It’s not often you sit down for an interview about a rap album and get slapped with some knowledge that makes you question your take on humanity. Then again, there aren’t many minds in music quite like Brother Ali. If you follow the Rhymesayers representative on Twitter, you’re aware of his social consciousness and activism, and his willingness to call out anything in this world that is suspect and detrimental to the way we ought to be living. It’s this knowledge, and an overwhelming sense of honesty, that has led Ali to be recognized among the top names in the independent hip hop universe. Oh yeah, he’s pretty good at rapping, too.
Nine years after releasing the critically-acclaimed Shadows On The Sun, Ali is preparing to release his fourth LP, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, but his first without longtime producer Ant. We caught up with Ali to get the scoop on the origin of the title, handling the change in his career, and what new artist is frequenting his stereo.
PIMB: You’ve been busy as of late. You dropped a new project, Bite Marked Heart EP, the day before Valentine’s Day. Was that material you had recorded from the album, or was that a pre-determined project?
Brother Ali: It was a little of both. In 2002, I started touring six months a year, then seven months, eight months, nine months, and in 2010 I did ten months. It was too much. I have a family, I have a life, and ten months was just ridiculous. In 2011, I stayed off the road, I stayed home, the only traveling I did was to and from Seattle to go work with Jake One. I would go out there for three to four days at a time, and eventually I just got an apartment out there. And so me and Jake made a lot of music, somewhere between 30-50 songs, and only 15 are on the actual album that comes out later this year. We had a bunch of extra music, and we wanted time to build up and promote the album, which is called Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, because that’s a very important project for me, and could be one of the bigger albums of my career. Really feel like it’s a defining album, the way I felt about Shadows on the Sun in terms of introducing me as an artist, and then Undisputed Truth as a way of showing my depth as an artist and songwriter, I feel like this is another one of those chapters, not just a regular album. I think its gunna be a serious part of my catalog, so we wanted to take some time and build it up rather than just throw it out there. So I had all this time and extra music, so I’m just having fun releasing music. I put out this song called “Writers Block” and then I started noticing I’m just trying to figure out ways to put this music together. I just had several songs, a couple old songs from working with Ant, and then a few with Jake that were relationship oriented songs, and with Valentine’s Day coming up, it just kind of made sense to put those together. The only new song was the actual title track, that was a new song I wrote just for the project. Everything else I just made when I was making music for the album and it didn’t work there.
PIMB: You mentioned you spent a lot of time out in Seattle recording for your upcoming album, which you also make reference to on “Writer’s Block”. Do you think that change of scenery is reflected on the album?
BA: I do. I think that it’s the year off the road and the going to Seattle. Being off the road really allowed me to live life like a normal person for the first time in a decade. I got to actually do the things I wanted to do. I got to be in the community more, I got to test out my activist muscles a little bit, and often those are things that I care about but I’m not able to do the things I want to do. I did a lot of speaking at schools, talking to kids, going to protests, talking to political organizers, just being in the community, being around, and being with my family. To actually go in and learning about the people at [his son’s] school and the things he is being taught, I got to dig into being a dude for the first time in a long time. All of those things together, especially getting the apartment in Seattle, things opened up so much, I just got to be an artist. It was dope.
PIMB: Tell us about the title of the album, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color.
