Brother Ali has to be one of the coolest people I have ever met. We had an amazing discussion last week before his concert in Toronto. This is Part 2 of that interview. You can download it for free from the DOPEfm page, stream it with the player below, or read along with it here. If you missed Part 1 of the transcript, you can go back and read it here.
Chase: “How do you go about the songwriting process? Do you work with certain producers? Do you write to the beat?”
Brother Ali: “All of my albums are produced by Ant except for my demo tape ‘Rights of Passage.’ I did the beats on that one but Ant has done everything that I’ve done up till now. He makes a lot of music. He makes very rough, skeletal versions of music and I go and I sit with him and listen to what he’s got. And then when something moves me, we concentrate on that one. He’ll play it over and over again and I sit there and write the song to it. So he makes the music, I make the words, and then we work together to marry them and make them a song.”
Chase: “I’ve noticed that you’ve got quite the online presence. You seem to be everywhere. You’re active on Twitter and you’ve got a lot of video blogs. It’s really cool to see that you’re doing a lot of that interaction. You even have little video conferences, I don’t know what you call them.”
Brother Ali: “Yeah, the live broadcast that we do. The newest one that we did is on the front of brotherali.com right now. It was a really great discussion that has been kind of living inside me where people were saying they love me because they hate L’il Wayne.
If you’re new to rap and you’ve discovered one part of it that you like and you believe that you’re an expert on hip-hop, than L’il Wayne is the guy to diss. I kind of took exception to people judging his music. I understand if it’s not for you. I understand if it’s not what you like and you’re not able to relate to it, but to judge it and say, ‘it’s not creative’ or it’s not good music because it does not to speak to you personally, I got into an hour-long discussion about that topic. So if you go to brotherali.com right now you can see that rerun. It’s archived and you can watch it.”
Chase: “Yeah, I like what you said on Twitter too because Easter just passed and I noticed a lot of people were kind of slamming Easter and trying to disrespect the tradition and people’s beliefs. I actually retweeted something you put up there. You wrote something like, ‘celebrate it or don’t,’ ya know, ‘ya don’t have to talk bad about it.’
You know a lot of us that are into underground hip-hop will say, ‘Oh, this sucks,’ and ‘Don’t listen to this’ but we really have to respect what other people are doing-“
Brother Ali: “We need to be careful to not become what we think we’re rebelling against or become the Ying to that Yang. When I was young, I definitely did that. Ya know, I was rebelling against something because I thought it was wrong and I ended up just being the opposite version of that. I think that’s such an easy mistake to make. If you look at both sides of an issue, there’s people who become very extreme because they’re trying to counteract the extremists on the other side. But extremes are extremes, so I try to just find that balance and just stick to the truth of what’s important to me.”
Chase: “Yeah, I think every now and then, we should actually try to step outside of our comfort zone. I think every now and then you should visit a myspace page that you wouldn’t normally go to or read a book that you wouldn’t normally read-“
Brother Ali: “Or talk to a person that you normally wouldn’t talk to, ya know what I mean? In my mind, that’s what I hope my music could be. Ya know in my little fantasy of what I’m doing in music, that’s what it is. I’ve had the chance to be up close and personal with people from so many different walks of life that I’m hoping on this album, that just came out, ‘Us,’ I’m hoping to tell these different stories in a way that somebody who might not know these people but feels like they relate to me, can hear the humanity and hear themselves in other people’s situations. In my mind, I view that as being what my role is in music because of the experiences I’ve been blessed to have”
Chase: “And that’s really relevant in your music. I mean, there’s several times where you actually say in your lyrics, ‘you can tell a story through me.’ In that way, it’s not even about you. And so many rappers it’s all about them, it’s almost always about them and with your lyrics it’s about us. Ya know, it’s about everybody. You’re like spreading the love or something, I don’t know, it’s just hard to say, I find your music really inspiring in that way.”
Brother Ali: “That’s something that I have the opportunity to do because I’m so supported. ‘Shadows on the Sun’ was all about me. All my first albums were all about me, but even those are bigger than being just about you. For a guy like a Jay-Z, his music is about him and to the outsider it might sound like he’s bragging. But he represents a lot of people who will never have the opportunity to be seen or heard, ya know what I mean. When he says, ‘I’m Jay-Z. I’m from Marcy Projects and I’m the best at what I do,’ I mean people in projects, in slums, all over the world, feel like there’s somebody who represents them, that the world recognizes as being the best at something.
When you’re put in a ghetto, you’re put in slum, you’re put in a project for the purpose of ignoring you, because that’s what they’re for. You take all the poor people, primarily people of colour, put them all in this situation so that we have them all in this one place and we can ignore them. When you got these people that raise up and say I’m the best, in a literal sense they’re saying that but what it symbolizes is much bigger than that.
