[18 April 2007]
A strange thing happened in January on the Twin Cities’ Radio One-owned hip-hop/R&B station, B96. Popular radio personality Peter Parker played “Truth Is”, the lead single from Brother Ali’s latest record, The Undisputed Truth, in a head-to-head call-in competition, pitting the track against various popular rap singles. “Truth Is” won over and over again. The radio station was shocked that an artist like Ali, on Minneapolis’ local Rhymesayers record label, could compete, even almost unanimously beat, their general radio-rap fare. Peter Parker commented in an interview with CertifiedHipHop that his choice of putting Ali against the station’s mainstream rap was a conscious decision to “show the people of Minnesota I respect what they have created and prove to the heads at the station people feel the Rhymesayers Movement like crazy world wide.”
Lets get it right out in the open. I’m biased. I’m from Minneapolis, the adopted home of Ali. Despite what you may have heard (or maybe, more likely, what you haven’t heard), we take our hip-hop seriously. We have to, because nobody else does. Midwest, but specifically Minneapolis/Twin Cities hip-hop is often derided for being watered-down emo-rap for the white suburbans. Slug of Atmosphere even joked about how strange it was that Ali met his African-American wife at one of his shows: “Which is pretty amazing, ‘cause it’s an Atmosphere show, so she’s like one of three black people.” There’s no question that local hip-hop shows here are almost entirely white. Ali, a self-identified African-American, but racially white and albino, has personally wrestled with his own ethnic make up, but also with his fans: “One of the hardest things we’re dealing with now is the underlying feeling of white supremacy among fans who feel they are a part of hip-hop, but are listening to and prefer mostly white MCs,” he told The Village Voice in September of ‘06. “They believe that Aesop Rock is better than independent artists who are black and mainstream artists like Ludacris. These MCs are doing a lot with hip-hop artistically that they have learned from black people, but [their fans] don’t want to hear from the old-school originators because they believe it’s the white MCs who created the styles they like.”
Ali found acceptance in the world of hip-hop, and also found inspiration from those old-school originators. Throughout his career, Ali has never shied away from declaring his debt to his idols like KRS-One and Melle Mel, nor how much he wants to be a leader in the next generation of successful, earnest rappers. The KRS influence is glaring. The beats Ali chooses, his style, and his politics are all influenced by Ali’s desire to use hip-hop to say something meaningful.
Hip-hop was an outlet for the often ostracized Ali, who apart from being albino was slightly overweight, clumsy, and legally blind. It’s a success story that accompanies every mention of Ali: the kid from society’s fringe saved by hip-hop. It’s such an oft-repeated theme because there aren’t many stories like that anymore. Today, few artists are “saved” by hip-hop in a truly physical and emotional way. Most see hip-hop as a way of escaping their situation, but for Ali, hip-hop was more about gaining acceptance in a cloistered scene than getting the mansion on the hill. In the liner notes to The Undisputed Truth, a variety of friends and artists comment on the album’s tracks. Nearly every comment mentions the hurdles Ali has had to deal with. At one point on the supplemental DVD that accompanies the album, producer Ant says to Ali, in response to a story he told about getting jumped by some rival rappers, “If you haven’t got your ass whooped trying to accomplish hip-hop then you really ain’t hip-hop.” It’s this sort of martyrdom complex that Ali thrives on—the struggle gives him strength. And on The Undisputed Truth he has a lot of material to work with. The past couple of years saw Ali, a devout Muslim, going through a messy divorce and custody battle for his son Faheem. “I have to make songs about this shit,” Ali says, and for the most of the record, in his rough, demanding voice, he does just that.
Ali gets his rap ego-trip out of the way early on album opener “Whatcha Got”, where he lets himself brag a little and take shots at other rap artists. “Listen Up” is a stale attempt at rehashing Golden Age steelo, complete with Prince Whipper Whip of the Fantastic Romantic 5 MCs.
With this record, it’s nice to see Ant, who almost exclusively produces for Rhymesayers artists, and who is often criticized for his repetitive production (mostly by people who haven’t heard his amazing work on the Felt 2 project with Slug and Murs), branching out into hints of reggae and jazz-rock. The last half of the album showcases Ant’s more experimental side. “Here” is little more than a ghostly vocal sample and syncopated piano line over a drum break, which Ali uses to drape his imagery-laden lyrics about foolishly opening himself up to a certain woman: “And I want you to know / Only invited you cause I ain’t thought you would show”, he raps. “Letter from the Government” is Ali’s Public Enemy homage, and “Uncle Sam Goddamn” his own letter to the “United Snakes / Land of the thief / Home of the slave”.
But it’s the last three tracks that most explicitly deal with Ali’s divorce and custody battle. On “Walking Away”, Ali directly addresses his divorce in pretty harsh terms, rapping to his ex, “I don’t love you I don’t think I ever did / And if you hadn’t tried to kill me I’d have stayed for the kid”. “Faheem” is a heartfelt ode to his son that is nevertheless bogged down with some awkward lines about cleaning mouse droppings out of his son’s toys and trite fatherly-love hyperbole. But of course, in the end, Ali comes to the conclusion that he is happy. “Ear to Ear” is his triumphant album closer, with Ali bragging about leaving his ex-wife but keeping his son. It’s maybe the first rap song where an artist boasts about winning a custody battle. It’s not a club record, and Ali wouldn’t have it any other way.