In honor of tonight’s Brother Ali show at First Avenue that celebrates the 15th anniversary of his Rhymesayers debut Shadows on the Sun, today we’re looking back on the conversation Ali had with Go 95.3‘s Chaz Kangas on the classic album’s 10th anniversary!
You can hear more about the album and all things regarding hip-hop’s indieground and underground Sundays from 10 p.m.-midnight on Go 95.3‘s First Impressions with Chaz Kangas!
At what point did recording for Shadows on the Sun begin?
As soon as I got with Rhymesayers. I brought them Rites of Passage, and Siddiq and Musab and I were friends, and they introduced me to Ant, who seemed reluctant to work with me. He made it clear he thought I was talented, but I don’t think necessarily saw the kind of songs I wanted to write. But, he said we could try something out. At that time I used to write songs in my head, and the first two songs I brought him that we deliberately made together were “Room With a View” and “Bitchslap.”
After those first two songs, did the once-a-week routine of recording begin?
After we made those first two songs, Ant was like “OK, I can give you the beats that Slug won’t rap on and won’t sound right on,” the styles he made that Slug never gravitated towards that I loved. I used to beg him to get his throwaway beats until he said “this is what you need” and gave me a cassette tape of stuff. I came back the next week with two more songs and the weeks proceeded like that.
Do you recall which songs those were?
I know we did the rap-heavy songs earlier. Then, after that I did the more humorous songs. I went through that phase, then I did the two stories. I got progressively deeper and closer to my core, and near the end I made “Picket Fence,” which is was the first time I felt completely naked on a song that I had felt I came completely into my own. Somewhere in there I made “Victory” and the title track, my early social-commentary songs that wanted to say something important without knowing how to do it. I think the jury was still out with Slug. He wouldn’t dis me at all, and he let me know when he thought something I made was cool, but he didn’t embrace me until that album was almost done.
We wrote “Blahblahblah” together in a half-hour, which was fun, and “Missing Teeth” were two verses we had [that] we put on a song together. The very last song we made on accident was “Forest Whitiker.” Ant was looking for a beat and accidentally played me this unfinished one I kinda liked. I wrote it just to make him laugh. So much of our work was me trying to get his approval. Nobody reacted to it in the studio anymore than anything else, but it became the song people gravitated to. It and “Uncle Sam” are still my two biggest songs.
Were there any songs that didn’t make the album?
There’s 18 songs on there, and I think we made 20. A song called “Heads Down” wound up on the Champion EP. We felt we didn’t need another humorous song on the album. In terms of recording, we made the album on his four-track, and then did everything in the studio in eight or ten days. Ant’s transitions on that album are really great and to me are what make that album. It’s really a variety of music that Ant pulled all together without being formulaic.
The title of the album, correct me if I’m wrong, comes from Saul Williams?
No, it actually doesn’t. He did say it in a poem, but where I got it was from an X-Clan song. Listening back to [“Grand Verbalizer, What Time is It?”] now, he says “Shadows in the sunlight,” when I was a kid, I thought he said “Shadow ON the sunlight.” I love the movie Slam, and that’s a prominent line in that movie, but I had forgotten [Williams] had said that. I re-watched that movie with my wife, and I felt like “wow, that was a biter moment.”
Ten years later, is there anything about the album you regret?
There’s two things, I wrote about one for the Huffington Post, using certain language that’s just wack and hurtful. The other thing is, there’s a line Musab has on “Falling Apart” on [his album] Respect the Life where he says “I try not to do these things, but that’s me / and don’t give a fuck about it actually,” which is really similar to the punchline on “Forest Whitiker.” Working with him so closely and loving that song, I didn’t do it consciously, but I looked up to Musab and when fans responded more, it made it worse. You have to show where you get your inspiration from. So, I regret one of those as a human being and one of those as an MC.
Looking back at the reviews for that album at the time, you were praised for how you addressed race, yet it was widely interpreted differently. Was the somewhat ambiguous approach to the racial aspects intentional?
I have a unique relationship with race, and I didn’t graduate from high school. The only people I knew talking about race were speaking in a language I wasn’t able to use. The things I said on there, for people who understood the black experience more, I think I alluded to in ways that make perfect sense. White writers would ask me what race I was. Black people have very seldom asked me that. I knew that if I just said it in an extremely simple way, I didn’t trust them to tell that part of my story for me. If they were asking an oversimplified question, I knew they wouldn’t understand the complexities of my life. It’s unfortunate writers who thought I was black wrote that, and tried to tell that part of my story before I did.