As the unofficial leader of the platinum-plus selling unit St. Lunatics (which includes the 9x platinum solo rapper Nelly), Ali is somewhat of a soothsayer. In the mid-90's the St. Louis native conceived the group, pulled the group together and went so far as to predict that the crew's 1996 independently-released single, "Gimme What You Got" would be a regional hit, spending weeks at #1 in St. Louis. Soon after achieving local success, the St. Lunatics joined the Universal Records roster - both as a group and solo artists.
In early 2000, when his dirty Nelly finished recording his award-winning debut Country Grammar, ALI (aka Big Lee) made another prediction. "I said out of the gate that we were gon' sell 7 million records," he recalls. Part of the reason was that he believed in Nelly. Part of it was that, well, he just knew, "When we first started, I had everyone listen to everything from gang-banging, DJ Quik music to De La Soul," he says. "I said, 'Ain't nothing we can talk about that everybody ain't talking about. It's just how you say it.' So I knew we had to keep our Southern slang; 'we gon' keep the hurrs and thurrs.' It took a long time, but we got it together."
What ALI is not willing to predict is the success of his debut solo project, HEAVY STARCH. Coming on the heels of the St. Lunatics' platinum-certified Free City, HEAVY STARCH marks a bit of a departure for the crew. Mostly produced by Jason "Jay E" Epperson, the track maven responsible for Country Grammar and Free City, HEAVY STARCH still contains the heavy bass knocks, rollicking grooves and free-floating instrumentation that have come to signify the new face of St. Louis. The first single, "Boughetto" (featuring fellow Lunatic Murphy Lee) is signature Lunatic music- fun and funny, a party waiting to happen. Produced by Wally (who also produced Nelly's smash hit "#1"), "Boughetto" - a blend of bourgeois and ghetto- takes an amusing look at what happens when financial security intersects with a street mentality. Speaking on a boughetto princess, ALI observes, "She bourgie 'cause her shoes alone cost a grand/She ghetto 'cause she cuss too much and talk with her hands."
But HEAVY STARCH travels deeper into lyrical content than any Lunatic-affiliated project to date. "We kinda set things up like that," says ALI. "We knew that after Nelly people would have stuff to say about our skills, so I knew I had to step up next." On "I Got This," things swirl, noises repeat, bass thumps and ALI lets off a fusillade of wordplay. Likewise, "No" is a smorgasbord of throbs, pulses and stutters where ALI and Murphy Lee take on challengers and haters with ease.
I ain't a thug, so n*gga I ain't gonna start that now. "Ore Ore"
ALI was born and raised in St. Louis to a Muslim father and a Catholic mother. A self-described Renaissance man, ALI had written his first rap at 8 years old. It started: "I'm a rhyming technician/def musician/to be like Ali, you keep on wishin'..." "I had the hood on lock with them bars," he laughs. "I've always been a hip-hop student extraordinaire," says the tall, handsome rapper who DJ's his own 4-hour radio show every Sunday on St. Louis' WFUN. He's first and foremost a die-hard hip-hop fan with an encyclopedic knowledge: who ghost wrote songs for whom, what artist used what sample, and so on. In 1993, ALI went to a catholic prep school in St. Louis on a basketball scholarship. After school, he would shed his shirt and tie, press in his removable gold tooth and hang in the streets 'til sundown. "I was on the street hustling, but I was always in school," he recalls. He stopped being in the streets after one of his friends died behind the life.
Another major change in ALI's life came when he attended Morris Brown college in Atlanta through a scholarship obtained through his mom's job. In college, ALI's dreadlock wearing, blunt-smoking roommate from New York introduced him to influential albums like De La Soul's De La Soul Is Dead and A Tribe Called Quest's Low End Theory. Returning home to St. Louis, ALI spread his exposure to underground East Coast hip-hop to his crew. He gathered his friends, Nelly and Kyjuan, who used to rearrange lyrics to popular rap songs to fit their needs, along with Slo-Down, Nelly's brother City Spud and a young rapscallion named Murphy Lee and suggested that they form a rap crew. The rest as they say is history, and HEAVY STARCH is the latest chapter in the ongoing success story.
HEAVY STARCH is replete with the catchy hooks and party anthems that St. Louis' favorite sons are known for. Like Country Grammar, the title of ALI's album is a subtle reference to mid-western style of wearing starched, pressed jeans. The album title also alludes to ALI's flow- crisp and deliberate- demonstrated throughout the lyrically diverse set. The hypnotic "360" takes listeners on a journey of self-knowledge. "Collection Plate," is a clever parody that points a critical eye at preachers who fleece their flock. The pimped out "Crucial" is mid-tempo riding music cautioning against casual sex. And on "Walk Away," the beauty of the female figure is revered.
Finally, there's traditional party music with a twist- the chant heavy "Ore Ore," comes off like a dark cousin to Nelly's "E.I." On the sinewy "Drop Top," ALI actually re-works Nelly's opening verse from "E.I." "I took his lyrics but did it with my style, like my tribute to my dirty," ALI says. "Even though I taught him how to do this, I ain't sold 8 million records." Nelly himself also shows up to drop a hook on the dance floor assaulting "Wiggle, Wiggle" and the Lunatic-laden "Car Don't Smell." "I made a conscious effort not to overuse my dirty," says ALI. "I just want to see if I can stand on my own. If not, I'll continue to be a St. Lunatic. I'll always be a Tic anyway, but for the album I just wanted to do me all the way."
HEAVY STARCH is ALI all the way. And it's sure to be a hip-hop album to beat in 2002. The cautious lyricist just won't see it. Yet.