In case you weren't paying attention, 2016 was truly Mahershala Ali's year. He was a part of a number of intriguing projects, including the coming-of-age sneakerhead story Kicks, the Oscar-winning Moonlight (which helped Ali win his first Best Supporting Actor award), and the Harlem-based superhero saga Marvel's Luke Cage. I got the chance to speak with Ali about his portrayal of Cottonmouth in Luke Cage in October of 2016, and he opened up about how he makes Spotify playlists for the characters he portrays, saying that Cottonmouth was definitely "a fan of Diamond D, Brand Nubian and Nas, Mobb Deep. I think he would love the persona, the energy of Jay Z and Biggie. I think that they, to me, best reflect aspects of his personality. Even some of the Death Row artists—in some ways, there are elements of Suge Knight in him—he would respond and connect with N.W.A. and Dr. Dre." That's a lot of hip-hop being referenced, but at the time, I had no idea that Ali's love of hip-hop wasn't as a passive fan; dude used to BE a rapper.
No, your eyes aren't deceiving you; that's Mahershala Ali spitting bars with Rakaa Iriscience of Dilated Peoples from Ali's 2007 album Curb Side Service, which was released on the Hieroglyphics crew's Hiero Imperium imprint. Being an Oakland native, the connection to the Bay Area squad makes sense, especially in the overall sound of the music, which eschewed the snap rap era of the time for more lyrical content over crispier instrumentals.
In a conversation with XXL, Ali revealed that hip-hop has been massively impactful in his life. "Hip-hop has definitely had a strong, perhaps the strongest influence on my life," Ali says. "I don’t think I’m at all unique with that. I think there’s so many people of color, and even White kids, that have been tolerating the stresses of their own problems and what not and were able to navigate so many things through the culture of hip-hop and create jobs, have opportunities and been able to express themselves and finding their identity in. I think that’s true with so many people, definitely with me. It’s an appendage. It’s a part of me."
It's interesting to note that it would appear that Ali's career in hip-hop was relatively short. According to iTunes, he did have his own imprint, Eye5 Recordings, which founded in 2006 after completing his graduate program at NYU Tisch. Curb Side Service was the follow-up to his 2006 release Corner Ensemble, but by 2008, Ali was playing Tizzy Weathers in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which lowkey started his journey in Hollywood. While he was in some notable movies (The Hunger Games—Mockingjay Parts 1 and 2) and television shows (House of Cards), it wasn't until 2016 that Ali truly took it to the next level, a level that's draped in awards and Calvin Klein campaigns, all while continuing to stay true to himself. And we have hip-hop to thank.
The question is, will the 43-year-old actor ever pick up the mic to record some heat in the future? Here's hoping.