Underground Rapper of the Week: Brother Ali

Underground Rapper of the Week is a new feature designed to raise awareness of rappers from all over the world who, if that world were a perfect place, would be more famous than they are. It will be updated every Tuesday before the sun goes down. Feel free to email suggestions of slept-on rappers from your city or wherever to: ezra.stead@gmail.com

Minnesota’s Brother Ali has gotten a lot of press for being an anomaly in Hip-Hop: an albino Muslim with two white parents who doesn’t drink or do drugs, in keeping with his faith. However, rap has always been the music of the outsider, so in that respect, his ascendancy to the top of the game in his home state is no surprise at all. His distinctive appearance would never be enough to make him stand out, though, if it wasn’t backed up by an almost uncanny skill on the mic. His voice and delivery instantly command attention with the ferocious soul of a great preacher, and his lyrics have more than enough substance to back it up. Having been mentioned in more than a few of these columns already, it’s about time we took a deeper look at perhaps the greatest emcee to ever come out of Southside Minneapolis.

Brother Ali exploded into the hearts and minds of Twin Cities rap fans with his 2004 debut full-length, Shadows on the Sun, featuring the beautiful and empowering hit song, “Forest Whitiker,” which touches on his unusual appearance and the ignorance behind many people’s perception of it. “To everyone out there who’s a little different,” he says, “Damn a magazine, these is god’s fingerprints / You can call me ugly, but can’t take nothing from me / I am what I am, doctor, you ain’t gotta love me.” Ali has always been about bigger concerns than the superficiality of race and appearance, though, and the multitude of amazing work he has put out in the last decade proves it. His lyrical content has ranged from the personal to the universal with no change in his passion and sincerity, and his love of everything to do with Hip-Hop culture is more than evident in songs like “Self Taught,” from his excellent follow-up EP, Champion.

On his next album, 2007′s The Undisputed Truth, Ali delivered perhaps his most potent political anthem to date with “Uncle Sam Goddamn,” and his audience grew ever wider. He followed Truth up with the beautiful Us, on which he is introduced by no less a Hip-Hop luminary than Chuck D and goes on to feature like-minded Philadelphia emcee Freeway on one of their many collaborations together. The album alternates good life anthems like “Fresh Air” with thoughtful social explorations like “Tight Rope,” which tells stories of the dispossessed and disillusioned from an insider’s perspective. Of course, lest you get it twisted, Ali is more than capable of just straight up ripping a mic with the best of them, on absolutely any subject. It’s just that his consciousness and conscience set him apart at least as much as his phenomenal skill and instantly recognizable voice. His latest album, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, arrives from Rhymesayers Entertainment today, and if early glimpses of its content are any indication, Brother Ali has not even begun to slow down.

Underground Rapper of the Week: Gift of Gab

Underground Rapper of the Week is a new feature designed to raise awareness of rappers from all over the world who, if that world were a perfect place, would be more famous than they are. It will be updated every Tuesday before the sun goes down. Feel free to email suggestions of slept-on rappers from your city or wherever to: ezra.stead@gmail.com

Few underground rappers are more innovative and influential than California’s Gift of Gab, best known as the emcee half of the great Hip-Hop duo Blackalicious, complemented by DJ Chief Xcel. Gab is well-known by heads everywhere for his amazing verbal dexterity and immediately recognizable style, as well as his uncommon intelligence and careful enunciation on the mic. “Alphabet Aerobics,” from Blackalicious’ 1999 A2G EP, is a perfect example of his showy, technical side, as he flips a continuous stream of lyrics that only speeds up and gets more complex as he cycles through the entire alphabet, devoting approximately two bars to each letter.

However, Gab is not just a gimmicky, smarter-than-thou rapper’s rapper. What really sets him apart is his insightful, positive and elevating lyrical content, as heard on songs like “Shallow Days,” from Blackalicious’ 1999 debut full-length, Nia, where he laments the superficiality of consciousness in Hip-Hop culture: “The word ‘peace’ is just an expression / Used to say ‘bye’ when it’s time to jet and / Them red, black and green medallions / Was all just part of a trend, I guess / Hardly ever see them around brothers’ necks no more.” Tracks like this and the storytelling anthem, “Deception,” on which he chants the mantra, “Don’t let money change you,” show Gab to be relentlessly positive and forward-thinking, though he is quick to remind listeners he is not judging anyone for how they might be forced to live. As he says on “My Pen and Pad,” from Blackalicious’ 2005 album, The Craft, he is “never an anti-gangster – the ghetto is still in the mind.”

