This story was originally intended to feature an interview with Brother Ali, who is performing in town this week along with The Grouch, Eligh, and Los Rakas, as part of the How The Grouch Stole Christmas tour.
Unfortunately, Ali was on a pilgrimage to Mecca last month and was unavailable for interviews until after press time.
No, I'm not making this up.
In deference to, and with great respect for, Ali's spirituality, we decided to compile a short list of the best Muslim hip-hop acts. Islam has been intertwined with hip-hop since the genre's early days, with numerous MCs proclaiming the virtues of traditional Islam, as well as Afrocentric offshoots such as the Nation of Islam and the Nation of Gods and Earths (a.k.a. the Five Percent Nation). Here are five candidates for the best of the best in Muslim hip-hop:
Hip-hop cred: He may be the relative neophyte on this list, but there's no denying Ali's skills on the mic. His forceful voice and lyrical prowess lend an air of authenticity to Minnesota's "backpack rap" scene.
Muslim cred: Ali peppers Muslim references throughout his music, but not at the expense of lyrics about politics, family life, and, of course, how dope an MC he is.
Sample lyric: "Spent days in Heaven's embassy / On Quran pages Allah explains this legacy / Angels doubted Adam, Jacob's brothers clapped him / And ancient Pharaohs were too brutal to fathom," from "Shadows on the Sun"
Hip-hop cred: X Clan were never a huge commercial success, but they're highly regarded among rap fans in the know. Brother J was Chali 2na before Chali 2na existed.
Muslim cred: Despite a strong pro-black stance, there are few overt references to Islam in X Clan's lyrics, but their album titles tell a different story. Their 1990 debut was titled To the East, Blackwards and their 2007 comeback was Return from Mecca.
Sample lyric: "Stalking, walking in my big black boots / Living off the Earth eating herbs and fruits / The children await me by the mountain in the river / And gather round the fire for the scroll that I deliver," from "Grand Verbalizer, What Time is It?'
POOR RIGHTEOUS TEACHERS
Hip-hop cred: Another criminally underrated group from the late '80s/early '90s "golden age of hip-hop,' PRT took lyrical dexterity to a new level with their first album, Holy Intellect. Three strong efforts followed, but PRT never broke through to the mainstream and haven't released an album since 1996.
Muslim cred: MCs Wise Intelligent and Culture Freedom were early hip-hop proponents of the Five Percent Nation, and their message grew more militant as their career progressed.
Sample lyric: "I'm the star, soul controlling all within the solar / Poor, so I'm a righteous teacher from the heart / Praise your god, all praises due to Allah / Seven star, the holy intellect being taught," from "Holy Intellect"
Hip-hop cred: For a few years in the mid-'90s, Wu-Tang Clan was the biggest thing in hip-hop, spawning a clothing line, a video game, and more solo albums than you could shake a Hellz Wind Staff at.
Muslim cred: Wu-Tang members frequently used the Five Percenter term "God" when referring to each other, but direct references to Islam didn't surface until later albums.
Sample lyric: "Allah's the most gracious; he made the universe the most spacious / Seen and heard in all places, but still appear faceless / Embraces all races, all caste and all cases / In every speck of life, He's the substance of all traces," from "Sunlight"
Hip-hop cred: Rakim is widely considered to be the best MC in hip-hop history. If you've never heard "Microphone Fiend," you're doing yourself a disservice.
Muslim cred: Rakim has been a Five Percenter since age 16 and has always mixed Islamic references into his rhymes. His last name is Allah, which, of course, means "God." Who are we to argue?
Sample lyric: "Deal in equality, nature's policy is to be God / Build or destroy positively, born life like Allah / And each one was given everlasting perfection / If each one keep living in the same direction," from "The Mystery (Who is God?)"