Derek Ali, the Man Behind Kendrick's Sound
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Top Dawg is the ultimate startup, and he was employee No. something.
By Andreas Hale
It was the Christmas holidays, but things were anything but lax for Derek “MixedByAli” Ali, who was not warming himself by a fire or a family tree. Instead, just a few hours removed from his label’s end-of-year concert and toy giveaway in Los Angeles’ Nickerson Gardens projects, audiophile Ali was already back at work in the studio. In front of him: the massive soundboard belonging to Top Dawg Entertainment; to his right, one of TDE’s famed progeny, rapper Schoolboy Q.
Top Dawg, for those not in the know, is the inner sanctum of hip-hop musical achievement — it’s the group behind acts like Ab-Soul, SZA and, most famously, Kendrick Lamar. Ali is TDE’s 26-year-old sound engineer, the one who hears textures you and I can’t, the one who made the instrumentation on Lamar’s sophomore album sound atmospheric and unlike most hip-hop, the one who played a real role in helping Lamar earn a robust 11 Grammy nominations in 2016. “Ali is just as important as the person writing, making the beats and expressing himself on the microphone,” Lamar tells OZY. “They say there’s an actual frequency that hits a nerve connected to your brain and makes you say that you like a song. That’s something that Ali understands very well.”
It’s not what you’re working with, it’s who’s pressing the buttons.
At 6-foot-4, Ali doesn’t look like a sound geek next to the stars here in the studio — more like a star ballplayer owning his space on the court. Ali’s eyes move around as though he’s chasing each individual sound emerging from the speakers. “Mixing a record is a spiritual experience to me,” he says, beginning to spit a complex explanation of how he turns something flat into a three-dimensional listening experience. He slows down, chooses something simpler: “I look at it like a puzzle,” he says. “Imagine getting a block of ice and wanting to chisel it down to a circle. And once it gets to a circle, it’s perfect. What I’m doing is cutting out certain frequencies from around this block of ice of a song to make it fit into the circle.”
Ali’s been mastering the technique since his childhood in Gardena, California, outside Los Angeles. He was raised by his grandparents, who were of Polish heritage, after his parents had what he calls “disagreements.” Which left him, biracial Ali, looking quite the Black man, growing up with white Polish grandparents. Language barriers abounded, and you get the sense he was lost and lonely. But armed with a computer and some technical know-how, Ali discovered music — at a time when file-sharing website Napster had begun changing the landscape of the music industry.
But unlike his peers, Ali never dreamed of rapping or producing. He didn’t even like hip-hop that much. His poison? Techno, and the “different patterns and sounds that jumped out of the speakers at me,” he says. “Like a science-fiction movie in your ears.” Ali learned enough that, by high school, he knew how to hack around with audio files and mobile phones to create custom ringtones for cash. With the money, he built a recording studio at his grandmother’s house so he could record not only ringtones, but also all of his friends, each one yearning to be the next Lil Wayne. He charged friends $20 or $30 an hour, he says — and realized he might be onto something.
It was 2006 when Ali ran into a computer technician at his high school who’d heard of his knack for recording. The guy, Dave Free, was moonlighting as manager for a 19-year-old rapper named … Kendrick Lamar. Free invited him down to the studio. “I came by and never left,” Ali says. He was just 17 when he moved from his grandmother’s house to a couch in Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith’s studio. TDE was scrappy, and still small-time.
But the label began to pick up steam with each musical release. Ab-Soul and Schoolboy Q were added to the mix, and Ali had his hands full recording projects for all of them while also serving as Kendrick Lamar’s tour DJ. The artist formally known as K Dot became a breakout star courtesy of his Overly Dedicated mixtape and debut project Section.80, which led to a meeting with Compton’s godfather of production, Dr. Dre.
Ali remembers the day Lamar began working with Dr. Dre. He was left alone for a few moments in the mixing room with the man who gave the world The Chronic. “I asked what equipment he uses, and he told me, ‘It’s not what you’re working with, it’s who’s pressing the buttons,’” Ali reflects. He remembers that Dre complimented his work, giving the engineer all the confidence he needed to take his craft to the next level. Which was necessary — because Lamar was blowing up. The much-accoladed album To Pimp a Butterfly would take a few more risks, have more lyrical density, host more instrumentation and call upon Ali to weave grander, tougher elements together in a new way.
“The mix-down on a musically rich album like TPAB is so important because there are so many moving parts and so much is going on,” says Mike Pizzo, co-founder of music site Cuepoint. “Ali’s mixing really shines on that record, because you can hear every horn, every drum, every synth. It could have been a jumbled mess without it.”
Ali says to hold on any cheers and hoots for him. “Ask me when I’m 45 if I made it and I’ll let you know.”