If you’re a fan of any of the artists in Top Dawg Entertainment, you probably have heard of Mixed by Ali by now—but you may not know much about him. The California native is TDE’s engineer, the man responsible for all sounds crisp, distorted, and in between on the releases from the Los Angeles collective, including Kendrick Lamar’s recent Interscope debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city. He’s also been the live DJ for Kendrick, Jay Rock, ScHoolboy Q and Ab-Soul, though now tours exclusively with K. Dot. Here, he steps from behind the boars to talk to XXL about his creative control, what it’s like to mix a record with Dr. Dre, what each Black Hippy member’s recording process is like and more. —Adam Fleischer (@AdamXXL)
XXL: How did you first get down with TDE?
Ali: I met everybody from TDE when I was like 16, 17. Dave was working at a high school I was attending at the time, he was a computer tech. He was passing out Jay Rock CDs and I wanted to get into the business. He invited me over the studio. I came by and never left. The only experience I did have was making ringtones. I was recording the homies at my grandma’s house. Recording they raps on ringtone.
What was that like when you linked up with them?
It was a new experience. At that time I was still a young nigga doing stupid shit in the streets. Going from that to going to a real strict environment—you had Top Dawg in there regulating things—I wasn’t used to it. It was good, though. I needed that guidance. I got to see how things really worked behind the scenes, as far as songs being made and recorded and produced. That drove me more to want to be where I’m going today.
How would you describe your role today?
I play a pretty big role. I record and mix everything that we put out. It’s all a family. Everybody has they own role to play, and that’s what makes a winning team.
Whenever you guys drop joints, it says “Mixed by Ali.” It’s not normal that artists put that right out there with the records they drop. What’s the thinking behind that and what’s it done for you?
It’s making me, honestly. When niggas were leaking songs online, it would be the name of the artist and the song. And then came a time where they started adding the producer’s name on the blogs. Now, I feel like the blogs and people are getting to know the actual mixer. The engineer does play a huge part in these records. I’m blessed to have a team that’s acknowledged that, to let the world know who’s being these records.
What is it that the engineer is doing? What are you doing when you mix down a record?
It means a lot. I’m taking all the elements of the record—the music, the vocals—and I’m combining it and I’m making it one. I’m adding different effects, I’m playing with the frequency of the record, and I’m trying to get the record in a certain pocket that the producer heard it in while he was making that beat.
When Kendrick’s got these weird distortions on his voice, is that your doing?
Yeah, that’s what I’m doing. With TDE, they trust my creative ear. The trust me so much, they record the songs and they give me the Pro Tool sessions and say, ‘Do what you do to it.’ And that’s dope, cause that’s where I get to shine. I can do all types of crazy stuttering, or I can put some distortion on the voices, or I can play with the panning a little bit, going left or right. It lets me have fun with it. I get to add my two cents to the record, basically. That’s why they put my name on these records—I’m not just recording and mixing, I’m actually adding something.
On “Hol’ Up,” Kendrick says, “Hey, hey, kick her out the studio, Ali.” What was going on there?
It was really happening. It was actually somebody from another session. Somebody came in and was drinking a little too much and started getting loud and we had to get ’em up outta there. One of them random things that happens in the studio.
How would you describe a TDE session? I’m sure it’s different for each of the guys.
A normal Q session would be a lot of weed, loud music and just good vibes.
Kendrick, the way he works is dope. It’s crazy. I love to watch the way dude works. He’ll put a beat on loud, and then he’ll go into the corner and start writing, start going over stuff in his head. And then he’ll go to YouTube and watch some funny shit. And then go back to writing a record. Then we’ll go get somethin’ to eat. With Kendrick, he sits with the records and gets them right before we record them.
Rock, he goes right in. He hears a beat he likes and he jumps right at it. He already has ideas in his head, and he takes it and runs with it. And you already know they come out hard.
Soul is like Dot. He’ll sit with a record for a little bit. He likes writing at the house. He’ll come to the studio with a song ready to go, come in, knock it out easy, and get it done early.
Did you mix the album?
Yup. Me and Dre did like five songs. I did the rest of ’em [by myself]. It was a dope experience. First time really working with Dre. For the last year and a half, two years, he’s been showing me things, but this was the first time we really was able to get in the studio and go hands on.
What did you pick up or learn in that process?
It’s so much. With Dre, I could just watch him work and I’ll learn something. Dre is a perfectionist. I would love to be somewhat like him in my career. Everything he does has to be perfect. He knows what he likes to hear and he knows what direction he want to take each record. A lot of engineers do it in a science: The kicks first, the snares, the percussion, the hi hats; they do it down the line. Dre, when he hears a record, he hears the record in the whole and he takes it to the next level.
On a song like “Swimming Pools,” where there’s this weird alien-type voice. Is that an effect that you’re putting on the record?
Yeah, I did that. Kendrick, he came and he did the voice, and then we decided to pitch it a certain way, and add these automations to make it go left and right. That’s one thing that we do in sessions, and that’s why I love the homies so much: I’ll hear something and be like, “Hold on.” I’ll cut the session like, “Lemme try this.” And I’ll try it, and he’ll love it or he won’t, but it’s dope that they trust me enough to go in and let me try it, cause it might come out crazy.
There are a lot of different effects on Kendrick’s voice on the album, and they add different moods to the records.
I do that on a lot of our records. I feel there’s no limits to this shit anymore. Why have a plain up and down mix? Anybody can have a hard-hitting kick and a hard-snapping snare and some clean vocals. Anybody can do that nowadays. Why not switch it up? There’s no rules.