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Brother Ali Interview

Pause: Full name?

Brother Ali: Ali Newman

P: Dob?

BA: 1977

P: Hometown?

BA: Minneapolis

P: Fav food?

BA: Chicken!

P: How was Coachella?

BA: Good. Our show was really good. They treated us really good. Got to talk to a lot of people. I saw a few people play that were really good.

P: Who?

BA: Busdriver. Who’s a friend of mine, and I saw him play before, but there’s something about what he did that was like… he did a lot of really intricate… I mean, everything about his performance was incredible. It was really amazing. Just his presence and the way he was relating to the crowd, breath control, the things he was doin’ with his voice. And then also, he had someone doin like effects on his voice, like doin echoes and reverbs and stuff, it was really intricate. He did a really great show.

I also saw Amy Winehouse, who I just kinda heard about. I’ve listened to her album for the last week or so, and just saw her, so that was pretty cool.

P: How did the raps begin?

BA: Breakdancing. ’84-85. Then more and more I was drawn to the words, as I got older and stuff. When I was thirteen I wrote my first song. That was like the late 80’s. In the mid-80’s, for me it was more about the music and the dance, and stuff like that. Then, in the late 80’s it became more about the words, and the great MC’s at that time like KRS-ONE, and Chuck D.

P: How did you hook up with Rhymesayers?

BA: I did it all my life. It’s been the most important thing to me for all my life. I was in Michigan. I say my hometown is Minneapolis cause that’s where I’ve lived the longest time. Really, I lived like half my life there. From fifteen until now. But before that, I lived in little towns and cities in Michigan. Rapping and MC-ing was always my way of connecting with people.

P: What was it like growing up?

BA: We moved around a lot, it had it’s ups and downs. My parents were pretty normal. There’s a lot of things you can say bad and good, but I think everybody has that.

P: So, the first time I saw you was at Scribble Jam, years ago. You were battling, and the passion that you had really set you apart. Now I can’t for the life of me remember who you were up against, (Ed. Note: I know! Sad to hear, but I was a youngin at the time,) but you were talking about how you needed to win, because you were doing this for your child. You said that that was the reason you were up on that stage, for your family; not for fame, or ego or whatever.

BA: That was Unseen!

P: You were battling Unseen at that time!? (Ed. Note: Unseen, or B. J. Testerman, is, essentially, a hero. Both personally, and locally. The very first battle I had ever witnessed was Unseen and some crazy blonde lady. I’m pretty sure he made her cry. There isn’t enough words to describe the good he brought to the hip hop table. He, along with the Animal Crackers, made Wednesday nights at Top Cats one of the best experiences in my early adult life. He passed away in December, and there has been a gaping hole in Cincinnati music ever since.)

BA: Yeah. Right before that [battle] happened, I remember telling him, “I think you’re a sucker.” He was talking a lot, but I was talking a lot too. But Eyedea battled him the year before, and said something about his shirt, and the way dude looked down, it was like “awww man.” So, he was talking all this stuff, and I’m like “man, you’re a sucker.” Then, I ended up battling him. Then after that, me and him became friends. Not like close friends, but, we were cool and it’s too bad to hear what happened. I was hurt to hear what happened. Mr. Dibbs told me about it.

So, rap has always been a part of my life. Not just something I like, not just a hobby. The MC’s that I was talking about, KRS-One, Chuck D, Rakim, those guys. They have an effect on my life, on the way I live, the choices I’ve made and the person I became over the years, and even still, now. Even just hearing the music was a big part of me. It’s not just something I think is cool. I really take it seriously, even when I tour. So that doing it for a living, and even before I did it for a living, I just always took it serious. When I was growing up, and I would go to a new school every year for a while there, I always used it as a way to assert myself. Being different, there’s not an easy way for me to fit in, other than that. It started out when I was a kid, I would go and battle everyone in the school, and get respect that way. Because I’ve always taken it really seriously, I’ve always been really good at it; because it’s been the most important thing to me. Listening and doing it, they go together. So once it started becoming a living, then it took on even more importance.

P: So why not a nine to five?

