HipHopSite: What has changed now where you don’t see yourself participating in any organized battles anymore?
Brother Ali: First of all I never won them, ha ha. That had a big part to do with it. What I really realized over the course of doing that is that I’m not a person that’s able to serve somebody because of the money that’s on the table or just because I’m supposed to do it. I’ve really only done two organized battles. I’ve done a lot of street battling and I’ll do that for the rest of my life, [but] when I went to the first Scribble Jam I was just shocked at the people that were calling themselves rappers. That was my first time going out of Minnesota in a hiphop sense. The first time that I left Minnesota and went to what was supposed to be this big underground hiphop event and saw the people that were calling themselves MCs. [Seeing] how timid and shy they were and how much fundamentals they lacked I just felt like I wanted to just eat and kill every rapper there. That basically worked for me because I just wanted to fucking kill everybody. The people who were there to support it and the grafwriters were all cool and the djs and breakers were cool, but I just could not believe the people that were passing themselves off as MCs. It just irritated me to no end. I feel like I killed everybody that night and it was cool. I went back again because everybody was like you should have won, you should go do it [again] and I did it. By this time I had been traveling around and I pretty much had got an understanding for what this underground shit was about and wasn’t angry about it anymore as much. Everything that I do is very much heart on my sleeve type of shit and the way that I truly feel is always the way that I show myself to the world and if I don’t feel a real reason to kill somebody I can’t do it. So the # 1 reason is that I refuse to be apart of something I don’t feel.
How and when did you start working with Rhymesayers?
I’m from Minnesota so I’ve been seeing them since the mid 90′s. Rhymesayers changed the way that I looked at a career in music. Up until the mid 90′s I was doing the 12 year old thing; make some songs send them to record labels, meet a rapper and give them a fucking cd and lucky if you don’t get punched in the fucking face. I started going to college cuz I was like this shit ain’t even realistic. It’s too much of a roll of a dice and itâ€™s too much based on what someone else thinks your potential is and what somebody else thinks your abilities are. Basically, when I saw the way Rhymesayers was doing it, [with] a bunch of motherfuckers who believed in each others’ potential and ability and work ethic etc., just saying fuck everything else we are going to take what we have create a scene, put out our own albums and control our own destiny. Once I got my brain around that idea I wanted to be apart of it right away. I was basically going to try to do the same thing on my own. I went and recorded an album on my own, made all my own beats and recorded it myself kinda homemade style. I put it together and I was friends with Siddiq, the guy who runs the label behind the scenes, and I brought it to him to get his advice on it like whether I should pay money to get it mastered or should I make it a tape or a cd etc. He was like yo we’ll just put this thing out for you and I kinda talked to everybody and been apart of it ever since.
Your strong Islamic faith comes across pretty clearly on both Rites of Passage and Shadows on the Sun. Does your faith affect the way you approach the mic or influence your work ethic and how you put an album together?
It’s a little bit different that it was on the first one. On Rites of Passage I kinda had an idea in mind of what I thought I should be, of the way I should present myself as a Muslim in hiphop. I kinda felt like I should put a certain face on. I curse in life, it’s something that I’m good at, but I didn’t want to curse on that record because I felt like I should be a Muslim MC. I realized after I put that out that putting an adjective before MC is where you go wrong. Anytime you start out thinking I’m going to make this or I need to be this or I need to look like this other thing you automatically lose. Making the second one it changed a little bit. The reality is I’m a practicing Muslim. I studied very intensely for a few years before I had my son so that’s apart of who I am and I let that come thru when it felt natural to come through. My thing now is to present myself as I really am. Mingus has this record called “Myself As I Am” and I have that record hanging up in my crib that’s the way I want to present myself. When I have flaws they’re there and where I feel good about myself is there too. If there is something that I wouldn’t do in life then I’m not going to do it on a record.
When you first started producing did it come out of necessity or was there a natural gravitation towards making beats?
