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Few of the other rappers seated onstage at the Ritz knew Ali, and the washed-out giant in a blue plaid collar shirt looked like an easy target for insults, the épée of the art form. Eyedea, a wiry teenager in baggy Rhymesayers T-shirt and crew cut, looked eager and energized as the DJ threw on the beat from Ghostface Killah's "Assassination Day."
"So what you're in my crew/Still you be the wackest," Eyedea began. "Yesterday he was like, 'Eyedea, come on, let's practice.'"
Actually, rehearsal had been Eyedea's idea: Along with the Unknown Prophets, both rappers routinely spent hours each day together making up put-downs about each other. (Ali and "Mikey" had ridden down in Eyedea's grandfather's Ford van, crowding into the back with a bunch of other kids.)
"You're my friend but the only way you'll beat me is if you pretend I'm your dick," Eyedea continued. "You're only dope...'cause Slug let you in the crew."
Eyedea shrugged, as if to say, "What'd I say?" and the room roared. Ali grinned and took the mic. He'd heard worse.
"Rhymesayers for life, motherfucker," he began. Then he took his first shot: "So what, I'm a motherfucking albino/That distracts the stupid ones while I murder you with rhyme flow/Thought you was a man while we was driving to Ohio/But you be on the ride home knowing that you my ho."
Ali chopped the air with his free hand, emphasizing the "my" before "ho." Then he delivered the punch line: "At least I got a tape."
It was a mild dis in retrospect: Eyedea and Abilities' first CD was on the way. But with one phrase, the audience was Ali's. He didn't win the contest—Sage Francis did—but the upset was the talk of Scribble Jam.
"He just totally killed me," says Larsen seven years later. "I think it did a lot for him. Suddenly his name was all over."
Since that date, a lot has changed in Ali's life.
He divorced his first wife and kept custody of their son. "You have a genuine goodness inside you/Wonder if I was ever like you," he raps on "Faheem," a new song named for the six-year-old.
Ali once announced at a show, "I'm gonna bring my sweetheart to the stage," remembers spoken-word artist Desdamona, who appeared on Rites of Passage. "Someone yells my name," she says, "And I was like, 'What? Ali and I are friends.' And then someone hands him his son, and he walks out with him."
Another new track finds Ali elated over not being broke—rare is the rap icon who brags about a new couch from Ikea—and finding new love. He met his wife, Tiffany, at New York's SOB's. "Which is pretty amazing," quips Slug, "'cause it's an Atmosphere show, so she's like one of three black people." Ali took her to a diner for breakfast, Tiffany Newman says, and they talked for eight hours.
Meanwhile, Rhymesayers has grown from a staff of one to about eight, depending on how you count the interns, and recently signed a distribution deal with Warner Music Group's Alternative Distribution Alliance. Yet Ali has somehow escaped the backlash that comes with success. His résumé reflects the embrace of a broad music scene: collaborations with Mint Condition singer Stokley Williams in the fusion group Ursus Minor; tours with Rakim, GZA, and MF Doom; radio spots for Marshall Field's. Ali gigs at Muslim conferences, where previous music tended toward the ummah's equivalent of Christian rock. Former local NAACP vice president James Everett says that Shadows on the Sun inspired him to convert to Islam. "I took my shahadah the following week," he says.
The rapper knows which way Mecca is from the Rhymesayers' new office above the label's record shop, Fifth Element. In fact, he might be Islam's first genuine preacher, albeit one not out to make any converts. His signature song from Shadows on the Sun, the proud-to-be-unconventionally-beautiful anthem "Forest Whitiker," drops the G-word dead center without excluding a soul: "To everyone out there, who's a little different," he raps, "I say damn a magazine, these are God's fingerprints."
That "everyone" seems to be expanding. In January, B96 personality Peter Parker played the lead single from The Undisputed Truth, "Truth Is," putting it in a call-in competition up against DJ Khaled's "We Takin' Over" for the station's "New Music Face-Off." On the track, Ali raps over a retro reggae beat dressed up for the club:
Our songs are supposed to be the voice of our soul
Not bought and sold, not all controlled
Bring a little fire when the world get cold
Let me shed a few tears, and to me, you went gold
Without bashing corporations or the latest equivalent of Mase, Ali simply asks for "more." The response from regular listeners was immediate and overwhelming. "Truth Is" won by 88 percent, leaving management "confused," according to Parker.
"When I came out here from Boston last year," the DJ says, "I'm like, 'Yo, what's up with the Rhymesayers?' And everybody at the station was like, 'Meh, they're local, we don't play them.' I'm like, 'They are Minnesota hip hop.'"