TSRE Wonders: Exclusive Interview With Brother Ali

It’s no secret that we’re big Brother Ali fans around these parts. I happen to think that he is one of the most impressive voices in the rap game, and his story is exceptionally interesting. Recently we had a chance to catch up with Ali for an interview, check it out!

The Stu Reid Experiment: You’re on tour right now, aren’t you?

Brother Ali: Yeah. Just rollin’ into LA. About half way through a ten week tour.

Is it going well so far?

It’s amazing man, just really really good. We got a great crew. We put a lot a lot of work into preparing the overall show – not just my set, but the whole show. Me and my DJ BK-One put a lot of work into preparing the whole thing, and we really saw it as a three and a half hour show, not just our set, you know what I mean?

Definitely. I read somewhere on your twitter account that you were re-arranging songs to work with a live band, is that right?

Yeah, yeah. My DJ is a trained musician, he comes from Jazz – piano and vibes and organ and stuff like that. So we try to really make him be the band. So we brought musicians in to recreate some of my beats so that we can take them in different directions and re-arrange them for the live setting. And then, just, you know the whole night of it. We brought all these different people’s beats together: mine and Toki Wright’s and Evidence’s and tried to really approach it like a band would as far as transitions between songs, transitions between sets. Kind of like a momentum that builds during the night.

On Us you used a lot more live instrumentation in the studio.

Yeah, it’s all live instruments, there’s no samples on that whole album.

Do you feel like that changed your recording process at all?

It really did, yeah. Basically what we did was me and Ant spent like two months making demos of the songs at his house, which is what we always do. We usually spend a year doing that but this time we had like 2-3 months. He came with the basic ideas, the basic outlined structures of what the music would be, I wrote the songs at his house, and then he spent a month in the studio with the musicians fleshing out his ideas.

I wasn’t allowed to sit in on that because he wanted me to be objective when I heard it. He didn’t want me to see the process and then become invested in it because of seeing it, you know what I mean? He wanted me to hear it fresh and say yes, no, change this, change that. And that’s exactly what I did. There were things that I really liked, things that I really hated, things that I was like “I don’t really know about this, I need to hear it mixed differently.” And then once that was all straight, then I went in and laid down all my vocals. And then me and him arranged the album together, for the most part. He did most of it, but I sat in on all the sessions and had a lot of input.

We always give each other complete input on what we’re doing. It’s funny, I made a song on here called “Bad Motherfucker Too” where it was just me kinda braggin’, you know, exaggerating – what we call ‘signifying’, just talking shit. There’s nothing really true about that song. But I figured this was my first…

There were certain words I would say where he was like, “that’s not you,” or, “you shouldn’t say that.” He definitely had a ban on certain words, like, “you’re not allowed to say this, this, this, and this.” And same thing with the music. I would say, you know, this flute just doesn’t sound right. I can’t fuck with this.

Is there one song on the album that you feel particularly proud of?

“The Travelers” and “You Say Puppy Love.”

Why is that? Do you just connect with those better?

I mean, “The Travelers” is a song that I’ve wanted to write all my life, since I’ve been writing songs. I just never quite knew the approach for it – it really just kinda came together magically. We made all these songs in really cold winter, and I went over to Ant’s house on Christmas at like four in the morning, and heard that music, sat down and wrote it, recorded it, and did a little bit of rewriting, but for the most part that’s what we wrote. “You Say Puppy Love” – I’ve never written a song like that before, like a relationship song like that. And I’ll go ahead and say that – both of those songs – no rapper has ever written anything like either of those songs. I’m not saying they’re better or anything else, I’m just saying that no MC ever has written anything like those two songs. Ever.

Career-wise you have kind of trended toward the positive side of things – your music definitely isn’t all puppy dogs and sunshine, but it seems like you’ve kind of established a niche as a rapper with a positive message. Is that something you consciously tried to create, or did it just happen on its own?

Nah, that happened on its own. I’m saying, my music is positive, but all of it is about pain and struggle. Damn near. I’ve made two happy-ass songs in my life – “Fresh Air” on this album and “Ear to Ear” on the last album. But the thing is that I always talk about pain the way I feel, which is an opportunity to learn, an opportunity to grow. I always find beauty in pain.

