Interviews are hard; interviews with great musicians are even harder. That Minneapolis hip-hop artist and rapper Brother Ali falls into the great musician category can be overwhelming for the interviewer. Ali, who is playing The Launchpad (618 Central Ave. NW) Saturday, December 15 is a brilliant rapper and deeply intellectual too. So when we chatted recently about his tour supporting the fifteenth anniversary of the release of his album Shadows on the Sun, his music, and how he feels about his life and career in general I tried to keep up my end of the conversation.
He gives so much of himself in his music, he’s such an intimate song writer and I asked if it ever gets exhausting. “I’ve never lived another way, so I don’t know, it doesn’t feel exhausting to me.” Ali answered. “The idea for me is to be as free as possible and that’s the appeal of being an underground independent artist, I make my own schedule, I make my own agenda, I get to do the things I want to do. I have to produce enough so that I make enough money to live but aside from that I get a lot of freedom to do what matters to me and what I want to spend my life and my time doing.”
“Did you ever think you’d get to that point?” I asked. “If you think about fifteen years ago when you started, if you look back at Shadows did you imagine that you’d be able to do what you just said?”
“I don’t think that I was looking at it in that light.” Ali said. “I had the luxury of Atmosphere inspiring me and seeing what they were doing so I knew it was possible. I didn’t know whether it would work for me to the degree that it has but I knew that it was possible because they showed it and I don’t do any of the things in my life because I think I’m going to get a certain result and I don’t not do them because I don’t think I’ll like the result. It’s basically like I’ll do what is right and what’s worthy of my time and attention.”
I asked if it was possible that the songs on Shadows were more about the experience whereas now his songs are more about what he has learned.
“Yeah, I think there’s something to that.” He agreed. “I hadn’t thought about it like that but that’s a really rich insight. When I made Shadows on the Sun, I was so locked in by circumstances just being poor, poverty defines so much of your life. That’s one of those things so it’s not like I got rich, it’s like I’m no longer in poverty. I went from having to worry about money every waking moment to having to be responsible but now we have the money that we need and that gives me a lot of freedom and I’m able to do that by doing things that I love to do. I think the main difference to me is that when I made that album I was in poverty and then once that was no longer the case, I had space to explore what do I want to think about and what do I want to spend my time doing. It really is being relieved from being a slave to circumstances.”
I brought up “Sensitive,” the song he released several months ago. “That song is about every artist has a point where they feel sensitive and scared about what we do.” Ali said. “That three minutes is a window into whenever I’m doubting myself, whenever I’m experiencing fear or pain around what I do, that’s what that looks like. It’s not that I feel like that all the time. More consistently I think I have a lot to offer and I love connecting with fans, I love going on tour, I love making music and I love sharing my thoughts with and that connection I have with people that really listen. But, in my insecure moments that’s what I think to myself, like who wants to still hear this stuff?”
“To still be out here at 40-years-old trying to do this, there’s just a moment where you’re like nobody wants to hear this. That song is really about those moments, it’s not about the way I feel most of the time. There’s a part in the earlier career where literally the sky’s the limit, you don’t know where you’re going to end up, like I could be the next Snoop Dogg. There’s nothing saying that’s impossible. While I was making my early music, I didn’t have any sense of what my place would be. It’s still possible that something cool and unexpected will happen but there’s more of a feeling like this is what this part of my life and my career as a musician is. Looking at it like that is just another perspective.”
We wrapped up with a long discussion about his and Rhymesayers’ place in the hip-hop world and why they have (or have not) been classified as they have. He explained, “There’s a certain sense where I feel like no matter what I do or no matter what level of quality material I release or how profound it is or how much people like it, it won’t reach like the people outside of the people that already know us. They won’t even be aware that it’s happening and that can be a deterrent sometimes. Why do all this? In the process of it you’re sitting with yourself and exploring yourself in vulnerable ways and you’re seeing yourself in ways you wouldn’t have seen yourself otherwise and then you’re revealing yourself to people and at a certain point it’s like for what? The people who already like you are going to keep liking you. The people who supported you in the past will support you again and that’s beautiful but, in my art, I’m stretching to do new things. I’m saying in those moments of insecurities, sensitivities, that those are the things that occur to the heart.”