Brother Ali is not shy about his influences. While the Minneapolis rapper has carved an indelible niche in hip hop for more than a decade with fiery, political lyrics, brutally candid confessionals and a confident attitude bordering on obstinate, he's happy to share stories of his biggest influences, including Rakim, Chuck D and KRS-One.
His recently released Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color finds the dexterous rapper as both journalist and storyteller, exorcising personal demons while delivering trenchant, astute observations on the state of the world. (Exhibit A: The recently released "Mourning in America" video.) The rapper tells Fuse five albums that made him the who he is today.
1. Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988)
To me, that was the birth of political rap. That album came out when I was 13 and made me want to be a certain type of human being. I literally listened to the cassette to the point where I broke it. Up until then, rap made me want to be cool and dance and dress a certain way. But when this came out, it made me want to read books and be a certain kind of man.
Nothing in rap had ever sounded like that. That urgency and tension in the music is genius. Anybody that wants to sue hip hop artists for sampling or thinks sampling isn’t an art form should be put in a room with a SP-1200 and a stack of records and see if they can remake one of those beats.
Chuck D has made himself a genuine friend to me. Our families know each other. He’s somebody that when I was 13, I wanted to grow up to be. And now I’m in my 30s and I still want to grow up and be him. I still look at him like, “Man, if I could end up with your life or similar, I’d be so grateful.”
2. Ice Cube, Death Certificate (1991)
It’s a toss up between Amerikka’s Most Wanted and Death Certificate. That album came out when I started reading Malcolm X and it showed me that a lot of people who were in the street culture and outside the mainstream economy evolved from gangsta to revolutionary. That's something that’s existed all along—We see that with Malcolm X—but that’s when it clicked in my mind that this gang stuff has the potential to be the frontline of the revolution.
Tupac was the one who really solidified that in the collective consciousness of America. That we need to not write off young people that are in that street culture; that we need to honor and respect the potential that exists and the genius that’s there and the fearlessness and the courage that’s there by necessity. Those can be some of the most fearless leaders.
Cube was still growing on this album, so there’s some f--ked up anti-Korean and misogyny s--t in there. You’re hearing a human being evolve. He’s not all the way there yet. But at the same time, you’re hearing a 23-year-old kid really understanding what his community is going through and speaking out on their behalf. It’s a beautiful piece of work.
3. Jay-Z, The Blueprint (2001)
This was one of the first times that he started to understand who he was in popular culture and how he could be the voice that helped America contextualize and understand where kids are coming from in his situation. Even the idea of it, like, “America knows me as this rich genius businessman and poet. But let me help America understand my origins and what it’s like and how I ended up in this place.” In that sense, he became the Bob Marley of rap.
He knew that in order for him to say the things that he wanted to say, that he had to be hot and build the kind of power needed to give those statements gravity. Without having hit records, those statements would just be another person just talking and telling the truth.
4. Marvin Gaye, I Want You (1976)
When I was in my first marriage, I avoided love music because I was in a relationship that wasn’t based on love; it was based on an arrangement that wasn’t even working out very well. I avoided really intense love songs because they made me so depressed that I didn’t have that feeling and I could hear how sincere they were. Right as that relationship was ending, I had this resurgence of, “I’m going to find some intense true love.” So I got into love songs like crazy.
I Got I Want You right when I met my current wife and we had one of those super-intense immediate, deep love things and that’s what Marvin had with [mistress] Janis [Hunter]. Man, I can relate to every single one of those songs. “Come Live With Me”: My wife moved from a really tough situation in New York to come and be with me. “After the Dance”: Me and my wife met at a show in public and it was tension and then after the dance, being alone. When I hear that album, I know how sincere it was because I was experiencing it as that was unfolding in my life.
5. Nina Simone, "There's just too many to name"
She’s the musical Malcolm X; a certified genius as a conductor, arranger, poet, songwriter, pianist and vocalist. She had a way of vocalizing emotions and thoughts in a way that most people couldn’t capture prior to rap. She had that frustration and rage, but she could also be soft and sweet and loving. She would rage when it was time to rage, but it was always out of love for people and a sense of defending and protecting people that were precious to her. You either deal with what she presented to you in an engaging way or you turn it off. She’s one of those names that don’t come up enough. She’s the greatest musician in modern music; she should be No. 1 above Burt Bacharach and Bob Dylan.