These are the transcripts of an interview with Brother Ali. The interview was conducted by Hugo Lunny on June 20th, 2003.
Originally influenced by Earth Wind and Fire and born into Hip Hop through break dancing, Brother Ali has been one with the mic since he first heard KRS-ONE on record. A student of Hip-Hop's golden age, Ali's music ranges from purpose to passionate, yet always soulful and true to the boastful heritage of our culture. An emcee, producer, host and overall party-starter, Brother Ali's talents are a well-defined addition to the Rhymesayers family.
Over the past year, Ali joined producer ANT (of Atmosphere) and went to work creating "Shadows on the Sun," a critically acclaimed release.
MVRemix: If you look at the media, they market things and exploit the product. If Rhymesayers or another label was to try and take your ethnicity and do something with that, would you try and support that because you want your music to be heard, or would you oppose it, and why?
First of all, I bet $150 million that canít none of yíall accurately judge what my ethnicity is. The marketing would be a bitch. Second of all, no. We donít want to use that as the main thing to market our music. It seems that a lot of people that interview me end up with that being their whole motherfucking piece. Like I had one [interviewer] at home in Minneapolis do that to me just recently. Actually, he did the whole thing on me being albino. So we talked about that for the first three minutes of the interview and then for the rest of the interview we talked about real shit. And so basically he used quotes from those first three minutes for the whole motherfucking article. I think the reason is that with the advanced racism we have in the world - especially the United States - people are still so much trained to view people by race, which is different from ethnicity. Race is a made-up thing. I think a lot of times people - they understand a lot better, itís a lot easier for them, if they can put somebody in a racial background. We like to think about things in categories because it takes out a lot of the mental work. If you can put something in a category, and you know where it is, you leave it there, and thatís where you want it to be. It makes it easier for you to relate to it. When you canít do that, it requires a lot more thought; you have to be a lot more objective. You have to think a lot more about how youíre going to relate to this thing, how youíre going to view it, and how youíre going to perceive it. So I think because of that, a lot of people struggle with me, to try to nail me down racially, or try to understand the albino thing more, but the reality isÖ I think me as a musician speaks a lot more than just that. So to try to use that as a gimmick you would pigeon-hole me into just that. It would make my shit a lot shorter. It might make it quicker, you know, if we really pushed that and played that up, you know, it might get me a lot of [snapping fingers] quick attention, but thereís no long life in that. After the novelty wears off, all you have left is songs. And all you have left is albums. And all you have left is live performances, which is really what weíre more about.
MVRemix: Yeah we asked Slug about that, whoís actually light-skinned black -
Slug is what almost all of us on Rhymesayers are, which is a mixture of different shit, including black, including white, including Native American. Almost everybody on Rhymesayers is a mixture of some different shit, and a lot of times weíre seen by white people as white rappers.
MVRemix: Puts you in a bit of a stereotype, doesnít it.
Itís something we have to work with, but I mean, Iím not white.
MVRemix: That jumps on to a further question which I hadnít gotten on to, with regards to white rappers: Whatís the situation with you and Sole [of Anticon]?
Thereís not a lot to say about it. Basically, what happened with that was thatÖ basically, Iím a person whoís very honest with myself and I try to be very honest with everyone thatís around me. Sole said some things that were very disrespectful to hip hop culture, and I felt, to black people. I felt that some of the things that theyíve done were like mockery. What I consider to be black culture, like inner-city culture. They mock it in a way thatís extremely disrespectful. Then on top of that, the arrogance that they have, with what theyíve done in hip hop. Those two things coupled together just left a bad taste in my mouth.
So I did an interview not that long ago - and first of all, Iím not used to people caring what I think, you know what I mean? Thatís really a brand new thing to me - and so I just used him as an example of what I was talking about. Then the Internet got involved - somebody posted that part of it on the Internet. The interview was supposed to be for a magazine, not the Internet. It got posted in different places that Anticon [posted]. And so it turned into something that was not originally supposed to be. I just happened to say what I thought at that time.
