BROTHER ALI with J-LIVE, skratch bastid and fathom & fase at Fez Batik (129 Peter), tonight (Thursday, October 14). $15. 416-204-9660. Rating: NNNNN
Usually positive Wisconsin-born rapper Brother Ali is feeling dangerous today.
"I'm gonna go step on a land mine," the MC drawls over the phone from his Minneapolis crib. "I think I'm gonna go get attacked by alligators or something."
This, he decides, he can use as a publicity angle in an age when rappers who get shot, almost die in car crashes or go to prison are making it big. If he can survive, it might take some focus away from the overstressed fact that he is - wow - a rapper who's albino.
Ali has risen to a commanding level of respect and recognition among the indie rap set, not on the strength of his skin, or narrowly escaping death, but because of things like the live show he's cultivated. Onstage, Ali is pure presence - charismatic and spiritually sound, with a battle-ready intensity that a wack rapper wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley.
His performances were developed with the solid crew he found with Slug of Atmosphere's revered Rhymesayers label, which recently merged with big-time punk imprint Epitaph Records after turning down offers from a yacht-load of majors.
"I mean, we put everything into our shows because we don't have the luxury of videos or big advertising or anything like that," he says plainly. "Basically, what we have is our CD and our live show. We need our live show to be powerful enough so nobody can ever forget us."
His memorable live shows also involve an audience-respecting aesthetic born back in the day. At 26, Brother Ali is a Renaissance man who came up as a child in hiphop when it was pure and fresh, like juice squeezed from a cold orange in July.
"In about 84, I got introduced to b-boying and graffiti," he says. "Hiphop music was just a soundtrack to that. I learned a little bit about MCing and DJing just from listening to those. We had mix tapes in the Midwest where DJs had gone to get records in New York, and I listened to it through those. And then there was a wave of MCs who just changed everything. Like Rakim. They made me want to get into that aspect."
Hear Brother Ali submerged deep in hiphop waters on his breakthrough album, Shadows On The Sun. Soul just pours from this record as the Islamic rapper's wits and ruggedly earnest flow tackle topics from destroying MCs to domestic abuse to loving himself on the uplifting Forest Whitaker. His sense of humour could cut a tin can in half, like when he does Prince Charming, a macking rhyme that escalates into a stalking one.
The album, produced by Atmosphere's Ant, has been deemed an underground classic, but it comes from modest roots.
Wanting to be the best motivates him, he says. "I think people set their goals based on what they think is realistic, cuz nobody wants to have a goal they're not gonna reach - it's just depressing, you know what I mean? But I want to have a very solid body of work that when I'm done I can look at and be like, 'OK. '"
A divorced father, Ali spends most of his free time with his son. And while he's currently in the formative stages of an album set to drop next fall, don't expect any raps about his child.
"Certain things, I have to really approach them before I do them; I want to make sure I do them well. I mean, Will Smith did Just The Two Of Us, right? I don't wanna make a record I look back on and regret."