Brother Ali’s rap resolve

Rhymesayers star Brother Ali didn’t stop in Montreal on the tour behind his latest LP Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, but that didn’t prevent Cult MTL from calling him up to discuss his decade in hip hop, a great year gone by for rap records and feeling unstoppable in the new year.

Brother Ali

Way before I even knew whether my gestating seed would be a he or a she, the first real present I ever bought for my kid was a wax copy of Shadows on the Sun, autographed to my “young ’un” and signed with an Arabic blessing from Brother Ali.

By that point in late 2005, Ali was celebrating a follow-up EP and finding his professional footing among the upper ranks of his Rhymesayers family, his rise from tour posse regular to headlining act taken fan by fan, city by city and rung by rung across a decade of balance that, by critical terms in hip hop, must be measured as a damn-near perfect 10.

In early December, my daughter humoured me by hanging out and saying hi to Ali as he and I caught up to talk about the end-of-year hype around his latest LP, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, where he’s been since his last stop in Montreal, and the rites of the passage of time. And it’s cool, Ali — my daughter forgives you for the swears.

Darcy MacDonald: The tour didn’t bring you to Montreal, very unfortunately.
Brother Ali: Yeah, I know, and that sucks. You know, crossing the border there is terrible — those border people are terrible — and that’s not the Canadian people’s fault, that’s not the fans’ fault. Plus I really love Montreal, and I wish I woulda done Montreal. I also love Ottawa, and I really love Victoria. So crossing the border on each coast and not hitting all the cities is, like, it doesn’t make sense.

DM: Last time you were up here was at Foufounes with Fashawn [in spring 2010] and it was packed to the rafters.
Ali: Yeah, that was a good one!

DM: So something I wanted to ask you, coming up on 2013, was the significance of the Islamic new year compared to, you know, the Gregorian new year, or other cultures with their own new year rites.
Ali: I think it’s kinda similar. They’re all just markers of time. All of the calendars were based off the moon, until the West came along, and actually the Catholic church and people associated with them, and created the Gregorian calendar. It was a rebellion that they had and it basically was counter-intuitive, because it wasn’t a universal technique, which is what the rest of the world had by following the moon. And that’s what the Qu’ran says — it’s a way to mark time. So you know, beyond that, there’s not any kind of holiday or specific religious thing, other than taking stock at the end of the year, which really is similar to a lot of the other new years. So yeah, those same kind of thoughts. Is this year gonna be better? What am I gonna do differently this year?

DM: And when you get to end of the calendar business year, with the Top 5 and Top 10 lists, are you more conscious of that on years when you have a record out?
Ali: I see it, like, album cycle to album cycle. It’s sort of like when you’re a kid and you go to school and New Year’s Eve is no big thing. Like, the last day of school — that’s a new year to you, you know? I just put an album out in the fall, so then we did the fall tour cycle. Then there’ll be the spring tour cycle, and then it’ll be the summer festival thing. Then I’ll go to Europe, and then that’s the end of that cycle. Professionally, that’s kinda how we gauge it as an album cycle.

DM: But in terms of those types of lists, though, I mean, I guess I mention it because your album came out at a good time of year to be considered immediately for those types of accolades, notwithstanding of course that the album deserves them. But as a critic, I find that at this time of year I really have to look back and think like, “Oh yeah, such-and-such came out last January!” I just kinda wonder for artists, is it something to get happy about or is it like, “Well, damn, I coulda had an album out any year, or any time”?
Ali: I noticed it this year because this was a great year for rap music. It just was incredible. It was a great year for mainstream rap and also underground rap. I feel like me, Aesop Rock, Killer Mike, P.O.S. and El P all had incredible albums, and so I feel really good about my circle of rappers.

But then, Kendrick Lamar’s album is definitely album of the year, by far. Like, easily. But Nas had a great album. I didn’t love the Rick Ross album this year. I usually love Rick Ross albums, and I did not love this one, this year.

I’m trying to remember — did the Roots Undun come out in 2012? This is kinda what you’re talking about.

DM: I’m not sure. It mighta come out early this year, or, if not, too late last year to be considered for those lists. [Author’s note: Undun was released in December 2011 and was definitely on my Top 10 list for that year. You got me.]
That record is off the handle, by the way.
Ali: I just love it, man! And it’s great because when it first came out, I listened to it all the time. It’s like a 45-minute album, which is about from the time I wake up to the time I’m ready to leave my hotel. And I listened to it almost every day on this last tour. I usually listen to Fela Kuti in the morning, or jazz, but I was listening to that album and I got to the point where I knew, like, “Okay, by the time I get to this song, I should be outta the shower! By this song, I should be shaving; by this song, I should be, like, zipping up my suitcase!”

