Photo by Kareem Ali
Kareem Ali is at his best beneath an open sky.
His songs, often shaped around pulsating synths, big piano chords and atmospheric backdrops, sound the most fitting in places that give them room to breathe and build.
“I’m not really a club person,” he says. “I like more open areas.”
It’s been nearly a decade since the 28-year-old house and electronic producer left his home state of New York for Arizona, where space is in abundance and the clouds seem to sit higher in the sky than elsewhere in the country.
The openness of the Southwest is a stark contrast to the tightly packed Manhattan jazz clubs he often gigged as a trumpeter and the loud Brooklyn dance clubs he tried to infiltrate as an inspiring DJ back in the early 2010s, when Ali was simply waiting on a chance to shine but was constantly ignored.
“It’s that clique culture … these people that want to have their little group, and they don’t want to let anyone else in,” he tells me. “I’m just asking, ‘Yo, can somebody just teach me something?’ And I’m just shut out completely.”
Rather than continue to haul his music equipment on the subway just to encounter frosty looks from scenesters, he decided to leave. At the time, he had a friend who would travel to Phoenix during winters to caddy—and Ali, who had only recently started doing music full-time, decided to do the same. He hit the open road in 2014, driving three days straight to Arizona without ever having visited the state beforehand.
During the drive, he remembers being astonished by the forests and mountains of Arizona, which he had assumed would look like the black-and-white Westerns he loved as a kid, full of sprawling desert and cacti.
“A lot of people, especially from New York, don’t think of Arizona as having forests and stuff like that,” he says. “My neighborhood, there’s like a huge mountain in the distance…that stuff never gets old to me, it’s just so cool. I always tell people that I’m definitely inspired by everything I see.”
You can hear this inspiration vividly in songs like “Como Me Siento Por Ti,” with its soaring synths, dramatic build-ups and vocals of being alone (sung by Ali himself). One can imagine it scoring an epic sunrise over the dramatic rock formations of Papago Park in Phoenix, which Ali took a photo of for the cover of his Getting Through EP last year.
There’s also “They Can’t Stop Us,” which has all the makings of a classic Midwest house song, with its open hi-hats and heavy kick drums, but gets more ethereal and expansive as it progresses. Around two minutes in, instead of facing a big bass drop, we hear Ali hum over pretty piano chords and a floating pad line.
But even though Ali draws heavily from the natural world, his music is still firmly rooted in New York. Ali grew up working on golf courses in Westchester County, where his parents, who were both raised in the Bronx, moved the family when he was born. But as a teen, he spent most of the week in the city, specifically Harlem, where his father served as an assistant minister at a Nation of Islam mosque while also working as a homicide detective back in Westchester. It quickly became his second home.
Seeing it become increasingly gentrified over the years has had a huge impact on him, as well as his music, demonstrated by tracks like “Buy Back The Hood (Make The Hood A Decent Place To Live),” which incorporates a Laurence Fishburne soundbite from Boyz N The Hood around gentrification, or on “Mom’s Interlude,” where his mom, who’s now a psychologist Upstate, reads a poem that compares the oddities of her current cushy white neighborhood to her upbringing in the Bronx.
This social commentary—combined with the fact that his sound is greatly informed by his background in jazz, a distinctly Black artform, and imbued with the Black nationalistic pride of the Nation, which he grew up learning in his dad’s mosque — makes his music, as a whole, unequivocally Black. It’s also made it somewhat of an anomaly in the increasingly white world of dance music, despite it being founded on the work of Black artists.
Ali is conscious of this, and thus often builds whole projects around the notion of Black pride, with titles like Black Power, Blackbody, Black Woman IV (The One For Me) and, perhaps his opus so far, Quantum Blackness. I spoke with him about his time in Harlem and how the Nation’s teachings stick with him today even out in the bucolic Arizona countryside, as well as his love for golf, EDM and listening to dance music sober. – Reed Jackson
On “Mom’s Interlude,” your mom performs over one of your tracks and talks about the “ghettos of Bedford” and how strange they are. Is that Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn?
Kareem: She was actually talking about Upstate New York. It was more kind of like a metaphor when she was talking about the ghetto. It’s [a town] called Bedford Village. She was comparing it to her time to where she grew up in the Bronx, comparing it to that and how different the area was. She was living in an apartment up there; she does good for herself, she’s a psychologist, so. Just comparing the lives cause like…these people that live up there are super rich. I used to live in a restaurant right below, and I’d always see Michael Douglas. Bruce Willis has a house up there. I was an EMT at the firehouse up there for a little bit. All these people are like old money, you know? And we had never lived around people like that. So it was kind of the culture shock of seeing that and talking among these people.
Does your mom create art often? I know she’s a psychologist and your dad was both a homicide detective and minister — outside of their jobs, were they creative?
Kareem: You know the High School of Music and Art, right? The original music and arts school in the ‘70s [in New York City]. My mom went there, she’s a classically trained vocalist, so that’s why I always used to hear her playing piano and singing arpeggios and all that stuff. I just grew up immersed in music. My dad is musical, but he kind of suppresses that. My dad is very, very creative, but if you were to ever talk to him or whatever, he’s like very militant with it. You’d never really expect it from him. He’s like an excellent, excellent drawer, like he used to show us all the drawings he did as a teenager and stuff and they’d be crazy, you know? And like my dad would always sing to us before we went to sleep when we were younger. Music was just incorporated into my life so much, just heavy heavy.