I went to perform in San Francisco and I called him at home and asked him to come to the show to talk about it, and he didnít respond. He sent some of his other Anticon friends and they ended up crying - literally crying - tears and snotting out their noses. I tried to talk it out with them because I didnít want to fuel it anymore. Itís not a big issue to me. Itís just another example of somebody whoís rubbed me the wrong way. No big deal. I took a note from Murs: I hope they make money. I hope they do well. I donít want bad things to happen to them. I personally just donít like their shit and I donít like (most of) them as people. I just donít like their shit. Thatís all. There are a lot of people whose shit I donít like. I got friends who I donít necessarily like their shit. I donít like everything I do. Whatever. No big deal.
MVRemix: Kind of following on what you said - you really donít have to get in depth with this - but on ďStar Qualities,Ē you mentioned youíre not what your mother wanted. Iím wondering if you could elaborate on that particular line or would you prefer to keep that private?
Itís too late for me to keep it private, man. I think that when they - my parents - had me, I always felt like they wanted a little kid. Like when they thought about having children they thought about having a little kid. And as soon as I wasnít a little kid anymore is when I really started feeling like they didnít really want to have me anymore. So the things I became in life, the choices I made with my life, the person I ended up beingÖ you know, Muslim, doing this as a career, getting married young, I always felt like even though everything I had done in my life was what I felt was the thing to do at the time, that was right, I always felt like she wasnít happy with any of it. I felt like nothing I did made her happy. That lead to a lot of ways I do my music. I canít help but be myself, but at the same time I want to make people happy. So when I perform, I perform my songs that say what I think, and I talk about my views, but at the same time I want to do it in a way thatís going to please, you know what I mean? I really want to please people that come and see me. I take it very seriously when somebody wants to spend their time on me. Or spend their money on me. If somebodyís going to spend money on my album, I want to jam that album with everything possible that I have. If somebodyís going to spend money to come watch me perform, I want to do everything I can to make them enjoy that show. To make it unforgettable. So I think a lot of that comes from the way I related to my mom.
MVRemix: Has her perspective changed at all since youíve become more accomplished with what youíre doing?
She was never all that honest about it. She had a very hard time being honest with people and with herself. That was never something that came easy to her. She was always a person that wanted to forget about problems as much as possible and just pretend that everything was okay. She actually passed away a couple months ago.
MVRemix: Sorry to hear that.
Yeah. But she was a person that had a very hard time being honest about things. And I actually relate that to a lot of my problems because Iím a person who canít not be honest about things. I wanted to address every problem we ever had, and I think a lot of that, in the abrasive way that I did it, had a lot to do with us not having a good relationship. Like the combination of her not wanting to deal with it, and me being too militant about dealing with it, is what lead to us not being able to deal with each other.
MVRemix: I know that a lot of journalists ask for peoplesí influences, but my thing is I want to know what inspires you. Not who influenced you, but who or what inspires you and made you decide, ďI donít want to work 9-5 or doing a retail job." Or, "I want to go to school for a career, I want to and follow my dream.Ē What made you decide, ďI want to follow my creativity,Ē and this person or this thing is what made me choose it?
Itís a variety of things. I would say that Islam had a lot to do with this. Islam is a religion that promotes a way of thinking more than a way of living. A way of thinking that really promotes the human soul. That promotes the human being living up to itís real potential. Iíve always believed thatís the best way to truly listen to yourself and your soul, to make decisions. So that influenced me a lot because I really tried hard, when I first got married especially, when I was a young adult, like 17, 18, 19, 20. So by 21, I really tried hard to do what I thought a married person was supposed to do, which was go to college, have a job, and do it that way, and I was never satisfied. My soul was never happy with that.
MVRemix: Are you satisfied now?
Iím a lot more satisfied. Iím a lot closer to being satisfied.
MVRemix: I read in an interview that youíve seen Spike Leeís 25th Hour. Now, try and take your own perspective of the character Monty, Edward Nortonís character, put yourself in that sort of roll, tell me about that film or that day.
