Molly Schaefer and Ben Sarle interviewed Minnesota indie hip-hop sensation Brother Ali of Rhymesayers Entertainment at Higher Ground in Burlington‚ Vermont before he performed with Atmosphere. This was his first performance during the When God Gives You Ugly tour‚ which he is finishing up with them.
How is doing a tour like this‚ where you're playing with Slug and Ant‚ different then when it's just you on the bill?
There's no pressure. When you're the headliner‚ you're the reason that people spend their 20 dollars or whatever. And so‚ all the pressure's kinda on you. And it's weird - like‚ I started out opening for Atmosphere. And so I keep doing it because it's so fun to me. But now is a little different because there are some people who know who I am‚ have my CDs or something like that. But going in‚ starting out‚ it was like‚ OK‚ you people have never heard of me before‚ and they have to stand here either way because they're waiting for Atmosphere. So‚ it's just an opportunity. You start out with no fans‚ and it's just a question of how many people are gonna leave here who want to know more from me. It's such a different thing‚ and the reward is different. Risk and reward go hand in hand. The risk in opening is a lot lower‚ and also the reward isn't as great. Know what I mean?
Yeah‚ totally. Would you say your relationship with Slug and Ant‚ or even Rhymesayers in general‚ has changed since you started?
Not really. We've all just kind of grown together‚ so the scale has changed but the relationship is pretty much exactly the same. Up until I met them‚ I was just always by myself‚ rapping. I kinda had the DIY thing. But I'm not as business-minded as they are. I'm just not. I met these guys‚ and they had the same outlook on music that I had. But in terms of business‚ they were so far advanced‚ and they still are. So as they grow‚ I grow. And so‚ ya know‚ maybe business-wise I am where they were five or six years ago. But five or six years ago‚ they were here and I was behind.
Yeah‚ you've grown together‚ exponentially at that.
Mmm hmm. But still the exact same relationship. It's still basically them being like‚ you got a lot of talent‚ and so we'll try to help you figure out how to do something with it. And it's like‚ OK‚ now we're gonna help show you how to do something new with it. It's great‚ man. I was making music‚ I was already rapping before I met them. But in terms of having this be life‚ I kind of owe that to them in a way.
When you're creating an album‚ or creating just a new song‚ how does it come together? Do you put the words over the beats or do you create it all together?
That's kinda changed. Initially‚ when I first met them‚ everybody that worked with Ant would spend the week writing words and he would spend the week making beats. And then on Sundays everybody would get together because everybody had jobs. Sunday after the football games were over‚ they would get together and figure out what went with what. And so I started out doing it the same way too. And then I started‚ I would go get beats from him and take them home and write to them and come back and record them. And then eventually it got to the point where I would sit at his house and write the song. And that's the best way we... I don't know if I necessarily do my best writing that way; I definitely do my best writing when I'm by myself. In terms of‚ like‚ creating a song‚ that's a really great way to do it. Because he does have input and I have input‚ ya know I'd say‚ like‚ what if the beat does this‚ switches like that? Then he'll also say what if this verse could be shorter? We really just collaborate.
That's cool. It's interesting to hear how that process works in general. We were talking about your songs and the way even your most serious lyrics‚ as far as content‚ are matched with a pretty uptempo‚ catchy beat. Is that intentional? You want to draw people in because that's what works for people‚ that makes them listen to what you have to say?
Yeah‚ there's like two parts to music‚ or a song. The first part is sonically what it sounds like‚ the mood of it. That's one of the main things I learned from working with Ant‚ is to start with moods. And that's the way we made the whole Undisputed Truth album and The Truth is Here EP‚ and that's the way we are making this new one‚ Street Preacher‚ that we're working on right now. I listen to the music and hear the mood and say‚ OK‚ where does this mood take me in terms of writing‚ ya know?
Yeah. Even your more serious songs‚ like "Dorian" or "Faheem" or "Uncle Sam‚" it's intense‚ heavy lyrics‚ but the beat is still... I don't want to say easy listening or catchy‚ but it is easy to listen to.
Yeah‚ it's mood-driven. And that's what it's all about if you capture the mood‚ the spirit of something. That's the most important thing. Sometimes there's takes where I didn't do everything perfectly‚ I didn't execute everything perfectly. There's a song on the album we're working on now‚ where the take that we have of me doing my vocal performance‚ it's not perfect. There's flaws in it. With that‚ basically what we did is turned on the machine‚ rapped all the way through it‚ and the emotion was really great‚ so we saved that take. We went on trying to make it more perfect‚ but then ended up just going back to that first one because the feeling. The feeling and the emotion was so powerful‚ and at the time I remember Ant made that call and was like‚ man‚ the first one was the best one. And I remember being like‚ aw‚ technically I didn't do this right; this didn't land right on the beat and stuff. I remember being like‚ huh... maybe I'll come back and change it when he's on tour‚ ha. I went back to it after not hearing it for a while‚ and really‚ he was right.
Do you still battle?
No. I never liked it when I was doing it. I like raw‚ real battles‚ ya know? Two rappers are both trying to be the best rapper in a scene‚ or people that genuinely have a problem with each other and they solve it on the mic. I've done those‚ and I love those. But when they're set up...
Like Scribble Jam and stuff like that?
Yeah‚ that shit is just‚ it's a sport. And that's not the way I've ever seen it. Dudes would just work it‚ work at these patterns‚ stuff like that. They see it like tennis. And it doesn't matter who they're playing; they just give their best performance. And that's cool. I appreciate it for what it is. I did Scribble Jam. I did Scribble Jam twice‚ but I'm undefeated in the streets. Like in a real battle‚ I've never been beat. I've had people in my city that didn't like me come to my shows and call me out. And I've brought 'em on stage with all their friends and destroyed them. But then Scribble Jam I did two years in a row. The first year was good because I went there and I just couldn't believe -- like that was the first time really getting outside Minneapolis; I couldn't believe all these dorks that thought they were rappers. I just couldn't wait to yell at them. And so that was really fun‚ so I went back the next year and I was like‚ man‚ if I could put some time into this I might get really good at it. So I kinda did‚ and I went back the next year and was so uninspired‚ probably had one of the most... stale‚ whack moments I've ever had.
Ha. What happened?
One of the things people do there‚ is like there's standard things you always say‚ and one of 'em is you're gay‚ you're gay‚ you're gay‚ which is so dumb to me‚ but I went up there and I felt myself kinda choking‚ and I was like‚ I don't know what to say -- like I don't care‚ this person isn't bad enough to dis‚ but not good enough to be competitive about. He's just kinda there. And I'm like‚ what do I say? I end up saying all this "gay" shit‚ and I got offstage and my man was just like‚ "What the fuck was that?" Ha. And I'm like‚ "Dude‚ I don't know!" Know what I mean? It was really embarrassing. So I just kinda felt no more... no more of that for me. I think one of the best that's ever done that organized battle thing was Eyedea‚ my friend Eyedea‚ and I'm the only person to ever beat him. Even that was like I beat him because of the way it was set up. Like if me and him went back and forth‚ eventually over time he would have won. Because I would have ran outta shit and he wouldn't have.
Do you have any stories about crazy fans‚ like anecdotes about being on tour‚ or things that happened after the show‚ since you've kinda blown up?
I mean‚ I would say that 99 percent of my interactions with people that listen to our music are really‚ really cool‚ and I've learned a lot from people just doing this music‚ and talking to people‚ seeing the way they respond to it. I really don't make this music with anybody in mind‚ for the most part. It's like this is what's on my mind. If Ant's happy and I'm happy‚ then that's what it's supposed to be. So then when I go out there and see people respond to it like it's me telling their story -- and I'm not; I'm telling mine -- it really has taught me a lot about how alike we really all are. And that's what my next album is about‚ how much alike we really all are‚ things we experience.