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FEATURE HIGHLIGHTS ’08: Al Be Back: For My People

[Editor’s Note: With the new year around the corner, looks back at some of our greatest stories and video features of 2008.]

There’s a method to Albert “Al Be Back” Daniels’s madness. What you see isn’t necessarily what you get. More known for his scene-stealing role as Brooklyn in the Chris Robinson-directed ATL than his bars, Al Be has actually been performing poetry for years, even landing a spot on HBO’s Def Poetry back in 2005. Though it may seem like he’s been quiet since his last flick, Al has been busy behind-the-scenes. In addition to prepping his untitled solo debut, which is set to feature guest spots from KRS-One, MC Lyte and Q-Tip, he’s been writing and co-producing for everyone from pop princess-in-training Natasia Pena to Kanye West (Graduation’s “Good Night”). caught up with Al to discuss life as Big Pun’s cousin, the importance of lyricism and his numerous film projects. What were you doing before ATL?

Al Be Back: Before ATL, I was doing poetry and I was writing. I’ve been writing since the 6th grade. I remember I lied to this girl about me being in the 7th grade. To make a long story short, I couldn’t participate in the class, ‘cause I tried to continue to lie to my teacher, so my teacher just gave me a pen and paper and said write something. Since then I’ve been writing, writing, writing. I was on Def Poetry. Being under Mos Def and watching him, it was easy ‘cause being on stage at the Nuyorican Poets Café, or being onstage at the Bowery [Poetry Club] and going all around New York City, on the east coast, the stage is so easy, so when we did the movie, it wasn’t really that difficult. It was like, “we get to do this again, take two?” On stage, you can’t do a take two. But to answer your question, I was just writing. I infiltrated that into ATL. As you see in ATL, I was doing poetry. I look at ATL like one big flyer.

XXL: Is it fair to say that acting is a tool for your music?

Al: No. I think acting is an art and a craft in itself, but because of the money and the fame, people just wanna get into it for that and don’t want to take it as a craft. Music is a whole different craft and a whole different tool. I think it can help. I think to some extent that any rapper that has charisma can find a pocket in acting, but they’re two totally different worlds.

XXL: How did you get the ATL role?

Al: I knew Chris Robinson since I was 15. Pun used to bring me around Chris Robinson. If you watch the old “Don Cartagena” video and watch the end, you see me. I’m like 15 with a Miami Dolphins jersey on. Big Pun put me in it. When Chris Robinson saw me on Def Poetry, he looked at me and said, “I got this movie that would be perfect for you. Come down to Atlanta.” I didn’t even have no bread, so I was doing poetry on the train to get my paper to go to Atlanta to audition. I ain’t never been to Atlanta. Kim Harding, who is the Casting Director was like, “Can you sing, can you do a poem?” I was like, “Yeah, I can do a poem.” So I just did this poem and everybody in the casting was crying, ‘cause I did this poem for my mom.

XXL: You came off so Brooklyn in ATL, but you’re from the Bronx. What’s the difference between BK and BX dudes?

Al: Brooklyn has a lot more culture and life. The Bronx is a home. Nobody leaves the Bronx. My mom ain’t never even been to Brooklyn. People from Brooklyn usually work in New York City. They came from the West Indies. They travel. They’ve been around. Brooklyn is like the fly ass crib that everybody go to, but the Bronx nobody really leaves it. It’s so boxed in. It’s just nothing but buildings and highways. There’s no trees in the Bronx. At least there’s a tree in Brooklyn.

XXL: Do you have any other films lined up?

Al: I’m writing my own stuff. I wrote a show called, Purgatory. I wrote my own feature film. Right now, I’m writing the script which is my album. I don’t think people do concept albums anymore. I mean, Hov did it with the American Gangster and with College Dropout and Late Registration, Kanye has done it. But, that was the thing…This is my experience and my life. Now people are dropping 16 singles together. So, there is a script in my album and you’re gonna see it unfold on the big screen. I’m writing this musical with my group Saks Fifth, my homeboys Curtains and Styx, who were signed to J Records. Then, me and Chris Robinson got something in the works.

