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Interview: Top Dawg engineer Ali talks Kendrick Lamar, mixing, Black Hippy’s natural chemistry

October 14th, 2012 | by Will 'ill Will' Lavin
Interview: Top Dawg engineer Ali talks Kendrick Lamar, mixing, Black Hippy’s natural chemistry
Hip Hop
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With Compton emcee Kendrick Lamar’s new album, good kid m.A.A.d city, due for release shortly there’s absolutely no question that all eyes are on Top Dawg Entertainment. Currently without doubt one of the hottest cliques in hip-hop – alongside the likes of MMG, G.O.O.D. Music, and Roc NationTDE are a powerhouse full of talent. Reminiscent of early G-Unit, when 50 Cent steered a small team – Lloyd Banks, Tony Yayo, and Young Buck – to the top of the charts, Top Dawg have their own small but incredibly deadly unit.

Kendrick Lamar is the poster child, the front man if you will. Quite possibly the most sought after lyricist in the game right now, the fact that he’s under the guidance of Dr. Dre just makes him that bit more dangerous. Jay Rock’s the gangsta. He’s also the guy that’s been doing his thing the longest. With a joint deal between TDE and Tech N9ne’s Strange Music, his debut album Follow Me Home was released last year to critical acclaim.

Schoolboy Q is the smoker, the drinker, the party enthusiast. He’s the underground fan favourite. With two projects already under his belt, and a whole host of features suddenly sprouting out of the woodwork, life is looking pretty good for the South Central LA rhymer. Then there’s Ab Soul. Some simply call him the genius. If there was an award for the most improved emcee, there’s nobody else even remotely close to getting in his lane to take that title. With a few projects to his name, this year’s Control System is making its way in to many peoples favourite album of 2012 list already.

Then of course behind every successful crew there’s a dedicated and immensely talented support mechanism. For TDE that’s founder Anthony ‘Top Dawg’ Tiffith, Punch, Dave Free, a production team known as Digi-Phonics, and engineer Derek ‘MixedByAli’ Ali.

Sitting down with SoulCulture whilst in London for Kendrick’s debut UK shows back in June, Ali talks to us about how TDE came to be, musical engineering, and his extensive work with the Black Hippy camp.

Meeting Ali for the first time you’d be forgiven for mistaking him for an American football player. His broad shoulders and bulky frame give off an air of overpowering physical dominance that could be used to his advantage on the field.

“To be honest, I came from an [American] football background. I was a ball player,” he admits with a smile. Discussing how he became a part of such a prominent musical movement, he states, “[One day] I got hurt and couldn’t play ball no more. From there me and [Young Money’s] Tyga grew close, we were always cool with one another. I always knew he did music. So after I healed up I started helping Tyga out at the studio.”

Continuing to break down his humble beginnings as well as his relationship with Tyga, Ali adds, “I was always computer literate so I was like fuck it, “You need help with your music stuff and I ain’t doing shit right now. So [from there] we started recording and I did his first mixtape (Young On Probation) that got him signed.

“When I saw what could be done with just me and my computer I was like, “Let me see what’s up with engineering.” I started doing research and finding out more about it and I kinda fell in love with it. When I found out that I could take somebody’s vocals EQ it, compress it, add shit to it that I wanna add, and create a hit record, a club record, or just something people can feel, it just sucked me in. I fell in love with it.”

Going on to describe how he came to meet the TDE crew, apparently it was his relationship with TDE President Dave Free that got him linked in with the collective. “At this time I was in high school and I met Dave,” he explains. “He was a computer tech at the high school I was going to. He was a young dude. So he was working there as a computer technician while he was going to school there.

“I knew he was working with an artist named Jay Rock, who was big in the city at the time so I asked him to listen to the Tyga mixtape. He liked what we had done and that we had put it together by ourselves, and with that he told me to come by the studio. So I went to the studio and met everybody. I met Top, met Punch. Shit… from there I just never left. I was the pup with all the Top Dawgs. I was about 16/17 at the time back in ’07.”

Talking to us about how Top Dawg Entertainment came to be, Ali’s explanation of the label’s come up comes down to universal movements – “TDE was supposed to happen. It wasn’t something that was planned, it was just supposed to happen.” Pausing for a second Ali adds, “Everybody came from a different part of LA, everybody came from a different lifestyle, everybody came from something different, and somehow the universe put everybody together and we created this family.

“It wasn’t something that was planned like, “I’m gonna go look for this,” or, “I’m gonna go look for this kinda person,” or, “I’m gonna go look for this type of engineer,” or, “I’m gonna go get this type of producer.” Everybody just grew together. Everybody just came together in a way that was just meant to be.”

