Brother Ali and Immortal Technique have embarked on The War and Peace Tour, co-headlining shows all over the country including their now customary stops at Rock The Bells. When I showed up at The Gothic on September 18th, Brother Ali was unsurprisingly spending time with his fans in the lobby, never rushing any of them but rather consistently expressing genuine interest and pleasure in their company. His presence is both calming and intimidating, and during our interview he proved to be as authentic, candid, and thoughtful as any fan of his catalogue might expect. He dropped copious knowledge about the socio-political landscape of the nation, explained how his personal turmoil has effected the way he’s making music moving forward, broke the news with us about his upcoming memoir, joked about the fallible nature of men on the road, illustrated the blueprint Slug and The Rhymesayers created for the underground, and expressed his love for one of our favorite Colorado crews. In short, it’s loaded with gems. They call him “The Truth” for a reason…
You and Immortal Technique are proving with this tour that two content-heavy emcees can sell out shows across the country. You gave it the broad and weighty title of “The War and Peace Tour.” Can you explain the concept behind the tour name?
I came up with the name and Tech was makin’ fun of me ’cause he was like [imitates Immortal Technique’s voice] “You’re saying that ’cause I’m the war and you get to be the peace, you mothafuckaaa. Ya very slick, Ali.” That’s my man. So we’ve been tourin’ together for a long time. We kinda started our touring careers together in a way, so he’s a real great friend. But the idea was, on the “peace” side, we need to have all oppressed people, all people that are marginalized, all people that are being used as commodities- you know, be it black and brown people, be it native people, be it women, be it Muslims, be it poor people, the GLBTQ community – everyone that’s targeted by the people in power, and used, that we need to have some peace together. And base our revolution on our common needs. We all need to live dignified lives, we all need education, we all need decent food, decent housing. We all need to have a life that allows us to be really human. So that’s the piece that we have to build amongst ourselves. And so bringing our fan bases together, there’s a lot of overlap, but he’s got fans that, you know. I mean there is kind of a racial element to it, where he has brown fans that don’t listen to me. I have white fans that don’t listen to him. And we have a whole lot of overlap, but it’s important to bring those people together and say, what we’re saying is the same. We see it in different ways ‘cause our lives are different, but we’re united in the message. So that’s the “peace” side.
On the “war” side, I mean there are absolutely people that are hell-bent on building their own greed and power by pushing other people out. And we have to go to war with them. This is a war of words, and ideas. And we’re even at war with the music business. We’re at peace with each other, at war with the music business. ‘Cause the music business is sayin’ “we don’t need you guys any more, nobody likes that, nobody wanna hear that anymore. That’s old school, that’s so 1980s..” And we’re out here basically showin’ (you said it in your question), it is commercially viable. When people like Bambu, The ReMINDers, and Rebel Diaz are comin’ up, it’s obvious that you can be independent, you can have a message, and there are fans that are dyin’ to hear it, and will spend their time and their money to do so.
In that vein, you’ve been heavily involved with various social movements, even been arrested during an Occupy demonstration. Do you think Occupy is an effective tool for change or is there another way folks can follow in your footsteps?
Well I think Occupy is an idea. It’s an imperfect idea. But the base concepts behind it are alive and well and always have been. And those are that we need a movement that highlights the despair of the common people. And really takes powers to task for their greed and the way they’ve abused their power and their wealth. It’s a critique both of the corporate Wall Street but then also of Washington and the government, and they’re absolutely in cahoots with each other. So it’s a critique of both of those. And the very unique thing about Occupy is that it’s a democratic movement. It’s not a top-down leadership structure. So you know, CORE was very powerful, The Nation of Islam was very powerful, the Panthers were very powerful, but you take out the main leaders, you got a problem. So what we’re trying to do now is more of a community organizing approach of building power in communities, not for individuals. Not powerful leaders, although the leaders do need to be powerful, but it’s more so about building powerful community to address our own needs. We move as a community and exert power as a community, so that’s where the idea of Occupy is still alive and well. And Occupy created a space for people to meet and talk that hadn’t done so before.
Your music began as a lot of introspection, then you broadened to tell the stories of others on Us, and then broadened even further to address the socio-political climate on Mourning in America. Now with your latest release Left in the Deck we’re getting a more off-the-cuff, mixtape-style collab with Jake One. Was it important for you to get back to just rhymin’ for a minute?