I’m really happy hat people appreciate what I’m doing. But I’m not interested in being part of the criticism of all the rest of rap. I love rap. I love hip-hop. It gave me so much of what I am, and I’m not interested in being a tool to critique the rest of it. I’m not comfortable phrasing it that way.”
Chase: “Nah, I understand what you’re saying so we don’t have to hold you up lie, ‘This is what hip-hop is.’”
Brother Ali: “But I am the best.”
Chase: “I think you are, You’re one of my favourite emcees.”
Brother Ali: “I’m the best Brother Ali there’s ever been.”
Chase: “Yeah, that’s good. But ‘Us’ was definitely my favourite album of last year, for sure.”
Brother Ali: “Thank you, that means so much to me to hear you say that.”
Chase: “I want to play a track now off of your ‘Truth is Here’ EP. I want to play ‘Good Lord’ and the touch on some of your lyrics as soon as we get to hear it.”
Brother Ali: “Cool.”
Chase: “Alright so this is ‘Good Lord’ from Brother Ali. This is Chase March. Gamma Krush is monitoring the boards and we’ll be right back after he spins that track.”
Chase: “Alright that was ‘Good Lord.’ Nice, nice track there. Brother Ali. I want to touch on some of the lyrics in there. You’ve got some really positive lyrics in there. One of them is ‘How ya gonna hate me for being what God made me?’ and in a lot of your songs, you talk about your spirituality and I know that’s really important to you. But one of the things that really struck me in this one too is talking about differences because some people might be scared of Brother Ali and Islam or things like that ‘cause we don’t understand it. Some people don’t understand other languages and there’s kind of fear around there.
But one of your lyrics, it just echoed with me, ‘What language do you laugh in?’ That brings it all together right there, doesn’t it? Pretty much every laugh is the same. There’s no language of laughter. And then you go further in there and you say, ‘What language are the tears when they’re falling from your eyes?’”
Brother Ali: “And it’s interesting, I actually said that wrong in the studio. The way I wrote it is, “What language do you laugh in?’ and then it was supposed to say, ‘What religion are the tears when they’re falling from your eyes?’ That’s what I meant to say but I just got in the studio and said it wrong and Ant doesn’t really listen to my lyrics so he didn’t catch it, ya know what I mean? He listens to the mood of what I’m saying.
That song is addressing both sides of an issue. I have a lot of Muslims that criticize me for either making music at all or for how real and raw I am in my music. Like I mentioned earlier, I have songs where I need to show you that I’m not just all around a great, nice person; that I’m also a jerk. I want you to be able to believe every part of it. So there are Muslims who say, ‘I like these songs, but I don’t like those songs,’ or some people don’t think it’s appropriate for me to be making hip-hop music at all.
And then on the other side, like I said, there are people who rebel so hard against any type of institutional anything, ya know what I mean? They hate institutions and they hate power. They don’t want to hear anything about any religion because in their mind that represents somebody trying to tell them what to do.
I’m kind of in between both of those sides. And what I’m saying to both of them, is that in its purist form, these things are really the same. Music, spirituality, these are all the human beings inner-most core, what we call in spirituality the soul or the energy that lives inside us trying to connect with the energy that’s in other people and in the world. It’s all really this music, prayer, meditation, ya know, celebrating. All of these things all come from the same place within us.
The thing that makes a person want to come to a concert and clap and experience this feeling with everybody else is the same thing that makes my uncle go to church on Sunday. It’s the same thing that makes me go to the mosque on Friday. It’s all the same thing of wanting to connect with something bigger and positive outside of ourselves.”
Chase: “Yeah, and I think that’s what the creative process is about ideally as well. I think everyone needs an avenue to be able to create.”
Brother Ali: “I agree.”
Chase: “And you said, ‘Let a painter, paint or a poet describe it’ so you’re even talking about that in the song we just heard too. I think everybody needs some kind of outlet, whether we’re producing segments for the radio here or blogging or whatever you do.”
Brother Ali: “Well. yeah. There are garbage collectors who express themselves through what they do. There are people who, in what we think, would be a very mundane job who take a certain pride in what they’re doing and it says something about who they are as a man, or as a woman, or as a person. There are people who express themselves in the way they raise their children, people who express themselves in the way they do everything. I agree with you 100%.”
Chase: “Definitely. Another lyric in that song, ‘I’m so beautifully human and I’m proud of it.’ I just like the positivity there. It just brings everything together.”
Brother Ali: “I think that’s the main reason why people like me or like my music. I think that I’m pretty good at rapping. The music I make is pretty good but maybe not necessarily better than anybody else. I think what people get from me in particular is that they see how different I am but how comfortable I am. Ya know what I mean, that I’m so comfortable that it makes them comfortable. You can be around somebody who’s so nervous that they make you nervous. But I think people register that I’m so comfortable and enthusiastic about just being who I am, that it makes them feel that way. I think people come away feeling better about themselves or the challenges they face and what’s unique about them.”