- Fri, 2010-05-28 15:09
Minneapolis rapper Brother Ali is part of the legendary, independent hip hop label Rhymesayers. Having released a series of records both critically lauded and popularly adored, he is constantly pushing himself to new levels both in the studio and on stage. Recent album Us is a collection of lyrically dextrous and thought-provoking songs, continuing to turn the heads of the biggest names in rap.
I Like Music spoke with Ali about why he greatly prefers the stage to the studio, working with long standing partner BK-One, his exploration of the common experiences that unite us all, how he keeps his music fresh, his biggest musical inspirations and more.
“I Like Music because…it allows people to communicate without their culture, words and customs getting in the way.” Brother Ali
ILM: Do you get nervous prior to shows?
Brother Ali: I don’t get nervous. When you do something so much…I mean, there aren’t many situations that we’ve not been in before. I feel comfortable in how prepared we are. The worst that we can do is still really good!
ILM: Which have been some of the best live shows you’ve done?
Brother Ali: I toured with Rakim and Ghostface Killah and we had a live twelve-piece band that performed on the whole tour. That tour was one of my favourites, but the Minneapolis date in particular was really special. It was one of those times when everything was just right. Almost every show that I really care about, I leave and I feel like something could have been better, but that was one time when I walked off stage and felt like it was right. I felt really perfect about that show.
ILM: Who have you seen that has inspired you with regards to your own show?
Brother Ali: The Roots. Their overall presentation is amazing. Black Thought as an MC, especially live, is really great. Just looking at MCs, Common is incredible live. The athleticism it takes to do what he does live is pretty incredible. Mos Def is somebody who is kind of on and off. He’s a person who does what he feels like doing every day. So, there are times when his shows are really weird, and he doesn’t really do many Mos Def songs but just sings along to reggae songs. Which is fine, but when he’s really doing it right, he’s one of my favourites to watch.
ILM: What do you think it takes to make a live show really great?
Brother Ali: It’s really just presentation. Obviously the songs have a lot to do with it, the material itself, but there’s a way to present in order to make it make sense and make it good for the audience. I’ve seen plenty of people live and thought “these people are incredible!” Then I’ve gone out and bought their album and hated it! Just so stupid and terrible! But they presented it in such a way that made it really incredible. For me, preparation is such a big part of it. And personality; really being able to read a crowd and see what they need. That’s one of the things that BK-One is so great in helping me to prepare and to execute in my shows. Being able to gauge the energy and the collective thought of the crowd and where it’s at, you know? So that you say “the crowd is on this level, I want to take them up to here, so what do I need to do to talk them into coming up here with me?”
ILM: How would you describe your process of work within the studio?
Brother Ali: I don’t like the studio. I don’t like it at all. I especially don’t like rapping in the studio. I can hear that when I listen to my recorded music. I like writing. When I’m writing it’s me and my thoughts and my words creating something. We make demo versions of everything. I like making the demos when I’m at Ant’s house in the basement. That’s where we do our creating together. Then we go into the studio and try to make the recorded version, and it’s just not the same energy. It doesn’t feel spontaneous, it doesn’t feel natural. It just doesn’t feel like the reality of what I love about music or being a musician. I love performing for people, trying to interact with them, getting a response from them or trying to impress them.
ILM: So you don't like the idea of a song having a final, ultimate version? You prefer something that keeps it's spontaneity, that moulds around a situation?
Brother Ali: Art has a life. A song has a life. You write it, you make the demo, and that’s the birth of it. Then you do it in the studio so that everyone can hear it. But it doesn’t become full-grown until you go and perform it live. So yeah, I really hate the recordings of the songs that we do live, cos I develop the way that I do them. To hear the recorded version of a song that I’ve been doing for years…I don’t really like many of them.
ILM: Your music should adapt, should work with a crowd, rather than staying fixed. If it stays fixed, it stays in the past? It looses it's essence and purpose?
Brother Ali: Yeah. When there’s a crowd in front of you, and maybe that crowd doesn’t know your stuff, you have to show them why this song means something to you. When you’re in the studio there’s no-one there. Ant is there, but me and him already demoed it. The studio’s just very sterile. I just don’t enjoy it.
ILM: In terms of writing lyrics, when do you feel you write best?
Brother Ali: It’s always best when I’m not trying, when I just really have to write a song. Most of my songs I write at Ant’s house, in the basement – Ant’s my producer. So I go to his house, late at night. We usually start after I put my kids to bed, and work until they wake up. That’s how I get to see my kids. I get them up in the morning get them ready for school, then I go to bed. Then I wake up around the time that they get home, hang around with them until they go to bed, then I go to work.
ILM: What’s their perception of your music?
Brother Ali: It’s just normal to them. My son likes to rap a lot, and he thinks I’m good, but he’s not impressed.