BA: It’s kind of two titles in one, it’s Mourning in America, and then Dreaming in Color. 2010 was an extremely rough, transformative year for me. In a lot of ways it was one of the toughest years I have ever had. Real similar to the years I had when making Undisputed Truth, which is kind of so much changed, every now and then we have those periods that make us question who we are, and teach us who we are, they add a new brick into our character. We build our personalities off these times of change that are rooted in misery and despair, I really believe that, I believe in the philosophy of the blues, that a huge part of life is those periods of pain, misery and suffering. Living in a way that keeps that up close and in the forefront, that reality, is really where hope comes from. You can’t have real hope unless you are intimate with tragedy, because tragedy is what makes hope possible. Without tragedy, you don’t have hope, you have blind optimism or cheap optimism. And that’s no good, I believe in hope. Those are the years that make us who we are. So in 2010 I spent ten months of the year on the road, my family almost fell apart, I mean, I came really close to destroying my family, and my son and daughter basically had a year without me. They saw me a few days at a time, but I was visiting when I was in my home, and they felt like they had a visitor, and not a father. My father died, my dear friend Eyedea died, and both of them, I flew home for the funeral and was gone right back on the road like it almost never happened. A lot of personal things I haven’t even written about yet. Being gone that much and being on the road, and being on stage that much, there is something weird about that. You need a break from the stage, because it creates this thing inside you where you start to believe the stage. The stage is real, but it’s a part of your life, it’s not who you are, it’s not your life, and the road can’t be all of your life. I really think we need balance, we need to come home and get grounded and be a real person, deal with real things. When you’re on the road, you aren’t cooking, you aren’t doing dishes, you aren’t changing diapers, you aren’t staying around anyone long enough to really deal with them, except for these other men who work for you and you are paying your salaries, so they have to placate you and put up with your shit and it’s just strange. It’s weird, it’s not normal.
I really felt like quittin’, I felt like giving up. It was a very successful year, I did a lot of cool shit, and I was almost like “I don’t want to do this anymore.” I was going to make an album called Mourning in America about my own personal struggles and strife and misery, connecting it to what’s going on in America. I believe we are in one of the worst times in American history, that we are in a really dark period. Then I ended the year by going on Hajj making my pilgrimage to Mecca, which was one of the most beautiful, profound, transformative, amazing, difficult and terrifying things of my life. When I came home, I thought “forget Mourning in America, I want to make an album called Dreaming in Color about what we could do with this situation.” I got to the point where I believed things were so bad, and sort of do feel, that this was the worst we had to get to. We have all of these social areas to people working together to create a more dignified life, but the people who had a sense of privilege and entitlement for so long, aren’t in that bubble anymore. Maybe this is a time when we can get over this white supremacy shit, because everyone gets their wakeup call, and maybe we can get over this sexist/homophobic thing. So I figured, I have these two ideas for albums, why not do both? Do the album of how bad things are, but also the album about what the possibilities are. So that’s kind of what I came up with.
PIMB: It kind of comes full circle. It seems like there is a lot of emotion that drives this album, did that generate a sound than what we are used to hearing from you?
BA: Yeah, to a certain degree. I mean, I’m not gunna go to making soulful stuff with Ant to making a Rick Ross record, or making a dub step record. I’m not going to completely flip it, that just wouldn’t feel right, but another part of that transition thing is that the people I worked with, none of them could keep working with me. Ant, who I did all my music with before, made two albums with Atmosphere and toured for the year, he just was not available when it was time for me to make this record. I made it with Jake One, which turned out to be an amazing thing. Then my DJ who toured with me for ten years, I built my career with this guy, had a baby and decided he didn’t want to do what I was doing, he wanted to stay home. I respected that, but those are my two main partners and neither one of them were there. I thought, “Ok, this is life’s way, and God’s way, of telling me to stop being comfortable. Really take what you learned from those people and do something new.” It was time to move on, so the sound of the album is different. Jake pulled me in the direction of artists that he has worked with, like 50 Cent, T.I. and Snoop, and I pulled him a little into my direction, so the stuff sounds a little more soulful than what people have come to know him for. It’s a heavier with the drums, heavier with the rhythm. Ant is so big on the music, like the horns, strings, guitar, that stuff, and not so much with the drums, whereas Jake is heavy with the drums. I tried to bring the two together.
PIMB: So it was really a growing experience?
BA: Yeah, I think so. It definitely was for me. I think Jake got to flex some different muscles, I don’t know if he feels like a completely different guy, but I know that I do. He has always worked with multiple artists, the album he did with me and the one he did with Freeway were his first with one artist. He’s always had to work with multiple artists, but I’ve never had to that before. I think just because of my limited experience, it forced me to grow a little bit more.
PIMB: And when can we expect that?
BA: It’s hard to say, I would say halfway through the year. We’ve never set a release date, and people start assuming all kinds of weird shit if you set a release date. Whenever Rhymesayers sees fit to set a release date, and that’s what they want to do, that’s what we’re going to do.
