The Dayton area isn’t typically known for producing a deluge of rappers into the greater consciousness of the hip hop world.
Working to buck that trend -- and the stereotypes of rappers in general -- is Issa Ali.
At 28 years old, the Dayton-born and Yellow Springs-raised artist is just starting to ride the wave of success his hard work has created.
“When I first heard of rap music, I just loved it. I loved the idea of poetry in motion. I just loved the way it made me feel,” Ali says.
Writing his first rhymes in the fifth grade, Ali carried that love into middle school, where he made friends with likeminded kids.
“We actually made a studio. We had a mic hanging on a cardboard box,” he laughs. “We had a drum machine and a keyboard. We figured out how to record ourselves. It wasn’t good quality, but we made our first album. Of course, it was fun and hilarious. We were just figuring out how to do it, but we loved it.”
But it was while attending Central State University that Ali, a biology major, began the group Village Fam with four other artists. Honing his production skills, Ali graduated and went on to Wright State to earn his master’s in Public Health.
But he kept writing and producing while working in the real world, leading to his first two mixtape releases. Both Project Blue Book and As Above, So Below were self-produced and well received, with Ali showcasing his ability to evolve between releases.
“It was my first time stepping out all the way solo, like, 'This is what I represent by myself,’” Ali says.
Ali also represents the Gem City and Yellow Springs with pride, prominently featuring both in his lyrics and in multiple videos.
“For one, Dayton is the capital of funk music. Period. The West Coast got their sound from Dayton. So Dayton, to me, is very influential on hip hop. A lot of the biggest songs have been sampled from Ohio and Dayton,” he says.
“Growing up (in Yellow Springs), I was able to get a broader respect for different cultures. I feel like I was able to draw from each one, and that gave me the opportunity a lot of people don’t get.”
Through networking, Ali made some key connections to help boost his career. Among those is musician and producer Steve Arrington, formerly of the legendary Dayton funk group Slave, whom he calls a mentor and a collaborator of future projects.
A mutual friend introduced Ali to Brooklyn hip hop artist and producer Talib Kweli, known for his work with Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def). But Ali chose to put his production skills in the forefront over his ability to rap. That earned him work for Kweli’s Javotti Media label, producing and farming out beats to other artists.
“A lot of people say they can rap, but a producer is more rare. Especially if you’re good at it. I knew that coming in. I felt like I had a better chance of developing a relationship with (Kweli) through that first,” he says.
It was inevitable that Ali’s ability to work the microphone would surface, which resulted in the new single “Overtime," featuring Kweli.
“My goal with 'Overtime' was to just bring back hardcore lyrics over hardcore beats. I feel like there was a golden era of hip hop. It still exists, but it doesn’t get as much shine as it should for various reasons. I wanted to put new futuristic flavor on top of it to draw in this new crowd and the old crowd all together,” Ali explains.
The song has garnered the national attention of the hip hop press and has kept the local artist busy, performing throughout the Midwest and East Coast.
In the meantime, Ali will continue to do what he feels he was put on this planet – Dayton and Yellow Springs, Ohio, to be particular – to do.
“I think the reason this gift was given to me was to help the world in some way; wake people up and bring things to their attention. (To) be someone people relate to and make them feel good about themselves.”