After discussing each member of TDE’s hometown – “I’m from Gardena, Ab Soul’s from Carson, K-Dot’s from Compton, Jay Rock’s from Watts, and [Schoolboy] Q is from actual South Central Los Angeles, all of which are literally next to each other” – Ali speaks on the production team that TDE have in place.

“Digi-Phonics [is the team],” he announces. “It’s something Dave Free created. It’s a group of producers. It’s all team. We got TaeBeast, Dave Free, Willie B, and Sounwave. It’s four producers that come together and make Digi-Phonics,” he explains. “Sounwave did a lot of the early stuff and then we met a few other dudes along the way like Willie B and TaeBeast, and Dave Free recently got back on his shit. He was a producer back [in the day], he chilled out for a bit so he could do the business side of things and now he’s back making bangers.”

Asking Ali if he’ll ever become a part of the production team, with a serious face he answers, “I wanna perfect before I advance or try and move on to something else. I wanna perfect engineering. I wanna perfect mixing.”

“There’s three parts to engineering,” he adds. “The actual recording of the track, the mixing, and the mastering. Until I’ve even mastered all three of those you won’t see me producing. I wanna go hard at one thing at a time and perfect it so I can say, “I own that.” Then I wanna move on to other ventures and say, “I own this. I own that,” he let’s it be known that he takes his craft very seriously.

While his loyalty lies with TDE, Ali has had a few people from elsewhere hit him up for his services – “There’s definitely a lot of people interested in the sound that we’ve created but right now my focus is on what we’ve got going on because we’ve still got a lot of work to do. We’re not at where we’re gonna be at [in the future]. We’ve still got a lot of records to make and a lot of shows to do. With that said, I don’t wanna focus on anything else.”

Admitting to doing a bit of extra work here and there, all work leads back to TDE for Ali. “I went on tour with Jay Rock and did some DJ-ing for him, and while I was on tour I did some engineering for E-40 on his last album,” he informs us. “All my other engineering features have been on TDE features. So like what Kendrick did for the Drake album [Take Care], I recorded and mixed that. The intro on The Game album [The R.E.D. Album], I recorded. All the features that Kendrick does I record and mix those.”

With Kendrick Lamar’s album one of the most anticipated releases of 2012, Ali, without giving too much away, gets a little excited and describes the album as something listeners will feel, “It’ll change music because it’ll put itself in its own lane… Every song is something that anybody, any race, any genre, any sex can relate to. It’s everyday life. And that’s something I feel ain’t out there in music these days.”

“Everything’s so watered down or so, ‘I’m in the club.’ It’s just not real music. It’s just music you can hear but not feel,” he complains. “[Whereas] the music we make is something you can really feel and appreciate.” When asked if he can tell us anything particular about the album and its sound he simply replies with, “I don’t wanna spoil it because it definitely a surprise.”

Aside from the label’s premiering artist, Ali gives us his opinion on both Schoolboy Q and Ab Soul. “Schoolboy’s on the rise man. So’s Ab-Soul. They all add something different to the camp. They are definitely important with regards to what we’ve got going on. They’re a part of this legacy. They add flavour to what we’ve got going on. Kendrick makes certain music. Schoolboy Q makes a different type of music, which brings different types of people closer to us.”

Getting into a bit more detail about Ab-Soul he gushes, “Ab is a genius point blank period. He’s a genius! You can just sit up and talk to him for hours. We can just kick back and smoke, and we argue all the fucking time. Me and Ab are like the brothers from hell. We argue all the time. But we’ll just smoke and talk for hours. I’ve always been the hot headed young nigga who never wanted to hear anything, but talking to Ab, he’s put me in my place a few times. I respect that.”

“Black Hippy was just four dudes who came together and hopped on a song and people fucked with it. You know what I’m saying?” he says. “It wasn’t really planned. Q was like, ‘Fuck it! We Black Hippy.’ So we were all like, ‘Shit… We Black Hippy then.’

“The crazy thing about Black Hippy is that it is marketable but it’s not something created. It’s so organic. I mean I look at something like MMG. Those guys weren’t all friends before they blew up together. Meek Mill wasn’t chilling with Gunplay. Meek Mill wasn’t chilling with Stalley. With TDE we’re all family. So really it’s all set in place, we just need to put the music out.”

Discussing what’s next for the crew once Kendrick’s album drops, Ali claims, “At the end of the day TDE is still a record label. Of course the CEO’s and what not will venture out and mess with other artists at some point but as of right now we’re focused on what we have going on with the four artists we have – Black Hippy.”

The conversation ends with Ali signaling that he needs to go to bed as he and Kendrick have an early flight in the morning. After being enlightened that bit more with regards to TDE and their movements as far as the future goes, it’s obvious that these LA boys have big plans and won’t be disappearing in to the sunset anytime soon.