Existential and profound may not be two qualities that come to mind when most people think of hip-hop, but they probably haven't heard of Brother Ali, who once proclaimed himself in a rap the "cross between John Gotti and Mahatma Gandhi."
While Ali's no stranger to the rap game, he owes allegiance to the indie label Rhymesayers where he's among a tight-knit family of other Minnesota-based rappers like Atmosphere and Evidence.
"I think that Rhymesayers was able to see me - or just have an idea for what I could be doin' - where there was no space for an artist like me with the major labels and there still isn't," Ali says.
By saying an artist "like him," Brother Ali (real name: Ali Newman) could be referring to the fact that he is legally blind or that he's a converted Muslim or maybe the fact that he's afflicted with albinism, a pigmentation disorder of the skin, hair and eyes. All of this has been used as media fodder, ad nauseum, since he got picked up by Rhymesayers and Ali acknowledges these realities with varying degrees of earnestness. His song "Picket Fence" off 2003's Shadows on the Sun can attest; "Didn't know I had an image that a camera couldn't capture/100 percent on Mars manufacture/But then came the laughter and outside I'm battered/picket fence shattered."
On Ali's 2009 Us, his third full-length album, the Wisconsin-born lyricist is content to unclench his fists and instead continue to let both his life and his musical path become a source of inspiration.
"The other albums were way more autobiographical and this one is more about society," Ali explains, "Because when I was making my other album, I was really fighting to get something... and then I realized that my internal reality wasn't what it needed to be."
Brother Ali's creative process generally begins when he samples music at the home of producer and longtime friend, Ant (Anthony Davis of Atmosphere), which by no coincidence is located five blocks from his own home, since Ali's visual impairment prevents him from driving. What happens after that seems nothing short of poetry when laid down on record and that's because Ali incorporates a broad range of instruments with his oft-emotional lyrics.
"I listen to all the music [Ant] makes and I find something that makes me feel a certain way and then I try to think of what it is, where have I felt this feeling before and then I write that," says Ali.
Brother Ali doesn't think everyone is cut out for making a living out of rapping - but he is.
"I knew that I was going to be a hip-hop artist all my life since I was seven years old, plain and simple. It's the only thing I've ever cared about enough to get good at," he says.
While Brother Ali spent his childhood emulating rap group Whodini's topic-centric songs, Ali's son Faheem is spending his on stage time with his dad, sometimes even spitting out his own witticisms.
While he knows his son has natural talent, Ali dismissed the need to encourage the boy to follow in his footsteps. "It's a lifestyle that's really heartbreaking and grueling and painful. There's so much pressure and sacrifice that goes along with making it a reality, making a life out of being a musician. I wouldn't wish it on anybody that didn't have a passion and desire to do it," Ali says.
Fresh off a trip to Mecca that's been a lifetime in the making, Ali is touring the West with other longtime friends, headlining artist The Grouch and fellow Rhymesayer, Eligh. The "How the Grouch Stole Christmas" tour has become an annual event, showcasing promising talent alongside established artists in a display of camaraderie and positive energy.
"It's about that experience of people feeling connected that we don't get to feel a whole lot in our society," says Ali.
"How the Grouch Stole Christmas Tour" featuring The Grouch, Brother Ali, Eligh and Los Rakas.
8pm Sunday, December 12. Domino Room, 51 NW Greenwood Ave. $20 advance at Bendticket.com, Ranch Records or ticketswest.com. $23/door. All ages