Brother Ali burst onto the Minneapolis hip-hop scene in 2000, when he released his cassette-only demo Rites Of Passage. He soon signed to Twin Cities label Rhymesayers Entertainment, which has released his two acclaimed records, Shadows On The Sun and the Champion EP. It's been three long years since hip-hop fans heard from Brother Ali, and during that time, Ali divorced, became homeless, and fought for custody of his son. He addresses these and other topics on The Undisputed Truth, produced by Ant from the Minneapolis rap duo Atmosphere.
The A.V. Club: This album sounds a little more accessible than your others.
Brother Ali: We were really going for feeling first on this album, because of the topics we were dealing with. I was covering things like my divorce, and getting custody of my son, and kind of rebuilding my life, and things like that. I wasn't exactly sure how to approach those things. But I definitely wanted it to feel the way I feel about them, I wanted the music to feel that way. So rather than take a really heady approach to it, we really wanted to capture the mood above all else.
AVC: Was it a challenge, to find the right feeling for those themes?
BA: Not as much as I thought it would be. I did start out trying to think my way into them. A lot of people have divorce songs, and they're like, "Fuck you, bitch, I can't stand you, and I want you to die." But when you go through a breakup like that—I was married for 10 years—you only feel that way for the first two weeks. That's not the way that you live your life feeling. So I didn't want it to be like that. Ant had these pieces of music that would really remind me of the way I felt about things like my divorce, so when I heard that music, something clicked inside me, and I knew how to approach it based on the mood of the music. The song "Walking Away," I wrote in probably a half hour.
AVC: "Walking Away" is pretty generous to your ex-wife.
BA: Yeah. And there was a lot of things I could've… I had a lot of material, man. [Laughs.] I could have really made a terrible song about her. But you don't want to walk away hating someone, you want to just be like, "Man, this just didn't work with us, hopefully I was just seeing the worst in you." Even for her, I really do, I really hope that she's in a better situation, and that someday it can bring out the better side of her, and she'll be able to be happy. But it definitely was never gonna happen with me.
AVC: On Shadows On The Sun, you say you're "a cross between John Gotti and Mahatma Gandhi," and on The Undisputed Truth, you say, "I'm Howard Stern meets Howard Zinn." Do you work to get both those sides of you on each record?
BA: Not particularly. Ant has played a big role, both for me and in Atmosphere, in making sure that his rappers' personalities are really reflected in the music. That's important to all of us, but I think Ant sees it as his job. When you make music with one person, and you kind of grow together, you end up talking in the songs the way that I talk to him. I feel like I'm writing those songs for him, in a way.
AVC: Most of the press about you mentions that you're albino. Does that bother you?
BA: Early on, it bothered me. I didn't have any distribution for Shadows On The Sun, I just kind of went on tour, and that was my distribution. So I really wasn't prepared for press. I'd never really done it. It's different, if you have to write 115 stories about musicians, then you're looking for something to mix it up a little bit. So I guess I could see that. But there were stories where [being albino] was the whole story. And I was kind of concerned that it started to look like this was a gimmick I was trying to play up. I felt like I went out of my way to not do that. I wasn't gonna not mention it, but they made it sound like it was the key thing to everything I was doing, and it's not.
I will say this, though—when I first came into this and started touring and becoming friends with all these underground, independent rappers, I started being floored that there was an entire scene of mostly white rappers who had mostly white fans. And there was a lot of publications covering them that never talked about hip-hop and never cared about hip-hop until there were white artists making credible hip-hop. And it seems like that was the point where a lot of them got interested. They were kind of deifying these people, like they invented hip-hop. I think those guys are great, I have a lot of respect for them, but let's not get carried away. Where's the balance? If you're talking about these people, there's still an entire realm of amazing artists that's not being talked about. So I started wondering, is this an underlying weird racial thing? I'm albino, my family is white, but I was really raised, and taught my important life lessons, by the black community. It's weird to have these writers be like, "What race are you?" I'd be like, "Fuck you, why is that so important to you? Why did you ask me this?" But then, I'd just be like, "I don't want to talk about that." There was a time as a teenager when I was like, "I'm not white." Because being white is a religion that you either believe in or don't believe in. Of course, in the world, I'm white, I get white privilege and all that kind of stuff, so it's like, lately, I've been having to go on record. A lot of these guys aren't going to get it unless you make it that simple for them. So that really bothered me, and I think it's really tied to the albino thing, because if it weren't for that, that question would have never come up.
