“What does it mean to be American? I think our struggle to be free is our inheritance… I know the masses want to sleep, and they would just rather here me rapping to the beat. But, I want to pass this planet to my son a little better than it was handed it to me so I wrote a letter to my countrymen, I’ll be happy if it only reaches one of them. Reporting live, A-L-I, your Brother: Mourning in America, Dreaming in Color.”
These are words spoken by Brother Ali on “Letter to My Countrymen” off his 2012 album “Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color”. Words uttered with the benefit of skeptical hindsight, but with everlasting optimism towards the future. It is this sensibility of which makes the emcee one of the most iconic in underground rap.
What makes “Mourning in America” such a success, ignoring chart placements, even ignoring the critical acclaim, is its fearless, yet accessible narrative towards the state of America through his eyes. It was bound to happen, as he notes, 2009’s “Us” “was moving towards a political direction, but I wanted to tell my listeners stories from my life, about people that I know that I know they don’t.”
It’s a man and his sincerest convictions. His music has always had socio-economic commentary, but with the events of the last couple of years–his political activism, in particular his Occupy Homes, and his pilgrimage to Mecca shining a bold focus into his songwriting–his life is represented, on some level, on Mourning. It was a new experience for Ali, who had worked with Jake One instead of Atmosphere‘s beatmaster Ant. Noting the significant differences:
Jake does drums first then music... there’s a lot going on rhythmically. Ant does music first, then drums… Ant’s beats creates a mood that you have to rap to: his music, take “Puppy Love” or “Walking Away”, it’s an automatic mood [when listening], and you can’t just rap about anything. You have to be saying something on that music.
Even ten years after his debut on Rhymesayers label, it’s still apparent his friendship and brotherhood he has with the duo in Atmosphere, and their impact on both him and music: “They should have won a Grammy by now. They just should. They started this whole movement…They’re really the ones that had me embrace this as art and not just hip-hop… they also taught me about the business and they’re like big brothers to me.”
Throughout the interview, he was very clear with his appreciation and closeness towards the duo. Even years prior to his commercial success:
I remember when Slug was on MTV when Atmosphere and I were on tour, and I was in the other room. [Atmosphere] were like ‘Oh! We want Brother Ali on this interview, too!’, to which the MTV people said, ‘We don’t want your bodyguard, we want you.’ So, [during the interview] Slug was asked to freestyle, but he said “I can’t really rap a-Capella… can Brother Ali beatbox?’ So, I sat on the couch and did a little beatbox. He found a way to get me on MTV. I remember he told one of the director’s there ‘When you see his music come out, you’ll see why he’s not a bodyguard.’
As he finished telling the story, looking settled, calmly saying: “Give respect to people who came before you, and helping out others without trying to own them is one of the things a lot of artists who are trying to be like Atmosphere don’t do… there’s only one.” Such respect is apparent when asked about the future production situation. “If I could have it my way, I could get right back to work with Ant. If I had my way, Ant would do the music, and Jake would do the drums… but, I feel Ant is not attainable right now.”
Looking towards the future, most notably with 2013, a few significant things are occurring: the “Welcome to Minnesota” tour with Atmosphere is kicking off in March–the First Ave. show sold out within an hour of ticket sales–“It’s just very cool… I did something similar to that a year before it became a thing, it just worked out like that where I was getting scheduled so frequently, I jokingly called it “The Welcome Back to Minnesota” tour. I think Slug was like “Man… that could be a thing!” Additionally, the tenth year anniversary of the iconic “Shadows on the Sun” is this year:
It feels good, though for the people who think of it that way [as iconic]… when I listen to it now, I hear how fun it was. Like it was the most fun I had making music… it’s been cool and energetic since then, but it’s never been just fun like that because we never knew if anybody would hear it. We were literally working to make ourselves happy.
It’s a good way to follow up the year of Ali, the year of 2012. With the free release of two singles and the excellent “Bite Marked Heart” EP, with “Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color” to boot, a lot of excitement is coming from his music. For 2013, however, he teased with the idea of “wanting to put out a lot of music… maybe something free again… just having fun making music, no epic project. Something will probably come out in 2013 or 2014.” It’s safe to say that is good news for music fans to hear.