When I first started out I didn’t know there was a difference. I hadn’t really chosen which one I was going to do, I just knew I liked hiphop. I have terrible handwriting so my graf is fucking hideous and I’m fat, not coordinated and I’m like legally blind [so] I can’t break it’s just not even a reality. I can two-step like a motherfucker, I can dance, but breakin’ is not an option for me. So that left me djing and emceeing. I started doing both of them because I honestly do love doing both. The thing is I kinda gave my life to emceeing in the sense that I study it and work everyday at mastering it. I have a great deal of respect for all of hiphop culture so I don’t want to call myself [MC] if I’m not giving it the respect that it deserves. That’s a title when you think of it you think of the great motherfuckers who have changed and shaped my life, so if I’m going to call myself that I’m going to give it its due. I’ve spent everyday trying to master that since I was 12. Whereas producing I don’t feel comfortable calling myself a DJ or producer because I don’t have a record collection, I don’t dig, I can’t listen to a record and tell you what snare that is. But my man Ant he gives his life to it the way I give my life to emceeing so I don’t even call myself a producer or a DJ, I’m a cat who likes to play records. I’m a cat who likes to make beats, some of them are good some of them aren’t, but I would feel guilty calling myself a producer when you have somebody like a Premier or Pete Rock, Ant or Dr. Dre or somebody who has mastered that or is mastering that. So when I did it on the Rites of Passage album at that point it was necessity. I stepped to Ant even back then and he was like your beats are not bad, they are pretty good so if you do all your own beats and make your own songs and create your own vision nobody’s gonna be able to fuck with you. So he gave me the confidence to actually do that shit and after I did it I saw what he meant, but I still wasn’t comfortable with that. So we did the second album together.
The album definitely showcases a different sound from Ant since it was catered to your style.
Ant is very slept on for a variety of reasons. One is that what he brings to the Atmosphere equation is intangible. You’re not necessarily going to listen to the beat and be blown away, although on a lot of them you will. Producers now all they do is make a beat [and] give you the beat. That’s all they do is make that beat so the only way you judge them is [by] listening to the instrumental version and your hearing what they contributed. Ant shapes the vision of a whole fucking song and what he adds is not something you can point your finger at. When you listen to a song and it sounds right, the hooks are right, the intro is right and there is an overall mood and feeling that you get from it that’s the intangible shit that Ant brings to the table. That’s why it’s so hard to understand that until you see him in other circumstances like on the Murs record. Murs’ album has a lot of good producers on there, but that song called “Got Damned?” is the most passionate song on there and that’s cuz that’s Ant. Ant brings some shit out of a motherfucker that nobody else is going to bring out of them.
I think another reason he is slept on is because no one really has proof of his existence. I’ve heard people saying Slug is really Ant and not even thinking he is a real person. That comes into play because he isn’t out there for you to see.
He has no interest in motherfuckers saying give me your autograph. The reality is that the motherfucker doesn’t like people in general which most of us don’t, but we act like we do. Ant is not trying to act like he likes people. He has about four or five people that are really in his circle, his lady, the core members of Rhymesayers, and maybe one or two other people and he loves those people to death. Everybody else can take a leave and he doesn’t try to pretend it’s anything else other than that. He is one of the kindest people I know, but people are intimidated by him because if you come off to him like you’re a lazy bastard he is going to tell you, [but] it’s not in a mean spirited way. I remember one time we were making a record and he was dropping me off at the crib and we passed by this bridge where homeless people be holding their signs up and this dude walked up to car like I need some money and Ant was like “Nah quitter.” He was like “You fucking quitter!” That’s the kind of motherfucker that he is. He isn’t going to hold anything back. Another thing is he is very in tuned with who he’s working with. Everybody wants to act like they’re not insecure about their shit, but everybody is. Everybody who cares enough about what their making is gonna question it every now and then. At least you should. It’s only a wack motherfucker that never questions his shit. Like Master P is not questioning whether or not his rhymes are dope, but I bet he questions whether or not his business decision is a good one. So for me sometimes I get really hard on myself like damn this is not right. He’ll know if I’m insecure about something [and] he’ll be like the way you said that was perfect or the way you did this is right without me having to say something. We are so in tuned with each other its some other shit. I’ve never experienced that before.
What’s your take on the current hiphop scene?
Hiphop definitely suffers now from a lack of quality. There is a big quantity of both underground and mainstream and to me they’re both the same thing. Neither one of them is hiphop to me. They’re both extensions of what I remember hiphop to be. Every now and then you’ll come across a motherfucker like yea that’s hiphop, but that’s so few and far in between. Man there is so much wack shit out here [itâ’s] like don’t put nothing out unless it’s good. Don’t expect me to care. All these motherfuckers be like hey you want to do a verse on my mixtape? No, why are you making a mixtape? Don’t make a mixtape [or] make a mixtape and play it in your car and understand why you can’t still be scratching fresh. If you’re scratching fresh that shit stays in your walkman, don’t put that out in the world that’s not what we need. That’s like Muslims on tv burning American flags, you’re not helping we’re out here trying to do something and you’re fucking it up.
