BLOG— Behind the story: Issa Ali and empowerment rap
- Published: August 4, 2017
This new web series seeks to take the reader deeper into a story featured in the print edition of the News. Reporters often have to cut wonderful details or quotes because of space or relevancy requirements. “Behind the story” aims to share more — to bring alive why we think a story is important, what we’ve learned in the process and anything else we hope will be of interest.
Our first installment focuses on local hip-hop artist Issa Ali (Issa Walker), and why reporter Aaron Maurice Saari believes Ali is creating a sound that can only come from Yellow Springs. The print story appears in the Aug. 3 issue of the News.
Growing up in Yellow Springs in the late 1980s into the mid-90s, I had no choice but to listen to hip-hop. All of the deejays at the school dances and parties played it. Luckily, it was mostly good hip-hop. Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys, Tribe Called Quest, Rage Against the Machine and many of the other artists mentioned in this week’s print article.
No one has captured my imagination like Dr. Dre, though. To be clear, his raps can be misogynistic. He has said homophobic things. I do not excuse these or sweep them aside as inconsequential. Dre has addressed the issues, and I leave it to individuals to assess for themselves whether or not they find it sufficient. Rock ‘n’ Roll is filled with geniuses who had major flaws, too.
I regard Dr. Dre as the Paul McCartney of hip-hop. His hypnotic beats, use of samples, unique instrumentation and incessant drive for perfection made N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” perhaps the single most important debut album in rap history. Dre’s first solo endeavor, “The Chronic,” was a seminal moment in rap history, as it launched the career of Martha Stewart’s best friend, Snoop Dogg. Two of Dre’s subsequent solo albums, “The Chronic 2001” and “Compton,” are works of genius. Why? Because Dre has always been an unflinching chronicler of what it means to be a black man in the United States of America.
Rap has history and scholars. From “Yo! MTV Raps,” a seminal program that was a “must appear” for anyone wishing to launch a career, I received an education. I learned that Dre’s work is much like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” They both provide insight into the black community with incomparable, visionary black voices. N.W.A. blindsided my young, white life. Hip-hop pervaded the films we showed at the Little Art Theater when my family owned it. Spike Lee, John Singleton, Melvin Van Peebles and F. Gary Gray all exposed me to new artists.
In the 1990s, there was a renewed “black and proud” movement fueled by a new generation with a new sound. And thanks to teachers at YSHS like Julia Davis, John Gudgel, Joyce McCurdy and Mary MacDonald, I was given guidance on what to read: Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison. To my mind, Dre was like the Paul Lawrence Dunbar of post-Jim Crow Los Angeles. Hip-hop was the soundtrack to me realizing the reality of white privilege.
Over the years, Dre has shown himself to be arguably the greatest producer in the business. And while some don’t like his rap style, he is my favorite. Dre’s baritone voice lends power to a laconic delivery. Dre is unlike his protégé, Eminem, whose staccato, rapid-fire verbal release is like a relentless assault. Where Em seeks to make you surrender to the onslaught, Dre delivers thunder and earthquakes whose power is in their unpredictability. He is brilliant, obsessive, a perfectionist, and is also the first billionaire in rap.
So I am neither hyperbolic nor blasé when I compare Issa Ali to Dr. Dre. With all respect to Village Fam, listening to Issa’s second solo album, “As Above, So Below,” is like hearing “The Chronic” for a new generation. Issa, like Dre before him, has steadily made beats and sold them to other artists, but he saves the best for his own songs. He is a student of music; in our conversation, he talked about Roberta Flack and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in the same breath. Issa, just like Dre, would likely buy a record before he bought food because music is what really feeds him. In his solo work, Issa Ali elicits sounds from hip-hop’s past, but keeps listeners ever-focused on the future.
Yellow Springs is filled with major talent. We have luminaries in all the artistic fields: music, painting, pottery, writing, dance, singing, acting, etc. But no single name in the world of hip-hop calls Yellow Springs home. That is changing. Issa is on the rise.
Great rap is honest rap. Sometimes brutally so, such as with acts like Public Enemy, N.W.A., Body Count, Salt-n-Pepa and Queen Latifah. The language employed reflects the reality of the artists. I’ve often wondered what the “YS sound” for rap might be.
Issa Ali is our Dr. Dre. He could only come from Yellow Springs, and as one who appreciates the historic role of hip-hop in our culture, Issa is offering a sound and an approach that is unique. To be sure, hip-hop is filled with philosophers like Common; poets like Tupac; and prophets like Kendrick. Issa is not recreating the wheel, but he can spit mad bars (freestyle adeptly), can produce dope beats, can play all the aforementioned roles, and remain unapologetically educated, intelligent and black.
This is an exciting prospect. In the course of our 40-minute interview, Issa mentioned numerous times how important education is to him, and how he believes that hip-hop gives him the tools and the avenue to reach younger generations, especially those in precarious circumstances. Being a fan of his music, I knew that this emphasis was genuine. It is rare to have an emcee and producer with the intelligence, talent and vision to create something we might call empowerment rap. It is too much to make one person responsible for defining a sound, so I offer this only as an observation: whether we talk about it or not, Issa Ali is plotting a place on the hip-hop map for Yellow Springs.