I would definitely do what he did. I donít understand why anybody would just be like, ďOkay,Ē and go to jail.
MVRemix: I didnít know that kind of law existed whereby youíre told youíre going to be taken to jail and you have to show up for jail the day after. That seems kind of absurd to me.
Yeah I donít think it works like that. Maybe thatís something they do with white people, but none of my friends did that shit when they went to jail. They just kept them from trial. If youíre guilty, they keep your ass. So basically your last day is the day before you show up to trial. Thatís the way I understood it. If you get bail, you pay the bail and they hold that and they keep that if you donít show up for trial. And then if you show up for trial you get your bail money back but if youíre guilty they keep you.
MVRemix: Yeah. How can you be allowed a day to make a decision as to whether youíre going to go or not? To me, thatís ludicrous.
Yeah the decision in real life would be whether to go to the trial or not. Letís say you run for two years and then they catch you, then what do you do? You go to prison. But if you just go, thatís just another year you get, at least. Or they kill you, and then you donít have to worry about it anymore.
MVRemix: If you were to be in that situation though, what would you do in that time period? Aside from the normal clichť ďspend time with your family,Ē is there anything youíd try to attain or achieve or do?
I try to do everything while I can. Honestly, Iíve had a lot of people die around me lately and so I always think the people closest to me are going to die, and Iím think Iím going to die. Like even for the last year, thatís been on my mind. I have nightmares about it, I think about it, I obsess about it. The other day I thought I was going to die. I just have it on my mind a lot, so I try and do everything I can while I can. So if I had one day, I donít think it would necessarily change that. I make sure that Iíve told the people I love, I love them on a regular basis, you know what I mean? The songs that I have on at Antís house on his four-track, we never take them to the studio. They could still be released. Those are the kinds of things I think about. I think one of the worse things is to get a bunch of good ass ideas at the last minute. Iím trying to have all the ideas now, of shit I should be doing and prepare for that.
MVRemix: Do you really adhere to that, or do you just kind of have the 3-day epiphany after someone dies and then go back to your day-to-day routines?
I donít have routines. Sometimes I do, but a lot of times I donít react to something like Ahhhhhh!!! I almost anti-react at first, and then the understanding of it soaks into me. Like when my mom died, I left for tour like two days later. I didnít have a lot of time to just bug out. I couldnít. If I had bugged out I would have missed my tour. So itís still kind of soaking into me. I donít believe that life is just a series of events. Itís almost like bricks and mortar. The events are bricks, but just a bunch of events with nothing in between Ďem will fall down.
So yeah, I try to make the most of events but Iím really more about the in-between shit. Iím not big on birthdays, holidays, celebrations. Thatís a big part of why I did my career the way I did, because I never believed in ďthe big break,Ē that this is ďyour chance, are you going to take it or not?Ē I donít believe that ďthis is your chance,Ē and that if you donít make it, forget it, and if you do make it, youíre there. I do not believe that. Iím not gonna front and say I do everything like itís my last day, but I try to. I think that the way our society is set up makes it like that. They put you on a routine where you do the exact same thing every day. That routine makes it easy to get disconnected from life. Thatís what touring does.
Touring disconnects people from real life if you donít be careful. Thatís why you see people act crazy and do things that they would not do at home. Because it doesnít feel like real life. Youíre not at home, itís an abnormal situation, and you do the exact same thing every single day. Youíre just in a different place. Just switch the colour of the walls in the room, you know what Iím saying? Thatís why you donít have revolutions. Because people are used to getting up every day. I get up, I take my shower, I read my newspaper, I eat my breakfast, I fight the traffic, I go to work, I have my coffee break, I work, I have my lunch break, I work, I go home, feed the dog, I go to bed, blah blah blah, get up, do the exact same shit. That routine is what separates you from the real life because you depend on that shit. People in prison do that. I have friends in prison, and they tell me once you get on a routine, thatís how you pass the time. Retarded people have to be on routines! Rainman has to watch Judge Wapner at 3 Oíclock! Our society keeps us from thinking about real shit.
