“I'm trying to be the greatest there's ever been.”
Brother Ali speaks quietly, his thick East Coast accent eloquent and thoughtful. When we speak, he's in Boston in the middle of a two-month tour. Lots of musicians bitch about being on the road, but Ali loves it—except for missing his new wife and 6-year-old son. He's a serious guy who's had to sacrifice and scrap his way to fame, riding a heap of critical praise for his first big success with the Rhymesayers label, Shadows on the Sun.
Five years passed. And though he spent days broke, stealing from next-month's bills to pay for this month—even after Shadows was named album of the year by many writers—he always knew another record was on the horizon. "I don't know if I'm always going to be selling it or if people are always going to care," he says. "But I'm going to make music forever."
Is it hard to be away from your family while you're on tour?
It really is. That's the only part about it that I don't like. I hear a lot of musicians bitch and moan about being on tour. I like being on tour. I love it. Especially because with this tour in particular, we got to choose everybody that came out with us, so I'm around people I really like to be around.
I love to perform. After every show, all of us always come out and hang out with the people that came out to the show. That's a really big thing to me. We talk to people and they tell us how certain things really impact them or mean something to them. It really makes it feel real.
Have you ever considered bringing your family with you?
I'm going to try for the first time having them visit me on the tour for about four nights, just see if they like it. I have a 6-year-old son in first grade, and my wife is in college, so it's kind of an inopportune time to come out with me on the tour. We're going to see if they even like it and if it makes sense.
Has your son ever seen you on stage?
Oh yeah, a lot of times.
He's used to it.
Yeah, and he's a performer, too. He writes songs. I'm around my son a lot. I was his main caretaker when he was a baby. Me and my son are really close. He's with me when I write my songs and he goes into the studio with me. I'm a single parent. This is my son from my first marriage. He's been at shows. He's been at meetings. Everything. We do everything together as much as we can.
A lot of artists really struggle financially when they're first starting out. Was it scary to be a single parent and trying to make the music business thing work?
Yeah. You can't always plan and budget. Every time you've get money, you've got to really try to make it stretch. It always evens out. There's times that are really tough and you're like, "Oh man. I don't know what I'm going to do." But then something will come along and even it out.
Tell me about when and how you got started.
I got involved in hip-hop in the mid-'80s with breakdancing. I was a little kid, 7 or 8 years old. I was first attracted to the dance and the lifestyle of hanging out and partying and dancing. As I got more and more into it, the music grabbed me. By the late-'80s, there was KRS-One and Chuck D that really were showing me a different way to live and a different kind of person that I wanted to be—a strong, intelligent person. People like that ended up changing who I was. Then I started writing songs.
Did you always want to be on the MC end of it?
Yeah. I've done every part of it, though. I always used to produce my own beats and do my own scratching and record everything. I was my own engineer. My first project that I realeased was called Rites of Passage on Rhymesayers back in 2000. I did all the beats on that, recorded it myself, engineered it.
MCing is who I am. I've enjoyed those other things. I did them because I didn't have ... I've dedicated my life to MCing. It's been the one thing I've always concentrated on. I know that there are people who have done the same thing with producing and MCing. Eventually, I was around people who are as dedicated to their part as I am to my part.
Who's your all-time favorite MC, if you had to pick one?
Easy, no hesitation?
No. He's the greatest all-around MC that there's ever been in terms of his longevity, his writing, his styles, his live performance, his relevance as a figure in hip-hop and the things that he's done as a spokesman for hip-hop. He's started organizations and movements within hip-hop. He was the leader for a lot of things for a lot of years. He was making classics from '86 to '98. He was the dominant MC for a good 15 years.
Let's talk about your new CD. Was your mindset different than when you were making Shadows on the Sun?
The Undisputed Truth is really talking about a five-year period. I got married at 17. I spent 10 years working blue-collar jobs and trying to feed my family and survive. In the last five years, I made the transition from doing that to being a professional musician and got divorced from my wife and custody of my son. I kind of rebuilt my whole life. I went from being trapped in a marriage and certain jobs and feeling like my life was made for me.
