KillerHipHop Exclusive: Brother Ali Interview
Twin City Rhymesayer Brother Ali recently released The Bite Marked Heart EP, and is on track to release his 5th studio album later this year, Mourning In America, and Dreaming In Color, his 1st album in over 2 years. With a fresh project already on the net, and a new album approaching, KillerHipHop spoke to Brother Ali about The Bite Marked Heart EP, working with Jake One, Mourning In America, and Dreaming In Color, the definition of “real” Hip-Hop, Rakim, and more.
QuezKHH: You recently released The Bite Marked Heart EP. How was the recording process for that like?
Brother Ali: Well, I recorded it all at home. I spent a lot of 2011 making music with Jake One, and we’re just really finishing up an album together. I made a lot of extra music for that album. He lives in Seattle. I went to Seattle a bunch of times for weekends, or a week at a time. Then I just ended up getting an apartment in Seattle, and went out there and made somewhere between 30 and 50 songs. Only 15 to 20 of those are going to be on the album. So we had a lot of extra music. Also, I haven’t released new music in 2 years, since 2009. So we started thinking about what was the best way to start releasing some music again, [to] just show people what we’ve been working on while we prepare to put this album out. I started pulling different songs together, and I realized that we had a good amount of songs that were about the idea of relationships, love, sex, all that kind of stuff. I had demo versions of all of the songs, [and] I re-cut the vocals in my house, really in about 2 days. I took about two days, and re-recorded all the vocals. I made the whole thing really quick. I had written the songs, and put them together over the course of the last year, but when it came time to actually do it, we put it together really quickly.
KHH: How did the idea for “Shine On” come about? Don’t tell me it was based on a true story?
Ali: I mean, I think everytime someone writes a story, even writers that write stories that are authors, all stories are based on something real. But that was just a story. A lot of times when I sit down to write songs or an album, I usually have a heavy serious theme that I usually want [it] to be. A lot of times I’m not in the mood, or I’m just not in the place to write those serious songs. So just to keep the juices flowing, I’ll hear a beat and I’ll say, look I don’t care what album this is or [how] it turns out. I don’t care if nobody ever hears this, what’s just some fly cool shit that I can do with this music. So “Shine On” was just an idea, a story.
KHH: At the end why did you say you were through? Throughout the story you really sounded like you liked this chick, and when you won, you threw it all away. So my question is, what motivated you to say you were through?
Ali: Well I mean the whole idea of the song is…you know like the hook says, “don’t pay me no mind, don’t worry about me”. I think sometimes we just need to appreciate things without having to get anything out of it. Just observe, acknowledge, [and] appreciate. I just wanted to interact with her, see her up close. [I] just wanted to see her talk. Just truly admiring somebody without getting anything. I’m not trying to smash. You know, just to have that experience, and then sometimes to just give and then walk away is a beautiful thing. Make a fool out of myself so that she could smile, and feel appreciated, and then just leave. To me that really proves the point that this is not me trying to being sly, trying to get some booty. But, I just truly appreciate you. I just really think that you’re something special right now, and I was happy to interact with you, and that’s it.
KHH: Are you the type of rapper that likes to get in the studio with your producers? Were you in the studio with Ant and Jake One for this EP?
Ali: No, neither one of them was there. Ant was in California. Jake was in Seattle, and I was in Minneapolis. When I work with Ant, when me and him sit in a room he plays the music, and I write the song, and we do it together. When I work with Jake, [he] doesn’t like to be there for the writing part. I’ve written a few songs at Jake’s house, but Jake doesn’t really like to be there for all that. He makes his beats, he knows within four bars if he likes my approach, and that’s really it. On this EP I wasn’t together with either one of them.
KHH: You and Ant have a lot of chemistry together, would you ever do an entire project without any Ant production?
Ali: Yeah, my next album that comes out this year, its called Mourning In America, and Dreaming In Color. That’s all Jake One. Ant didn’t touch any of that.
KHH: What does the album title mean?