MVRemix: Letís say tomorrow the world ends. If I was to ask you to name an artist as being the greatest of all time, which would you choose?
All of your questionsÖ I feel like Iím being very uncooperative. [Laughs] I just donít think like that. I mean, I know thereís one album that really impacted me, but I wouldnít say itís the best album of all time, and thatís "Criminal Minded." I lived in the mid-west and music up until then was all vinyl-based, and not many people had the albums. So we had everything from mix DJs that would make tapes for us, or somebody would try and DJ and weíd make a copy of a copy of a copy of that, and so I got shit in weird orders. Like I didnít get music in the order it came out. Like Slick Rick came out before Rakim but I heard Ďem at the same time. Rakim probably dropped his first album before KRS-One, but I heard KRS-One first.
The only thing I heard on time was albums that came out. I heard Run-DMC on time, I heard Fat Boys on time, I heard Whodini on time. But everybody else I heard in weird-ass orders. When Boogie Down Productions came out, the things that he did, to me, opened up this whole new thing of what you could do with rapping that made me want to do it. Before that, all I saw was somebody sounding good on beats, somebody making people have fun, saying something kind of clever, or bragging. And I love that shit, I still base my emceeing on all that, but KRS-One opened up new shit. Method talked about the neighbourhood, but when Method came out I was like six years old. Some shit like that. Maybe eight years old. And I didnít know that we were poor.
When ď9mm Goes BangĒ came out, or when ďThe Pussy is still freeĒ came out, to me, that was like revolutionary shit, that people were doing something new with rapping. That made me want to do it. And then Public Enemy came out. It made me want to start studying, and it made me want to be intelligent. It affected my life, not just my partying.
Run-DMC was something that affected my partying, but Public Enemy, and Boogie Down Productions, and X-Clan, that affected how I live my life. That was the first record that hit me like that. And then [Public Enemyís] "It Takes A Nation of Millions" hit me like that. X-Clan hit me like that. There are others, but those are some of the main ones.
MVRemix: [Phayde, sitting in] Speaking of KRS-One, I read somewhere that when you were 13 you saw KRS-One give a lecture that actually inspired you to study religion, history, and sociology. So how do you think what youíre doing now would be different had you never heard of KRS-One?
I think I would be naturally curious about those things. That was like the catalyst that took my weird little curiosities that I had, that I didnít think were cool, and I didnít think were realistic, and he put a face on it. The fact that he existed made it possible for me to be that. Jesus was not really a human being but heís God too. Heís seen that way in Christianity, but not in Islam. In Islam, Muhammad is seen as a human being who had sex, who had a wife, who got mad, who had problems with his family. Heís a human being and heís beautiful, you know what I mean? So that makes all that seem really possible because somebody actually is that. Thatís how guys like KRS-One and Brother Ali, for me, were like. These are intelligent black men who are not punks, who donít take shit from nobody. I was like, I could be that. I used to think the four elements of hip hop were break dancing, graffiti, smoking weed, and drinking. Thatís what everybody did. And then when that came along, it became cool to be righteous and intelligent. For a long time, I was way too militant with that shit, and that hurt me with my parents too. I was really pushiní it and I was like 14 years old. I didnít really understand what I was talking about. That hurt me with Islam. Like when I first became a Muslim I learned a little bit and I thought I knew everything so I told them a lot of shit back then that I still canít correct. So it helped because it gave me confidence but I took it a little to far.
MVRemix: Any last words that youíd like to say to your fans or potential fans that are going to read this?
I donít even know if I have fans at this point. I know I have people that have heard my music and like itÖ I appreciate them. I want people to come watch me and I want people to hear my album. Thatís the only thing. Thatís all I really care about. Come see me and listen to everything I ever put out, because my goal is to never, ever, disappoint. It was three years between when I put my little tapes out and when I put "Shadows On The Sun" out, because thatís how long it took for me to put out something that I was really happy about.