For “Studios Sessions,” we delve into the stories behind the long hours in the studio and all that goes into making an album by talking with artists, producers, engineers, photographers, and more who are intimately connected to the recording process with some of the biggest artists in the world. These are the stories that rarely leave the booth.
Music of the 2010s was created by Derek “MixedByAli” Ali. From every Kendrick Lamar album, SZA’s debut album, a few YG albums, a few Vince Staples albums, Mac Miller’s second to last album, YBN Cordae’s debut album, Summer Walker’s debut album, and Nipsey Hussle’s last album have all had their sonic imprint handled by him.
“I was doing Schoolboy Q’s Blank Face, Mac Miller’s The Divine Feminine, Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition, Vince Staples Primadonna, and YG’s Still Brazy,” Ali told REVOLT. “I was literally doing five albums in the span of three months. I caught myself not feeling human. I never went home. I went from session to session to session. I slept in the booth.”
In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” TDE’s main engineer speaks about helping future engineers, why Mac Miller was like family to TDE, and his favorite memories from working on some of the biggest albums of the decade. Read below!
How has it been helping shape the sound of an emerging record label at the start of the decade to arguably becoming the most in-demand engineer in hip hop today?
One thing that Top Dawg instilled in us is growth. From the jump, we always realized everything is a starting point. We never know where we’re going to finish. The ultimate goal is to take over anything that we’re doing. We all just had our heads down. Me, personally, I think I mixed the biggest West Coast debut and a big percentage of a lot of artist’s debuts that have dropped in the last 10 years.
What is the TDE creative process like?
TDE is a different type of family. We just move off of energy. We know each other like the back of our hands. We know if someone is having a bad day. We know who may have had a little bit too much to drink. We know who has been smoking. We know all the vibes. My job as an engineer is just catering to where they’re at. As an engineer, you have to know how to read the room. You have to know how to work the room. You have to know how to cater to the artist, where you’re going to be their crutch. You have to be their bartender. An artist might come in with something from home that might block them from recording. You have to be the engineer to get them away from what they’re dealing with.
My favorite album this decade that you have worked on was Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. Is there one song from it that was the most intricate to work on?
One of the craziest mixes on that album, in my opinion, is the intro, ‘Wesley’s Theory.’ That song was produced by Flying Lotus and had over 218 tracks in the session. It was the biggest session I ever worked on. It was pretty much all live instruments. Flylo had live drums, we added live horns and everything into that record. Mind you, it was 2015. I’m maybe 25 at the time. I never tracked a 10-piece orchestra or live session. I’m a hustler. I’m going to figure that shit out on the way even if I don’t know what I’m doing.
The whole time everyone is like, ‘Ali, can you mix this? This is hella live instruments and elements. This is something you’re not used to and we all know this.’ I was like, ‘Nah, I got it.’ It took me seven days just to lock in the drums on ‘Wesley’s Theory.’ That’s no exaggeration. It was 10-12 hour sessions, seven days straight... After that, the rest of the song came together. That song probably had 30-40 different mixes until it was complete.
How does the making of ‘Wesley’s Theory’ exemplify Kendrick’s creative process?
Kendrick is such a genius in his creative process. He’ll keep adding to ideas. He’ll take songs off and replace them. Imagine an old school [Chevy] Impala. It’s rusty and old. But, once you get the body off that frame, you start building it up and cleaning it up nice. He starts a song with a frame and then he builds each part of that song around it until it’s complete. If it’s not complete, he’ll scratch the whole frame and rebuild the frame. He’ll add new drums, add new synths, add new bass, add new vocals. Nothing is done until it’s done with that man. That’s what got my creative process to what it is.
During the making of that album, I didn’t have any formal music training. So, I’m doing a lot of studying. I was listening to the Mo’ Betta Blues soundtrack, a lot of The Beatles’ Abbey Road. I just wanted to listen and learn how they had those live elements were sitting inside the mix. I was like, ‘Hey, fuck it. Let’s take these elements, go crazy and do something different. Let’s take an old school approach and put a modern twist to create this classic album.’ That’s exactly what we did.
What’s the most impressive thing you’ve seen Kendrick do in the studio?
Work for 10 days straight. Everything that man does is impressive. I’m constantly blown away by his work ethic. In my opinion, he’s the biggest rapper in the world, and he still works and critiques himself like a new artist coming out for the first time. That work ethic is admirable and inspiring. Everyone doesn’t get to see that in their lifetime.
You could argue you’re the most influential engineer in hip hop this decade. When was a time that you were your busiest?
