TSS Presents Smoking Sessions With Mixed By Ali

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.

Photo: Whoizhe | Graphics: Dimplez

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.

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TSS: How is mixing for outsiders different from mixing for TDE? Is it different at all?

Mixed By Ali: It’s no different. Whatever I mix, I put 110% behind it. I don’t care if it’s some dude who’s recording his first song or if it’s Jay-Z. I’m gonna put my all into the record.

TSS: How long does it from start to finish to create a song and release it?

Mixed By Ali: If we’re just laying vocals and mixing, it’ll probably take a day to record a song and for the mix, I’ll come back and put anywhere from four to 18 hours into it.

TSS: Damn, just grind straight through it.

Mixed By Ali: Man, the studio has no windows. Time flies by. You’ll think it’s been four hours, but it’ll have actually been like twenty hours. It’s crazy bro.

TSS: On all of TDE’s releases, individual songs and full albums, it always credits you saying “Mixed By Ali.” To my knowledge, no other label credits their mixer so openly. Usually you have to look through the liner notes to find the mixer, the engineer, etc. Why does TDE put so much emphasis on what you do and credit you so explicitly?

Mixed By Ali: Because the team respects what I do as a craft. They respect what I put into the pot. Sounwave cooks up the beat. He puts his spice in it. The artists add vocals and their flavor to the record. And I come in, putting it together, and adding what I add to it, it makes the record. It’s the recipe.

They understand that engineering isn’t just a job. It’s artistry and I’m blessed that all four artists really understand that and show me they do by putting my name on and in their records. And same with the management, who makes sure that all the blogs add that ‘Mixed By Ali’ on their posts. That’s pretty much what it is. They respect it and I respect them for respecting it because there’s so many engineers that’s dope but they don’t get the credit. That’s one thing about engineers; all they have is credit.

TSS: Yeah man, it’s a thankless job.

Mixed By Ali: Exactly. You don’t see engineers getting the love they deserve for helping in making records go number-on. Do you think half of these singers sound the way they do on these records before they’re mixed? Stop it…

TSS: I think that’s probably why a lot of people shy away from it, because there isn’t any spotlight or glitz or glamor associated with it usually.

Mixed By Ali: Exactly. Engineering is about the music and making it sound great. It’s definitely a behind-the-scenes position, but we do deserve more credit than what we get right now.

TSS: It’s definitely more of a behind-the-scenes thing. The artist is the face of the music, always. Then you got the producer, and then the engineers and mixers and others fall even further behind and they’re the forgotten people. But listeners don’t understand just how much influence they have over an artist’s sound.

Mixed By Ali: Exactly. I definitely want to change that and honestly it’s starting to look like people are slowly noticing our work as mixers and engineers. I’m starting to see people on the net talking about the quality of records now, like just how they sound. [Laughs] People never used to talk about that.

TSS: Yeah, that was one of the reasons I wanted to do this interview actually. A person in your role isn’t really at the forefront of the song even though you have a major contribution. And since TDE always makes it a point to credit you and your work, I think it makes sense for us to recognize it as well. But I also feel like you, in particular, are getting that recognition through the music as well, like when Kendrick shouted you out on “Hol’ Up.”

Mixed By Ali: Yeah everyone in the camp does make sure I get the credit. It’s kind of funny you brought up “Hol’ Up,” too, because I’m a big dude. I’m 6-4, 260 pounds. When people see me, they think I’m a security guard, or what have you. When they find out I’m Ali, I always get, ‘Damn! I would hate to be that girl you kicked out the studio,’ or something like that…

Both: [Laughs]

Mixed By Ali: …I mean, if I have to I’ll be security too. I wouldn’t let nothing happen to my brothers. I’ll mix a record and mix a n***a down real quick.

Both: [Laughs]

Mixed By Ali: [Laughs] …But that’s real shit. I’m just blessed to have a good team who’s willing to put me out there and help me make my career what it is and what it’s gonna be. It’s just love man.

TSS: No artist succeeds alone. Whether a casual fan knows it or not, there’s a team of people behind them: the managers, producers, engineers, publicity, and all that.

Mixed By Ali: Right. And it’s a blessing that at TDE we all family. There are no egos. Everybody has a job. Everybody does his job. And that’s why we’re winning. We’re doing good right now because everybody knows how to play their role. A lot of people just want to be stars; they don’t want to put the work behind it.

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TSS: Word. What happens if you’re in the studio and Kendrick drops a line you don’t really like or Q drops a line you think is weak. Do you tell them, or do you let it go?