That’s exactly right. Right at the end of making “Mourning in America” I got a studio set up in my house and started recording myself. But prior to that I recorded my own demos on this handheld mic. I would hear the beat, write it, spit it, and if I liked it I would go take it to the studio and make a polished, commercial version of it. But so many songs, especially where it’s just about the vibe or the beat or the flow, just spitting it and feeling it in that moment- you can’t replicate that in the studio. And sometimes the clean sound even ruins it.
I didn’t start working with Jake One thinking I was gonna make a political album. So we were just making songs in the beginning, and that’s what most of those are. I started making an album before I went to Mecca. And once I went to Mecca and dealt with so much of what’s happened to me in the last 10 years of my life bein’ on the road, and just, trying to really wrestle with this thing that I’ve turned into. I felt like I became almost a caricature of myself. I felt disconnected from my core. And it was because I was having a terrible year personally, and a great year financially and career-wise. So all of these terrible things are happening, my dad dies, Eyedea died, my wife and I are almost breakin’ up…So I’m goin’ home for three days dealin’ with this stuff, and then I’m on stage at Glastonbury or Rock the Bells or, I mean all these shows. That was the height of my career, 2010.
I felt like I became almost a caricature of myself. I felt disconnected from my core. And it was because I was having a terrible year personally, and a great year financially and career-wise.
So “Left in the Deck” fits into the career rebuild?
I would say so. I just realized that the old models of doin’ things…You know every ‘bout 3 years I’d work really hard tryin’ to create a masterpiece. Every time, every album. And it takes a few years, and your life has to do somethin’ to inspire that. And then I would do these big headlining tours. And that’s what I did with Mourning in America, and it was cool, but I could just tell that that’s my old way of doin’ it. So now I think I wanna do different ideas of tours, like co-headlining with Immortal Technique fits into that. Neither of us have a new record out, but our fan bases are strong, so you combine it and do somethin’ bigger than either one of us could do by ourselves.
And I have some other plans too, for the future. I haven’t talked about this with anybody, and I hadn’t planned to start talkin’ about it but since you’re so tuned in…I’m starting to write a book. I’m putting notes together for a book and talking to a really well-known person who I think is gonna edit it and help me organize my thoughts.
…Cornell West maybe?
He’s on the list. There’s a list of about four people and they’ve all said yes. So it’s just kinda figuring out who’s gonna be the best fit. It’s gonna be a memoir. Where I use the stories of my life to talk about race and Islam in the American context. It’s gonna be all the things that I haven’t been able to say in songs. Some of those things will be there, but there’s even certain things that I feel like certain listeners don’t understand really what I’m saying because they don’t know me. They look and they see somebody that looks like them, so they think that my life has been like their life. But it really wasn’t.
You speak relentlessly for the marginalized, you’re persona as an emcee is inextricably linked with social consciousness, and you’re a student of the old school – in contrast, your fan base is largely white kids. As an artist who so embodies a message of progression and awareness, do you ever feel disconnected from your fan base?
Definitely. And that’s my job, is to connect. That’s the art. The disconnect is in the experiences we’ve had. I’ve had this really weird position in life that gave me experiences that most of my fans have never had. Not because they’re bad people, but because our society has engineered it to be that way. Our society has engineered it so that by and large the majority of privilege doesn’t interact with the people that are suffering, because of their privilege. And because of that they don’t like talking about those things, they don’t like hearing about them. Because they feel very…powerless. In a way, the dominant group feels powerless. And that’s the way they feel, it’s not true, but they feel that way, because of the fact that they’re so disconnected from the suffering of others. They don’t even see it. They don’t even know about it. It’s not on TV and it’s not in their neighborhood, it’s not at their job, they’re not taught it in school –and that’s the only way they would know about it. That’s the only way they learn about the world.
It’s the 50th anniversary of the church being bombed in Alabama. Somewhere out there, there’s people whose great-grandparents bombed that church. But they don’t talk about that. They don’t say, “Great-granddaddy was in the Ku Klux Klan and he blew up a church and killed these four girls. It’s crazy but he did it for the greatness of the white race.” Nobody is being told that! So it takes a lot [to connect].
In a way, the dominant group feels powerless. And that’s the way they feel, it’s not true, but they feel that way, because of the fact that they’re so disconnected from the suffering of others.
