Bible or something, like it’s Noah’s Ark. We talk about it like it’s a fable, and it’s not! That really happened. That’s really how our country started, is that human beings got torn out of everything worldly, and lost everything in this world including names, religion, language, family connection, history - lost their identity, completely.”
“When I read stories about slavery and what they went through, I feel like that’s me. ‘Cause I’m a human being. I don’t identify myself as white. I identify [myself] as a human being…’cause that’s what we are... And in this country we talk like we’re all equal, but until we see ourselves in slavery…we’re never gonna be that… That’s why I say at the end of that [second] verse, ‘Imagine that’s you, now stop imagining ‘cause that is you!’ You’re a human being, and so anything that happens to humanity happens to [all of] humanity – if you really believe that humanity is all one thing, and I do.”
“So then on the second verse it’s saying now let’s talk about it from the other point of view. What has doing this to somebody done to us? It’s done something to us. We’re not healthy human beings as a group of people. And I don’t identify myself as white, but for this case I will, we as white people are not right. Something’s messed up and broken in our soul. And we can say, ‘I didn’t do it.’ But you’re part of the group of people that did it, and we did not stop it as a group of people… I’m saying as white people, if you’re gonna identify yourself that way, we all carry the burden of this, whether we like it or not. We spend so much time trying to disassociate ourselves from that, and we cannot imagine why we would ever be judged by our group. We’re so appalled, [we’re] like, ‘I can’t believe that you would think that what white people did in history means something about me.’ But black folks have to live with that everyday. That’s a reality.”
“We need to get to a point where we talk [more openly] like [this]. If we’re really gonna be equal, and if we’re really all gonna be American, and if we’re really all gonna see ourselves as human, then we need to start by acknowledging what’s wrong with us – white folks. We need to start by acknowledging that there is something seriously wrong in our souls when we don’t see ourselves as connected to other human beings… And on that second verse I’m saying we do not talk about this so much that I think – People ask me ‘Do you think that all white people are racist?’ And I say, ‘That’s not even the issue,’ the white people who don’t wanna be racist don’t even have a language to discuss this topic in. It’s just scary abyss mystery that’s never touched on. And people don’t even have a way to get out if they want to get out, ‘cause it’s such a mystery. The language of white, being white, that word, is a prison. It’s a prison… And so I’m saying for everybody involved, slavery destroyed us as human beings.”
Ali precedes “The Travelers” with the slavery-era story “Breakin’ Dawn.” A sparse combo of a countrified guitar twang and a simple kick-drum and clap track provides the platform for Ali to use an entirely sing-songy flow for his tale of a slave master’s disabled child who is eventually embraced by his family only because of his singing talent.
Equally heavy, but far more contemporary is the storyline for “Babygirl.” A standout selection on Us, Ant’s instantly headnodding union of boom-bap drums, a bottomless 808 and a soulful-but-funky guitar provides the foundation for Brother Ali to do what few male emcees do these days: show empathy for their female audience.
“This [song] was dealing with [the] rape of a young teenage girl,” he explained of the powerful narrative. “But really it’s about women being violated in general… Every woman I’ve ever been involved with has been raped or violated or molested. One in three women in America has been raped or [sexually] violated [in some way]. And if you’re talking about women of color, it’s half, one out of every two. And [this subject] is a part of my life because I love these women and it exists as a character in their life, forever. That never leaves somebody.”
“This is one of these other things that we don’t talk about,” he continued, “especially in Rap.”
Slavery, rape, and a homosexual teen in the closet are sadly rare topics in rap. But the latter is what Ali fearlessly addresses in story form on the final verse of the three-stories-in-one-song about living life caught between worlds, “Tight Rope.”
“I can’t pretend to be innocent on this one,” Ali told DX of his attempt to speak on the arguably most taboo topic in Hip Hop. “If you listen to my first album, I say ‘faggot’ on there twice. At the time that I wrote those songs I didn’t have any openly gay friends… I didn’t have a particular hatred for gay people; I was just oblivious to what life was like for them. So when I said words like ‘faggot’ or ‘homo,’ I wasn’t connecting that with real people. But for some people that’s their n-word. The word faggot means ‘to light something on fire.’ And they used to burn gay people. And we still in this country kill gay people and torment gay people… With words like 'faggot'…I had no business saying that. I didn’t know at that time. It took me getting involved in music…[and] I ended up having a lot of people that I really care about who are gay. And it just really made me realize that what they’re going through is terrible. And I’ll even be real enough to say I still don’t get it. I still don’t understand [being gay]. But what I do know is that we shouldn’t be actively trying to hurt and destroy people because we don’t get what they do.”
The final storytelling song on Us is “Slippin’ Away.” Slow-grinding synths laid over a light organ back Ali’s story of a group of inner-city kids who ride the bus together to a suburban school that their parents sent them to better their lives, and how one of those kids from Ali’s childhood crew loses his education (and much more) to the street life back at home.
And it’s those types of socially-charged storylines, at times rooted in race, that die-hard Ali fans may discover they need more than they initially might want upon first inspection of Us, as Brother Ali explained, “[For] the people that listened to me when I did ‘Forest Whitaker’ back in 2003, I talked about being an albino and being fat and being whatever, and people were like, ‘Yes! I feel like that song’s about me.’ I’m like, ‘Well clearly it’s not.’ But people relate to it. So then we did all that other [personal] stuff, and Undisputed Truth was the ultimate test of that [being accepted]. ‘Cause I know my fans weren’t single dads. I know my fans aren’t Muslim – well some of ‘em are, but I’m saying like single dad, married young, Muslim, trying to rap out of the Midwest, the albino thing, all this stuff. So I’m like alright, I tell this story [of myself] and are people gonna still feel like I’m talking about them? And yes they did. [But] I look at my fans and they’re not the people that I grew up with, for the most part. Socially it’s a different group of people. Socially it’s a group of people that have been kept away from the people that I care about. I care about everybody, but the people that care about me I should say, before rap, [haven’t been introduced to my fans]. So what I wanted to do was say, ‘Can I tell the stories of the people that I love, the stories that I grew up around, the stories that molded me? And can these fans…will they identify with my friends stories the way they identified with mine?’”
Be sure to stay tuned to HipHopDX for next week’s conclusion of our exclusive preview of Brother Ali’s Us to learn why the author of “Uncle Sam Goddamn” chose not to rage against the machine on his new album, if he got murdered by Joell Ortiz on his own track, and much, much more.