BA: I did nine to fives, and five to tens at the same time. For ten years. I didn’t stop doing them until Slug from Atmosphere gave me a chance to go on tour with him. So I quit my job to go on the first tour, and we went on tour for three months, and he paid me out of his own pocket. I had a really great tour. I learned a lot. That was right before my first album came out. I connected with the fans really well, and got a really strong buzz from that tour. I learned a lot from him, about how to actually take the ability to rap and connect with people. Also, how to carry yourself as a proffessional. So, when I got back, I was like “well, it sucks that I’m gonna have to go back to work until my next tour,” and Slug was like “nah, we’ll figure out stuff for you to do.” He hooked me up with his booking agent for a little while. I got little shows here and there. He made sure I stayed working as a musician. So, since 2002 I haven’t had a nine to five.

There’s really good points, and there’s really low points too. Where there’s just nothing happening for a little while. Although, like with this album, I had to physically take time off from touring, so that I could finish my album. During those times, money goes down. I always supported me and my wife and my son, until I got divorced. Then it was just me and my son, but I was still giving money to my ex-wife. I was still paying her mom to watch my son while I was on tour. Then, I got another relationship that’s really great. That’s really really good. I got married. My wife now is amazing. An amazing person, but she’s a full time student. So, in other words, I do okay, but I’m supporting all three of us. Eventually I know that I’m gonna have to make some kind of transition from this to something else. I don’t know when it’s gonna be. It’s not gonna be this year or next year, but sometime down the road. I’m hoping that I can support her now, and then she can get settled into something and she’ll support me when it’s her turn.

P: So how does touring effect your family life?

BA: It’s really rough. It really sucks. For my wife and my son. Especially my son. My wife understands that this touring is what allows her to go to school full time. But, even knowing that, she makes a lot of sacrifices. Then with my son, it’s a really difficult thing too. The only trade off is that when I’m home, I really get to just focus on him. I get him up in the morning, make his breakfast, make his lunch, get him ready for school, sometimes we walk to school together, and then when he gets off the bus, I’m there to pick him up…. make dinner, put him to bed. I’m really into doing all that kind of stuff.

P: That’s awesome.

BA: The reason that you hear it in the music is that I try to make music that’s really real. I’ve always liked music that makes me feel something. I’m not a brain first, music second person. There’s a lot, especially in underground type music, those elitist people tend to be like that. Where it’s all about the cerebral side of it. I love that part of music but, it’s not my main thing. There’s music that mentally doesn’t do a whole lot, but feeling-wise, it feels so good. There’s so much personality in it. Like, I really love 50 Cent. I’m a big 50 Cent fan. That’s not music that you analyze, but it’s just great music. It feels good, and he’s got so much personality. (ed. note: Pause Magazine does not admonish nor condone the listening of 50 Cent. Especially the condoning part. -ed.)

I want my music to be like the blues. You can go and study the story of the blues, and see what label these guys are on, but if you don’t feel the blues, then you’re not listening. Then you’re just a professor or something. So, feeling is always first for me in anything. I think the only way for sure that I know how do that is to write songs about things I feel strongly about. I think everyone kinda does that, but I think there are people that can disguise it a little better. Slug has the ability to disguise it as a metaphor. Sometimes he’ll be very literal, but he has a choice to do that. I don’t have that choice. So, my stuff is always literal.

P: So, your new album is called The Undisputed Truth, and last I heard, you were Muslim. So, my question to you is: what is truth?

BA: That’s not the meaning of it. I’m not saying that I’m telling you the ultimate, objective, absolute truth. I’m saying that I’m gonna give you the uncut truth the way I see it. I’m gonna show you myself, as I really am. I’m not gonna try and front, and make myself look cooler, or talk a lil bit smarter or a lil bit more righteous. I’m just gonna be who I am. So that’s what that means. Everything on there is really personal. Even songs where people say “oh, you’re making political songs now.” I mean, that’s kinda true, but even those are really personal. It’s the way I see it, and the way things make me feel as a man. So, that’s the meaning of that. It’s not that I have THE truth and I’m gonna tell it to you and you need to follow it. It’s like “I’m gonna be honest with you for a minute.” That’s what it means.

P: So, what is truth?

