MixedByAli on Making “Human Music” with Kendrick Lamar, Baby Keem, & More
We spoke to engineer MixedByAli about working with special artists like Kendrick Lamar and Baby Keem, his new platform EngineEars, the 10 year anniversary of Section.80, and more.
When it comes to the elites in the rap game, it’s important to note that there’s a lot that goes behind the creative process in making a solid body of work. This is where engineers come in to play. There’s three types of engineers: a recording engineer, mix engineer, and mastering engineer. And MixedByAli can do it all. He is responsible for mixing and engineering for the majority of Top Dawg Entertainment’s roster, including Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q, SZA and more.
Hailing from Gardena, Los Angeles, Ali is a master of his craft, someone who’s meticulous when it comes to detail and unmatched when it comes to passion. The Grammy award winner admits to dedicating 10 to 15 hours in the studio on one track alone. On songs like Kendrick’s “Swimming Pools” and “Cartoons & Cereal,” it’s Ali’s mixing that results in a unique sound that stands out amongst the rest, stressing the importance in musicality and effects. Ali’s no. 1 secret? Use the voice as an instrument.
Coming up under the wings of the legendary Dr. Dre, who mentored him and taught him how to mix, Ali has a lot to celebrate. Okayplayer took a tour of Ali’s new purchase, NoName Studios in Tarzana, California, which was formerly the Death Row studios named Can-Am. (Legendary sessions ensued with everyone from Tupac to Guns N’ Roses to Dreamville, who had the studio prior to Ali stepping in.) The tour included the new office space for his engineers platform EngineEars, multiple studio rooms (with stars in the ceiling), and construction of the back room where Ali is currently building an amphitheater of 75K watts.
Additionally, Ali recently mixed Baby Keem’s The Melodic Blue; the latest BROCKHAMPTON album, Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine; and nine songs on Don Toliver’s just-released Life of a Don album. During our time at NoName Studios, we talked about Dr. Dre teaching him how to mix, working with a special artist like Baby Keem, his new platform EngineEars, celebrating 10 years of Section.80, and more.
You purchased the old Cam An studio (Death Row’s old studios) which you renamed, No Name Studios. Why this name?
MixedByAli: That one just sounded tight, for one. No Name Studios… I feel people always come with mystique-ish names. Chalice, all this other shit.
People love Chalice too!
Yeah it’s aight. It ain’t better than No Name I’ll tell you that much. We want the music and work to come out of it speak for itself. There’s a lot of mystique or auras that come off of names from studios because of what somebody said in a song or whatever. I want the music to speak for itself, that’s with anything I do. I want whatever comes out of this, the studio’s just a tool for this creativity. As long as the music comes out top quality, as long as the clients and everybody who works here are comfortable, safe, feeling the vibe — having my runners go get whatever they need, that’s what it is. It’s not about the name of the studio, it’s about the people we’re catering to. Before, it was called Can-Am Recordings. The home of Death Row, Aerosmith, Eagles. A lot of records were cut out of that studio. Again, being able to harness that energy and give it a whole new life. For the 21st century, it’s some big shoes to fill.
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Back when Dre was teaching you how to mix, what was MixedByAli like then?
That was Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. I was 22, 23 years old? It was surreal. I always knew how to mix through my trial and error ways, but it was super unorthodox. We’d already curated a sound when it comes to Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80, OD and EP. When it was time to do Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, we wanted to keep that sound fluid. That was one of the stipulations, is make sure we have Ali in the studio when Dre’s mixing so we can keep that cohesive sound that’s been on the other projects.
That alone gave me some stage fright. “Holy fuck, this is Dr. Dre.” Now I’m sitting at a console with him working with him on a record. It’s intimidating. But it ended up being more of a study course where he’d let me do what I do, then he’d come in and critique me. Let me know where I went wrong or let me know what I could’ve done differently. That knowledge, that information, that insight is what inspired me to keep following Dre’s path and careers, from music to business and so on.
What made you want to mix? How did you end up in that space?
I was one of those kids that always had severe [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder], so I was always fucking trying to take things apart. When I found out you could do that with the music, it sat me down in a way like nothing else could. School couldn’t do it, jobs couldn’t do it. I just got hurt playing football so that was out the window. Being able to take something that was never there and create a final product of it that the world can enjoy, that brought a sense of joy. I’m part of the process at this point. I’m not a rapper. I can’t fucking write lyrics to save my life.
Did you ever consider it?