As great as A2G, Nia and The Craft are, Blackalicious’ indisputable masterpiece is 2002′s Blazing Arrow, a truly epic collection that feels like a culmination of everything the Xcel and Gab had done up to that point. It also features stellar work from a variety of other artists affiliated with Blackalicious and the Quannum Projects, including Nikki Giovanni, Gil Scott-Heron, DJ Shadow, Lyrics Born, Saul Williams, Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine, and Chali 2na of Jurassic 5, among others. My introduction to the wonders of Blackalicious began with the apocalyptic “Sky Is Falling,” on which Gab paints a dark picture of a world in which “juveniles is losing trials, catching a bid of murder one / And mothers is drinking and drugging, hoeing, searching for their sons.” Blazing Arrow is full of gems like that song, as is Blackalicious’ entire catalogue.

Since The Craft, Gift of Gab has been pursuing a solo career, releasing three albums in the past eight years, beginning with 4th Dimensional Rocketships Going Up in 2004. His 2009 follow-up, Escape 2 Mars, features the excellent song, “Dreamin,” featuring Del the Funky Homosapien and Brother Ali, and his latest, The Next Logical Progression, was released earlier this year. Whether blowing your mind with his technical prowess, making you think about the troubles of the world, or just bringing a smile to your face, Gift of Gab is all about making listeners feel something.

Underground Rapper of the Week: Big Zach (New MC)

Underground Rapper of the Week is a new feature designed to raise awareness of rappers from all over the world who, if that world were a perfect place, would be more famous than they are. It will be updated every Tuesday before the sun goes down. Feel free to email suggestions of slept-on rappers from your city or wherever to: ezra.stead@gmail.com

Among the pioneers and still active pillars of the Twin Cities Hip-Hop scene, one that often goes unsung is Big Zach (aka New MC) of the beloved underground crew Kanser. Though not as well-known nationally as Atmosphere, Brother Ali, Doomtree or the late, great Eyedea, Kanser is nonetheless one of the most historically important and influential groups in Minnesota, and Zach is likely second only to Eyedea as the most successful battle rapper in the state’s history. Now retired from the battle scene, Zach continues to make beautiful, thoughtful music with Kanser and his more organic “hippie-hop” group More Than Lights, as well as on his own as a solo artist.

Kanser first formed all the way back in the mid-90s, when Zach was still in high school, and though the crew began with a shifting cast of several other members, only Zach and Haitian-American rapper Unicus have remained constant from then until now. While many two emcee crews, from Outkast to Wide Eyes, function because of how closely they resemble each other vocally, Zach and Unicus complement each other’s voices in precisely the opposite way. Though they couldn’t sound much more different from one another, these is exactly what works so well about their sound, with each emcee offering his own unique perspective and experience. One of the best examples of this smooth interplay is the live favorite “Legacy” from their stellar 2008 album Future Retro Legacy, which may be their best work together.

Zach’s old side project from before More Than Lights, Traditional Methods, is also some of his best work, and having a live band behind him gives his lyrical delivery an even more organic feel. The group’s one album, Falling Forward, reflects a more political side of Zach’s lyricism, complemented by fellow emcees Sarah White and Big Shiz and backed by members of the live Hip-Hop group Heiruspecs on bass and guitar. However, Zach’s first solo album, White Jesus, remains his very best work to date. A smooth, relatable record that alternates between funny and tragic and never seems less than heartfelt, White Jesus gives the listener that rare feeling of really getting to know an artist’s life. On “Reality Rap,” Zach shows his incredible skill as a storyteller as he documents the worst year of his life: “In ’03, my summer never set in / My brother went to prison and Denny, he went to heaven.” “Sub Shop,” produced by Atmosphere’s Ant, shows a lighter side of Zach’s storytelling abilities, as he tells humorous tales of working as “the fastest sandwich maker in the world,” while “Meet the Parents” tells a slightly sweeter (but still funny) story of a past girlfriend whose parents “voted for Bush, they think Jesus was white / Probably won’t relate to his life.”

Of all the great songs on this album (and they’re all great songs), the one line that stands out the most for me is from the final song, “Emo Rap,” when he says, “Life is always up and down steadily / I just romanticize the memories.” A lot of these romanticized memories made their way into his book, Headspin, Headshots & History: Growing Up in Twin Cities Hip Hop, published late last year. A thorough, authentic document of the rise of a vital cultural movement, mixed with a strikingly honest and engaging memoir of Zach’s own life as part of that movement, this book is essential reading for Hip-Hop heads in the Twin Cities and beyond. More Than Lights releases a new album on October 5th, with a release party weekend on the 5th and 6th, so keep an eye out for Big Zach and his friends as they continue to deliver positive punchlines.

