Q&A: Brother Ali on Rock the Bells and The Importance of Getting Touched By Ghostface


Of the many details that differentiate Brother Ali from your average rapper, it is important to note that after delving deep into the painful dissolution of his emotionally abusive marriage on his 2007 album The Undisputed Truth, Ali wraps things up by telling his ex that he hopes she has a better life without him. Braggadocio concerning one’s ability to love and forgive is a particularly Ali characteristic, but the man has never lacked for unique insights. Over the course of his decade-long career the Madison-born, Minneapolis-based Ali (who convertered to Islam several years ago) has tackled subjects ranging from depression, racial identity, America’s war addiction, the aftermath of sexual abuse, life as a single father, and the need to stay strong through life’s hardships. His flow is direct, but crafty, his tone veers from spleen-bursting to achingly empathetic. He’s also capable of a sweetness that can turn unapologetically gooey. (When discussing life with his new wife and children, he claims they now have a house “like the Berenstain Bears.”)

Ali, born Jason Newman, found a patron in indie-rap kingpins Atmosphere last decade, gaining an early fanbase on tours with them and releasing albums via their label Rhymesayers. And though the albums are strong, it’s his stand-up-and-testify live shows that have proved him a force to be reckoned with, which should make him a welcome relief for anyone who begins to suffer a nostalgia overload at the admittedly awesome/absurd Rock The Bells festival this weekend. The festival will feature a variety of hip-hop legends performing classic albums in full, such as A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders, Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The 36 Chambers, Rakim’ Paid In Full and Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, as well as appearances from Clipse, Yelawolf, Murs and Wiz Khalifa. (According to reviews of previous performances, “special guest” Lauryn Hill has actually shown up to the first two dates on the tour as well, but it might be unwise to get one’s hopes too high in this regard.) Sound Of The City caught up with Ali to discuss the art of the hip-hop show, stealing from KRS-One and teaching one’s fans proper methods of interaction.

How’s your summer been?

Uhm, interesting. Busy. Good. Rough. Everything. I’ve spent the whole first part of the summer doing festivals in Europe. This run of Rock The Bells shows and U.S. festivals will end my year of touring for my last album Us, I’m kind of at the last month of it now. Man, I did ten months on the road supporting this album.

Tthis is your last month before you take a break?

I’m not taking a break, I’m starting my next album, but touring will slow down a little bit. But actually…no, really not even. This band called Pepper called me and asked me to open for them. I wasn’t that familiar with their music but they seem like really great dudes, so I’m going to be on their tour. I’m going to do my pilgrimage to Mecca later this fall. So I’m not really slowing down, but in my mind it’s the end of the cycle for that album.

When you do things like this Rock The Bells festivals or those European shows, do you get a sense of how many people are there to see you, and how many people are just killing time until the headliners are on?

That and a mixture of being outside are always kind of the unknown factors of being at a festival. Whereas a club show–they’re pretty much going to be what they’re going to be. But festivals, it’s really hard to know how many of the people are going to be actually watching and in to you, and what the actual weather is going to be like and the set-up of everything. Those are the two biggest unknowns of going into a festival.

You’re already known for an intense love show. When you’re playing for a crowd that might not know who you are, does that spur you to try harder to win people over? Or at least make an impression?

No, I take the approach that it’s really important to me to just do what I do. Because as an underground, independent artist, without having the major-media machine behind me, I’ve always said that my goal has always been for just people to just have a chance to see what we’re doing here. And if that speaks to them, then they can become a part of it. So that’s the way I approach festivals too.

But we do usually pick up new people at festivals. You used to be able to track record sales and say, “Okay, you go play a big festival in London and then in the next two weeks your record sales in London might go up.” You can’t track it like that anymore because people don’t buy music like that anymore. But I’ll notice that where normally I would get a 1,000 new people or 2,000 new people every week on Facebook or Twitter, well Facebook in particular, when I’m out there doing festivals it’ll be 5,000 new people or 4,000 people instead of two. So it does seem like we’re picking up new people from performing festivals.

These Rock The Bells festivals you’re doing look like a lot of fun. But the headliners are all these veteran acts doing classic albums in full. As an old-school fan who has an investment in the future of hip-hop, how do you feel about it?

I’m really excited to see people doing these classic albums. What I’ve always said is that I think it’s really important for the genre, for us to not separate the current from the old or the underground from the mainstream. If we’re going to have these primarily hip-hop spaces where we’re all going to come together, I would like to see us more integrated, and less of a distinction made between “This is the main stage and these are the…” and I’m not saying that because I’m on the second stage [laughs]. I’ve always felt like it’s really important to keep all of these things together. Businesswise, but then also in the minds of supporters, listeners and fans, that we don’t allow this separation to continue.