This album is called an upbeat and positive hip hop album, and it’s about rape and slavery, depression and murder.

And I guess what fans see is the ability that you have to find positive things in all that ugliness and all that hatred.

Yeah, and there’s definitely something to that.

Tying that together with being on tour, a lot of your songs are about your life and tough times that you’ve been through. Is it hard to get on stage and talk about the bad times that you’ve experienced every night?

No. It’s just such a part of what I have. I’m not a person who tries to escape – I don’t do the escape thing. When there’s a problem, I run towards it full speed ahead. I feel like it’s here to stop me, it’s here to challenge me. And so it’s my job to figure out how to overcome it, and then overcome it and dwell on that. So I dwell on the problem until I figure out how to solve it – I don’t just sit around and pout and focus on it, but I figure out how to solve it and how to beat it and how to conquer it. And then after I do, I dwell on the fact that I was able to conquer it and I’m thankful and grateful for it. So that’s what my happy songs are about – being grateful.

Also, I want my fans to hear what they’ve done for me. I was telling the audience last night that my happy-ass songs – that’s how all these people feel. All these rappers, all these tough rappers that are successful, that’s how they feel on the inside. They just don’t know how to say that and so they wear a big chain to show you that they’re celebrating their success. They’re not allowed to say, in the environment that they’re from, “Man, shit’s great, I’m happy”. They’re not allowed to say that. So they wear a big ass chain and they pull out a full bottle of champagne just to show you how they celebrate. But I don’t have those same things, so I can just say I’m happy and I’m appreciative. I worked hard for this and I love my life, I love the people I work with, that I’ve built all this stuff with.

I wanted to get your opinion on this – there’s a community in Florida (Ed.’s note: info here) where a councilman is trying to ban hip hop shows. There was a stabbing outside of a concert and he says that hip hop shows encourage that type of violent behavior. What do you think about that?

That shit is so 1996. Like KRS and Ra-Kim and Chuck D and all those guys, they covered all that back in the late 80’s. That’s like people thinking Elvis is gonna ruin their daughter. I mean, with people like that – that’s what American politics has generated into, like “What are we against?” Motherfuckers just need something to be against so everybody is going to have some group that’s going to be against them at some point. It’s like, man, grow the fuck up and figure out what you want to do. Try to unite people behind something you’re for, not something you’re against.

I hear you on that. So what’s next for Brother Ali after this tour? Are you headed back to the studio, taking a break for a little while?

No break. More tour. After this tour: more tour. And then more tour and then more tour and then more tour. No this one that we’re on right now is 10 weeks. It was a week of college shows, kind of to just gear up for it and get the budget – get a nice little float budget going on. And then we did a week in Europe, just to be like “Whatup Europe”, you know what I mean? “We got a new album, you guys should check it out.” And they’re like “uh, yeah, no thanks.” And then we were like alright, cool. So now we came and we’re doing 9 weeks in the states, headlining and then go home for about three weeks or something like that and do our laundry, have a lot of sex with our wives, try to convince them not to leave us, then go to Australia for a couple weeks, then we go to Europe for a couple weeks. Then we come back and do Canada so that they can calm down. Every time you do a tour and you don’t do Canada they take that shit personal. It’s like “man, you’re doing a tour and you’re not doing Canada?” and it’s like “Man, I’m in Texas.”

And it’s January and negative 20 degrees in Canada.

Exactly, yeah exactly. And as a band – man. You know in Europe they have special rap police that just fuck with rappers. On the border, they have band police. They don’t call them that, but they do, they have special shit just for bands. They have a bus crossing – special taxes, special searches, special asshole lines. And they just bust your balls, whenever you go into that country and whenever you come out. They humiliate you and they talk to you like you’re four years old and it’s just like fuck! Every time we go over there we have to deal with this shit. Then we drive for like four days between cities to play for a hundred people.

But you know what? Those one hundred people are awesome.

And I’m sure those hundred people are the ones who love you most for making that trip, too.