Through music I was able to smash all that and make my life the way I wanted to be. It was a really big blessing. I took a lot of sacrifice to do it. That album is really about all those kinds of moments. It's a little bit more specific.
Did you always know you were going to make another album or did you ever think it was time to give up and try something else?
I'm going to make music forever. I don't know if I'm always going to be selling it or if people are always going to care. I came from being a nobody in music and put Shadows on the Sun out. Not a lot of mainstream media but a lot of people and magazines were saying it was they're favorite album that year.
I started touring and everywhere I would go people were coming out to see my stuff. People were driving long distances and they were telling me it meant something to them. I knew I was going to make another album.
Did you feel a lot of pressure when you were making The Undisputed Truth?
Just from within myself. I really believe in excellence. I don't believe in doing things half-assed just to be cool or just to be fun. Anything you do or anything you take seriously, you should try to be the best there's ever been at it—or at least as good as you could possibly be at it.
There's no pressure from outside really. I'm trying to be the greatest there's ever been. I don't think I am, but I'm trying to be. With the amount of years and sacrifice I put into it, I have no tolerance for people who jump up and do it and just want attention and money. It's very insulting to me.
The Undisputed Truth covers a lot of heavy territory emotionally, but the last song, "Ear to Ear," is celebratory. Do you feel like you've triumphed?
I really do. I'm fortunate that I've always had great people around me, great role models to show me how this can be done well. The people at my label, the team that I have is really supportive of me. The people who listen to the music are really supportive and good.
I got the opportunity to not have to just work two jobs at a time and not have to not pay the phone bill so I could pay the light bill. Then the phone bill's paid late, but that would be part of the rent. And the rent would be late but I would take part of the next month's light bill out of that. Always behind. I couldn't make the changes in my personal life that I wanted to make because I was so stuck in that pattern.
People supporting what we're doing the way that they do made that possible for me. It's a really amazing feeling. I do that song almost last every night. It just feels good. I do that song for me. I made for me and my friends. And I do that song for me because I love it. I'm really lucky. I'm really blessed, fortunate, lucky, whatever adjectives.
Everyone in the press seems to make sure to note that you're an albino. Does that get tiresome?
There's really nothing I can do about it. I've always been an albino and people in the world have always made a point to point that out, especially as a kid. Even now, I'm really amazed by the way that adults will feel like it's OK for them to stare at me or point and talk about me.
It is a part of who I am and how I view the world. I guess it makes sense. You guys get so much music and you write about so much crap that you probably ... if something comes along that's different in whatever way, it's part of the story.
I'm not mad about it. I was at first. When my first album came out I was like, "This is all anybody's talking about. Didn't anybody listen to the fact that I'm rapping on this record?" Eventually I'm like, "OK." After I get it out. "This is just what they need to do."
What's next for you. Is it going to be a few more years before your next album?
I already started working on my next album. I'm touring for two-months straight, then I'm off for a month, then a summer tour. I think it will be about another year and a half before the next record.
Your faith plays a prominent role on your albums. Do you ever worry about putting it out there like that?
No. In everything that I do I just talk about being myself, about how things are to me. I don't preach Islam in my music. I don't even teach it. You're not going to come away knowing what the pillars of Islam are or how Muslims pray. You just come away, if you listen, knowing this is this guy, this is how he talks, this is how he thinks, these are the things that matter to him. This is what makes him happy.
I'm a Muslim and I love being a Muslim and I appreciate that I have Islam because it helps me try to be a better version of myself. I mention it where it makes sense to mention it. I tell you whatever details I need to so you understand the point I'm trying to make. Sometimes I have to mention, "I'm doing this because the Koran says do this and I trust the Koran." This is how I feel being a Muslim in this situation. But I don't try to teach or preach anything on my music. I'm just trying to be myself.
Brother Ali plays Thursday, May 17, at the Launchpad with Psalm One, BK-One, OneBelow and Toki Wright. All-ages. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $12 at ticketmaster.com and LA Underground.