2016. It was one of the most productive years of my life, but it fucked me up mentally. I was going through depression and that time was tough for me. I was doing Schoolboy Q’s Blank Face, Mac Miller’s The Divine Feminine, Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition, Vince Staples Primadonna, and YG’s Still Brazy. I was literally doing five albums in the span of three months. I caught myself not feeling human. I never went home. I went from session to session to session. I slept in the booth. I never saw my family. Mentally, it was draining and I went through hell. I’m grateful for that time. I couldn’t say no to anybody because I come from nothing and now the whole industry wants me to mix their records. So, how could I say no? All the albums did amazing, but it taught me a lot about what I can handle. It taught me about workload and scheduling balance. It really taught me a lot about myself. That was a crazy time.
The year after you went through your most exhaustive year, Future’s longtime engineer Seth Firkins passed away at 36. Did that affect how you looked at your health?
R.I.P. to Seth. Engineers are like at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to the music industry. The labels treat us like shit. They move us around like pawns on a chessboard thinking we’re not human. They’ll call you out the blue to do this and do that as if it doesn’t take two or three hours to do it, and you’re at dinner with your family. At that time, it showed me what the industry really is. A lot of the industry doesn’t care about the work we put into the records. Ultimately, that put me into space where I’m picking and choosing what I want to work on. I have to really vibe with the artist and want to put my 110% into every song for me to take the project. I have to weigh the risk and reward.
A bunch of engineers has expressed similar feelings about working insane hours.
That’s what I’m fighting for. That’s why I’m frontline for engineers. That’s why we have the Engine Ears platform and we do these workshops. We want to spread the knowledge. Producers like Murda Beatz and Boi1da are starting to come out and show their appreciation for the engineers because they’re understanding engineers are one of the biggest parts of the record trifecta of the record-creating process. You need all three parts to create a record. I want to be the guy on the forefront fighting for engineers to get the respect they deserve.
How’s your Engine Ears service been going?
It’s an online platform that basically takes the engineers and independent producers, and pairs them with artists worldwide. It basically gives engineers a business solution, so they could basically conduct business themselves. A lot of engineers don’t have managers, so we’re giving them a solution to being able to manage every aspect of their personal business, so they could flourish. As we were building this content, we realized we wanted to build a community. We wanted to build with people like me who had the talent, but didn’t have the outlet to be able to reach their idols or creators in the music industry.
So, we created the Seeing Sounds workshops. In 2019, we did 11 workshops in five different countries. We had workshops in Korea, Japan, Toronto, London and all through the United States. Through that, we’re able to really touch producers and engineers around the world. In 2020, we’re going to be launching the second leg of our world tour, which is going to hit Los Angeles and Philly first, and then do an actual course in Japan for three weeks. Then, we’re going to double back and hit the United States and Europe. We’ll be dropping our alpha program in 2020, as well. We have big plans for 2020.
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@MixedByAli & @NobleGent Speak On What Our SeeingSounds Attendees Get At Our Workshops. s/o our sponsors @topdawgent @uaudio @soundtoys @thenammshow @autotune @adam_audio @avid.protools @argosyconsole @positivequeensclub * * EngineEars Will Be In Los Angeles, Saturday January 25th (Grammy Weekend) & In Philadelphia, Sunday February 9th! Tickets will be live and available this Friday, December 20th at 12noon PST! #EngineEars #SeeingSounds @thepositivepapi
Have these sessions led to unknown producers and engineers working with major artists?
Our first L.A. workshop (in 2018) was done as a trial run. This guy Odrizz flew in from Austria to L.A. to go to the workshop. I was so impressed with his story that I invited him to the studio with me the next day. I told him to move his flight over, he did that and I was shocked he did that. He came to the studio the next day and at that time, I was mixing up Vince Staples’ FM! and he had some dope tips that he gave me. I was learning from this kid. So, I gave him mixing credits on one of the records (‘Run The Bands’).
Fabian [Marasciullo], [Young] Guru and Dr. Dre helped me at the beginning of my career. But, there are not many people who want to give you help. Engineering is a weird niche business. It’s in a place where a lot of these older dudes are afraid of their position. They don’t want to really give a handout. That’s what I dealt with coming up. A lot of these dudes that I admired and looked up to became shit people when I met them because they showed no fucking love. That’s the opposite of how I want to be. God forbid I can’t mix anymore, I can live through a million engineers because I helped train and raise them. My legacy will live forever instead of me holding this information, being stingy and falling off like half of these dudes are.
What was the vision of Over It that Summer Walker expressed to you?
