When Chuck D asked Brother Ali to feature on "Get Up Stand Up" off of Public Enemy's 2012 release, Most Of Our Heroes Still Don't Appear On No Stamp, it was a no brainer for the Minneapolis Rhymesayer. Not only was P.E. - along with Rakim and KRS-One - supremely instrumental in shaping the outlook of a teenage Ali growing into an understanding of the world around him, but over the past four years, Chuck D has become one of his mentors, inspiring not only his lyrics, but his call to activism as well. In this conversation with HipHopDX, Brother Ali details the history of his relationship with the P.E. frontman, Arrested Development and "Message Rap's" decline from the mainstream, and why artists like Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar are accurate examples of "where the hood is coming from."
HipHopDX: How did your collaboration with Public Enemy on "Get Up Stand Up" come about?
Brother Ali: I became a fan of Hip Hop when I was a little kid, like seven years old. The first time I rocked on stage with a mic was when I was eight years old. In the late 1980s, [Public Enemy], Rakim, and KRS-One, those guys changed my life because they were talking about actual knowledge and freedom and stuff like that. My life changed along with that so those guys were huge influences on me and continue to be. I still listen to their music as an adult and get stuff out of it that I never understood back then.
In 2008, the local public radio station put together a bill that was "A Conversation with Chuck D" in a theater. Me and Slug from Atmosphere were the music breaks. I think Slug did one of them and I did most of them. It was like going to a commercial. So they would have this conversation with Chuck D, then they would go to a commercial and I would come out and do a song. Me and Chuck had never met at this point and I was super excited about it. It was supposed to be like two weeks after my daughter was due, but my wife didn't go into labor, and now the show is coming up. We were both really excited about it. My wife is a huge Public Enemy fan. Eventually the doctor was like, "We're going to need to induce labor. We're going to do it Saturday night." That was the night of the show. So me and my wife had this conversation where we agreed that while she was in the hospital starting labor, I'd be doing this show with Chuck D. [Laughs]
He and I showed up early and we both got to hang out and talk. It was really great. Sometimes you talk to somebody and you're already comfortable like you already know each other. That's what it was like. We just started talking immediately. My son was with me, and he started talking to my son immediately. The other thing is that my deejay had a friend in college years ago and was just in awe of this woman. He used to tell me about her all the time. She was such an incredible mind. Such an incredible spirit. Not even a crush. He just had such an incredible admiration for this person. While me and Chuck we were talking, he bumps into her backstage and he's like, "Hey, I haven't seen you in years. You moved away," because she used to go to school here. She was like, "Hey, what's up with you?" He was like, "Well, I deejay for Brother Ali now." She was like, "Oh that's crazy because I'm married to Chuck D now."
Then I started running into Chuck on the festival circuit. One of the next times I saw him after that was in Australia. Me, Slug, and Ant were performing at the festival. We're onstage and we're doing our thing and we're excited because we were about to go see P.E. afterwards. I hadn't talked to Chuck. His phone wasn't working in Australia or something. I had only hung out with him that one time. We're doing our set and we're killing it. And I turnaround and he's on the side of the stage watching us and just going crazy, jumping around! Super hype. I'm just like turned up at this point. That was probably one of the greatest performances I ever gave just because Chuck D was watching. We get off stage and he's like, "Man, you're a force of nature, man." I actually ended up writing a song on Us, that starts off with "Fact about it / I'm a force of nature." That's all from him saying that. So then we go across the street and P.E. is performing It Takes A Nation Of Millions [To Hold Us Back], the whole album front to back. And in between all the songs, Chuck is shouting us out. I'm on the side of his stage, and he sends one of the S1Ws over there and he's like, "Chuck wants you to perform. What's your favorite Public Enemy song? He's gonna bring you out." The whole crew is there. [Professor] Griff is there. Flavor Flav is there. Chuck is there. Some of the original S1Ws are there. Everybody was there except for Terminator X. I was like, "My favorite P.E. song is "Fight The Power" but this does not need me. This is perfect." So, "Fight The Power" comes on and he's like, "Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for Brother Ali!" He's trying to hand me a mic but I pushed his hand out of the way and just hugged him and left stage. I was too shook to do it.