Ali: It basically means that things have gotten so bad in American public life that I think our society has really declined in a lot of really important ways. I think that a lot of the things that used to give our lives meaning have declined, and I think that a lot of the older things that we were supposed to be fixing in our parents generation, those projects never got completed. So they were heading to end racism, sexism, and things like that. They made a good start but those projects were not completed. All of those things are all still huge factors in society. We’ve become more violent. The meaningful relationships we had are declining. So that’s the, “Mourning in America”. But, I think that things have gotten so bad, and there are still good people. I think people are still good. Human beings are born with a soul that wants to be good, and [that] wants [to] have meaning in life, that wants to be loving. So the people, particularly young people, still give me a lot of hope. So that’s what the, “Dreaming In Color” is about. I think that things have gotten so bad, that we’ve been sleep walking for the last couple of decades, [and] it’s coming to an end. We’ve kind of just been sleep walking through life, and are now starting to wake up. That’s the other part. The idea that “Mourning in America”, like to mourn or to grieve, and the idea of Mourning In America, like a new day a new time. That’s what it’s about. That things are maybe the worst they’ve been since the 60’s and 70’s, but then also their is huge opportunities if people come together right at this moment.
KHH: When is the album going to drop?
Ali: Later on this year. I want to give Rhymesayers a chance to really get their plan together before we announce [a release date]. I think I know what the release date is, but I don’t want to beat them to the punch. I want them to be able to figure out how they want to announce the release date.
KHH: But the album is already completed? So it’s all on Rhymesayers now?
Ali: Pretty much. There’s still a couple of mixing things. I’m still waiting to see if I can get this one guest appearance. Also, the last song of every album, I always do last. So I always make everybody wait ’til the last minute to do my last song. My last song still needs to be recorded. I’m not going to do that until the rest of the album is 100% done, and then I’ll lay my last song.
KHH: Are you going to have any features on there?
Ali: I hope to. I don’t want to say ‘em yet. One of them, we’ve been talking, and it hasn’t come through yet. It hasn’t been recorded yet, so that’s why I say we’re waiting. But I’m not heavy on features. I’m not real big on that.
“I don’t think any of us have the authority to say what is, and isn’t Hip-Hop”.
KHH: A lot of people will look at The Bite Marked Heart EP, and will look at your album, and will say, “oh this is Hip-Hop”. Well, what defines Hip-Hop in your opinion? What’s real Hip-Hop, and what’s not?
Ali: If we’re looking at music and trying to determine whether or not to consider something Hip-Hop, I think that we have to say that anybody rapping to a beat, that calls themselves Hip-Hop, is Hip-Hop. So I don’t think we can say that Black Eyed Peas, or Nicki Minaj, or Asher Roth, or Lil Wayne [aren’t Hip-Hop]. People for some reason always got to point their fingers at [someone]. You know, these super underground kids point their fingers at Lil Wayne, and say that’s not Hip-Hop. That’s just stupid. Hardcore cats will point at Asher Roth or Drake, and say that’s not Hip-Hop. There are people that will point at the Black Eyed Peas, or Nicki Minaj, or people that make Pop music, and say that’s not Hip-Hop. I don’t think we can do that. I don’t think any of us have the authority to say what is, and isn’t Hip-Hop. In my mind, if there’s a beat, and somebody is rapping to it, that’s Hip-Hop. If they are calling it Hip-Hop, then it’s Hip-Hop. When we say, what is the true essence of Hip-Hop, what to me is meaningful, Hip-Hop that really adds to the legacy of it. I think it’s that honest creativity. That honest magnetism, and creativity. It gives a voice to something that didn’t have a voice, an idea or a group of people that didn’t have a voice before, [and] that brings something that was a secret to somebody, and makes it public. You know, to take something that’s either cultural, spiritual, emotional, or intellectual. It takes something that’s going on with people, and it’s relevant, and makes sense, and it matters, but that isn’t known, and makes it known.