BA: Well, obviously I have things that I believe in. But that’s not the point, the point is “this is really me.” I’m being honest and open and transparent. The point is not to try to teach you, or convert you, or preach Islam, or even try to make you listen to old school hip hop or or try to make you what I like, or anything like that. It’s “this is how I am.”

P: You mentioned earlier about how KRS-One and Chuck D influenced not only your musical tastes, but also life decisions you’ve made. Do you feel pressure now that you’re in that position to influence others in the same way?

BA: Well, there’s only a small group of people that really listen to me closely. I feel like my obligation to them is to be as real as possible. I don’t think they look at me the same way I looked at Chuck D. I think they definately respect me, but, it’s not the same kind of thing. Chuck D had a specific stance he had to take, whereas I just feel like there’s…. well there are things that I try to get people to look at. Maybe look at another way, but all in all, I don’t see myself as a leader. I think that, if anything, I just say the things that real people go through. I think people already feel those things, so when they hear people say that, they’re like “oh yeah, okay, so I’m not crazy. I’m not alone in feeling that way.” People don’t have the same experience as me. The people that listen to me. None of them have my identical experience. None of them are albino, single parents who lived half their life in the suburbs, half in the hood. It’s just that I put my feelings in my music, and people feel that same way, but it’s based on their experience.

P: Isn’t that essentially what art is made to do?

BA: I think so. But people view it in different ways. There are a lot of music writers that I think should have a printed manifesto of what is great to them. Why they love music. What qualifies them.

P: Because the experience is different for every person?

BA: Yeah.

P: Do you feel pressure to serve to that? That critical manifesto, or what have you.

BA: All the pressure I have is from myself. I have a lot of pressure inside me. I wanna be great. I don’t wanna be average. I was taught early on that if you don’t believe inside yourself that you can learn a lot, nobody’s ever going to do that for you. Nobody’s ever gonna give you self drive. Nobody’s ever gonna give you self esteem. Nobody’s ever gonna give you your self worth. You have to set it for yourself. You can set it really high, and the world’s gonna destroy you. So, I feel like I owe it to myself to be great at what I’m doing. Try my best. So it makes be thorough and makes me think out what I’m doing and it makes me double check my attentions. It regrounds myself to why am I really here, and what do I really want. Aside from just this minute, what do I want where I can be like “yeah, I did that.” So my pressure all comes from myself, it doesn’t come from outside. There are some things here and there where I’m like “man, some people just don’t get it.” There are people that don’t get it, there’s writers that don’t get it, there’s listeners that don’t get it, there’s people in the industry that don’t get it, there’s family members of mine that don’t get it, but I can’t do anything about that. So I don’t feel pressure from anybody other than myself. There are people close to me that I know love me, know me and believe me and share my vision for what I’m doing, and if I let them down, then I know I’m doing something wrong. Then if they’re happy with what I’m doing, then that’s the external page that’s let’s me know.

P: Do you have any plans, as far as after this album, right now?

BA: It’s funny because this has been my plan for the last 5 or 6 years. I’ve always wanted to put out a really strong album. Shadows of the Sun was a debut, and Champion EP wasn’t an actual album, it was a collection of songs. Me and Ant have a way we approach albums, and that really wasn’t an album. I’ve always wanted to headline my own tour. I’ve always wanted album that was marketed and had a plan to it. And we did that. I’m on the tour. So I’m living the plan.

The thing that I love about this is the connecting with people part. There’s a lot of hard work involved in it, but that’s what makes it worth it. To do something real, and when real people really connect to it, that’s a strong, powerful thing. This girl came to me at our last show, in Louisville, KY, and she was like “ I really love your music, but my boyfriend REALLY loves your music. We were engaged, and he got in a car accident and died two days ago. So, I came to your show, and I really like it, but I imagine my fiance’ walking around the house singing these songs…” She was crying… I feel like there are more people that would connect like that, but don’t hear it because we don’t force it down their throat. So, I would like to try and do some other things to let people hear it. But I don’t want to push it on people. I don’t want to do that marketing thing where they play the song thirty times on the radio, I’d like to go in different directions. Being underground isn’t what I had in mind when I started rhyming. It’s not who used to party with me, and not who I used to rap with as a kid. So, I’m already outside of my comfort zone and people still respond to it. So, let’s push it in every direction and see what happens.