ILM: I guess it’s nice for them to think their Dad has a normal job, a routine...
Brother Ali: Yeah, but then it’s also heartbreaking for them when I’m gone half the year. My daughter’s still too young to really understand anything about it. She does know. When we’re listening to music, if one of my songs comes on she knows my voice. She’ll point at the music and be like “daddy!” My son kinda hates it. But he wants to do it though. He writes his own songs and he makes his own beats. I have a little demo studio in my house, so he records his songs.
ILM: Do you remember the first time you wrote something for music? When you realised it was what you really wanted to do?
Brother Ali: When you grow with something there are moments along the way. It’s just like a relationship; when did you realise you were in love? You have growing moments. It’s like the first time you see somebody and you know there’s something. Then you talk to them, and you know there’s something. Then you walk, then you kiss, and then you make love and you know there’s something. Then you get married, then you have a baby together and you know that’s something. You have those moments all the way through your life that just add to the story of it. I remember the first complete song that I wrote. I remember the first group of songs I recorded on my own and that I made the music for, when I was about 14. I remember the first time me and Ant made music together. That was really big. Then there’s a song on the first album that we did together and I felt like “oh my god! This is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
ILM: There are some strong themes in your album Us, how conscious was that? How much importance do you place upon continuity of message?
Brother Ali: The idea, going in, was still to write really personal music, but music that wasn’t about me. All the stories are still based on events from my life, but I’m just not the main character. It’s about my relationship with them. I wanted to write the songs from someone’s point of view other than mine. I wanted to describe our relationships. We all experience joy, pain, fear, love, faith…all these different emotions, but they're all from different causes. I wanted people from different walks of life to hear those emotions, to just hear the humanity in somebody else, to be able to realise “that person is scared just like me.” That’s what my main goal was in that. The people I perform my music to aren’t the people I grew up with. That can be really strange sometimes. But I do have a bond with most of the people that listen to me, and that bond is really real, and really personal. I wanted to tell them the stories of the people that I love and see if they would feel that way towards these people too.
ILM: How do you push yourself forward as an artist?
Brother Ali: It’s just inside you to do that. If you’re truly an artist, then when you’re comfortable you’re not creating. If you’re in chartered territory, that’s not creating. You’re creating when you’re out on a limb. That’s the feeling that we chase, the same way that somebody on drugs chases their first high. We’re always looking for that feeling of stumbling across something brand new, something you feel has never been done before. You’re always chasing that feeling, and when you create something and you don’t get that feeling it’s depressing. But you just have to know that “okay, I did it before, I’ll find it again.” You’ve just got to keep trying, and keep trying, and keep trying. When people get writer’s block, that’s what it is.
ILM: And you have no choice, you just keep writing, keep making music...
Brother Ali: What makes you write the first time? Who knows? You’re just trying. But then you have a success. You have something that to you feels good. And you want that good feeling, so you go and write again. If you don’t get that feeling, then you stop. I’ve experienced that. We all have. The idea is to go to it every time and just try it. See what happens. You have to allow for a lot of times when it’s just not going to happen.
ILM: It must be hard not to put pressure on yourself…
Brother Ali: People freak you out. People say stuff and it feels good. It’s just like all artists: we just want to feel good about ourselves. That’s what all this shit is. Sorry people trying to feel good about themselves. That’s what it really boils down to.
ILM: Did you get that feeling with any of the tracks on Us?
Brother Ali: I definitely had one with the song Puppy Love. I’m really proud of that song. That felt like something new. Maybe to other people it would be something that they’ve done a million times before, but to me it felt new, and that’s all I really care about.
ILM: Did you write it in a different way?
Brother Ali: Yeah. I wrote it in Europe whilst I was on tour with Ant. We were roommates and we were in Germany. I woke up and it was half-dark, half-light outside. I looked at the clock and then at my watch and they were set to different times. I didn’t know if it was day or night. Ant was gone, and I’d been thinking a lot of things about feeling love. I wanted to write a song but I didn’t know where to start. I was in a hotel by myself and I opened up a lot of my favourite love songs and transcribed them. I listened to the Stevie Wonder songs All In Love Is Fair, Lately, and You And I, and I transcribed them. Then when I was done with that I started listening through the music that Ant had brought with him on that tour and the music for that song came on. I wrote it in about ten minutes and recorded a rough demo of it. Ant was downstairs at the bar drinking. He’d been drinking all day. Turns out it was night time! I had slept all day and he had drunk all day! So we hung out, talking for about three hours, then we went back upstairs and I played him the demo. He was like “oh my god! That’s the most sensitive rap song anyone’s ever made! That’s more sensitive than Slug even. I don’t know if I can let you do that!” But to me that meant it was right! That’s what you want. You want to hit that place where you’re like “I don’t know…”
ILM: It’s funny how transcribing someone else’s words can give you a completely different perspective on them, compared to the normal way of consuming them, which is usually listening, sometimes reading…
Brother Ali: It gives you a sense of what they felt as they were creating. That was the first time that I’d ever done that. I’ve done it with music, cos I make beats too. Just for fun. Sometime if I get stuck on something I’ll find a sample that someone like DJ Premier has used and I’ll try to recreate the beat on my own. I learned a lot about creating beats that way.