In 2009, I made the Us album and he actually recorded the intro for me, ["Brothers & Sisters"]. That was a big thing for me. I was on tour in Europe when he sent the vocals over. I was at an Atmosphere show. They were on stage and I was back stage by myself. I opened the email and it was his vocals! I'm just by myself with no one to share it with. I can't call home because it's like $2 a minute. I'm just like jumping around in the backstage room by myself. It was the most amazing thing ever.
Fast forward a little bit more to 2010. It's the year I talk about in the single, "Stop The Press." Really tough year. My great friend Eyedea died. [My] family almost broke up because I was on the road for 10 months. Just a terrible year. I ended that year by making my pilgrimage to Mecca then did a little run of shows that ended in Los Angeles. I brought my family out to L.A. for Christmas time. We don't celebrate Christmas, but it was Christmas time. We went out to Chuck and his wife's house. We hung out with them. Went out for dinner. Just spent a whole day and night with them. You know how sometimes you have these experiences with people that really touch you and are part of who you are?
Brother Ali: It's weird. Everything that I go through. Even when I try to think about talking to him about it or complaining to him, I just know that he's been through way worse. It's like, "Man, the government's messing with me. I've got a Department of Homeland Security file on me for 'Uncle Sam Goddamn.'" This dude's had his telephone tapped, all this surveillance. If I'm like, "Man, I don't think my fans are getting it." Some of my fans, a good portion of them, understand what I'm trying to say in the music. But to a bunch of them, they just listen to it because the music's good and they aren't really focused on what I'm talking about. They don't care about the politics of it. They just like the music or the beat or whatever. I'm having fans say borderline racist stuff to me. And this is the dude that's made the most pro-Black Rap music ever and they're touring with Anthrax. There's nothing I can say. I'm telling him how my marriage is on the rocks. Public Enemy does like 40 tours throughout the year. I'm telling him how I've got this deejay that isn't calling me back for gigs. He's been dealing with Flavor Flav for 20 years. It's like anything that I think I'm going through that's difficult, he's gone through it 10 times worse.
With this song, he hit me up and he's like, "We're making a new Public Enemy album and I'd like you to be on it." I'm like obviously I would love to. He sent me the song and I did it pretty quick and sent it back. It was a huge honor to have my voice be on that record.
DX: You even move into a Chuck D cadence on "Get Up Stand Up." He has one of the most difficult to mimic flows in Rap history. You seemed to embody him in your verse on that track.
Brother Ali: Yeah. Kind of my point with that was just to talk about the legacy of message music and how the fact that I came up listening to Public Enemy and now I'm not able to be quiet about the things that I think are important. Which at the time, if you think about in the late '80s, for Chuck and what he was saying to touch me the way that it did illustrates the power of that message in music. He was in New York in a traditional Hip Hop audience but it reached outside of that. Certain things were awakened in me by that music that I still live my life by. I still live my life by principles that I got from Public Enemy that I was turned on to the first time I saw Public Enemy and KRS-One. I'm a Muslim because I read Malcolm X. I read Malcolm X because they told me to. Everything important in my life, the seed of it was planted by them.
DX: The timeline you just laid out plus P.E.'s 2010 joint, "Say It Like It Is"...
Brother Ali: Oh yeah! They put my picture in the joint! That's kind of my trinity of Rap: KRS, Chuck D, Rakim. I met KRS when I was 13 years old. I went to a lecture and asked a question and he brought me on stage. I toured twice with Rakim. He kind of cosigned me early on. And Chuck D has been nothing short of a mentor at this point. It's amazing. To be going through these struggles and know that he went through them worse and to see his life and the fact that he's still doing what he wants to do. He's still having an impact on the world. He's still relevant. And that he's happy. So many of these stories end bad, almost all of them. Almost all of the great stories end bad. To see his story...I mean it's not done. He's only 50, but you can see the trajectory of his life. I wanted to be him when I was a teenager. Now that I'm a grown man, I have that much more respect for him and I'm still looking at his life like, "Yo, that's gonna be me."
DX: What's it like having Chuck D as a mentor; to follow in that same vein? Is there any pressure associated with that?
