Being a recording engineer or a mixer often times is an unheralded position. The artist always gets most of the credit while few understand how the behind-the-scenes players influence the music. With the rise of Kendrick Lamar and Black Hippy, Top Dawg Entertainment has always credited their music as Mixed by Ali to make it obvious who’s responsible for these elements.
Ali’s awareness of sound and attention to detail is so precise it’s uncanny. Before starting the interview, he made sure the room didn’t have an echo. We positioned ourselves correctly and avoided as much outside noise as possible. Then the recorder would capture only our voices and nothing else. Next he candidly revealed how much work it takes to complete a record, what he’s learned from his predecessors and how he plans to revolutionize the arts of mixing and engineering.
TSS: How did you become part of TDE?
Mixed By Ali: TDE has always been a local record company around the city. At the time my manager Dave Free was working at the high school I attended, and I would always see some of Jay Rock’s or Kendrick’s early mixtapes floating around the school. I connected with Dave and Punch, the president of TDE, and explained how I was interested in engineering. They told me to come by the studio and I never left. It’s been like five or six years now. I was around 16, 17 when I joined the team. I’m 22 now.
TSS: You were still in high school?
Mixed By Ali: Yeah I was still in high school, still playing football.
TSS: Oh yeah? What position did you play?
Mixed By Ali: I played defensive end.
TSS: Why music and not sports?
Mixed By Ali: I actually got hurt, man. I was at West L.A. College transferring to Washington State when I fucked up my back, my lower disk. Once that happened, I couldn’t really play no more. Music has always been my hobby, so I just turned that hobby into a career. I started working with a childhood friend, Tyga, we actually came up together and we were working on his first project Young On Probation around that time. After the project dropped, I just continued working and it went from there.
TSS: How did you first get into the recording, engineering, mixing side and why not something more prominent like rapping or producing?
Mixed By Ali: I was always into making and creating things. I was always one of those kids who used to break shit and put it back together to see how it worked, or to see if I can make something else with the parts. When I found out about engineering and mixing and I found out I could take somebody vocals or some music that somebody created, take it apart and then change and manipulate it and do what I want to it, that’s what really gravitated me towards mixing. Just the thought about sound and frequencies really intrigues me.
TSS: So no rapping or producing from you?
Mixed By Ali: I tried to produce, but I couldn’t make a beat to save my life and I didn’t have the patience for it. And I’ve asked producers that too, why don’t they engineer, mix or whatever, and they say they the same thing I say about producing: they don’t have the patience. I guess my A.D.H.D. would rather sit through an 18-hour mix session that making a beat [Laughs].
TSS: Tell me about the behind-the-scenes of the recording process. You got the beat, the rapper lays his verses over it and now what happens?
Mixed By Ali: That’s pretty much it. They come in, load the track up, lay their verses, chorus, bridge, however they going to format the record. I put a light mix on it so it’s easy on the ears and move on to the next one. Then I might come back later that night or the next morning and start on the mix if the record is completed.
TSS: And what’s the actual role of the engineer during all this?
Mixed By Ali: Young Guru said, ‘The job of the engineer is to be quiet and do whatever the producer and artist say.’ I heard that in one of his interviews and it’s one of the best ways to describe the job. It’s to do whatever the producer and artist say: record, edit, etc. Mixing is completely different. You have to take the music, take the vocals, take the instruments, take all elements of the record and blend it all together to make one.
TSS: So what are some qualities someone needs to be successful as an engineer or a mixer?
Mixed By Ali: Be creative and love the music, man. There are a lot of engineers that’s aren’t creative at all. They feel that just because the vocals are clean and the drums hit they did their job. That’s bullshit. Anyone that went to school for engineering can do that. You have to do what the next person is NOT doing. I feel in today’s music there are no rules when it comes to mixing. With Pro Tools there’s so much you can do to a record its ridiculous. You just have to know what you’re doing, be creative and love what you’re working on.
For me, when mixing starts to feel like a job, that’s when I start to lose my creativity. On a lot of records I do for TDE, matter of fact on all the records I do for TDE, I add my two cents. Whether it’s some crazy delays throws or reverb delays or whatever. I’m lucky enough for the artists and producers to just let me do me on the record and that’s why I feel people outside of the camp are starting to fuck with me more because they’re not average mixes we’re doing no more. It’s wild shit that n***as doing on these records.
TSS: Did you learn everything yourself or did someone teach you?
Mixed By Ali: Punch brought me into the studio and taught me the basics and I just ran with it. Hours and hours of trial and error. I sat for days, not knowing what I’m looking at, just clicking buttons to see what one button did or what another button did. It’s like that Malcolm Gladwell quote, “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”
TSS: Jeez, I would have no patience for that shit [Laughs].
Mixed By Ali: [Laughs] Man, that Pro Tools got me hooked.
TSS: No Logic or Ableton for you?
Mixed By Ali: Nah, I’m strictly Pro Tools.
TSS: How have you specifically influenced Kendrick, Q, Soul and Jay Rock and their music?
Mixed By Ali: I feel I influenced them to try different shit on records. They know that I’ll come in and try to do some wild shit. There will be plenty of times when I’ll be in there with them and one of them will say, ‘I’m finna try this, you think you’ll be able to do something with it?’ And I’ll be like, ‘Let’s try it, I’ll fuck with it.’ Having that creative control with the artist also helps me out because it give me the opportunity to practice more and try different things to help better the mix and take the record to the next level.
TSS: Word, I like that. Nothing stagnant, everything’s always moving. What are some changes in Black Hippy’s music that you’ve seen over the last three years?
Mixed By Ali: Everyone came a long way. Every last one of TDE and Black Hippy, I’ve watched them all grow from six years ago. From beat selection, to delivery and even production everyone has stepped it up enormously.
TSS: Why do you think TDE blew up last year? It’s been just about exactly a year since everything took off. What changed?
Mixed By Ali: Man, nothing changed, bro, to be honest with you. We been going hard. We never stopped working. We always worked hard as fuck. You would think Jay Rock, Kendrick or Q dropped great projects and they’d go relax or some shit. Nope, the day their shit dropped, we were in the studio working on the next one. You never gotta stop working. And of course, great music is undeniable. The music will speak for itself. Nowadays, people actually listen to music. They listen to the message in the records, different flows, they listen to the production and all that shit. So it all has to be great, every single part, especially in the mix.
TSS: Would you say TDE is the face of the West Coast now?
Mixed By Ali: I mean, that’s what people are saying. I’m not even trying to look at it like that I just want to – man fuck that! I’d say we’re the face of the West Coast. Fuck it. That’s how I feel. I feel like TDE really putting on, and really going hard right now and people are noticing it. The whole camp has worked so hard to get where we are now, but we’re just scratching the surface. This is just be beginning for TDE.