A hip-hop artist on the rise and Red Bull EmSee judge, Brother Ali reveals his breakthrough moment, what it takes to be a champion MC, the greatest poet, and how battling on the mike can be like porn.
As a judge for EmSee, Red Bull’s freestyle rap battle competition, what qualities do you look for in an MC?
The basic fundamentals -- voice, rhythm, cadence, flow, and complexity of lyrics -- are important, but what I look for is their presence. A good MC has to have power, charisma, and personality, but a great one exudes the persona of a champion.
Are there things an MC should avoid?
To me, it’s important that we remember hip-hop is the music of an oppressed people. Taking that into consideration, I have a low threshold for racial themes when it comes to battling. Too many MCs resort to using it on stage and as someone who loves and cares about the culture, racist remarks goes against the principles of hip-hop. Today, being unapologetically racist seems to be accepted in three forms of public settings: wrestling, porn, and MC battling.
What was your breakthrough moment as an artist?
There has been a lot of small ones throughout the course of my career, but a major moment was battling at the 2000 Scribble Jam in Cincinnati, OH. I rolled down with Eyedea who was also from my label and I ended up battling him. He’s better at battling than me, but the way the competition ended up going down, I was able to win.
Because of time restraints, they changed the format to one round per MC. Eyedea went first and said something I was able to flip and use against him. And because he couldn’t come back, I took the win. Winning that battle is what first brought me visibility to underground hip-hop fans.
Professionally, what three goals do you have for yourself?
I want to make music that lives forever. That’s really it.
Who are some MCs you most model your flow after?
KRS-One, Chuck D, and Rakim. Each of them for different reasons: KRS-One as a teacher, Chuck D as a leader, and Rakim as a poet.
Where do you find inspiration for a song?
For me, it’s just life. A lot of my stuff is autobiographical. For example, “Faheem” is a song about me telling my son that we’re leaving his mom. “Uncle Sam Goddamn” was a direct response to the exaggerated patriotism I saw that was imposed on us by the power structure post-9/11.
What comes first, lyrics or the music?
I choose the music based on a mood and then I write things from my past that fit the mood.
Check out Brother Ali's official Web site for more information about the artist, tour dates, and videos.