Yeah, and that’s why we do it. Even in the states we play a lot of little towns, where it’s like man – there’s only 150 hip hop fans in this city that actually have the time and money to come to a hip hop show. So that’s all it’s gonna be. But it’s worth it. It’s worth it to get in front of them and connect with them again. And it’s true that we love doing this so much. It’s the only thing we really care about doing this much to make all these sacrifices and stuff. So I’m just kinda tongue in cheek bitchin’ about it because the reality is that when we can’t do it any more we’ll be so sad.

And you know the fans appreciate it. I’m certainly looking forward to catching you when you come to Boston on November 8th.

At the Paradise this time. I love Boston man, I love playing shows there. It’s a crazy place – it’s not the most welcoming city in America to outsiders, but nothing wrong with that. You don’t have to be welcoming, you just have to be decent. But in terms of shows, it’s great. It’s a great place to play a show – people appreciate it. They give you as much as you give them.

Just one more question, and it’s a question that we ask everyone. What’s your opinion on music blogs? Do you think they’re good for music, bad for music? Are they good for young musicians but not more established artists?

I think they’re fun. I think they’re a lot like TV. I would say that they’re fun – I look at them every day. I got like 4 that I look at every day, and it’s like TV. You get to see like…let me sit down and watch Glasses Malone write a song or do an interview. I mean, check out what Kanye West is talking about. That shit’s a lot of fun to watch. But the thing is that I think everybody that’s too closely tied to those things grossly underestimates – it’s an artificial reality, it’s not real. It doesn’t translate to sales, it doesn’t translate to fans, it doesn’t translate to people coming to your shows. The fact that people will click on a little box and watch you do something for two and a half minutes does not mean that they’re your fan, and it doesn’t mean that you’ve connected with them, and it doesn’t mean that they really care.

Like, I’ll watch Real Chance At Love, but do I give a fuck about those dudes? Hell no. I’ll watch it because it’s entertaining. And I don’t really watch it, but you know what I mean. It’s like one of those things where you watch it ‘cause it’s there, but you don’t really care. And I think that a lot of younger guys, their head is all fucked up because they think that because they have a presence on the blogs, that means that they made it.

And it’s like no man, until you touch somebody to the point – especially the people that are on the blogs, since they’re the people who get the most free music – until you touch somebody in a way that makes them say “I want to own this. Not only am I going to click on this, I want to own it, I want it to live in my house, I want to wear your shirt, I’ll pay $15 and drive to another state to watch you stand on a stage and perform these songs that I love. That’s what it’s about.

Because when I came in, me and the people in my circle started the whole DIY punk rock style of touring within underground rap. Slug was doing it, Slug taught me how to do it. There were a few other people doing it, but nobody was really doing it like him. I don’t care what anybody says, Slug invented this shit. In terms of 50 and 60 city tours in the U.S. for underground rap. I mean that’s not – the legends were touring, other people were touring, but nobody was doing Boseman and Spokane and Missoula, you know what I’m saying. In terms of underground rap, Slug fathered a lot of shit including that.

But you know, you holla at these kids and it’s like “yo, I think you’re tight, you want to come on tour” and they say “word, how much I get? How much am I gonna get?” Like well, you shouldn’t get shit motherfucker. You’re gonna get fans. What do you mean how much am I gonna get? You’re gonna get 50 chances to stand in front of an audience.

It’s kinda like what you talk about on some of your songs like “Backstage Pacing”

And that’s why we bring family with us. We bring our crew with us. People that – they’re head is in that space. You get a guy like Toki Wright, he just wants to rap, he just wants to perform. And it’s not about money, it’s not about the money. It’s about attitude, about the approach, and the things that people choose to prioritize.

And this time we got Evidence out here with us, who won a Grammy with his group, and now he’s starting his solo career so he’s treating himself like a new artist. And somebody like that who will come out and open for me, he’s done way more shit than I’ve done with his group.

But he’s not afraid to take it down a notch and come out and support you.

He’s not, he’s investing in himself. And he’s supporting what we’re doing, but he’s investing in

himself and saying “I’m going to build this new brand of me” as a solo artist, so I’m going to start over again and treat myself like I’m new. And that’s what these kids are missing – because they don’t invest in themselves.

Many thanks to Brother Ali for talking with us!

You are now Stu Reid at The Stu Reid Experiment.

– The Stu Reid Experiment

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