ILM: What’s your relationship with music like? Are you listening to it constantly?
Brother Ali: I have longstanding relationships with the music that I love. It’s not very often that a whole lot of new music gets let in.
ILM: Like a circle of trust…
Brother Ali: Yeah! And every now and then somebody else gets let into it. BK is always finding new shit. He has to know everything! He’s not satisfied until he knows everything. I just need to really know what I know. That’s the difference between us. The music that means the most to me is soul. Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, Nina Simone, Donny Hathaway, Smokey Robinson, Staple Singers, Bill Withers… there are way too many. Right after I made Shadows On The Sun, for which Ant had sampled Muddy Waters, I borrowed the album from him, to make a tour routine from. And I kept it. I never gave it back to him. That started my love of blues music. So now I listen to a lot of Muddy Waters and Sun House, Howling Wolf, Bobby Blue Bland, Alfred King, John Lee Hooker… I have a little bit of Robert Johnson, but not a lot. Then recently I’ve been getting into jazz a little bit. Mainly just John Coltrane. I love John Coltrane. When I was younger I had some Miles Davis albums, mainly just cos I felt like I should listen to some jazz. So I went and bought Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue. Everybody gets that. It’s like the cheeseburger of jazz! I listen to a lot of comedy too. I love stand-up comedy.
ILM: Who are some of your favourite comics?
Brother Ali: Richard Prior is the main one. I love him so much. To me he’s one of the greatest artists in general, not just comedians, but art. I’m kind of obsessed with Dolomite. His style of comedy is from a very, very underground black comedy circuit. It’s all independent, he pressed his own records. He made what were called party records. He would have a party in his house, and set up microphones, then get on and do really raunchy humour. Really raw. And it all rhymes. A lot of people credit that as being one of the early forms of rap. He’d be like “Dolomite is my name, sucking and fucking is my game!” There’d be a nine-minute routine about this character Jody the grinder, the sweet-spot finder. It’s all sex. I love it so much. There’s a whole genre of that shit. Rudy Ray Moore was his name, Dolomite was his character. He actually made independent movies of Dolomite as well, during the time of Blaxploitation in the ‘70s. He had his own record label and him and a female comedian used to travel together all the time. I love that shit.
ILM: Did they have writing partners?
Brother Ali: Paul Mooney was a writer for Richard Prior. He was his right hand man and he wrote for In Living Color, Dave Chapelle, Sanford and Son… He did a lot of great shit. It was race-based comedy that’s really similar to Dolomite. It’s not rhymed, but really hardcore racially. The idea is to take the frustration at how unfair it is and how judged and stereotyped you are being black in America, and expose it. Part of his thing is that white people make fun of everybody, but they don’t like it when people make fun of them. He had whole routines just making fun of white people. It was very raw and very real, very rooted in truth. I also like Bill Cosby, George Carlin and Loretta Foxx.
ILM: What goals have you got left to achieve? Stand-up perhaps...?
Brother Ali: Haha! I definitely think one move at a time. I definitely play checkers, I don’t play chess. Right now, I feel like I need to stir things up a little bit for myself. I feel like working with Ant is great, I love it – I’ve had my best moments working with him and I think I’ll always have my best moments working with him – but it’s become a little too easy. Either he and I need to do something very, very different, or… I’ve been making some songs with Jaekwon. So I might make an EP with him, just to try something different. I maybe need to strengthen up my muscles. Working with Ant is very comfortable for me, and I want to be somewhere that I’m not comfortable. I just want to have fun rapping. I don’t want to have to do anything too heavy. I think I just want to explore relationships a little more. And love.
ILM: As somebody who has dedicated a lot of time to music as an art-form, why do you hold music in such high regard?
Brother Ali: The soul has the desire to express itself. The human soul needs to come out in a way that it can’t always do with regular speaking. That’s why jazz is what it is; music that has no words, but still, you can learn a lot from it. You can learn a lot about the soul of the person involved. It really is so very human and spiritual, when it’s real. I’ve learned a lot about life from music. From the way that it sounds and from the people who articulate what they’re experiencing. In the States it’s definitely a very cheap relationship that we have with music.
ILM: Just passively absorbing?
Yeah. Real good recommendations and music discovery is lost on most, I mean, that's what good DJs are for. That's what friends do.