Because there’s a huge separation that’s hurting all of us, and there was a time when it really hurt as underground artists, because of the fact that we had less exposure and the mainstream was doing so well and we were fighting to get any kind of attention at all. But now, the climate in the music industry has changed so much, these mainstream artists could have been learning a lot from us over the last ten years about how to sustain a career independently. And you see some of them that are able to make that switch, but now they’re all kind of scrambling to want to throw a tour together. And now because nobody is getting those advances that they used to get, now everybody wants to go on tour. But nobody really knows how to tour, so we just have a flooded mess now on the touring circuit. And had we been connected this whole time, we could have all really had a much better groundwork laid for the touring sector.

Also, you get a lot of artists that used to be on major labels–Freeway is a great example, his first album was with Roc-A-Fella, his second was with G-Unit and his third album is with Rhymesayers–he’s somebody that has adapted really well to the underground, independent business model. Because that’s kind of always been where his head and heart have been. But not everybody is able to make that transition as smoothly. I think businesswise, but then also for the sake of the genre. We have so many listeners who are open to a sliver of what hip-hop has to offer. They have one particular niche that they like, and they never really found an awareness of the rest of it. I have people who listen to me that don’t know, man, Immortal Technique. You know what I mean? Not to mention that they don’t listen to Rick Ross and Lil’ Wayne like I do, but I mean they don’t listen to Dead Prez.

Or Pharoahe Monch or something.

Yeah! And then Pharoahe Monch has listeners that don’t know who I am. And Talib Kweli has listeners that don’t listen to us. I think that prior to Biggie and Tupac hip-hop was one community that was all-encompassing, and everybody felt connected in some kind of way. Even if you preferred gangsta music, you still would listen to or go to a Public Enemy show or you would still go see Heavy D. And you would see all those artists touring together. You would see a bill, literally, with LL Cool J, Heavy D, Public Enemy and The Geto Boys. Literally every type of hip-hop was together. But after Biggie and Tupac, the big music machine took over and they were promoting certain types of rap and they just kind of left the rest of us to fend for ourselves. And so we as hip-hop, we allowed that to happen. And we almost fed into it, to our detriment. Because we have this huge base of hip-hop listeners right now who are not connected in any kind of substantive way. So getting everybody together, mobilizing everybody to do anything, not just buy an album or go to a show but all of the other possibilities that are there with hip-hop…if you think about it, hip-hop had a lot to do with the gang truce in L.A. Hip-hop had a lot to do with the Stop The Violence movement that KRS started and they duplicated it in LA with We’re All In The Same Gang. We were able to mobilize the hip-hop base a lot more. We had a much more unified effort, and now it’s just so separate. So my thing is that I love that we’re all coming together to do this thing, but I would like to see it a lot more integrated.

When you do the fests, how much do you get to interact backstage with people in that world? And when you get to say “hi,” do you get the feeling they know who you are?

That’s another part about this whole thing, is that artists know who each other are. Like I just recently have gotten to know, just a little bit of limited interaction, people like Pharoahe Monch and Talib Kweli and The Roots. People that I’ve been fans of, but our worlds just haven’t mixed enough. When I met them, I didn’t expect for them to know me, because like I said, our paths don’t cross that often. But they all did, and they were all kind and respectful, and these were people I’ve looked up to for years. I came into the business modeling myself after them in certain elements of what I do. Now, I would be very surprised if Lauryn Hill knew, I would be very surprised if Snoop knew. But stranger things have happened. The other thing at Rock The Bells is even the backstage is segregated. So that if you’re on the second stage, the Paid Dues stage, your backstage is separate from the mainstage and you don’t have access to that unless one of those artists goes to get you and brings you over there. [Laughs]

Man, that sucks.

When you’re on the second stage, you really know what your place is. And I’m extremely happy to do it. And also [Rock The Bells organizer Chang Weisberg] is a friend of mine, you know what I mean? He’s heard me say all these things. And I’m glad to be able to play at Rock The Bells and I’m glad there is Rock The Bells. I’m making some criticisms but it’s possible to appreciate something and criticize it at the same time.

Oh, definitely.

And say that I’m very happy that Rock The Bells exists and I’m very happy to be a part of it, but if I had my way, it would like to see it mixed up a little bit. And it’s interesting that Chang, who runs Rock The Bells, and Murs, they do (the more independent-leaning) Paid Dues together as partners, and they way they run Paid Dues, the years that I’ve been a part of it, have been a lot more the way I would like to see things done, where my room is right next to Cypress Hill’s room and we’re interacting and we’re barbequing together, and I’m running into Xzibit. But the way Paid Dues is run, and the way that we run our festival, we got one called SoundSet, it’s more integrated. You’ll see local Minnesota artists on the main stage with Method Man and Redman, or you’ll see national artists like Busdriver headlining the second stage with our locals. It’s not so clearly “you’re independent so you’re on the Paid Dues stage and you’re mainstream so you’re on the big stage.”

