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

Performing "Truth Is" live recently at a hip-hop conference in Moorhead, Ali mimicked B96's slogan: "Blazin' 100 percent hip hop and R&B."

"I say that's bullshit," he said gently. "You motherfuckers took about 10 percent of hip hop and you pushed it at us all day. I like some of it, but I personally want more."

Back in Ant's basement, Ant and Ali are talking about why saxophones suck. "They just do," says Ant.

Nick Vlcek

"Unless you're Coltrane," says Ali.

"Flutes are tight, though," says Ant.

"Anthony's always wanted an oboe," says Ali. "I don't know if he knows what an oboe is, I think he just likes the word 'oboe.'"

They talk like this for hours, turning to the subject of what it means to be a man.

"All these motherfuckers wanna be pimps now," says Ali. "There used to be pride in being a man, being the rock of the house."

I'm hanging in there, looking for a clue about Ali's art in this epic bullshitting session. It's there somewhere, maybe in the wall of old records—sample sources so numerous that Ant regularly burns time searching for things that he picked out just the day before. He plays new compositions for Ali, the MC's bald head hung in concentration, grooving slightly, the way he does in concert.

Ali is used to waiting everyone else out. He's the last person out the door at the show, as loved ones look on patiently, his ride waiting, watching him greet every fan and sign every autograph. Ali says that people who listen to his music are his friends, if they've listened closely. And, in truth, they probably know him better than most.

At last, I give in. Ali is going to have to get a ride home with somebody else. I offer my goodbyes and thank yous, already anticipating the CD in the car, the clarity of that beat: "A piece of my puzzle now."

Ant sees me out the door, then grabs another beer from the fridge. It's 3:30 a.m. on a Wednesday night, and Ali has another story to tell.

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