XXL: Do you plan on capitalizing on the fact that you can call on Kanye West or T.I. to guest on your records?

Al: No. I think people are gonna love the music. It’s about the people right? It’s about making the people go, “Yo, I believe today. I’m not focused on, “Yo, I think Saigon would help me get this message across.” I can do that. Now, me and Saigon could get together, or me and Lupe could get together… I think I’m lyrical enough and Lupe is lyrical enough, that something conceptual would be crazy. I was fortunate, cause I got a chance to see T.I. do the King album. Classic album right? I watched what he did. We in his Ferrari doing about 140, we passed the cops. They don’t even chase us. On the way to the studio, Manny Fresh is there…that beat down low is in there. He said to me, “You should see me before I had kids, I was even crazier.” And then he says it in his rhymes: “Polices try to pursue me it’s nothin but gas given/Addicted to fast livin, yes I’m one of my dads children/Think I’m bad now shoulda seen me before I had children.” Watching a lyricist, I soaked it in. For Kanye’s Graduation, sat back and soaked it in.

XXL: Are you concerned that people will write your music off ‘cause they see you as an actor first?

Al: Maybe it’ll work the other way around. Maybe they’ll be like, “It’s that kid from ATL, let me hear what he’s saying.” They might be like, “That nigga is rapping too, or give it a listen.” If it’s wack, it’s wack. Tell me it’s wack. I’m not even concerned about that. I’m concerned about my people. I do song for my homeboys to go crazy. Whatever you feel, that’s cool, but I was talking to the people. I want you to hear it, though. If you hear it and you like it, that’s dope. But, I was talking to people. You was just eavesdropping.

XXL: You seem to take pride in your lyrics, how much does that have to do with your cousin Big Pun being one o the best lyricists of all time?

Al: I was around him. He pushed me. I was in church. Before he died, I was into Christian rap hardbody, saving the world. So I’m spitting to him and he’s spitting, all diabolical shit, “Cannibalism into my metabolism/giving me spasms, aneurysms, and baby baptisms.” Like, he’s going at me, pushing me, pushing me. One time I stole his rhymes out of his notebook and he smacked the hell out of me. He said, “You’ll get sick when your pen is healthy. You’ll be good when you just keep writing.” This is a man who dropped out of the fifth grade, but you’d never really guess that. This is a man who just started rapping when he was 20. That was his second rhyme ever. You would have never guessed though. He pushed me to be the illest and to find the word that goes with that sound, to lose yourself in that rhythm.

XXL: How close were you guys?

Al: I lived in the attic. I used to go to the store for him. I used to be in the videos just getting him sodas. You stupid, you getting smacked. You go to sleep, bucket of water. We would walk and it was 20 below degrees outside and as a little kid I would ask somebody, “Do you know where Hunts Point is” and then they would open the van and soak this whole bucket of water on somebody and then drive off. He was a big kid. He was a video game.

XXL: So, you’re working on your album. Are you looking to sign a major deal, or release it independently?

Al: Independently, right? My music is too ill first of all. I’m loving it. I don’t know if they can do that on a major. I don’t wanna have that headache. You know why I love a major, to some extent your concept is dope, you got a family of people, you got a street team, you do songs with other artists on the label, you guys talk, V.I.P., clubs, you guys sit together. It’s cool. But I wasn’t that kid in school. I was by myself. I wasn’t in a clique. So, the concept is cool, but I think we can rock like this. Q-Tip shows me a lot of love. You got KRS-One saying, “Yo, I love your verse.” I got Mos Def and Kanye West vouching for me. I think it would be a hot situation as opposed to me being a slave on the plantation. My M.O. from day one has been, I’m not trying to bring hip-hop back, I’m just gonna be hip-hop. –Carl Chery

Al Be Back “Love You More”

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