Brother Ali show review by Chris Godsey in Duluth
Even folks who understand that Duluth has a serious underground music scene might not know the city is also home to some excellent hip hip (like Crew Jones and Ray the Wolf) and pockets of the intense love required to maintain it.
It's also home to a couple colleges filled with (mostly) white suburban kids from the Twin Cities who geek on Rhymesayers--especially Atmosphere, P.O.S., and Brother Ali--as if the label represents them. They're the same kids Brother Ali seems to be talking about in "Daylight," from his recently released The Undisputed Truth: "I don't want the white folks that praise me to think they can claim me/'Cause you didn't make me/You don't appreciate what I know to be great, yet you relate to me/And that frustrates me and what can I say/'Cause I know that I benefit from something I hate/But make no mistake our connection ain't fake."
And they're the same ones who stood on line along a block of East Superior Street for a couple-three hours on Tuesday night, despite a relentlessly numbing wind chill, to see Ali begin his Undisputed Truth tour at Pizza Luce, on the album's official release date.
As he always does, Ali showed love to the folks who were showing it to him. In fact, there was also a fair amount of reciprocated love between the crowd and DJ BK-One, host Toki Wright (who rapped a couple very tight songs of his own), and Psalm One. (A dude from Queens named Trama opened the night, but I didn't get to see the crowd's reaction to him or vice-versa, because I was out on the sidewalk learning why Chuck Taylors aren't good cold-weather footwear.)
"All right," Wright said at one point during BK-One's set after Trama, and before Psalm One. "Duluth is still the shit." The crowd of three or four hundred roared. "Duluth still loves hip hop." More roaring.
When Psalm One said she'd never been to Duluth before, she was warmly welcomed, and anyone who didn't know she was a supporting act would have been justified in thinking she was the headliner, based on her energy and the crowd's. Even during her last few songs, there was no sense that she was being merely tolerated. No one was impatient. She was being loved, and she deserved it, because her tight flow and high energy did exactly what they were supposed to do: hype the headliner.
Ali went on around midnight and commanded the room with a perfectly paced set of songs from Shadows on the Sun (2003), The Champion EP (2004), and Truth.
The first time I saw Ali in Duluth was a week or so before Shadows was released. He opened for Slug, being backed by the Heiruspecs band, at UMD's Kirby Ballroom. Even during perfect sing-along songs like "Forest Whitiker," he almost had to give his audience lessons in hip-hop-show crowd participation etiquette. They were there to see Slug, and few things are more difficult than trying to impress or engage children of the entitlement generation with anything they don't already think is cool.
A little more than a year ago, Ali packed Pizza Luce, but didn't sell it out, and the crowd was a more willing and sophisticated.
Tuesday, it was obvious that he had grown in prominence, and that his audience had figured out how to behave properly when someone like Ali is on stage. On command, all hands were thrown in the air and waved as if their owners didn't care, and everybody, anybody, screamed. Loudly. Frequently. We were all in a pizza restaurant in downtown Duluth--families with little kids had been eating there just a few hours earlier--but from the back of the room, with all those arms waving side to side, BK-One's bass resonating in our collective chest, and Ali working hard enough to have taken off his jacket before the first song, sweated through his t-shirt by the second, and needed to towel his shaved head every few minutes after that, it felt like a gritty basement, a grimy underground club, or any other hip hop womb.
Many of the kids packed up front and standing on counters and ledges rapped along with every lyric Ali spit--even the stuff on the record released that day; they'd either done some quick studying, spent many hours at Ali's MySpace page, or downloaded the whole Truth, which was leaked to the Web by some jackass member of the music media the day after promotional copies went out to elite journalists.
Live music thrives in Duluth, but like anywhere else, there's a concert every few years that's superior enough to seem surreal. Wilco did that every-few-years thing last summer at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center auditorium; Al Sparhawk always has the potential to do it with one of his bands; Ali did it Tuesday night. -- Chris Godsey