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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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 manycollaborationstogether. 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.
Bootsy Collins, Buckethead, and Brain join forces with producer multi-instrumentalist Greg Hampton to release the man/robot Orwellian-themed, musically eclectic Living on Another Frequency. As bizarre as the combination sounds, it really isn’t unique. Brain and Buckethead worked together on The Big Eyeball in the Sky, joining Bernie Worrell (who guests on this record), and Les Claypool in the one-off Colonel Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains. Buckethead has worked with Collins before in Praxis. The X factor, and ultimately the weakness of the record, are the whiskey-soaked, cigarette-stained and underwhelming vocals of Greg Hampton who provides the lead voice on the majority of the record. It’s a shame because musically, it is as sophisticated as it is bizarre. It has much more structure than a Praxis project, but still roams all around a futuristic funk rock sound to tantalize the listener. The best tracks are the trippy instrumental based tracks which have weird vocal samples (and no Hampton singing like “Sci-Fax Theme” and “Famous”) or “Life-IS IN-Deliver,” featuring a spacey, Hendrix-influenced vocal by Collins, or a guest spot by the distinct Chuck D on “What It Is.” It’s adventurous and interesting, especially on paper, but much like the 2008 Chicago Cubs, being good on paper doesn’t guarantee success. (Mascot Records)
BET is running a new series entitled “Hip Hop vs. America,” and on the panel for the show was none other than the legendary Public Enemy front-man, Chuck D. The show focuses on the different sides of the hip-hop genre, and the social responsibility that its performers have to those who are listening. Great concept, and I’m psyched to see it…but, still, I had to ask what I knew lots of other wanted to know:
Yours Truly: Chuck, guys like you and KRS-One have taken rap and made political statements and aided it in being taken seriously as an art form. How do you think a show like, say, “Flava of Love” has affected you being taken seriously, I mean, as far as the rap community in general? Chuck D: I come from a black family, and one thing black folks know, we always got that one in our family. But we take them in as family. Jimmy Carter had Billy Carter. You all remember him, right? It’s just that we outnumber Flava 12-to-one, but you might not draw focus on the other 11 — and Flava is a one-of-a-kind, believe that. He ain’t never ever changed and ain’t gonna change. So, hopefully, more shows — maybe we’ll get 11 guys to have shows that balance out the “Flava of Love.”
By the way, Chuck said he wasn’t really interested in getting his own show…although he said he did think that Professor Griff would do pretty good with one (though, personally, I have to wonder if that wouldn’t have the potential to be even more damaging to hip-hop’s reputation than Flav’s show)…but he admitted that, if he did get his own show, he’d want it to be a one-on-one interview format. I said, “Oh, kinda like Henry Rollins?” I knew he’d been on Rollins’ show…but, damn, boyee, I didn’t know how much he’d enjoyed it. Chuck just lit up and was, like, “Oh, man, Rollins, I love Henry Rollins, I love him, I love everything he does, and I’d love to do anything like that guy.”
In closing, another writer asked Chuck if he thought Flava would ever find love, and he instantly offered up a laugh and a scoff, saying, “Flava found love. Flava got more love than he know what to do with!”