That whole album process was cool. She was mad cool. She wanted it to sound natural. London [On Da Track] played a huge part in that. London was sitting with me every day. I respect that man so much after these sessions because it showed me his work ethic. London puts the work in. He expressed to me that he came from a musical background. He came from playing in church. He expressed to me that he wanted to bring the soul out of Summer and those records. I believe we did that.
One of the best examples of that was ‘Come Thru’ with Usher. What was your reaction when you first heard it?
I kind of lost my mind. I heard the sample. When I heard Usher come in, I said, ‘He gave everybody what they would be expecting from Usher.’ It was like ‘U Make Me Wanna 2.0.’ It came together flawlessly.
Let’s go through some of your favorite memories from albums you’ve worked on. Let’s start with SZA’s Ctrl.
My favorite memories [are] towards the end when SZA started liking all of the mixes, finally [got] super comfortable with the album and her anxiety went away. She started dancing and giving that SZA energy that we all love so much.
Mac Miller’s The Divine Feminine.
At that time, we lived at the studio. We slept on the floor together. It was a crazy time. Those sessions really opened up who this kid was. Mac and I had a relationship outside of music for a long time. But, with that album, we were finally able to get in the studio. I was able to see how vulnerable he was, how happy he was to create and things people don’t get to see. That built our bond a lot closer. We became the closest of friends after that.
You put a post on IG years ago calling Mac Miller the fifth member of Black Hippy; which is a group with Kendrick, Schoolboy, Ab-Soul and Jay Rock. What made you say that?
Because he was one of us. You could crack jokes on him and he wouldn’t give a fuck. He was just the homie. He was our friend. He would come by Kendrick sessions and talk shit. This was before anyone blew up. Mac blew up way before anyone else. He would come through, chill and smoke. When he had his big ass crib in Studio City, we would go and just sleep at his crib for weeks at a time. We were just broke. He was family. It’s really hard to explain. He was the fifth Black Hippy. He was with it.
What do you remember from Nipsey Hussle’s Victory Lap?
Those sessions were insane. We mixed that album, literally, for three months. We damn near lived together. There’s a studio in Hollywood called Paramount that has a bedroom and a bunch of rooms you can go sleep in. We literally slept in that bitch for three months. Every time we would wake up, it would be 6 or 7 a.m. Nipsey would be cleaning the studio, lighting sage and incense. He was playing either old school music or his records. It was like waking up at your cousin’s house on Sunday morning. The blunts are in the air and I can’t stop hearing his voice saying, ‘Top of the top. Top of the top!’ Every time I hit that studio, it’s nostalgic.
What’s the most important piece of technology to making music?
That’s hard to tell because all of the shit that I use is made in the ‘80s. I still mix analog. I still mix on a big SSL (Solid State Logic) board like the way Dre taught me. The only thing new that I’ve used in the past decade is my own fucking brain. I’m trying to find inspiration in today’s reality and fusing it with something that was great in the 80s, which was the sound. People think you can emulate all of the analog gear inside a computer, and it sounds good, but it’s not really true. When I twist the knob on the SSL board and lock in the drum and bass sequence, it’s a different feeling than if I did it digitally. All these pieces are lying around for anybody to use. But, these people are so lazy and they want to find new ways to make their jobs easier.
What do you feel is one of the most underrated parts about being an engineer?
Engineering is a big job that some people take for granted. You have to be a friend before you’re a business or music person. The artists will appreciate that more because they’ll see it’s not all about the money with you. It’s about the relationship. That’s how I’ve been able to survive this decade. I can get in the studio with a Roddy Rich and we can become really good friends without knowing each other prior because I know how to communicate with people outside of music. It’s not all about music with me. We’re stuck in the studio for months at a time. We don’t want to just talk about music. We’re human.
You’ve worked with Roddy Rich, YBN Cordae and a bunch of the newer generation of artists. How are they in the studio compared to past generation rappers?
Not too much has changed. These kids are more inspired than ever now because of social media. They’re also in a space now where music is selling again. It’s lit right now in music, so these kids are living their best fucking lives. I want to show them what I learned over the years and almost be like a big brother to them. I’m not like a big homie because I just turned 30, so I’m not an old nigga yet. I just want to be the older person to help give them my experiences to help steer them the right way.
I like to show these younger artists the engineering process and the importance of a good fucking mix. They don’t understand that process. A lot of these kids come off SoundCloud, recording in their mom’s house, and uploading straight to the internet. For them, that whole [mixing] phase has been skipped. I’m blessed to mix albums for Cordae, Roddy and Summer. So, they’re able to see how it’s done the right way.