After two decades of making moves and releasing some of the most honest Hip Hop around, Minneapolis Independent juggernaut Rhymesayers Entertainment is celebrating their 20th Anniversary with stadium status at the Target Center on December 4th. While providing opportunities for many within the Twin Cities, Rhymesayers has become the archetype of DIY business mentality as they continue to sell records and sell out shows including their beloved Soundset Hip Hop festival. Among the versatile roster that includes the likes of Aesop Rock, Dilated Peoples, The Micranots and Prof; many could never imagine the label without the venerated veteran MC known as Brother Ali. Through his heartfelt sincerity matched with unwavering dedication to social justice, Brother Ali has won the respect of fans and peers such as Chuck D of Public Enemy and 9th Wonder. Yet with any anniversary, this is a time for reflection of where they started and to appreciate how far they have came.
Long before Brother Ali was rocking Soundset stages, he admits that he too was once a wide eyed Hip Hop fan marveling at the music as well as the culture. From performing at house parties and open mics around the Twin Cities, Brother Ali was steadfast to his craft at a young age and drawing inspiration from legends such as Busy Bee Starski and KRS-One. Much like most people in the late 1990s, he admits that he would not have heard about the fledgling Rhymesayers crew if it had not been for a cassette tape b-side.
“I had an elder that was there for the very beginning of Hip Hop and tried to collect and own everything that was released,” said Brother Ali. “So he had a huge collection. And so in the early days, you had to go to New York or LA where the 12”s were to buy them and bring them back so you could make tapes for people. A lot of Hip Hop spread like that. So he made me a tape while we were really good friends working at UPS together and I would tell him that I was an enormous Hip Hop fan but I was kind of angry at it. I wasn’t feeling what was going on in the middle to late 90s. So he made me a tape and on one side of Gang Starr’s Moment of Truth album and the other side was a mixture of Beyond (who became Musab) and Atmosphere. I listened to the Moment of Truth side for a long time before I got to the other side. Then I started listening to that and I was really amazed with it. And then I started going to their shows and watching more.”
Soon after frequenting their warehouse shows, he soon befriended Rhymesayers CEO Brent “Siddiq” Sayers and began coming to him for advice on where to take his career next. It wasn’t until he created his clandestine classic debut, Rites of Passage that he won their respect as an artist.
“I don’t think anything on there is too noteworthy,” said Brother Ali, “except the fact that I made the whole album completely by myself and without owning any equipment. I made all of those beats, wrote and recorded the whole album. Mastered and mixed it myself. Wrote the liner notes. Got the guests. I did everything on that album including playing some bongos and some drums. And that is what caught their attention. There’s a lot of people that can rap on a mic, but that doesn’t mean you can make songs. And just cause you can make songs doesn’t mean you can make albums and doesn’t prove that you’re actually an artist. I think I proved to them that I had enough vision to create a whole project. So they gave me a chance by putting it out and I hosted their shows for a while. After a while, Ant let me come over to his basement a couple of times and make some songs. That’s how we made Shadows on the Sun.”
From there, as they say, is history as he began the arduous touring schedules and releasing time honored albums such as The Undisputed Truth, Us as well as Mourning In America and Dreaming in Color. As the time passes, Brother Ali has not forgotten the struggle that has laid the foundation for his passionate movement and for that celebrates their collective influence on the music more so than the event.
““This moment of celebration and outward ceremonious stuff,” said Brother Ali, “they’re really just markers for all the work in between. I remember the 10 year anniversary and it was a very big deal. I’m grateful to be a part of an amazing group of people that connect on such a profound level and have an enormous impact in Hip Hop on the way that careers are built. When we started, the independent route was only viable for people that had money from something else. A lot of people had money from the street economy and they switched it over to music. And we started out with literally no money from anything. Just with our music and our dedication to it, we built this. I know that there’s individuals, booking agents, managers and other types of industry people that built their careers with us or directly related to us. And the booking agents, managers and industry people that helped to build artists like Wiz Khalifa, Macklemore, Mac Miller, Kendrick Lamar; they learned directly from what we were doing. I would say that Atmosphere was the best example for what’s being done now. People now are rapping about topics that didn’t used to be popular. Using different types of music and was really conversational, vulnerable thing. And Rhymesayers had an impact on all of that.”
While he continues to speak out against oppression and cultural misappropriation, the good brother was recently inducted in the Universal Zulu Nation by one of West Coast’s most influential leaders, Mark Luv and adorn with his 9th Wonder produced medallion. As the world waits to hear what he has in store for us next, Brother Ali understands the righteous path that he walks and looks forward to the loving legacy that will transpire.
Brother Ali will be performing with Jake One and Freeway for Rhymesayers’ 20th Anniversary Celebration at the Target Center on Friday, December 4th. Tickets are still on sale as the doors open at 5pm and show starts promptly at 5:30pm. And be sure to keep up with Brother Ali through his website, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts here.