I’ve tried. I have a notebook somewhere at my grandmother’s house with some ass bars, but also did the production. I love producing too. Again the patience of it, randomly when mixing takes a little more patience. It’s a connection I have with being able to rip a song apart, then bring it back together and make it sound different. Manipulate frequencies, it feels like a superpower. It comes natural, so I gravitated towards that heavily. I’m glad I did. It made me who I am today.
Do you have an ear when you hear music nowadays? Like “that shit’s whack” like most of the shit that’s out?
Yeah. [laughs] Mostly it’s really when I’m driving, I tend to not listen to music because my listening experience is jaded. I’m constantly critiquing a song rather than enjoying it. My everyday is filled with music all day long, I like to drive in peace and be in my thoughts. I do listen to some music I enjoy, there’s a few artists coming out that I enjoy.
I love Baby Keem’s project. There’s a new artist, Shady Blue, that’s going to be coming out soon. We working with her heavily. Malik Moses, a young artist from Baltimore that’s going crazy. You should check both of them out. The thing with engineering is you always have to look to the next generation of sound, to evolve and keep your career, or keep your relevancy in the game. It’s understanding what’s coming next. That’s how I was able to survive over the past 11 years, by understanding what comes next when working with the Kendricks and understanding Roddy [Ricch’s] coming next, the Summer Walkers. I’m super excited about the Malik Moses and the Shady Blue situation. It’s something to definitely look forward to.
What was the creative process in mixing Baby Keem’s album?
Baby Keem is a creative genius. The fact that he produces the majority of all his records — he’s super involved in every aspect of it. It’s bound to happen. Helping lend a hand to that project, I mixed it along with talented engineer James Hunt. It was great to see a younger artist work in their environment. Watching Keem create, watching Keem put the sequence together and put the songs together, it was inspiring to me.
It goes back to what I was saying earlier: being able to understand the next wave and generations of sounds. Keem’s sound is going to be the sound that everyone’s going to go for. It helps me as an engineer, but it puts him in a way where he’s sticking out amongst the crowd. He created a product, he created music that stands out. Not in a way where he’s going for likes or being controversial, it’s just being creative. That’s what’s missed nowadays: having things stand out because it’s actually good rather than the noise that’s around it.
What’s your favorite song you mixed for him?
I love “issues.” It gives you that [808s & Heartbreak] vibe, which is another one of my favorite albums. The whole album has its own sound, it’s a vibe. “first order of business” is a great record. How Dave Free and everybody sculpted the visuals and put that together, again it shows how really putting love and passion into your art translates.
What made you start your own platform for engineers, EngineEars? As opposed to doing what most people do which is start a label, start managing, etc.
That’s what I do. A lot of people I feel are in positions to take that next step in their career, tend to go try a different field. I wanted to keep everything I’m doing in the field that made me successful, to give it that respect and give it that love it deserves. That’s one of the main things, but also the engineering community is so underrepresented. There’s nobody that really wants to come in and fix the problems when it comes to the business solutions, fix the fact that labels are paying creators 60 days behind. There’s no way for the people to have families and lives.
It’s an antiquated business model. The goal was to try to be that one person that understands the problems, because I’m dealing with them. Also take that insight and create the solution. Which at this point, our solution is engineers.
What can we expect from the EngineEars platform?
EngineEars provides business solutions to audio creators when engineering, to allow them to manage workflows, manage processes, manage their business. We launched our MVP product, the Minimal Viable Product, in January of ‘21. Since then, we raised a million dollars that we closed in May from Kendrick Lamar, Roddy Ricch, DJ Khaled, Russ, YG, [DJ] Mustard, tons of other artists and creatives that understand there’s a problem here. These are all the people who don’t take the sonics of their music lightly. They understand that’s a big part of the process. They want to be involved with creating a solution, which is the platform.
We just crossed over $200,000 in general marketing value, GMV. We’ve been pushing hard. We’re currently in our closed trials running our MVP where we have 140 verified engineers that are allowed to book work, but we have over 4,000 waiting to be on the platform. We have our community supporting it, the community’s loving it. We have a 75% retention rate. We’re looking forward to the future, continuously growing, talking to users, asking them what they like, what they don’t like. How can we iterate on features and push them out faster? To give a better experience for our users and a better overall experience for the music industry.
Can you bring us back to an epic studio session with Kendrick? I know you have endless.
