By Jack M. Angelo, senior content editor
If you think “real” hip-hop is dead, then there are two explanations: either you’re my bitter editor or it’s your fault. Hip-hop has undoubtedly changed over the years, and the emphasis on lyrics is not nearly as important as it used to be. There are still those holding the torch for lyricism in the mainstream, and they often rise to the top. However, those who used to hold it seemed to have faded away. Many of those lyricists are still around, just performing to roomfuls of dozens of people instead of thousands.
Minnesota native and Rhymesayers Entertainment member Brother Ali is one such rapper who continues to tour and release music nearly two decades into his career. Celebrating the 15th anniversary of his album Shadows on the Sun, Brother Ali came to the Rock and Roll Hotel in Washington DC on November 1 to perform for about 150 people. After some openers and classic DJing, Jason Douglas Newman, aka Brother Ali, came to the stage to rap his ass off.
For the next 90 minutes, Ali performed many songs from throughout his career. He performed in large sections, with songs shifting immediately from one to the next. Every few songs, the legally blind, albino Brother Ali would speak to the audience. His topics varied wildly, and often got personal. From speaking about the inspirations for the songs he was performing, to personal anecdotes about previous shows. He told a story about his first time touring with Atmosphere, where he learned that, “drunk white people act the same way black people do when they want to fight.” He explained that this got him into a number of misunderstandings, often ending in violence. Apparently, he punched someone in D.C. many years ago, and wondered if they were there that night, or if anyone knew them. No such luck, but the audience did thoroughly enjoy the story.
In between flurries of steady rap flows with varying levels of the intricate rhymes that populate Ali’s repertoire, he also spoke about how he has changed over the years, explaining that he only curses when he performs his old songs if he really means it. He vowed to stop using “the f-word” that showed up on his first album, explaining that it was the right thing to do, and it took no sacrifice from him whatsoever.
Brother Ali received plenty of support from the audience throughout the night, full as it was of Brother Ali fanatics. Newman even told the story of a couple that was standing in the front of the room. Apparently they came to Brother Ali shows all up and down the East Coast for years, and were often pointed out by Ali, who would mistake them as a married couple. As Brother Ali explains it, at one show the woman was correcting Ali that they were not married, and, “my man was getting down on one knee.” Brother Ali then said, and the couple confirmed, that they are now married and have a child.
Late in the show, Ali spoke about his experience, having sold out the 930 Club, a 1,000 person venue in DC, in years past, then seeing the decline in attendance, prompting the move to the Rock and Roll Hotel. They sold out the 400-person venue a few years ago, but Brother Ali reported that until a few days prior to this show, only about 60 tickets had sold. He did not seem upset by this fact, but rather grateful that there were people still there, and thankful that he knew these were the true fans.
The progressive drop in attendance over Brother Ali’s career may seem like an indication of a lack of demand for the type of hip-hop he creates. The better interpretation is to be impressed by the longevity of Brother Ali’s nearly 20-year-career, and praise one of the handful of 40+ year olds in the genre today. Relevant to the discussion is the fact that the entire living Wu-Tang Clan was performing just a few miles away at The Anthem. The 5,000-person venue neared capacity that evening, proving that lyrical hip-hop is still in demand today. The late 40s, early 50s surviving members of the Wu perform rarely, and reunited for the first time in a while on tour this year. Brother Ali shouted out the show, although he did not blame the show for the light attendance. Brother Ali has changed a lot over the years as far as his personality, but his music continues to entertain his die-hard fans after more than 15 years.
These incredible photos from Brother Ali’s performance at the Rock and Roll Hotel in Washington, DC, on November 1, 2018, were taken by StayUp.News senior content producer and photographer Jack M. Angelo: