The Born Identity

Rhymesayers Entertainment
Brother Ali
Shadows on the Sun
Rhymesayers Entertainment

Los Nativos
Dia de Los Muertos
Rhymesayers Entertainment

Can we get through one Rhymesayers article without mentioning Slug? No, we can't--and not because the best-known MC on the local hip-hop label is a fixture in my neighborhood. (Hey, there he is on Lyndale, talking on his cell with the headphones still on as I drive on my way to write this.) Mentioning Slug is inescapable because he helped create the audience for Rhymesayers. And that audience identifies with him, in part, because he refuses to "identify": Whatever his family background, whatever the color of his fans, the rapper's identity politics are strictly "hip hop."

But the pre-sold audience for his new music video and concert DVD with Atmosphere (Sad Clown Bad Dub 4) might take note of two cameos by acts that are very different. Both have startling new albums on Rhymesayers that take hip hop into a new neighborhood--literally and figuratively. Los Nativos make their home on St. Paul's West Side: the Mexican Minnesota that produced pop rumbaleros such as the Rangel Sisters, whose family led this year's Cinco de Mayo parade. Their place is also with the world's indigenous people, whose cause they make their own. Meanwhile, Brother Ali's terrain is the north side of Minneapolis, but his place is Islam--which he observes from the unique point of view of an albino man who calls his skin Allah's "fingerprint." ("I'm an albino, but y'all pale in comparison.")

Standing in the shadow of Atmosphere, both acts face the obvious challenge of bringing as much swing to political and spiritual certainty as Slug brings to existential confusion. But both also have the advantage of novelty, especially "the Native Ones." Named for a Mexican holiday to honor the dead, and kicking off with a traditional prayer (the percussion sounds like the music of the Cinco de Mayo dances that the rappers participate in), Dia de Los Muertos might seem like a solemn sociology at first. Yet that intro quickly gives way to a sampled conversation (in Spanish) about the Zapatistas, which kicks off a series of nimble, bilingual tirades against "the invader," set to the most Spartan electro beats imaginable. Chilam Balam and Felipe Cuauhtli are either a radical take on old-school rap or a rap take on old-school radicalism--part UTFO, part AIM. But either way, the mingling of sensibilities is new, and the rappers mine that newness as zealously as Public Enemy discovering Farrakhan.

"All My Native Vatos" comes dangerously close to pimping, rather than celebrating, their heritage. "All my native vatos wave your axe in the air," goes the chant, "and scalp a muhfucker like you just don't care." Which is a joke, of course--and one that, unlike the tomahawk chop, is at the expense of whites in the audience. But what "invader" couldn't love the playful line that follows--"All my tribal honeys in the house tonight/Find yourself a warrior and hold him down tight"--or empathize with the verse's imagined "25 million Indians digging this"?

The politics need not be persuasive if the beats are, and anyone who wears "the struggle of my elders like a superhero suit" has obviously thought long and hard about making politics pop and lock. (Which might be why the CD took so long to come out.) Using a salsa sample at the end of "Tierra" wouldn't mean a thing if the futurist ragga that preceded it weren't ready for Latin American discos. The humor of putting a bullet through the Taco Bell Chihuahua (in one skit) would be wasted if the funk that followed weren't so sneaky.

Brother Ali, meanwhile, is saddled with the task of making talks with God accessible to kids sick of hearing KRS-One rant about "the real Jews." With Shadows on the Sun, the albino guy born Ali Newman invokes his bullies blow by blow. He remembers a childhood playground where white kids beat him silly because of... his white skin. Talk about confusion. "Fell face first into self hate/burst into tears when I'd hear my own hellish name cursed," he raps on "Picket Fence."

Then he remembers an adult black woman who seemed to understand him, and knew about his God chats. "You look the way you do because you're special," he quotes her as saying. "Not the short bus way, I mean that God's gonna test you/And all of this pain is training/For the day that you will have to lead with the gift God gave to you."

Proclaiming a mission would sound pretentious if Ali's zeal weren't convincing at a gut level. And anyone who can break the ice with De La Soul fans at First Avenue by celebrating the female orgasm has made me a believer. Again, the music sells it: Ali borrows Atmosphere's producer, Ant, who lends his trademark ancient blues and soul samples, then has Slug drop by for a cameo--you just can't get away from that guy.

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