It’s one I’m sure everyone knows about, but doesn’t really know about is the infamous “kick her out the studio Ali.” On “Hol’ Up” off Section.80. It was a rowdy session, a lot of people were talking too much. While Kendrick’s recording, he asked me to kick some people out the studio and wanted to keep it in there. Other than that, sessions to us are more private in the sense of only letting the creatives that are a part of the project really indulge, because everybody that’s there has to add their two cents. Everybody in the room with us has to provide some type of purpose, adding to the project.
Section.80 is 10 years old, what was the synergy between you and Kendrick like then? How have you both evolved?
Not too much has changed as far as wanting to put out the best possible product. It’s always about pushing boundaries sonically. It’s always about giving a piece of you to your listeners to let them enjoy something personal. If you listen to Section.80: “ADHD,” “Hol’ Up,” a lot of these records are relatable. A lot of people are dealing with the same issues that are talked about in those records.
It’s a genre that Kendrick talked about years ago: it’s human music. Creating human music that somebody in Compton can create, but somebody in South Africa can also relate to. Or somebody sitting in Korea or somebody sitting anywhere in Europe. That mission has always stayed the same: to put out the best possible music and put out the most positive messages.
How does it feel to go from working with a ScHoolboy Q to a SZA? Their sounds are so dynamic.
As an engineer, you have to understand what to do on what. Working with a SZA or Summer Walker, then going to a ScHoolboy or a Roddy or a Kendrick or Keem, it’s understanding that a vocal is nothing but an instrument. When you approach a song with that mindstate of “a vocal is nothing but an instrument,” what you get out of that is music. You’re not overthinking it. A lot of people ask that question, “how hard is it to do a Jay Rock vocal, and then do so and so and so?” If you approach it with a different mindstate, you get a different result.
What I’ve learned over the years, treating vocals like instruments in a way where you want them to breathe in a different type of way. When it comes to mixing, every record should be approached as a new record. You should never go back and reference some other shit that you did because the energy or the frequencies might be different. A lot of times as an engineer, our job is to let things be. There’s a lot of thinking you have to over process or overanalyze things, go mentally too far into the rabbit hole, the goal is to make things sound as natural as possible. One way to make them sound as natural as possible is sometimes just leave it alone.
Three things you need in the studio at all times?
Weed, weed, and weed. [laughs] Nah, I need good energy really. Definitely weed, but it’s really good energy. When you’re sitting back working on a record for 10, 15 hours…
Is that how long usually…?
For the most part. It takes a long time to put together when it comes to revisions, going back and doing notes that the artist asks you to do. There’s a lot.
I would imagine you’re a perfectionist too.
I try to be. I love calm environments. I love feeling good in my environment, that’s all I ask and really look for. I want to be able to sit there for 10 to 15 hours without having any other… I don’t want to be in my head the whole time, or want to put out any fires that I’m dealing with on my phone or anything crazy. That’s one of the most important to me, good vibes.
I saw your Grammys in the other room. How’d it feel taking home the Grammy for Record of the Year with “This Is America?”
Oh man, it was incredible. It was crazy because it went up against “All The Stars,” the SZA and Kendrick record. It was a little bit like “damn I want the homies to win, but…” It was great working with Donald [Glover], shout out to Tunji [Balogun] who’s now the CEO of Def Jam. Another great friend of mine, he put me on. He was A&Ring that project. He hit me up, we were just coming off of To Pimp A Butterfly. Coming off that album and going into a record like “This Is America,” I knew how to approach it with all the textures and all the different layers that record has.
Do you have any goals at this point of your career?
For sure, I have tons of them. One of the most important ones right now is remaining humble, remaining a good father and staying grounded. It’s been a real heavy couple years with a lot of things we’ve been doing. I’ve been to the point, before I was doing business or anything where I hit a brick wall — 2016, 2017, mentally I wasn’t there. I was partying a lot. It could’ve went real bad for me. The fact I was able to bounce back from such a dark time and come out even stronger, one of the main things I want to prioritize is making sure I remain myself throughout this whole new process.
There’s a Complex interview I did where I’m speaking on how I was depressed. I was putting everybody else before myself, which got me in a dark place. Luckily, having my daughter turned everything around for me. I’m able to advocate for mental health because I’ve lived it. I’ve been there. And also don’t lose sight of the goal. Remain humble, remain yourself. Be a good person and everything will come to you.
Shirley Ju is a Los Angeles-based writer who grew up in the Bay Area. She lives, breathes, and sleeps hip-hop, and is literally on top of new music the moment it is released. If there’s a show in LA, you can find her there. Follow the latest on her at fomoblog.com and on Instagram and on Twitter.