You tend to be one of the few emcees who bring the same amount of energy on record as you do on stage. Are you consciously aware of maintaining that level, if not what’s going thru your mind before you approach the recording process?
I’ve started approaching it where I don’t even think about the end product at the beginning. I start out and I just do it song by song. Sometimes I bring lyrics to Ant, most of the time I’ll go and get some beats from his house that strike me as something I can really work with and make something good out of. [With] “Room With a View”, the planets lined up right that day, he had that beat and I had that rhyme and I had that song in mind as really a good thing to do with him. When that beat came on it just clicked. Other times I’ll just go over there and a beat will come on and it will be plain as day what I should do with it. Sometimes it will be plain as day what somebody else should do with it, like if Slug did this on this beat it would be the shit. So I just took those (the ones I liked) home and constructed them and once we had them we just put the record together. I really have been sold on the idea that if you start out with the end product in mind you’re constricted by that because instead of expressing what you want to express you’re shooting for the end product. So like my next record will be who knows? It will probably be the same thing though because when you listen to the two they are pretty much the same thing just with a little different fire in it.
Yea, “Shadows on the Sun” is definitely more aggressive.
By nature I’ve learned to be a little aggressive. When I made the Rites of Passage record I was just a happy motherfucker. I thought all that aggression was behind me. I had a job, I was married, I went to Malaysia to study Islam, I was just a motherfucker out here living life and having fun. So all of that aggressive shit that I learned how to do in school because of shit around me I honestly tricked myself into thinking I didn’t need that anymore. That’s what that “Picket Fence” song is. “Picket Fence” is the idea that you get in your head that shit’s ok, that life is good when it’s not. There is always going to be some shit you’re going to have to deal with. So when I made Rites of Passage I was just happy and I made a happy ass album. Even my battle songs on there are kinda tongue in cheek like ha ha Boombaye! I had an apartment, I was just living I’d do whatever I want, but shit changed very much since then.
How would you describe your style?
I’m very much rooted in fundamentals. To me if you don’t have the fundamentals there is no point in getting experimental. I respect a motherfucker who gets experimental for the sake of being experimental. What I don’t respect is motherfuckers who act experimental because they can’t do the normal shit. Like Outkast we know Outkast can fucking rap, they’re experimental now because Dre fucked Erykah Badu.
It seems like she do that to everybody, now she got Common bugging out.
As much as I’m in love with her I would never have sex with her.
Something about her just have you going to the thrift shop buying clothes and last time I saw Dre he was on the Chris Rock show with like a diaper on?
The thing is I believe it with Dre, with Common I don’t know if I believe it, I haven’t decided yet. I think he just ran out of shit to do. I think he was like I don’t know what direction to go in so let me just bug the fuck out.
What unique qualities do you think you bring to the Rhymesayers family?
I think that I’m a lot more straightforward hip-hop. I’m a lot less out there. When I talk about people being experimental everybody in Rhymesayers can rap their ass off. So like we were talking about Dre, we know Dre can rap but you have other guys who bug the fuck out like the Anticon cats. Have you heard of them?
Yea, I remember when Sole was with Live Poets and they put out “Respect”, it’s definitely a vast change, back then he was sampling O.C.
Because he realized he couldn’t rap for real. That motherfucker realized he couldn’t rap for real and be taken seriously so he’s experimental not because he wants to do some new shit but because that’s the only way he can ever be taken seriously. I don’t take his punk ass seriously. They’re a good example of motherfuckers who can’t do the real shit so they get experimental and say fuck the real shit. I hate his attitude, that motherfucker is so arrogant with his shit. The whole Def Jux motherfuckers are experimental because they are trying to do some new shit. All of those motherfuckers can rap. They do the real shit and on top of that they are experimental. It’s the same shit with Rhymesayers, everybody on Rhymesayers can rap, we can all battle, everybody on Rhymesayers can do the fundamental shit. Basically all of us on Rhymesayers have the same feeling. We all feel like the shit that we’re passionate about, the shit that makes us cry or laugh is what we should be putting in our songs. The reason we’re going to win is because we are just honest motherfuckers and that’s so refreshing to people. We don’t front like we have New York accents because we’re not from New York. That bugs me out, there are rappers from the Midwest that got New York accents. I used to [try to front] and as ashamed as I am of that shit I said “nahmean” and called people “son” on the Rites Of Passage album. I said son like 4 times on that record and every time I hear it I just wish I could smash it and never hear it again.