Combustible Hip-hop

Brother Ali isn’t much of a protester, but he’s practically holding up a sign that says “Keep hip-hop honest.” And that’s because he’s leading by example.

Brother Ali isn’t much of a protester, but he’s practically holding up a sign that says “Keep hip-hop honest.” And that’s because he’s leading by example.

Ali, as a rapper and artist, is the definition of “real.” He doesn’t blow smoke; he sings about truth. Along with Ghostface Killah and Rakim, he makes up the Hip Hop Live tour, which is coming to Portland this Saturday.

The tour brings together three distinct types of hip-hop. Ghostface, as a member of the Wu-Tang Clan and especially on his solo records, has a harder edge, with lyrics that describe drug dealing and life as he sees it. Rakim is the classic innovator, one of originators of the game. Brother Ali, well, he represents independent hip-hop.

All three artists embody seemingly different things–but Ali thinks that is exactly what hip-hop needs.

“It’s really big to me. I’m really against the way people section off hip-hop and choose sides … if we’re talking about saving rap or whatever, we need to unite the people that are good in every area,” Ali said in a phone interview Monday.

Despite their differences, all three artists will be playing separate sets with the same live band, The Rhythm Roots All-Stars. The band is composed of Los Angeles musicians who’ve played on records of diverse artists such as The Black Eyed Peas and Justin Timberlake.

For his part, Ali said he is excited about working with a live band, something he hasn’t done much in the past. Rehearsals have gone well.

“Playing with the band is really different,” he said. “There’s more freedom.”

While Ali may not have a lot of experience playing with a band, his newest album, The Undisputed Truth, does feature more instrumentation than his past efforts. It also features more directly political lyrics.

“The political songs are about me being frustrated about what’s going on … but at the same time not really knowing what to do about it,” Ali said. “I have friends who sign petitions, march in the streets, do whatever, and you know, I don’t feel like that’s doing anything. But god bless ’em for doing it. All I can do is make a song.”

Those political songs, and the rest of Ali’s lyrical repertoire, have a history in the lineage of tour-mate Rakim. They both tackle similar issues. Ghostface Killah, however, is a very different lyricist, rapping on his most recent album, Fishscale, about the tribulations of dealing cocaine (or at least using that as the framework to rap about other things).

Ali maintains that there is a fluency and connection between what he raps about and what Ghostface raps about.

“I think that we’re really a lot alike, in the sense that we’re both men, we’re not kids, we’re not afraid to show being an entire man. Meaning Ghostface doesn’t have to be tough 24-seven on his record. He might be on there sounding like he’s going to cry … that’s the same principle I’m coming from,” Ali said.

That principle-one of great hip-hop and openness–has led Ali to what is now the most successful point in his career. Last week he appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and will likely continue to garner fans and critical acclaim with his impressive style.

“I’m not a Kanye West; people don’t like me because I’m cute or hot. People like me because they know my shit is real,” Ali said.

And that defines Ali: He’s nothing if not honest.

The Hip Hop Live Tour Ghostface Killah Rakim Brother Ali Roseland Theater All Ages $30 advance, $35 at the door