Brother Ali on Global Unrest: "The Line Between Terrorism and Righteous Soldiering Gets Very Thin"
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Representing a label, Rhymesayers Entertainment, that's always been made up of brainy, relative weirdos for the rap industry, Brother Ali stands out from even the rest of his extended musical family. Over the past decade-plus of his career, he's opted for gut punches over backpack nerdiness, with a delivery that rarely wavers in its drama and power, no matter the subject of his songs.
What might surprise some longtime fans, though, is the scope of the subjects on Ali's new album, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, released this past Tuesday. The first ten years of his albums were defined by personal struggles, either his own, at the very beginning, or those of his friends and family, more recently. Some of his best work was the most emotional and naked, breaking down issues on the micro level.
This new record, though, goes macro, grappling with global unrest and cutting away at ideologies with sharpened blades of verses. It also marks a sonic change for Brother Ali, with production this time around handled by Seattle-based Jake One rather than longtime collaborator Ant.
As such, Ali sees it as a new phase in his career, one that he's fine with fans taking or leaving. Luckily, for him, they're mostly all taking it. We caught up with him by phone before his show this Sunday at Culture Room to discuss his musical evolution, his faith, and, unsurprisingly, the way both relate to a news cycle of increasing violence and fear. Here's what he had to say.
Brother Ali. With Blank Tape Beloved, Homeboy Sandman, and DJ Sosa. 7:30 p.m. Sunday, September 23 at Culture Room, 3045 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $15; all ages. Click here.
County Grind: How have the first few shows on this tour been?
Brother Ali: The tour's off to an amazing start, with sold-out shows and happy, excited fans. I haven't had a Brother Ali show in a couple of years. I've performed at festivals and colleges and stuff, but in terms of a proper Brother Ali show, it's been a while since I've experienced it. I love it.
What most surprised you about the first couple shows?
I feel in a lot of ways like I'm starting over, because this is a new incarnation of me. I'm working with a new producer, Jake One, who works with Jay-Z and Rick Ross and Wiz Khalifa and Snoop Dogg and TI and 50 Cent. So it's a different kind of world for me to be existing in.
With my live show, I have a band, and I've never had that before; I've always had a DJ. Also, the messaging on my album is a little more pointedly political than it was before. So there's a lot of newness involved. When I perform my shows, it's about half and half new material and old material. I perform stuff off all the albums, but I wasn't sure if the old fans were really going to come out, and they really are.
What's been the biggest challenge about working with that live band, and adapting the old material to that setup?
Well I mean, they're songs that people love -- and I love them too -- that we're used to hearing a specific way on the record. So, just trying to interpret those things and play them in a way that still honors the original song but also gives it new life. It just takes a lot of work. It's fun work, but it's tedious. It's hard, but it's fun. It's a labor of love.