Also in that sense, all of those people are Hip-Hop too, in my mind. In my mind Lil Wayne is [Hip-Hop]. We can look at it and say, I like Hip-Hop with a strong social message. Well, Lil Wayne isn’t going to necessarily give you that in a literal sense, but if we’re really conscious, and we’re really aware we know that Lil Wayne comes from one of the worst projects in America. When your humanity is in question, and when it’s pretty much decided for you before you’re born, that you can never have a material, a spiritual piece of this American project then we know, what happens when somebody like that becomes successful in spite of everything being against them. We’re seeing that. In a way, Lil Wayne says a lot of social and political stuff without saying it directly. He is it. Some people would say he doesn’t need to say that because he is what we’re talking about. He is the kid that we’re talking about when we talk about political stuff. We’re talking about Dwayne Carter. He doesn’t have to do anything besides be Dwayne Carter, and he is part of that.
Some people would criticize that Asher Roth isn’t [Hip-Hop]. He’s an example of somebody that just loves Hip-Hop, and loves to rap. [Scooter Braun], the same guy that manages Justin Beiber was trying to make him a frat boy rapper. It turned out that that wasn’t who he was cut out to be. He just wants to rap. It might happen to be wack, but he just wants to rap. So he goes back to just rapping, and he’s good at it. But, even when he was doing that frat shit, you know you look at the Mac Miller’s of the world, and these kids, that’s their reality. So they’re talking about what is real to them.
I love it all man, for different reasons. I see it all for what it is. There’s beauty in all of it. There’s something fucked up about all of it too. All Hip-Hop, all music has something beautiful about it, and something fucked up about it. Almost nothing is 100% pure, because we’re not 100% pure. The people who make it aren’t 100% pure. Nobody is. So the music is going to be what we are. But we love people in spite of the fact that they aren’t 100% pure. We love ourselves in spite of the fact that we do fucked up shit. We’re not perfect. So I love music the same way that I love the people.
KHH: For my last question, I want to know what was the most important thing you learned from Rakim while you were touring with him.
Ali: Wow, I learned a lot, but I think the idea of staying true to yourself. He’s somebody who came along, [and] did not rap like everybody else rapped. When Rakim came out everybody was yellin’, and it was all about being bigger than life, being huge, enormous with your voice, and your body. A lot of the rappers from that time are big guys. They’re either super muscular or they’re just tall, and just fucking enormous. Rakim is a small cat. He doesn’t yell. But, his mind is his tool. He has an extraordinary poetic mind. So he just said the words, and he just said it fly. He’s very cool. One of the coolest people I’ve ever been around. Very very cool. Alternate definition of cool. Like he’s a very quiet kind of cool. Strong silent cool. He just stuck to that. He was never going to scream eventhough that’s what everybody was doing when he was a kid, and he came out with his words that he wrote, and how fly it was, and how he put it together, and all that shit. So he stuck to that. Even now, when you see him now, he’s not going to change to fit what’s going on. He’s going to be Rakim. People love him for that. When you tour with him now, there are little kids that don’t want to see him on stage with skinny jeans trying to dougie. They’re not trying to see Rakim dressed like a little kid. They don’t want to see Rakim try to be like them. They want to see Rakim be fuckin’ Rakim, and that’s what he does. He knows how to harness his own greatness, and he never plays himself. He sticks to it, and that’s the #1 thing I learned from him.
I learned a lot of other shit too. I also learned to let the sound man, and the microphone system do its job. I used to lose my voice a lot. I actually damaged my vocal cords over years of touring. But Rakim is like, man just because the sound man isn’t good at his job, I’m not going to not be myself. I’m not going to scream. I’m not going to yell through the mic just because I’m not sure if the fans can hear me or not. I’m going to let the microphone do its job. I’m going to do mine. Mine is to rap. If this microphone, and sound system, and sound man aren’t able to capture that, I’m not going to try to make up for it by screaming because it’s not going to work. It’s just going to kill my voice. Even if they can hear me, it’s not going to sound like me. That’s another huge lesson I learned from him. Just be yourself, and let it be what it is. If your self is good enough for people to love you and whatever that’s great. If it’s not then you better figure out a way.