PIMB: This is your fourth album, and seventh project, under the Rhymesayers umbrella. You’ve worked with a number or legendary artists, toured the world, and affected a lot of people with your music. What do you still hope to accomplish before it’s all said and done?
BA: The older I get, and the more experience I get, I realize that music, and hip hop in particular, the legacy and tradition that it’s born out of, out of mixing African culture with European culture, it goes all the way back to the work songs of enslaved African’s, back to the spirituals, the gospels, blues, jazz, R&B, this big tradition of music, hip hop does something even more special, it’s considered an alive and viable culture that has lived through these decades as evidence of these humans who have been dehumanized. Every attempt has been made for African American people, by this white supremacist system that we have lived in since the beginning of this country, every attempt has been made to dehumanize these people, to try to prove that this group of people is not worthy of being recognized as fully human. This music is evidence of humanity, and really that issue is the central issue in the new world, especially this country, this area, this continent, the essential question of “what does it mean to be a human being?” Does being human alone qualify you to have full dignity, to be a first class citizen, or do you have to have membership in a particular race, culture, class, religion. Do you have to be straight, do you have to be a man? Do you have to be Christian, do you have to be middle class? Do you have to be educated, do you have to speak English, do you have to be born on the particular side of a border? The real acceptance to steal this land from the people who are here, kidnap another group of people and forcing them to build this country for free, and then never do anything to relieve those things and be just, no sincere attempt at justice has been made on any of those fronts. This music really gets at that issue, I think when we did that we devalued human as a whole. So when that happened, everything got out of whack, and this music is here to reconnect us with an idea of what it is to be human. So that’s a big thing, and different people do it in different ways. I believe that’s what art is in general around the world, and that’s why they say it’s the universal language in art and dance. In this part of the world in this time, I think it has a particular important role, and it’s THE issue for us right now, and we’ve been given the best medium to deal with it.
PIMB: Give us an idea of what music you’ve had in the rotation lately.
BA: I’ll have to get my computer real quick…I’ve been working really hard so it’s probably mostly my album. I’ll look at my ‘Recently Added’…In terms of new hip hop that I’m really excited about, I love Kendrick Lamar. Really, really, really inspired by that kid. I feel like he’s the full package, and he’s so young with room to grow, I don’t think there’s anything you could look for in a rapper that you don’t at least see the seedling in him. There is no part of MC’ing that he’s not at least showing potential in, if not killing. He can write a song, he speaks to a generation, he understands his role, he respects and pays homage to the past legacy, fun to listen to and stylistically he’s dope. He chooses different types of music to create to, he can make hits, and he can also make kind of out there, nerdy, weirdo shit, he’s not scared. He might be THE guy, maybe the next Jay-Z. For hip hop, I love all of rap though, I like Rick Ross, K.R.I.T., I think my friend Evidence put out one of the greatest records of the year. I love Freeway, I love Watch The Throne, I love the Roots, I’m probably the biggest Roots fan. I love all of hip hop.
I’ve also been listening to a lot more jazz. I think my appreciation for jazz has grown a lot.
PIMB: It’s definitely a tougher universe to understand, and it’s kind of lost in some communities.
BA: I think it’s a generation thing, we don’t interact with anything like that anymore. I’ve been talking to people about writing a book, and what it really means to write a book, and they’re saying that anything over 400 pages, people will not fuck with, you gotta get it down to 300 pages or people won’t buy that shit.
PIMB: Like Kendrick said, it’s the ADHD era.
BA: Yeah man, the way he understands, you aren’t supposed to undertand your generation that well at your age. For him to be able to do that shows that he is connected to a legacy, he knows history. The only way to know your generations and other generations is through history, and I think he’s grown up listening to older music to know what his grandparents were listening to, what his parents were listening to, and this generation. He’s a special dude. I haven’t met him yet, I’m on a couple Paid Dues lineups and a couple other shows that he’s on later this year, and it’s going to be weird to say to a guy ten years younger than me some of the things that are in my heart.