Was your dad balancing life as a homicide detective and minister at the same time? If so, was that sort of thing rare for a minister in the Nation?
Kareem: Yes, he was balancing that life. My dad is a workaholic so he’s always working. I definitely get my proactivity from him. My dad was an assistant minister, so not the main minister. But, assistant ministers usually have other jobs.
You spent time Upstate and a lot of your life in Westchester County, so what was your relationship like with New York City?
Kareem: I grew up in Mosques, Nation of Islam. My dad was very involved … and I was in Harlem probably three or four times a week, every week. Harlem was my second home, I was always, always in Harlem. And I literally saw from a point where there were no yellow cabs ever there, you know? Completely different area up to what it is now. I think I came back and when I saw that Whole Foods on 125th Street I was like, “Wow. This has completely changed.”I think it took part of the city away, the culture of it. And the people that live there I hope they really realize what Harlem is, you know? They want to move there cause it’s Harlem you know, but I don’t think they realize the cultural importance of that place.
To stay on NYC, I know you’ve discussed how you have a complicated relationship with its underground scene – you tweeted that it did you “dirty.” Could you go into detail about that?
Kareem: It’s kind of like how New York is, I think New York and L.A. are very similar. It’s that clique culture, a lot of these cliques of these people that want to have their little group, and they don’t want to let anyone else in. That’s the problem I had. I had a good friend I went to college with, too, and he was like really the only one that would push for me to do it. This was when I was trying to learn to DJ and stuff like that. I was trying to get into the underground scene, you know? And these are Black people, too. It was like, “How do I get into this scene? I know I’m making this music now.” And I’m hitting up people, and people just are not responding back. I see that they see my messages and stuff like that. My boy pitches me to people who are running events and stuff, and you know they kinda decline. And I’m just asking, “Yo, can somebody just teach me something?” And I’m just shut out completely. And I’m just like, “Nah man, I hate this stuff.”Then I move out here, do my thing and all the same people are hitting me up now [laughs]. It’s just like come on. “Oh I remember you, man,” and I was like, “Yeah dude, you didn’t want to help me before.” That’s what really turned me off, I’m not a fan of that. That’s why I keep my line open. People hit me up all the time asking for advice on music stuff and all this stuff…and my line is always open for that. It’s like giving back.
You talked about the gentrification in Harlem, did you see that in the city’s dance music scene as well? Did that have any influence on your music?
Kareem: I guess that’s a part of it. But the other half is just how I grew up, too. You know, in the Nation, which is that kind of Black nationalistic pride — that self awarness of things that I wasn’t taught in school of like the history of Black people. Knowledge of self and stuff like that, I think it’s important.
Would you say the Phoenix community is more inclusive and helpful?
Kareem: When I first got out here there was like nothing. Now there is, there’s this thing called Recordbar Radio, this guy Jake Stellarwell runs, which is really connecting a lot of Phoenix artists. And it’s not just electronic, there’s a whole bunch of different types of music and stuff so it’s definitely growing now, for sure. It’s gonna be a hub in the future because you know a lot of people in California are moving out here, a lot of people from so many different areas are moving out here, too. I think it’s the most rapidly expanding city in the market right now. It’s like one of those places that was breezed over, you know?
I didn’t realize golf was a big thing for you. What do you like about it?
Kareem: I like being out in nature and stuff. I don’t know how to explain it, have you ever played golf?
I have, and I suck.
Kareem: [Laughs] It’s peaceful, but also gets frustrating, you know? I actually don’t golf as much as I used to. I’m getting back into full swing now though … pun intended. Definitely thought of some melodies while golfing. I usually pull off to the side and record me singing the melody on my phone.
What’s the optimal place people should hear your music, you think?
Kareem: Ah, I just don’t like…personally, I think music is best enjoyed sober, especially dance music and stuff like that. That’s just my opinion, obviously. I was just never with the sex, drugs culture of dance music. Never really vibed with that, that’s the thing that really really turned me off, like the club scene and all that. That’s why my stuff is not really club oriented. I do that on purpose, I’m a chill person so my music kind-of reflects that. I like more open areas, I eventually want to play planetariums and opera halls and stuff like that.
You’re insanely prolific and release projects constantly. Is there one song that you think embodies what you’re trying to do with your sound? A song that you like to show people first, maybe?
Kareem: That’s hard, that’s hard. It might have been more recent, like that “Como Me Siento Por Ti” song. It doesn’t have anything to do with Black power stuff, but like I just think that song is who I am as a person. You know, the song is about something else, but it encapsulates what I’m trying to do sonically, you know? Just taking it kind-of in between classic house stuff and EDM. That’s why I really wanted to have that mix in there. A lot of underground artists trash on EDM but there’s a lot of good EDM, though. Like honestly, it’s melodic. I don’t like the dub-step or that bass heavy crazy new-trance stuff. But like some other EDM stuff is good, though; some of the stuff like Calvin Harris.