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Wrong image, wrong religion, wrong city: Meet Brother Ali, hip hop's unlikely savior

El-Amin fired Ali from his youth outreach job at the mosque—for being late. It was a tough lesson that Ali came to regard as an important one, though he cried at the time. To Ali, Arlene was his "other mom." He later thanked her by name in the gospel-flavored song "Waheeda's Hands," and paid tribute to her more vaguely in "Picket Fence." In that song, an older black woman tells him, "You look the way you do because you're special/Not the short bus way, I mean that God's gonna test you."

As Ali fell in with Islam, though, he fell out with hip hop. By the late '90s, he was working at UPS, attending mosque regularly, and hating the radio. He listened to the laconic mumble of Mase, the ascendant MC of the moment, and asked: This is supposed to be good?

He'd about given up on his own rap dream when a co-worker handed him a tape of the first two Rhymesayers CDs, a mix of the debuts from Musab and Atmosphere.

 

Our vehicle rolls to a stop next to a park in south Minneapolis, and Ali climbs out. We walk up to Ant's new house, which to me looks exactly like his old house, the spot where Musab first brought Ali eight years ago.

"That's when nobody knew Ant," Ali says.

Ant welcomes us in, looking like a meatier Antonio Banderas—a comparison that he apparently doesn't mind, as he's kept the mustache and ponytail for at least the past five years.

"What up, man? How you doin'?" he says, waving us down into the carpeted cellar, taking a stool. Ali's got the couch. I get a crate.

The other half of Atmosphere, Ant has been Ali's songwriting collaborator since 2000. His panoramic blues-reggae-funk has made him the most internationally acclaimed hip-hop producer out of Minnesota. "There's no samples on our shit," he jokes, lighting a cigarette and gesturing around to the four walls of records. "This is just for inspiration."

It's nearing 1:00 a.m., the standard hour for Ali and Ant to begin a "session"—their first night of talking and listening in preparation for the next album. As with so much creative work, the process can look a lot like loafing: They sink a half-hour into listing recent record purchases—rare Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters.

The Undisputed Truth began this way, in an exchange of raw samples and ideas, then as a performance of lyrics, then more exchange. "I'm all about making sure people are being who they are," says Ant.

Ali agrees. "There are times when he'll be like, 'I don't think that you would really say that this way. I've never heard you talk like that.'"

The duo's first track together was "Room with a View," a despairing look at north Minneapolis. Here, Ali rapped, "some parents only touch they children when a whip's brought/That's why bad kids do bad shit, just so they could get caught." The song opened Brother Ali's second Rhymesayers release and first CD, 2003's Shadows on the Sun. Ali says the album was funded by a friend who was beaten by Minneapolis police and settled out of court.

The new, 2007 material cajoles where previous songs blasted. "Letter from the Government" is an almost philosophical antiwar hymn compared to the old Public Enemy track ("Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos") that it paraphrases. "I got a letter from the government the other day/I opened and read it and burned that," Ali gently sings, sounding almost mournful. "Man, the way that I live don't concern that/Man, we gon' have to settle this another way."

The song is intimate, half-thought-out, like the one about his ex-wife—too personal for me to touch in print. "So as long as the core people close to me, it makes sense to them, then my music is what it is," says Ali. "If it comes out, and I'm being honest, and something bad happens, well maybe I'm a piece of shit. Maybe I'm beautiful. Maybe I'm both."

 

Some stars are anointed for their looks, their connections, their sense of what's cool. Brother Ali crashed the party.

One day in 1998, Radio K's weekly hip-hop program, The Beat Box, featured guests Slug and fellow Rhymesayers rapper Eyedea (Michael Larsen). Unprompted and uninvited, Ali headed down to the studio with a demo tape. Milwaukee-raised BK-One (Brendan Kelly), the show's co-host, soon became his DJ. Everyone else became his friend.

With his self-produced 2000 cassette on Rhymesayers, Rites of Passage, Ali announced a major new voice on the music scene, issuing a challenge to big-money rap on the third track: "Have you ever thought that every time you listen to a track/That's four minutes of your life that you can never get back?"

It's a ballsy artist who sequences another 12 tracks after that one.

But it was an MC battle that put Ali on the map. Having already faced off against master local freestyler Carnage at the Dinkytown sandwich shop Bon Appetit, Ali entered the national rap contest at Scribble Jam 2000. There, in Cincinnati, he went up against Eyedea—the odds-on favorite, having just won a similar event at the Rock Steady Anniversary.

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