Brother Ali Has Finally Laid Down The Undisputed Truth
The conscientious hip-hopper talks about racial identity and the new album that could blow up his career at last.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Brother Ali can easily pinpoint the turning points in his life. When he was 13, he met hip-hop legend KRS-One, igniting his passion for conscientious hip-hop. When he was 15, he became a Muslim, dismaying his mom but finding new guidance.
In each case, he said, "I was searching for a place to fit ... somewhere I wasn't judged by appearance."
Now, at 29, the hefty, hollering, heart-on-his-sleeve rapper is staring change in the face again. His album that landed in March, The Undisputed Truth, could well be the biggest local music release of 2007 and/or make him the biggest rapper ever to call Minneapolis home.
Whatever it does, The Undisputed Truth is a personal triumph; strong reviews or swift album sales would be icing. While Ali named his last CD The Champion EP, this one truly sounds like the work of a conqueror.
Over the course of 15 tracks, Ali smacks down the problems that have plagued his tumultuous life: the gawking over his albino condition (by everyone from childhood bullies to insensitive music journalists); the doubts that every artist faces (though not self-doubt, in his case); the mistrust of his Muslim beliefs; the injustice that he claims tainted his north Minneapolis youth, and a particularly rancorous divorce and child-custody battle that kept him from releasing this album quicker.
"If I made this album any sooner than I made it, while I was still in the middle of all that, it would be one (messed)-up album," Ali said, shaking his head. "But I'm on the other side now."
Fresh from a hip-hop festival in Southern California -- where he returns at the end of this month to play the uber-trendy Coachella Music Festival -- Ali sat for a late-night interview last week at the south Minneapolis home of his DJ and close friend, BK-One. He usually doesn't make it over to BK's basement studio till 10 p.m., after his son, Faheem, 6, goes to bed.
Things are great back home, Ali said. There's a smile-inducing line near the end of his new album where Ali boasts of buying a couch from Ikea instead of Goodwill for the two-bedroom apartment that he now shares with Faheem and his new wife, Tiffany. And they live just around the corner from the Fifth Element record store, where a giant storefront window display for his new album has Ali staring down traffic on Hennepin Avenue.
"People are gonna have to get used to seeing my face now," he joked.
BK-One (Brendan Kelly) has been face-to-face with Ali for almost 10 years -- since before the rapper joined the roster at Rhymesayers Entertainment, the omnipresent Minneapolis hip-hop label that's also home to Atmosphere, P.O.S. and I Self Devine. Even BK was pleasantly astonished when he first heard the songs that would become The Undisputed Truth.
"I watched everything that's happened to him closely from the sidelines," the DJ said. "You can hear it all on this album. He sounds stronger than he ever has before. And his art's stronger. For the first time, it really sounds like he has found this place to occupy that's all his."
That's also what Slug, the Atmosphere rapper and Rhymesayers figurehead, seems to think of the album. "I believe in it with everything I got, 100 percent," Slug said in a promo clip on YouTube.com that shows him getting The Undisputed Truth tattooed on his neck. The clip's truthfulness is disputable, but Slug's love for the album is genuine.
"There are certain songs on the record I can definitely feel akin to because they're so real and personal. I think we can all relate to them even if we haven't walked in his shoes. This is a dude I got to watch go through so much pain."
The latest round of pain began, ironically enough, with Ali's first taste of success.
His 2003 album, Shadows on the Sun, quickly became one of Rhymesayers' biggest sellers and earned national press. But almost immediately, writers started asking Ali about being albino and -- because it's a genetic condition that removes skin coloration -- what his racial background is. The albino questions he was used to, going back to his childhood. He remembers being 6 or 7 and "basically hating the world," he said, because of the flak he got for his pale skin.
"Kids say out loud the brutal version of what adults think," he said. "They'd say stuff like, `You know your mom doesn't want you.' "
He coyly addressed his albinism in the Shadows on the Sun track titled "Forest Whitiker" (sic), an ode to his and his favorite actor's less-than-pinup looks:
"I'm not the classic profile of what the ladies want/You might think I'm as depressed as can be/But when I look in the mirror I see sexy ass me."
However, Ali now admits he "wasn't ready for" the other questions about whether he was black or white, which were semi-relevant considering that racial issues were sprinkled throughout "Shadows." To him, though, the queries brought back the scenario he had always worked to avoid: being viewed through a skin-color lens.
"Flip a coin and put it in your story," he flippantly told this writer when asked about his race.
He's much more concise about it now, though. "I don't want it to look like I'm lying or trying to fool anyone," he said. "But it still don't feel right to have to answer it."
Yes, Ali is fully white. He was born Jason Newman in Madison, Wis., and moved around as a kid to several small cities in Michigan before landing in north Minneapolis at 15, after his parents split.
Even before his arrival here, he started identifying more with blacks than whites -- through friends, through hip-hop and then finally when he got turned on to the Nation of Islam. He read The Autobiography of Malcolm X around age 13, he said, "and it spoke to the side of me that used to think white people are cruel."
