[4 February 2010]
Walking into the Granada Theater was a little like walking into a personal time warp, as the venue was thick with the pungent fog of weed. Not shocking in the traditional sense – I didn’t expect otherwise - but no longer partaking in the beauty that is the green culture, it was a bittersweet moment of nostalgia and grudging respect. It also lent expected irony to Brother Ali’s “Fresh Air” tour, following his 2009 release Us. Part of the Minneapolis hip-hop set, Brother Ali brings a true, in-your-face beat and lyrics that maintain integrity while leaving himself open to experimentation. He doesn’t stick with a formula, and his experiments are more often than not spot on.
Having been introduced to Brother Ali about three years ago, I’ve been fantasizing about seeing him live since day one. Ali was part of what my friend Todd called my “true musical education”, as he made me his personal reform project. Having admittedly been the sorority girl getting down to “Back That Ass Up” and other mindless club anthems, I was a formidable project. The spectrum of the Minnesota hip-hop scene, including artists Living Legends, Atmosphere, Grouch and Eli, Felt, Dilated Peoples, became my foundation.
As is true for most of the population, I’ve had more than one artist ruined by a relationship or general state of mind. Some temporarily, while others still cause me to bypass them when they emerge on shuffle in an almost Pavlovian response. Sometimes I think the shuffle function is the universe’s way of fucking with you, kind of like Facebook newsfeeds, but that’s a story for another day. Then there’s the music that, to this day and for evermore, will release endorphins from the first chord.
Brother Ali is one of those special cases that elicit both. I never know what part of my brain Ali will trigger, which is part of the rush, since I always trust the reaction will be true to its purpose at the time. Brother Ali entered my consciousness at a time of transition, when I was desperately trying to change my state of being and getting my ass handed to me. Instead of getting lost in the shuffle, he stuck around and now represents something of a badge of honor. Therefore, it was no surprise to me that reflection would be a part of my first live Ali experience.
Shows in Dallas are a crapshoot, and the hip-hop scene sees some major gaps over the course of the year. Having only mild faith in the crowd in Dallas, I surveyed the scene and was impressed to see not only a full house, but a motley crew of sorts, reminiscent of the vibe and drive behind Brother Ali’s music. Beyond the superficial differences, half of the audience couldn’t have kept rhythm if their life depended on it. Some were clearly not going to remember the show, and others looked like I felt, which was ready for the ride.
After solid sets from Evidence and Toki Wright, Brother Ali took the stage. In a unique experience for a hip-hop show, the crowd got typically rowdy during his introduction, and then went almost silent once he was on stage. Hearing his music and seeing him in person can be disorienting for those who aren’t aware that Ali is an albino, a fact he is not afraid to bluntly address in lyric. The hip-hop industry can be unforgiving of its own accord, but an albino from Minneapolis who’s all about the love and not bitches and dope – it must have been a torturous road for Ali.
The set consisted primarily of a strong representation from The Undisputed Truth and Shadows On the Sun. Included in the set was one of my all time favorites “Truth is Here”, at which point the crowd’s energy hit its peak. Feeding off that unified energy, Ali bridged into “Shadows on the Sun”. I’m a bit of a purist and prefer to hear a song live that is true to the recording, but I also appreciate an artist’s ability to further creative expression layered on top of created expression. Ali brought a solid blend of the two together, bringing his DJ into the foreground to showcase some of his new Brazilian inspired beats while maintaining the foundation of his sound.
Ali’s mantra of united love and acceptance is how he lives his life. Within his being, he carries this message. He communicates this without irony or looking weak. That takes the sting out of an otherwise overdone concept. Maybe it’s the double shot of growing up alienated and albino in the Upper Midwest, or maybe it’s his ability to cross intensely angry beats with forceful lyrics that end up somehow being all about love, from the heart and not horizontal, that make the message that more powerful. This is why he will always mean something to me, and recovery and heartbreak will never let me forget that.