Brother Ali: I don't see it as pressure because I chose it, or as people always say, it chose me. There's a thing when you have a calling in life that you can't ignore. It's a lot of work to pursue but it's torture to ignore it. I see it as having high standards, but I don't see it as pressure. I see it as I need to be as diligent as possible. I've moved beyond more than just making music about it and into actual activism. Like with the Occupy Homes movement in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Working together with community members and neighbors. Standing with home owners that have been foreclosed on unjustly and are being kicked out of their homes. People putting pressure on the banks; putting pressure on the authorities and then if need be, physically occupying the homes so that when the police come to throw people out, we try to deter that or try to stop that from happening. Several people have won their homes back. When we get involved, it can cost the city $30,000 to $50,0000 to evict somebody. They have to come back and bring 50 to 100 cops. They've got to arrest a bunch of people and now we're all taking our cases to trial. They offered us all plea deals so now we're going to trial. In just one of the houses for example, 37 people were arrested, including me.
DX: These are all people protesting the eviction?
Brother Ali: Yeah. Demonstrating against it and physically trying to stop it. We'll get people to lock arms around the house. You arrest somebody, somebody else steps right into that place. You can arrest people all night if you want to. For the last eight months, five or six people have won their homes. People that would've been homeless and now the bank has to renegotiate with them. These are people that want to pay their mortgages -- maybe they lost their jobs and it took them a couple months to get back on their feet. They want to start making payments again but rather than do that, the banks want to take their house, sell it, and keep all the payments that they've been getting. I'm also doing advocacy work throughout the city, working with publications that have been covering us. We're kind of the leaders in the music scene where we live so we have these great relationships with these media outlets. We've been working with them about when they cover stories about communities of color, that they're culturally competent enough to do that in a dignified respectful way. These are things that are growing out of just making music. Chuck's done stuff for Occupy Skid Row and that kind of stuff.
DX: My favorite line on the song is, "I ain't mad at evolution / But I stand for revolution."
Brother Ali:Yeah, he talks about this a lot. He has a great understanding of the corporate structure that really controls the public perception of what Rap is. He talks a lot about local radio. He talks a lot about television and the big labels and the big corporations that own all the radio and own all the television and all that kind of stuff. There was a decision in the early 1990s that Message Rap wasn't going to get a big backing anymore. Literally. You know what proved that to me more than anything else? I recently became friends with Speech from Arrested Development. If you think about their story, their album [3 Years, 5 Months, And 2 Days In The Life Of...] had like four platinum singles on it. In a situation like that, when you go back to make your second album, you should be able to write your own ticket. That was commercially viable music - very pro-Black, very spiritual, very political music. When they went back to make their next album, they were basically told, "That's not what we're doing anymore." They never fell off. They never flopped. They were a huge success. They were just done because it was decided that that's not where the industry is going. The way these kids rap is like the NBA or something. You turn on the NBA and dudes are hitting 3s behind the backboard. [Talent] is through the roof now, but you can only rap about four subjects. If you say anything that's political, they treat you like you're rude for that. Like it's bad manners or poor taste for an entertainer to say something about politics.
DX: Where does an artist like Kanye West fit, for example?
Brother Ali: I think Kanye [West has] actually been really good in terms of that. This is my opinion. I'm sure Chuck would talk to you for three hours about his opinion of Kanye. My opinion is that Kanye is a much more accurate example of where people from the hood are coming from. People from the hood like to dress nice. They like to have nice things. They like pretty women. And they also have thoughts about politics. He just kind of mixes it all together. If you look at the people that he's inspired like this whole new wave of great, incredible young rappers that are all inspired by him. Where the wave before that was all inspired by Jay-Z. So when you listen to somebody like Kendrick Lamar, you hear that, too. You hear political stuff along with everything else. You hear everything that they're dealing with. To me, that's every bit as useful as having straight up political music because not everybody is going to listen to political music. But if Kanye says, "How you stop the Black Panthers? / Ronald Reagan cooked up an answer." Just dropping that little thing is like, "Hey, we used to have these people called the Black Panthers that knew the laws; were having a real honest to God revolution; that were monitoring the police. Why aren't they hear anymore? They infiltrated them, got them hooked on drugs, turned them against each other. Just that little tiny thing in the middle of a song about whatever. The same thing with Kendrick. I hear that with Kendrick, too. All day. I think Kendrick is amazing, incredible. He's my favorite one to come along in like 10 years. There's something really special about that kid. He's got that thing. Like, you can argue that Schoolboy Q is a better rapper, but Kendrick has that thing about him. Like, when you're in a room with someone who has that thing - more than rapping, more than that other stuff. He's just got that thing.