DM: (laughing) When Greg Porn starts rapping…
Ali: You know what I mean?

DM: That’s a morning record for sure, man! But now to your record: I’ve been thinking all day about how to ask, you know, working with Jake One for an entire project vs. the past. But I guess what I’d like to know, as the album and the tour gains momentum, how has it been working the new material out on the road? How have some of those new songs come home to gel for you now that you’ve really brought them out and started to work with the material?
Ali: It’s really cool. The main thing that struck me on this tour was that this is my sixth release — seventh if you count my demo tape The Rites of Passage in 2000 — but really, like, my sixth CD that people have, over the course of 10 years. So it’s really strange — like, I took a break from touring. I toured from like 2003 until 2010. And then I took a break in 2011. But then coming back out now, and [having] put out albums for 10 years and having this many of them out, it’s weird. I used to know exactly what songs to play, exactly what the crowd wanted to hear, but now it’s so varied that that’s been the main thing. I feel like my new album, I can pretty much do any of the songs and people are gonna like ’em the same.

That’s kinda the thing with me — like, I think I make projects. My shit is really strong when you look at it as an album or look at it as a career or a body of work. And there are standout moments, but I’m not as much on the songs. Like, I don’t make singles or hits. I make consistently solid, good music that kinda has themes and stuff like that. So it’s harder and harder for me to know. The only consistent song is “Forest Whitaker” — that is one song that always works really well with the crowd, and “Uncle Sam Goddam.” I would say those are the only two songs that work universally. Whereas, like, five years ago, I only had two albums out, so I knew exactly what songs to do and every song had the same response. Now, I’m in a different place. I do a song from Shadows on the Sun and there’s younger kids that don’t know that album. And then I’ll do something from Mourning in America and there’s older people that may have that, or they haven’t got around to listening to it yet. A 30-year-old and a 20-year-old like different songs, an’ that’s cool, that’s a good place to be in. ‘Cause a lotta my heroes didn’t even have runs that long. A lotta my heroes had, like, two albums over a four-year period or something. I’m gettin’, like, generations of fans. I got two generations of fans now! Not real generations, but, like, rap generations!

DM: Yeah, man, and it’s crazy, shit. Like, I’ve been following you since 2003 and it seems like yesterday. And I’ve followed you and watched you make moves and seen people gravitate towards you, and it feels to me like after 10 years, you’re still an up-and-coming artist.
Ali: It is interesting to think about that. Like, it’s interesting to think about things that were big when my first album came out. Those things are old. Shadows on the Sun still feels new to me. But then I think about the fact that when we made that, we were watching the Chappelle show. Or that that album came out at the same time as the first 50 Cent record. We were listening to Get Rich or Die Trying. That stuff feels old.

The difference is that, because…like, Slug has always had this line, “Never wanna blow up ‘cause I never wanna fall off.” And the cool thing about it is that there are people — especially at the shows — that just found out about us because, like, they saw me on Al Jazeera, or they’re Cornel West fans and Cornel West told them about it. So now they listen, and Shadows on the Sun is new to them, The Undisputed Truth is new to them because they had no idea it existed and they come to the show and I’m still rapping like it’s new.

So all that stuff is really cool, but it’s weird to not be new anymore. When you’ve been working really hard on your music and then you get a bunch of attention and you kinda have that, “Oh, I have fans, I’m gonna have a career now!” and “This is what I been working for!” — the excitement of everybody around you when you’re new is its own kinda force. And you only get to be new once — one time! And that’s for, like, three years, and then you’re not new anymore. And a lotta people can’t make that transition, can’t keep goin’ when they’re no longer new.

So the fact that my biggest album before this one was Undisputed Truth and that Mourning in America sold equal numbers to that five years later and with the declining music business — you almost have to adjust it for inflation. So in a sense, this one is almost more successful than that one was. To be five years from that album and 10 years from the first one and not be losing any ground, and comparatively gaining ground, it makes me feel like I can do whatever the fuck I wanna do, as long as I’m putting my care into it. It just makes me feel unstoppable.

And I just cursed in front of your daughter — I’m sorry! ■

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