If given the forum, and a bountiful word count that knows no end, I can write and write about Brother Ali until my keyboard breaks, or my hands snap off at the wrist, whatever comes first. Every since hearing a bootleg of his early demos, I've been enthralled by the enigmatic Minneapolis emcee, and member of the Rhymesayers collective. My original intention was to pen another long-winded rant (I believe my fourth in as many years) on the genius of Ali's honest rhymes, and his keen sense of his role in the hiphop kingdom, but instead I'll let him do the talking. On tour for his latest release, The Undisputed Truth, here is a candid, realistic, and all-too-human Ali talking about his craft, his life, and how this is all he knows. To read the full interview, visit endhits.portlandmercury.com.
You rhyme about your relationship with touring and how it's a Catch-22. It put food on your family's table, but is also takes you away from them. But as someone who constantly tours, have you made peace with it?
I've made peace with the fact that I'm not ever able to make peace with it. I have just accepted the fact that it's what I do and I can't not do it. I would be rapping somewhere else if there were no people at my shows. It's weird, being part of the underground, you're always having people come up to you and say, "You did it with none of the resources and I'm going to do it too," and I look at these guys and I'm like, "No, you don't get it. You have other things in your life that are equally important to you than rap music and that's why you'll never do it." I have this and this alone. This is the one thing I've had my whole life. I didn't play sports, I didn't have girlfriends. I didn't play Dungeons & Dragons or videogames. I wasn't in the Boy Scouts. This is what I did. My whole life. When I get on the stage, for an hour and a half, this is why I'm alive and this is why I exist in this world.
In the wake of "Uncle Sam Goddamn" and you becoming more politically vocal, would you ever do one of those USO performances overseas?
It's weird because people ask if I would do them and I say "yes," because I'm not mad at the troops. I view the troops as the same as my drug dealer friends. A lot of my Muslim and black community friends hate the drug dealers, and I get it, I understand. But do you think that they really want to do it? Or is it something they believe in? Most of the people in the military see it as a way to have some stability in life, and they don't see anything else as being realistic. I don't think the majority of them want to go do that shit. I wouldn't go and play for the police. That's a different thing. People join the police academy because they want to carry a gun and tell people what to do, I think when people join the military they're hoping that they never have to take their gun anywhere and hope that they'll never be at war.
Have you gotten any feedback from troops?
Yeah, I've had people who came back and said, "We listened to your stuff all the time when we were in Iraq. We played your music for the Iraqi people because there was Arabic in it." But, when the video first came out, I got a lot of mail and it was all really dumb. "You're a fag. Fuck you. And I'm going to kill you. You should move out of America." I just really think that people have a hard time hearing anything that's going to upset the kind of security that they want.
I've seen you a handful of times over the years and it seems that each time, it's in a bigger venue with a larger crowd. Do you feel like you reached a point where all your hard work is finally paying off?
Yes and no. The thing is that—I think that this is an easy thing to say and I try to really stick to it and really mean it—with your true success, you have to measure it by whatever standard you have for yourself. If I feel like my art is growing, if I feel like I'm putting in the amount of work that I should be putting in, getting enough out of myself, giving people quality shows, albums, interviews, and everything. I try to gauge my success by that. The fact that with Shadows on the Sun, it took people a minute to catch on. The fans caught on first and then everybody else caught on later.
Where do you see yourself, as an artist, in hiphop?
This year I was really fortunate, I got to go on Conan [O'Brien] and tour with people I grew up idolizing. I got a lot of really good press that I had no clue that I'd be able to get. The Source, Rolling Stone, Spin, and places like that. But I know that all that stuff can be taken away. I can make my next album, grow again, and pour more out of myself again, and if for whatever reason, people don't see it that way, I still have to be okay with what happens. It would be easy for me at some point to really give this underground audience exactly what they want. Which is me going at the albino thing harder, playing it up more. Give them the anthems. They're new to hiphop. They've just now learned the beauty of creativity in rap music; they never knew it existed before. They love the section of hiphop that speaks to them, and they think they have to be against the rest of it. I could come out and be like, "Fuck 50 Cent," which I don't believe. I could do that and maybe get bigger, and really play into that. It's weird because I've seen some of the younger independent guys be like, "Okay I got this young, white fanbase, who really like hiphop and I'm speaking to them for the first time." They play into it as hard as they can. And to a certain degree, it works. But not for me.