Slug from Atmosphere will always own the throne as the rapper who most firmly put the Twin Cities on the hip-hop map. But when it comes to vintage, old-school, vocabulary versifying, the mating of a fat dictionary with profound novelistic narratives, all the locals take a back seat to Brother Ali.
Born Jason Newman in Madison, Wis., the 32-year old Ali doesn’t adorn his raps with silly pop filigree nor bastardize the riveting autobiography at the heart of his art with rhymes of convenience.
Longtime fans know of his roots as an albino drawn to the black culture of hip-hop, of his conversion to the Muslim religion after moving to Minneapolis, of the strife wrought by homelessness, the breakup of his first marriage and a custody fight for his son, and of his second marriage and relatively “settled” current life. It’s all been told in the most agile detail, goosed along by his longtime producer Ant (who is also Slug’s partner in Atmosphere).
As Ali explains, “If you follow my tapes/Then you know what I’m about/Whatever comes up then it must come out.”
Brother Ali prides himself on being part of hip-hop’s historical firmament and has tended to its roots. He can freestyle (spontaneously improvise) capably, and is as good or better in concert as he is in the studio. I’ve seen him thrive live in the great outdoors, at the 70th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” (commemorating the day striking Minneapolis truck drivers were killed and wounded in 1934), and at the annual Soundset gigs showcasing local talent.
But perhaps his most memorable performance was opening for Rakim and Ghostface Killah, a pair of rappers whose style and credentials make them hip-hop royalty. No one was more aware of their eminence than Ali, and he rose to the occasion and held his own at First Avenue a couple years back.
Now Ali returns home with his Fresh Air tour to the same First Avenue stage. To my ears, his latest, “Us,” doesn’t scale the heights of his 2007 opus, “The Undisputed Truth.” Then again, I haven’t heard all of its tunes delivered live yet.
Here is a happy Ali doing “Fresh Air” at Soundset 2009. Here is “The Preacher” done live earlier this year, also off the new disc, “Us.” And here is his a cappella ode to his son, “Faheem,” followed by his early “hit,” “Forest Whitiker.”
Brother Ali at First Avenue, at 8 tonight for the 18+ show, tickets $15, sold out. Saturday at 5 p.m., all ages, tickets $15.