Rap Radar Interviews Mixed by Ali
filmed at Engine Room Audio
Via Sound on Sound (About Ali)
“I’m 25, I have been doing this for only seven years, and I’m still learning. I just feel blessed to be here. But the response to Kendrick’s album has been crazy, and that people also notice the sound of the album, and therefore my work, is just amazing!”
Speaking from his Los Angeles home, Derek Ali still sounds a bit overcome by the success of Kendrick Lamar’s third album, To Pimp A Butterfly, which topped the UK and US charts and has enjoyed almost unanimous critical praise. A sprawling, intense piece of work, with 16 tracks clocking in at nearly 80 minutes, it is full of original, played and programmed music as well as samples, with the most important influences being jazz and the funk and soul music of the ’70s. Many of the tracks are stream-of-consciousness collages, which unexpectedly change musical styles, moods or tempi. The album took more than three years to make, involving multiple studios in LA, New York, Washington and St Louis, as well as Lamar’s tour bus.
Keeping everything together were relative rookie Derek ‘MixedbyAli’ Ali and Lamar himself. The two have been working together for Ali’s entire studio career: he also engineered and mixed Lamar’s first album Section.80 (2011) as well as Lamar’s commercial breakthrough and major-label debut Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (2012). Ali’s rise to the very top of the American engineering and mixing world in the amazingly short time span of seven years is, by any standard, a remarkable achievement, especially as he grew up in extreme poverty, in the Gardena neighbourhood of LA.
“I never had the patience to actually learn to play an instrument or make a beat, or something like that,” recalls Ali. “But I was a curious kid, and back in my neighborhood there were these Nextel cell phones for which people wanted custom ringtones. Growing up there was very, very hard, but I managed to buy an Audio-Technica 2025 microphone for 100 bucks and an M-Audio Solo interface and I used them to record into Fruity Loops and Cool Edit Pro in which I created personal ringtones for people. The fact that I could record somebody’s vocal and could manipulate it in all sorts of ways really intrigued me, so I started to explore engineering. The more I got into it, the more I wanted to know how the professionals did it. I did a lot of research. I tried to learn everything I could about recording, mixing and mastering techniques. Being self-taught is a great teacher. I often sat for 12-18 hours a day to hone my skills.”