Underground Rapper of the Week: Prof

Underground Rapper of the Week is a new feature designed to raise awareness of rappers from all over the world who, if that world were a perfect place, would be more famous than they are. It will be updated every Tuesday before the sun goes down. Feel free to email suggestions of slept-on rappers from your city or wherever to: ezra.stead@gmail.com

Undoubtedly one of the most consistently entertaining underground rappers out right now, Southside Minneapolis’ Prof is a powerhouse of energy and skill wrapped up in an intentionally goofy exterior. Recently named one of City Pages’ Top 20 Best Minnesota Rappers, Prof has been on his grind in the Twin Cities for over a decade, and is now beginning to see some serious national exposure through his collaborations with the Alabama emcee Yelawolf and the Atlanta production duo Beat Chefs, who produced the stellar “Cold Outside” from Raekwon‘s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx … Pt. II, as well as fellow hometown heroes like Atmosphere and Brother Ali. Though his lyrics, stage presence and videos are mostly hilarious, Prof’s skill as an emcee is no joke, and his ability to engage an audience is extraordinary.

Prof released his first full-length with his rapping partner Rahzwell, the self-titled Prof & Rahzwell, in 2006, before breaking out with his Beat Chefs-produced solo debut, Project Gampo, in 2007. Like so many great emcees before him, Prof has invented a new slang term, “Gampo,” and it fits his hard-partying aesthetic perfectly. The hit single from that album, “Rocketman,” showcases his rapid-fire lyricism and playful swagger, as when he raps, “I keep ill, I eat skills / I climb mountains, I need thrills / Keep a couple dollar bills under my collar / So when I pop, know that I don’t mean pills.” Another standout track from that album is the hangover anthem “I Dry Heave,” which features great storytelling like these bars in which he describes barely getting to work and throwing up once more on the way in: “Rode on my niece’s handlebars all the way to work / My drunk ass might have been her training wheels, sure / And pull the trigger in the bushes before I walk in / My sweet niece left me gum in my pocket.”

Prof has stayed busy ever since, releasing two mixtapes under the title Kaiser von Powderhorn in 2008 and 2010, with a third on the way this summer. He also released the free album Recession Music, with fellow Minnesota rapper St. Paul Slim, in 2009; part of the ad campaign for that album, which includes the excellent “Horses in the Ghetto,” included old-fashioned “Wanted” posters of Prof and Slim illegally hung around the Twin Cities. This is a prime example of what sets Prof apart from a lot of other rappers: he has a unique way of making himself known, including some of the funniest promotional videos you’ll likely ever see. He also has a strong singing voice, which lends itself well to monster hooks such as the hilarious “Need Your Love” and “Animal,” as well as the straight-up blues jam “Whiskey.” Prof’s latest full-length, King Gampo, is available for free download now from Stophouse Music Group, so click that link and get Gampo!

Underground Rapper of the Week: Carnage the Executioner

Underground Rapper of the Week is a new feature designed to raise awareness of rappers from all over the world who, if that world were a perfect place, would be more famous than they are. It will be updated every Tuesday before the sun goes down. Feel free to email suggestions of slept-on rappers from your city or wherever to: ezra.stead@gmail.com

Making rap music is often as simple as one guy behind the turntables and one guy on the mic, but Minneapolis-based musician Carnage the Executioner has simplified things a step further than most. Using various loop pedals and often more than one microphone, Carnage (also known as Terrell Woods) is known to create entire musical symphonies in his live performances, one layer at a time, usually with nothing more than his mouth. In addition to his incomparable human beatboxing skills, Carnage is also a ridiculously talented emcee, spitting unpredictable, machine gun fire flows with incredible speed and versatility. The man is a true virtuoso on the microphone, and undoubtedly one of the most deadly emcees in the Twin Cities.

Amazingly, despite his unparalleled ability to rock a stage all by himself without even the normally required presence of a deejay – not to mention his aggressive, battle-ready sound – Carnage is known at least as well for his work with other emcees and musicians. Perhaps his most famous collaborative endeavors are his works both live and on record with the late, great Twin Cities Hip-Hop hero Eyedea, who was always one of Carnage’s most vocal and respected champions. Their back and forth beat-murder on tracks like “Coaches” and “Star Destroyer” (not to mention Carnage’s posthumous tribute remix of the latter) are among the finest rap music ever to come out of Minneapolis.

More recently, Carnage has toured internationally as half of the uniquely funky duo Ill Chemistry, for which fellow Twin Cities veteran Desdamona rhymes and sings, while Carnage and his loop pedals provide the beats. Having performed together for years on stages all around the Twin Cities, the duo have now been official for quite some time, amassing a respectable following in France as well as the United States. You can also hear them rapping together on Carnage’s latest album, Worth the Wait, where they explain to you why “You Should Not Emcee.”

Over the years, Carnage the Executioner has been affiliated with numerous crews, including Hecatomb and Fill in the Breaks, and once famously battled one of Minnesota’s most revered emcees, Brother Ali. He was recently chosen as one of City Pages’ Top 10 Best Minnesota Rappers, and is widely known, loved, and still more than a little feared by up-and-coming emcees in the Land of Lakes and beyond. He is premiering a new music video, “Respect the Name,” on June 15th at the Triple Rock Social Club in Minneapolis, and has a brand-new album dropping in September.

Related Posts