As an albino, Ali knew what it was like to be singled out because of skin color. He might have been even more deeply affected in a way, because he didn't even fit in with his own family. "The reality is my experience is different from black people and white people," he said. "Even my younger brother has had a different experience than me."
Ali addresses all this on The Undisputed Truth in the hard-hitting track called "Daylight:"
"They ask me if I'm black or white, I'm neither/Race is a made-up thing, I don't believe in it. My genes tie me to those that despise me (and) made a living killing the ones that inspired me/I ain't just talking about singing and dancing/I was taught life and manhood by black men."
The black men Ali refers to include all his hip-hop heroes (other favorites include Melle Mel, Chuck D and Rakim, the latter of whom he toured with last year). On a more personal level, he also has his Muslim mentors to thank, he said, "for teaching me to be a balanced human being."
Ali has long been a worshiper at the Masjid An-Nur mosque in north Minneapolis. It's also the mosque attended by Rep. Keith Ellison, Congress' first Muslim.
"I'm extremely proud of him," said Ali, who doesn't really know Ellison but credits him for vicariously helping kick-start his career. (Ellison reportedly represented a friend in a police beating case, and the friend gave Ali some of the settlement money to record his first release, the 2000 cassette "Rites of Passage.")
As Ali explained it, he was given that name by mosque leaders based on the prophet Mohammed's cousin and son-in-law who: a) had physical abnormalities (the rapper is also legally blind); and b) went against the will of his family to follow Mohammed.
Like many of us, he said of his religious practices, "I'm not as active as I once was, mainly because of my schedule."
Still, he said he regularly reads the Qur'an and teaches it to his son. In the new album's closing track, "Ear to Ear," he boasts of Faheem knowing the "verses of the Qur'an" and "all the words to `La-De-Da-De,'" the classic hip-hop song.
Ali also said he abstains from drugs and alcohol, even when he's on the road, though he notes, "I have my vices."
"When we're on tour and everyone else goes off to get high or (flirt) with girls, I'll go eat a whole pizza instead," he said.
Ali's less clean-cut peers at Rhymesayers say his beliefs are never an issue. "I'm a full-time smoker and drinker, and I've never felt Ali judging me in anyway," said Ant (Anthony Davis), the famed Rhymesayers producer/DJ who provided all the music on The Undisputed Truth.
Like BK-One, Ant was close to Ali during the turmoil of his divorce.
"I'd show up at his house around 10 at night, and we'd go over to my place to record," said Ant. "A lot of times he'd just talk about everything for about two hours, but eventually the talk just sort of bled into the songs."
Ali was married at 17, in large part to please his and his ex-wife's Muslim mentors, he said. He stuck with the marriage after Faheem was born a few years into it, but he said he realized it "was a hopeless situation" after he started touring and stepped back from his home life. He worked day jobs -- at UPS, Rainbow and elsewhere -- right up until the day he left on his first tour as Atmosphere's opener.
"Before that, my life had basically been one-way for 10 years," he said. "I was out on my own as an adult at 17 and constantly working and struggling. The lights were either off or two days from being shut off."
Once separated, he alleges, his ex-wife turned violent against both him and their son. The custody battle that ensued is spelled out (or spilled out?) in one of the new album's final tracks, "Walking Away." Ali finishes the song with well-wishing lyrics, but he pulls no punches at first:
"You never listened to a word I ever said/Maybe seeing this door slam will get it through your head/You don't love me, I don't think you ever did/If you hadn't tried to kill me I'd have stayed for the kid."
Said Ant, "What's amazing about that track is I don't think it's full of hate. He's just matter-of-fact about everything. That shows how far he has come, and how he's so happy where he's at now, I think."
Ali said "Walking Away" is a good example of what he means by the title The Undisputed Truth and by the lyrics in the album's first single, "Truth Is." "No matter what, this album is me trying to present myself as honestly as possible," he said. "It's not about everybody else's truth. It's my truth."
If "Walking Away" is the new album's darkest moment, it's followed by two tracks that could be deemed the light at the end of the tunnel: "Faheem," a tribute to Ali's son that's far from candy-coated but clearly shows off his love for the kid; and then "Ear to Ear," the wide-grinning finale that sounds like a victory march.
"I guess it's safe to say I came a long way, baby," Ali says at the start of "Ear to Ear," which has the refrain, "My life, my god, my songs!"
Referring to "Ear to Ear" as the culmination of this chapter in his life, Ali said, "It's the last song on the record in more ways than one."
While hitching a ride home from BK's place after the interview, Ali got a call from his wife, who asked him to make a side trip to Walgreens. Faheem was suffering from a cold or allergies. Before getting out of the car at the drugstore, the rapper lamented having to be on the road so much over the next few months and being away from his son. But he wasn't too worried.
"The kid's doing really well now," he said.
It wasn't totally clear which kid he meant.