AVC: On "Lookin' At Me Sideways" on your new record, it sounds like you're laying it all out on the line, before people start asking you about it.
BA: Yeah. And that song "Daylight," I kind of went into it on that, too. It's a really difficult thing for people to understand, because race is such a polarizing thing for the majority of people. I think people accept it as a reality before they even question it… I think because of the situation that I grew up in, I had to question it almost every minute of my social life, that everybody I loved, and everybody that loved me, were black people. So I'm like, "How do I really explain that without [the press] getting it wrong?" So I'd just be like, "I'm not talking about this with you." They went ahead and wrote "Brother Ali, black albino Muslim from Minneapolis." And I've seen people argue on the Internet, people being like, "No, Brother Ali is black, and this is how I know." I don't want this person feeling like I lied to them, even though I've never lied about it. My whole life, I've never lied about it.
AVC: Honesty is the main thread on The Undisputed Truth. Were you writing songs with that theme in mind?
BA: This kind of transformation happened when I started touring with Shadows On The Sun. My entire life changed, and the way I looked at life changed. When music became my career, and Slug [from Atmosphere] started being so generous to me, it was giving me a lot of opportunities to get out, get exposure, and make some money. I wasn't concerned so much with just surviving. I did all these things believing that I could rebuild my life, that it would be the way I wanted it to be, and it was starting to happen. So I was like, "I have to make this as an album." I just could not think of any other album to make. "This has to be what this album is about. If it's anything else, then I'm cheating myself."
AVC: It does seem like you're making a definitive statement with this album.
BA: Yeah. "Freedom Ain't Free" was one of the first ones I wrote. Right when I wrote that, I was like, "[The Undisputed Truth] is the name of this album, and this is the focus of it, and we're gonna chronicle all the things that made this thing happen." Including the good ones.
AVC: And "Freedom Ain't Free" is the B-side for the first single, "Truth Is." That seemed like a conscious decision, having such strong statements be the first public look at the album.
BA: That was definitely a conscious decision. "Truth Is" is kind of my manifesto on what music should be, and has become. It's kind of the syllabus for the record.
AVC: In March, Rhymesayers signed a distribution deal with Warner Music's Independent Label Group. The Undisputed Truth is the first Rhymesayers record under this agreement. How will the new distribution deal affect your music? Do you think it will?
BA: The thing about it is that we were in a really good situation, because we—and when I say "we," I really mean Atmosphere, and Siddiq, who runs the label, and a lot of the staff—built the label on our own. There's nobody that can say that they made Rhymesayers, other than Rhymesayers. And we're happy, and we're succeeding, and we're growing. So we were in a good situation, where we weren't desperate to deal with any of these big companies. The number-one thing, especially the way I see it—and I really believe this is how everybody at Rhymesayers sees it—is the way we interact with the people who support us, the actual fans. That's what defines us, along with the way that we make music, and the way we work and tour…
When we tour, we play a lot of little cities regularly, and we love playing there. The most you're ever gonna get are 300 kids, but it's the shit. It's amazing. There's no Tower Records there, there's no Amoeba there. They basically get their music online, and if they can't get it online, they just have to wait until we come through on tour. So if we can figure out a situation where my new album is at Target for eight bucks, we get those kinds of tools if we need them. And this is our first time doing it, so we'll see. I'm feeling pretty good about it, I feel like they're just gonna get our stuff in more people's hands. The other thing is, [Warner Brothers] have no control whatsoever in the music we make, or how we interact with our supporters. That was the biggest deal.
AVC: Have you given any thought about whether, if you were given the opportunity, you would be on Warner, or another major label?
BA: Yeah, I've thought about it. A lot of those companies have let Rhymesayers know that that's an option, that they're open to talking about it. I don't know. Slug has been such a mentor to me. I'm not saying I would do exactly what he's doing, but I think that the beautiful thing about him is that he's always grown in a very natural way. Every step he's taken, he's kind of been busting at the seams and ready to take it. He's never grown more than he was ready to grow naturally. I think I really dig that. I mean, we had the opportunity with this record to put it out on Warner Brothers. Shadows On The Sun and Champion, they didn't go through any distribution. So I said, "Let's try it just using the distribution, and see what makes sense." I'm up for gaining something, but there are certain things I just can't give up. I can't give up the way that we actually interact with people. If I could add a bunch of idiot teenagers onto that, whatever. But I can't give up the fat dude from Baltimore who loves "Forrest Whitaker." I would really hate myself if that happened.