It’s more just: This Is Hip-Hop.

Yeah, and I think that’s a really important thing for our genre.

Who did you model your show after, and how long did it take you to get to the performance level you’re at now?

Well, I started out by straight-up stealing KRS-One’s routine. It was a mixture of KRS-One, in terms of the overall MC that he was, especially onstage. He is probably, still, the best MC. Like, I’ve seen better performances, like Run-DMC or Public Enemy, those are the top three live shows. But in terms of the individual, as a guy onstage, KRS is it. And he put out a live album in ’91 (Live Hardcore Worldwide), and I memorized all those routines. And I still to this day, I listen to that when I’m working out when I’m getting ready to go on tour. I know you can’t really tell that I work out, but I work out when I’m getting ready to go on tour, and I listen to that album. That was such a huge inspiration to me.

People have always picked up on the fact that I really get a lot of what I do from church. It’s because so early on I noticed when I started touring in this circuit that I’m in… I thought I was doing a great job but I would be onstage and be like “Man, these people are just not responding.” But then I would go out in the audience while Atmosphere was on, and people were just hugging me and thanking me, and it made me realize that they culturally aren’t taught how to interact with something while it’s going on. They wait until after it’s done and then they tell you what a great job it was.

It reminded me of when I was a little kid and I would be at my friend’s house and I would go to black church, and I would be with my mom and go to white church. And black church, you’re just kind of expected that you’re part of it, it’s interaction while it’s going on. If preacher says something that you like, you say “Amen!” or “That’s right!” or something like that. And you sing along and you interact, literally. And then at white church you basically were quiet out of respect for what was going on. There was a different understanding that out of respect for what was going on, you were quiet and you passively listened, and then afterwards you give your criticisms or your praise. So it just kind of taught me that if I was going to have the shows I wanted to have, I needed to literally instruct the audience and almost have a teaching moment with them while I’m performing. “This is what you say, this is what you do, and if you’re enjoying yourself do this, if you liked that do this.”

Because once they have that experience and they see how powerful it is for a roomful of people to do the same thing at the same time with the same spirit, there’s a really powerful, communal thing there that I think in mainstream, white society we lose out on. We don’t have that, we’re very individualist, we see ourselves as “me.” We eat our food alone in our room. So when people experience that, that’s why they say “wow, that was amazing,” I think it’s because they’re not used to it. Whereas I look at myself and I think I’m really good at what I do, but I don’t think that I’m one of the best. I look at myself versus KRS-One or Run-DMC or Chuck D of Public Enemy, and I’m nothing compared to them. Those are still standards for me to try to reach.

Have you seen any hip-hop shows that taught you what not to do?
Yeah…I mean…yeah. (Laughs) I don’t…man, I hate spending my time criticizing what other people are doing.

I understand that.

But yeah, I will say that overall…I think these labels and managers were for a long time allowing artists to be complacent, with live shows not being an important part of it. And if you look at it now, you can really see the evidence of that. I mean, we’re what 30 years into hip-hop now, and how many hip-hop artists are there that can tour arenas? There’s like two. Three. Jay-Z, Kanye and Eminem are the only ones that can do that. And that’s not good man, that’s not a good thing. There’s so few because we just didn’t concentrate on it for so long. It used to be an important part.

In the very early days of hip-hop, everything was live. It was all about the live situation. And really Run-DMC put that into affect. They really patterned themselves after rock music, and that’s why they were able to reach the heights that they did in the mainstream world. There’s a section of hip-hop that, because we were underground, independent of them, had to focus on the live show. And so to see someone like Atmosphere or Tech N9ne selling a hundred-thousand plus, or to see someone like me and Murs, every time we come out we’re selling 70,000. That’s indicative of us being able to really touch people on some level, because of the fact that we’ve given them an experience and this music is an integral part of their life. They buy the music, they listen to it, they collect the vinyl, they wear the shirt, and it’s part of the way they socialize. And they know that all fall, all spring and maybe once during summer and once during the winter, all of their favorite artists are going to come to their town, and they’re going to hug them. There’s something to be said for that.

A lot of these guys that have started touring with us now that used to be part of the mainstream, like Freeway and Ghostface (Killah)–that [interaction] originally wasn’t part of their thing, but now they do that. And now the people that listen to Ghostface or Freeway, now they have the story of the time they hung out with Ghostface. They’re going to buy everything Ghostface ever puts out because he’s actually, literally, touching them.

Brother Ali will play the Rock The Bells show this Saturday at Governor’s Island. General tickets and the “High Roller” VIP package are available here.