The place to find and share independent music. From hip-hop to pop, dubstep to drum n bass; Beatnik is your filter.
words Rob Boffard / photography Paul Bence
Brother Ali did not like the UK the first time he came here on tour. Understandable, since it put him in hospital.
“I didn’t know I couldn’t just plug my shaver from home in. Albinos have these little moles – just this little pigment spot –” he gestures to a spot behind his left ear, “- and I had one on the side of my head. My shaver wouldn’t work, so for the first time ever I was using a razor, and I cut it off my head! And it grew back, and kept growing and growing and growing, and it got really big. I had to have it surgically removed!”
That was quite some time ago. And Ali – the Rhymesayers lieutenant (born Jason Newman) who is currently riding the wave of his superb sixth project Us – is a little bit more experienced now, with a lot more air miles under his belt. He talks about he once left a hotel maid a fifteen pound tip – “I didn’t realise the first time I was here that there’re two pound coins!”. He’s even come to like the food.
“There’s this Italian restaurant [in London] that me and Slug went to, and I can’t remember the name or where it was but it was the best Italian food I’ve ever had in my life…So like when I had – what do you call it…uh…mashed peas?” That’d be mushy peas. “Yeah! And mashed potatoes and fish and chips. I like all that stuff.”
He looks like he eats a lot of food, full stop. Ali is big; not fat, just staunch, with broad shoulders and an imposing presence. Wearing sunglasses and a dark blue jumper, he’s perched on one of the benches outside Cargo, where he’s due to perform later tonight. He’s soft spoken, chooses his words carefully and is unfailingly polite. It’s almost a surprise to see him on stage later, his bluesman persona coming across as he gets the crowd amped up, his rolling, textured voice tearing through classics and new jams while his partner B.K. One DJ’s.
Us was very nearly called The Street Preacher (Ali changed the name at the last minute; he says it didn’t feel right) and although the show is an exercise in how to rock a crowd, Ali’s exhortations to say “Right On!” and “Amen!” make it seem like he’s taking the role a little too seriously. He’s quick to point out that he never intends to preach – not literally – and that the former title of the record came from a devoted fan who praised him after a show.
“I felt like she got what I was trying to do. I feel like there are a lot of listeners that connect with me on a personal level, that what I’m trying to say about society is really being heard…[but] I’m not preaching, I’m just telling the stories of people that I know and love, people I’m close to. I don’t just say, the moral of the story is! I don’t do it like Jon Singleton. I do it like Spike Lee…”
Reviewers have called Us his most positive record – hard to deny when it contains heaters like the celebratory ‘Fresh Air’ and the fist-pumping ‘The Preacher’. But Ali says this puzzles him slightly. He’s never been one to shy away from tough topics, and Us runs the full gamut.
“Even when I talk about something negative, I want my music to be [positive],” he says. “The idea is to do what they did in soul, gospel, which is to take something terrible in life and make it something beautiful. Anything that’s bad in life can become art that can be celebrated. It’s funny, all the interviews I’ve been doing, people have been saying, this album is so positive and so happy. But the songs are about rape and slavery and poverty and murder!”
Stories are something Ali is unreasonably – almost preternaturally – gifted at constructing. He says he’d much rather approach a difficult topic by telling a story, whether it be about homophobia or rape – and every story is about someone he knows personally.
“I’m working on not being so worthy,” he smiles. “and trying to be more to the point. That’s something Ant is really big on. He’s like, try to get to the point a little quicker.”
Ant is Anthony Davis, one half of Rhymesayers’ flagship act Atmosphere with his boy Slug – and less commonly known as Ali’s steadfast production partner. He’s made every beat that Ali’s rocked on since Shadows On The Sun seven years ago; when Ali went through his divorce a few years ago he’s candid about how much it shook him up – and how much responsibility Ant took on for getting him back on track.
“On Undisputed Truth, he had to really make me work. I was so shook up from what I was going through that I didn’t even know how to write the songs. He left me alone for like a year, and then called me one day and said, you’re gonna start a new album tomorrow. He showed up at my house and made me write until the album was done. It’s weird, Shadows On The Sun was me begging to do an album with him. Undisputed Truth was him begging to do an album with me. Us was a little bit more even. I’m excited about doing the next one.”
He may be slightly tired from a long tour – when we met him, he was lugging boxes of merchandise into the venue – but he’s extremely positive about where he is and where he’s going. He talks about his love for his label, and it invests time in its artists rather than just treating records deal traditionally. He’s quick to praise his contemporaries, including Slug (“He’s the greatest mentor in music, the best kind. You don’t find someone like that in rap very often.”) He’s making beats – and putting them out, something he hasn’t done for a while, with his music appearing on Toki Wright’s record and on the jump-up single ‘The Freshest Kids’, with Toki and Evidence. And he talks about his kids.
You can always see when Ali has a story to tell. A small smile cracks his face, and his eyebrows shoot up like they’ve got a spring underneath them. “We have a big festival every year that Rhymesayers does,” he begins, “and every year there are fifteen thousand people that are just there for us: me, Slug, Ant, our label and whatever guests we have. We go out there and perform for fifteen thousand people in our home town, go home, and go to bed at four o’clock in the morning. At six o’clock my kids wake up, and they want breakfast. They don’t care! That doesn’t even enter their minds!” (Breakfast, by the way, is organic oatmeal.)
“My son has figured out that with older kids he can be like, ‘Do you know Brother Ali? That’s my dad!’ That’s kinda weird. He has kids at school that he doesn’t know if they want to be friends with him ‘cos of him or because of me. Some stranger will invite him to his birthday party, some older kid at school, someone he’s never met before. Have your dad come too!…My daughter is only two. We listen to music and my song comes on, she’s like, ‘Daddy!’ But I don’t think she understands.”
Ali is celebrated enough to the point where the fact that he is albino – something deeply unusual in rap, where only Krondon from Strong Arm Steady comes to mind as someone who shares the same trait – is almost not worth commenting on. But for better or worse, it’s become a part of his story and his identity as an artist. In the past he’s said that he’s worried that the press would see his albinism as a gimmick. Does he still feel the same way?
“No.” Instant answer. “There’s nothing I can do about it anymore. The American press’s focus is on that…it’s very cheap for the most part. The press doesn’t really cover what I’m really trying to do. He’s albino, Muslim, rapper from the Midwest, and that’s the end of the story. Too bad though…but if my biggest problem is that I’m called albino every time I open a paper or magazine, that’s small. That’s an insignificant problem to have.”
Read Beatnik review of US
Rob Boffard runs his own radio show 20/20. Check it out!