Brother Ali Talks Working With Jake One, Lupe Fiasco & More [Exclusive Interview]
The years since the release of Brother Ali's acclaimed 2009 senior set, Us, have seen the Twin Cities underground mainstay enjoying an unprecedented level of success on the national scene, but they've also been an emotional rollercoaster. From the death of his father, to his pilgrimage to Mecca, to his struggles at home, to his recent arrest as part of a civil disobedience action, the Minneapolis repper has been through a decade's worth of ups and downs in a third of that time.
On new album Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, released this past Tuesday via Rhymesayers, Ali tackles all that and more offering his documenting his personal battles, spiritual growth and political engagements over production by labelmate Jake One. In the lead-up to the project's release, we gave DJBooth and RefinedHype readers the opportunity to learn even more about the man, and the artist, by submitting their own questions for a DJBooth-exclusive interview. Today, we're proud to present Brother Ali's answers to a hand-selected array of your queries.
In the interview below, Ali chops it up about how the experience of collaborating with Jake One differed from his past work with Ant, why he considers Lupe Fiasco a kindred spirit, and his feelings on American hostility toward Islam at home and abroad.
"When and why did he start rapping? What made him decide he wanted to pursue a musical career?" - waist jump
Brother Ali: "I started rapping when I was seven years old, and my first show was my grandmother's funeral when I was eight-years-old. I've never tried to do anything else. I guess if I think about it, I did try to be a Muslim minister for a little while. That didn't last very long though, so I've wanted to be a musician my entire life."
"How did you make yourself sound comfortable on the mic? Like, when it comes to your vocal projection and general delivery; making sure you don't sound too nonchalant or trying too hard, etc." - CT
Brother Ali: "I think it just takes a lot of practice. Everyone starts out trying to sound like whoever their favorite artist is. We get so wrapped up in other people's way of doing things that they become our meter for what we should be doing. After doing something over and over again, hopefully we work our influences out of our system and our real selves can shine through. Eventually your real self is going to come out. There's no substitute for experience. They still don't have an app for that. Ha ha."
"How was it working with Jake One on this new record? How is it different from working with Ant?" - Greg Bokee
Brother Ali: "Ant really helps me focus on being myself, he treated me like me my story and what I had to say was important. And the key is that he made me believe it. Nobody can ever give me that training again now that I've got it. Jake gave me opportunities to write in different ways, to flow in different ways, and to think in different ways. Anthony's music is a lot more about the mood that the instruments create. Jake's music is a lot more centered around drums. I'm pretty sure that Anthony starts with music and then adds the drums, whereas Jake starts with the drums and then adds the music. I think you can really hear that in production."
“How do you feel about working with up & coming or unknown yet talented artists? Does popularity, image, and a name mean anything to you?” - Matias Mulvey
Brother Ali: “It's just really a matter of where your priorities lie. I could work with a lot of popular people if I felt like paying them the money. I work with people that have a genuine desire to work with me. No matter how big Jake got, he always stayed in touch with me and he always kept the idea of doing a project together alive. As soon as I realized that Anthony wasn't going to be available for this album, I know exactly who to call.”
”What is your take on the state of hip-hop and the music industry today? Rhymesayers are taking a different approach than the mainstream madness, do you think this is a new trail for other underground artists to follow?” – Charles Wiley
Brother Ali: “The music industry is having a hard time keeping up with technology, but music consumption and music appreciation are at an all-time high. People are listening to more music and they're listening to a broader variety of music than ever before because of that same technology.
I think hip-hop is in a really great place. It's exciting to me to see artists grow and branch out. Kids that come up running today don't feel like they have to be held or stuck in a little box as an artist. You've got kids that rhyme about lifestyle stuff, like drugs and girls and all of that, and they also have thoughts about the world and genuine artistic approaches. The younger generation of rappers don't feel like they have to make a choice between being a conscious artist or being a gangster artist. I can't think of any better way to promote genuine expression and artistry.”
“You have verses on a lot of other peoples tracks, have you considered hooking up with another MC for an entire album? If so, do you have anyone in mind, or are you waiting to find the right match up?” - Michael Hamilton
Brother Ali: “I have talked with a lot of my friends about making an entire album together. Me and Slug have always said that we're going to make an album together. Me and Freeway have said the same. It's just really a matter of setting time aside and being in the same space at the same time. That's difficult because so much of our livelihood depends on a story and keeping rigorous schedules. It's hard to make those times lineup.”
“How do you feel about Lupe Fiasco's current situation regarding the stance he's claiming to make against the corruption and manipulation by major labels? Do you find his public discrepancies genuine or do you believe its merely for attention?” – Mg Muzik
Brother Ali: “I think that my brother Lupe is very sincere and genuine. I think that he thinks out loud. He doesn't feel any need to filter his genuine thoughts and sincere feelings from the public. He preaches it like he feels it. That's what we should want from artists. We should want people they give it to us raw and uncut and without filter. I support him. I think he's an important person for hip-hop culture.”
“What is the most valuable life lesson that you've learned throughout your entire life that can also be applied into our lives too?” - Sean Wali
Brother Ali: “I've learned that sincerity is the best quality human being can have. Sincerity trumps all. If we’re sincere, we can always find a way out of any trouble. People always respond to sincerity because it's the great equalizer. Anyone who has a shred of sincerity inside them will always recognize and appreciate sincerity in others.”
“As a Muslim living in a country where Islamophobia is pretty much accepted, how do you think the Arab spring will affect peoples perception of this amazing religion?” - Dan Branovan
Brother Ali: “There are very powerful forces in the world who have a multilayered interest in making sure that the western masses know very little about Islam. The little that we do know is almost entirely inaccurate. I followed the most mainstream, open-minded leader of the largest group of American Muslims. He focused his life's work on interfaith dialogue and cooperation with others. I can count on one hand how many times he was on a mainstream media outlet in the 30 years that he was a leader. It's an absolute crime in my opinion that our society considers itself at war with the culture that it knows so little about. The few things that we do about Islam are always through the lens of us studying in enemy rather than understanding of neighbor.”
“How do you think, as a Muslim, that Islam, or any other religions, can begin to reconcile their past and current atrocities and move forward onto a more peaceful future?” - Yael Alonso
Brother Ali: “The religion of Islam has not committed atrocities against anyone. Human beings who have identified themselves as Muslims on the other hand have committed terrible atrocities against other people. When I became a Muslim, I swear my allegiance to Allah, to Prophet Mohammed and to the religion of Islam. The differences between people, no matter what framework they decide to use, are based on fear and the desire to control goods resources and other people. The solution always lies in understanding and demanding that our fellow human beings be treated with the same level of dignity and respect that we desire for ourself. There's not a religious tradition on earth that actually promotes bad treatment of others. Evil almost always goes hand-in-hand with deception. Good doesn't need to deceive anyone. Everyone agrees that it's good. Evil on the other hand will never succeed by being open and honest about it's real intentions. Evil will always come wearing the mask of something good. People do evil in the name of love, justice, freedom and yes religion.”
“What is your opinion on the 2012 Presidential Election?” - Ryan Goldschmidt
Brother Ali: “I tend to agree with Dr. Cornel West, who says that Obama's presidency has been a disaster, but a Romney presidency would be a catastrophe. I think it's important that we get educated and vote, but the real change isn't going to happen by voting for the lesser of two wind-up toys for the elite. The real progress will happen or not based on the common people's commitment to each other and our activism. It's going to take organized disruption and nonviolent pressure to create any kind of meaningful change.”