Mixed By Ali: Yeah, I definitely would say something. I’d say, ‘Yo, let’s try to get that back,’ or, ‘Let’s try that one again.’ I learned that from watching Dre work. That dude would make you get an ad-lib back. Just watching him work, he’s the ultimate perfectionist. And now, Kendrick’s a perfectionist. I don’t want to sit back and be a yes-man. I’m not a hired engineer. I’m from the camp, so I don’t want nothing to be released that’s gonna be trash. I’m gonna speak my words and if they don’t agree at least I gave my input.

I think every engineer should be like that. I’ve been in plenty of sessions where I’ve seen engineers just on their phones texting and pressing record and not caring if the vocals are coming out clean or not. I can’t respect that, man. I feel like engineers have the same responsibility as producers on their own records. At the end of the day, their name is gonna be on the record as well. So why not make it the best it can be?

TSS: How much time did you spend with Dre?

Mixed By Ali: I’ve had a few sessions with him, mostly shadowing him while he works.

TSS: Is Detox ever coming out?

Mixed By Ali: [Laughs] I don’t know. That’s something you’d have to ask Dre.

TSS: [Laughs] Man, if I were in a position to ask Dre myself, then you’d know I made it too. Speaking of Dr. Dre, he cosigned TDE about a year-and-half ago and you guys took full advantage. I think that was one of the things that took the TDE camp to another level. How did him putting his stamp on you guys change things?

Mixed By Ali: I don’t think it changed anything. It’s dope he recognized what’s going on, but we were still gonna do what we been doing if he didn’t. We never let nobody come in and change what we had going on. All the fans that we got, all the people who listen to our music and come to our shows, it’s all off the strength of what TDE did. We don’t want nobody to come in and change what we got going on. It’s been working so far, so we just gonna keep doing what we doing. It don’t matter if Kanye comes in and cosigns what we doing. We just gonna keep doing what we do.

TSS: Tell me about the HiiiPower movement. How did it start and what does it mean?

Mixed By Ali: Heart. Honor. Respect. In this day and age you need to have heart, honor and respect to survive. Whatever negativity you have around you or in your life can all be overcome by still having self-respect.

TSS: Heart, honor and respect. Is that what the three “I”s stand for in HiiiPower?

Mixed By Ali: Exactly. We were tired of everybody telling us, ‘Nah, that’s not gonna work,’ and, ‘Do this, not that.’ Nah man, fuck that. We gon’ do us.

TSS: Looking back, how important was 2011 for you and the label as a whole?

Mixed By Ali: It was very important because we got the opportunity to show the world what we could really do. I feel that 2011 was the year that the eyes were on us, and we had to really show and deliver, which we did. And for me, dropping the records and projects that TDE dropped, I think it put me in a specific light or whatever you want to call it, for people to hear my progress and hard work I put into these records. And now this year, as an engineer and mixer, I’m where the artists were last year, with people watching me, waiting to hear what new records from TDE I mixed.

TSS: And now that you guys got the deal with Interscope how do you guys take your underground success and translate that to the mainstream without alienating your underground fan base?

Mixed By Ali: To us it’s all the same. Underground, mainstream, whatever you want to call it. We gonna make the same music. We gonna show the same love we been showing to the fans. We still gonna do the same intimate shows that we do.

I never understood why people think that when you get a deal or a situation, your music automatically becomes “fake” all of a sudden. That’s never going to happen. We’re still going to keep making the same music that the fans love, and just keep pushing. Nothing is gonna change because of this situation.

TSS: The Club Paradise Tour was a great opportunity for you. You got to mingle with “40” (Noah Shebib) a lot, and I want to know what you got out of those conversations and what you learned from him.

Mixed By Ali: “40” is a smart dude. He knows his gear and his music. We mostly talked about previous records he produced and mixed. We listened to a few joints and we actually sat down and touched up a mix on a record we had. He’s a great guy and I’m looking forward to working with him a lot more in the near future.

TSS: I saw an interview with “40” back when Take Care came out and I vividly remember him saying something to the effect of no matter who contributed to the album, no song got approved without going past him. Is that how it works between you and Kendrick?

Mixed By Ali: I’m the same way. Kendrick doesn’t like too many people touching his vocals. If you look at the features that Kendrick has done, my name is on them. From Jay Rock to Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul, and everything that TDE does, our management makes sure that I okay the vocals. I listen to it and make sure everything is good to go, the artists trust my ear, that’s the coolest thing about it.

Follow Ali on Twitter at @MixedByAli.

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