Before Mahershala Ali Had Gold Statues He Had Golden Bars (Audio)

Last night (February 26), Mahershala Ali made history as the first Muslim actor to win an Academy Award to win an Oscar. He took home the gold as Best Supporting Actor for his work as Juan in Moonlight, but longtime fans know that his success did not happen overnight. He got his start in television in 2001 on Crossing Jordan, but it was his role as Remy Danton on House of Cards that proved to be his most culturally resonant work to date. Since then, he’s found immense success on Luke Cage, and he somehow managed to find time to star in the Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures. Ali also stars in the upcoming Roxanne Shanté biopic, Roxanne Roxanne. It’s been a busy, busy time for Mahershala, the actor.

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But acting isn’t the only thing he’s pursued. Mahershala Ali once went by the Rap name Prince Ali, dropping albums in 2006 and ’07. Both Corner Ensemble and Curb Side Service feature members of Hieroglyphics, which makes sense given the fact that Ali is an Oakland, California native. The Hiero Emporium label even distributed these two albums, released on his own Eye5 Recordings. His ties to Hip-Hop seem to follow him in his Hollywood career, as well. Heads may remember the powerful image of his Luke Cage character, Cottonmouth, standing in front of an iconic portrait of The Notorious B.I.G. Furthermore, his 2016 film Kicks featured prominently Rap lyrics from Nas and co-starred Biggie’s son, Christopher Jordan Wallace.

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In speaking with XXL, Ali discussed Hip-Hop’s prominence in his life and career, and he says songs like “’93 ‘Til Infinity” helped define his youth. Growing up in California’s Bay Area, he grew up on Sway & Tech’s The Wake Up Show, and he lists Diamond D, Nas (Ali himself says Illmatic is the “greatest hip-hop album ever,” as did Ambrosia for Heads readers), Brand Nubian, Biggie, O.C., Organized [K]onfusion, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and Digable Planets as some of the most influential artists he grew up with. “I grew up on a wide range of stuff. OutKast, they been around for over 20 years, and some of the L.A. cats like Defari, Dilated Peoples and Likwit Crew,” he explains, highlighting his interest in the true underground Rap culture prevalent in Los Angeles for decades. But it isn’t just the old-school cats he appreciates. EarthGang, Mick Jenkins, and Westside Gunn & Conway are just a few of the more contemporary acts he mentions as being his favorites.

Because of his appreciation for artists like Defari and Dilated Peoples, the featured artists on Ali’s own albums make all the more sense. Dilated’s own Rakaa as well as Defari appear on 2006’s Corner Ensemble (Rakaa also appears on ’07’s Curb Side Service), as does Hieroglyphics member Opio (A-Plus, Casual, and Pep Love appear on CSC). On “The Majors,” Prince Ali not only enlisted hometown MC Casual, but also Planet Asia and Keith Murray. It’s a Bay Area – Strong Island affair that is clearly centered around lyrical raps and which likely flew under the radar for most Hip-Hop Heads.

Ali also shared with XXL that his love for Hip-Hop went beyond rapping. “I definitely used to break dance a bit,” he says before adding “Hip-Hop has definitely had a strong, perhaps the strongest influence on my life.” Heads should visit his full interview to learn about his thoughts on Brownsville Ka, Roc Marciano, and more.