In your track “Talkin My Shit,” you said, “Ended up champion of underground rappin’ It ain’t what I imagined but I still ain’t mad at it.” In what ways has your continued success been different than what you had expected?
I mean all of us at Rhymesayers thought that bein’ a rapper was gonna be like, what a rapper was at that time! All the stuff you saw. We thought it was gonna be chains and parties and…
Yeah! Well, that part is there. If you want it. And even if you don’t want it. Almost all of us accidentally…[out the corner of his mouth] fucked somebody.
Yeah those accidental fucks will getcha every time.[Laughing] Man. It’s a REAL thing. The accidental fuck is a real thing. The Islam people think it’s strict but it’s not! If you’re trying to make your genitals mind they own business, then you should have certain boundaries. ‘Cause once you pass a certain point, you’re almost powerless. You know what I mean? If you’re alone with somebody, and you already have some electricity, and you’re outta town, aaaand you got four thousand dollars in your pocket, you just got off stage and your ego is super high, and you haven’t seen the people you love in forever…it’s like at a certain point your nature kicks in. Men shouldn’t be alone- men who are trying to only make love to the people that they have a commitment to and share life with, should not be alone. You just shouldn’t do it.
Yeah all of us on Rhymesayers thought it was gonna be like that, and then we realized it was more work than we could imagine doing in our entire lives. It’s round-the-clock work. And it’s also really dope, it’s very empowering to know that nobody handed you your success, so they can’t take it back. I saw Slug have the opportunity ten years ago. He had the opportunity to be Macklemore, and he decided not to. Now, that was ten years ago so maybe Macklemore will have a different trajectory than Slug saw himself having. But he came up independently, was making the prototype for that music, and radio came to him, MTV came to him, big labels came to him, and basically said “let us run with this.” And Macklemore talks about the moment where his manager (who is my former booking agent) called him and said, “Radio is ready to run with Thrift Shop; do you want to do it? You have a choice. This is gonna change your career and your life if you choose to do it.” But Slug was in that moment and he chose not to do it.
Was it with a particular song, like “Thrift Shop” for Macklemore?
They were kind of trying to do that with “Trying to Find a Balance” but they more-so were asking him to make songs that could be on the radio, in a radio format. Which is what the new guys are doin’. They’re saying the type of things that we say, but they’re not doin’ it on dusty-soundin’ beats. They’re doin’ it on beats that could be on the radio and in a radio format where you bring someone in to sing a catchy hook, you know? So they asked Slug to do that and he chose not to- not saying that one is better or worse. It was different circumstance, but Slug chose not to do that and he has a line in one of his early songs where he says “I never wanna blow up ‘cause I never wanna fall off.” I learned the entire approach to business from him. When we came along, it was me and Sage, MURS, the whole Living Legends crew, Def Jux and they’re whole crew, El-P and Aesop…and we kinda set the rules for this underground thing, Atmosphere being the forerunners. So we created this way of doing business and making music, and because of that we can talk about things however we want. We can talk about things the way we wanna talk about ‘em, we can approach songs the way we want. That became a viable way to do it. We compete business-wise with people that are doin’ it the major industry way. So when the labels collapsed, kids started lookin’ at who was doin’ the independent thing
it’s very empowering to know that nobody handed you your success, so they can’t take it back.
We’re a Colorado-based site and naturally we fuck with The ReMINDers. They always speak highly of you as a friend and artist, how did they come to be on your radar?
We’re family, man. I met Samir when I was touring with Atmosphere 10 or 11 years ago. I would look around in the crowd and I would see him, and I’m lookin at his clothes and certain lil things like the beads he was wearin’, and I’m like ok this is a Muslim. So then we start talkin and we hit it off right away. We stayed in touch, and I remember when he met Aja and was about to get married. He was like “Yo I met this woman and she’s amazing, we’re ‘bout to get married, she raps too, we might even be in a group together.” We kept in touch and we all came together again through this group in Chicago called IMAN (Inner-City Muslim Action Network) which does the best grassroots community organizing in the Muslim community in America. They also have a cultural element, very heavy on hip-hop. In that community, in the young Muslim-American community, The ReMINDers are the stars. When we come together in that space, everybody knows, I might sell a few more records, but they are the stars in that space. But our families and family. Our children are cousins, I’m their uncle, we travel to see each other. When me and my wife go out of the country for a week or somethin’, we bring the kids here. That’s family.