I’m not new to rapping. I’ve been doing it for years. I discovered it at age 16, shortly after committing to a punk rock look. I begrudgingly stuck with my dyed hair and played bad music with stupid kids for the rest of high school while secretly collecting rap instrumentals on the internet and writing awful rhymes. I kept at it, and over time I became decent at writing and spitting a verse, though it was the kind of overly positive, borderline preachy psychedelic rap that I cringe at today. Still, I was pretty good at it. I even thought I might make a career out of it one day. That was 1999, the year my half brother Ali was born. He was just a little brown chicken McNugget back then. I had no idea what a threat he would become on the mic.
It has become clear that my rap career is not destined for greatness, as I’ve entered and left the ever-shrinking age bracket that makes you eligible for stardom. I did my share of small-scale recording and performing throughout my 20s and then resigned to making beats in Ableton for fun from the comfort of my couch. I still write rhymes but it takes me forever to get them out, whereas the words just used to flow out of my head. Just as both my skill level and my interest in rapping were tapering off, little 13-year-old Ali emailed me a track he recorded.
I’d been sharing music with him for a few months at that point, mostly stuff our parents wouldn’t let him listen to—Wu Tang, Boot Camp, DITC, a few other staple crews. It was the first time we had something in common, and through him I got excited about swearing and graphic imagery all over again. He had told me he wanted to try rapping, and I immediately started thinking of how I’d break it to him that he sucked. Expecting awful, I was surprised to hear that Ali could actually put together some compelling rhymes. It was far more coherent than my first go at it. Still, by any reasonable measure, it needed a lot of work. I gave him feedback and he took it like holy scripture—write in bars, use negative space, change up your cadences, etc. He came back a day later with another recording, in which he applied all my notes and then took it a step further. In 24 hours he had matured as much as I did in a year.
He was far from my skill level at the time, but I saw how he was able to use my trade secrets and for the first time in my life I was jealous of a child. How was this little bastard so much better at this than I was? Ali, my older brother Ahmad, and I all share a few traits—a predisposition to playing music, a penchant for procrastination, and an allergy to reading books. Somehow for Ali, the combination yielded this amazing skill with words.
I felt it was my duty not only to guide Ali’s talent with my knowledge and experience, but also to live vicariously through him. What kind of mentor doesn’t want a little piece of the action? The kid had a way better shot at becoming a professional rapper than I ever did, and though I’m happy with my career in smoking weed and traveling, the pipe dream of being part of a successful rapper’s entourage is pretty tempting, even if I’m the Johnny Drama.
Aside from giving him his rap name, Word Problems, most of my participation in Ali’s music is telling him what not to do. Now he’s a little 15-year-old ball of energy with some understanding of his skills, so he goes full speed in all directions, and sometimes it can end up overly sentimental, perhaps a little sappy. “Emo” is the word I tend to use for a lot of rap that lacks that essential braggadocio. As a high school kid, it’s natural that he vents about what he lives and knows through his music, so I’m expecting that phase to pass as he matures. Other than that, I just send him lots of beats that I make with him in mind. Of course, every time he lays his verse down over my beat and sends it over, I’m sitting on the other end with my headphones on gnawing my clenched fist.
How the hell does he know that many words? His grades aren’t even that good!
A week ago, Ali released his first album. A few months milling around Soundcloud gained him some collaborators and he rallied them to produce The Coming of Age. When I put it on for the first time, I prepared myself to feel that combination of pride and envy that has come to define my little brother for me. How insanely good is he going to be this time? I was blindsided when I heard the opening track of the album. At first I didn’t recognize the words being read in a robotic voice, but then I caught it. It was an email I sent him telling him he’s a good kid and that I’m proud of him. To give that some context, I was exonerating him from any guilt after he got in trouble at school for shit talking a kid in a lunchroom rap. I intently listened to the whole album, marveling at the quality of his raps, and then arrived at the final track. It’s a patchwork of phone conversations I’ve had with Ali set to a beat, mostly me stonedly saying I like his music and that he’s a good boy. I actually had no idea he was recording me, so I’ve got a solid lawsuit if he ever hits the big time.
Abdullah Saeed writes VICE's Weediquette column, so at least he's got that going for him. Follow him on Twitter - @ImYourKid