Abdu Ali has become something of an icon in the Baltimore underground. Rising up from a city he both abhors for its ugliness and loves for its spiritual and artistic power, Ali brings elements of punk, hip-hop, afro-futurism, and jazz to form an eccentric backbone in the local club scene. It’s freaky, it’s potent, and it makes you move.
His October 2014 release Already features a laundry list of rising Baltimore producers such as DJ Dizzy, Schwarz, Kilbourne, and Blaqstarr. It’s a community that the young artist is not only submersed in, but was integral to building; he’s one of the curators for KAHLON, a boundary-dissolving bimonthly concert in Baltimore that showcases a variety of world music subgenres suffused with hip-hop.
Recently, Ali left his community to seek inspiration in Brooklyn, NY. What he discovered, however, was far from what he was searching for. After returning to his roots, Ali reflects on the destructive environment that he left behind and shares with BTR some insights into what he learned along the way.
BreakThru Radio (BTR): Almost a year ago you moved from Baltimore to Brooklyn. Recently you moved back to Baltimore. Living here (in BK), it can become way too intense; there’s very little space to chill when the energy is at a fever pitch and everyone seems lost, without a narrative.
Tell me a little bit about what prompted your move, and what your experiences were like here creatively.
Abdu Ali (AA): I was stressed for money. I mean, most of us are broke all over the country, but damn, NYC makes it feel like you can’t even afford to wipe your ass, and that ain’t right! It was hard for me to accept the fact that I had to pay hella money to live in nothing, with no peace and space. I also saw that having an influence on my creations in the future that could compromise integrity and realness of my work. I didn’t want my shit to be dictated by money or to become trendy or soulless. NYC is not the NYC I saw growing up as a kid in Spike Lee joints, Lil’ Kim albums, or in random underground movies like Downtown 81–not heavily gentrified, cheap, and real as fuck.
In Baltimore I can do me. I also felt like I had no story there [in Brooklyn], so my ability to be truly moved and inspired was difficult. I felt just as much as a gentrifier as some trust fund white kid from Ohio. For me it just feels more special to be based in Baltimore than in Brooklyn, and it’s more honest; it will feel good as fuck to be like, “I made it while living in Baltimore.”
BTR: How would you compare the musical communities between those two places–as far as the underground is concerned?
AA: Baltimore’s underground music scene is like an ugly organic apple from a local farm. Brooklyn’s underground music scene is like a Tumblr feed.
BTR: What was it like returning back to Baltimore–did it feel like home at last? Was it easy to pick up where you left off, or does everything feel different now?
AA: It felt uncomfortable and confusing to be back in Baltimore. A lot of people are ashamed to move back home after living in NYC or LA, but I wasn’t at all. But I didn’t know if I made the right choice (whatever that is).
It was easy to adjust after being back home for just a little bit and it definitely feels real different than it did two years ago; the music scene is starting to blossom again.
Photo courtesy of Aubrey Gatewood.
BTR: A while ago someone asked you if you had released your “debut” album yet, and you said that you hadn’t but you were making moves to release your Off the Wall kind of record. Any progress on that front?
AA: Yes! I decided to take my fucking time to come out with some new new. I ain’t pressed to just be dropping shit like it’s nothing. I want to really develop some good work, you know? But if you heard “Keep Movin (Negro Kai),” you can see that my sound for the new new will be more full, soulful, and silky. I want it to be more translucent and intimate, too, by rapping and singing more about love, my insecurities, woes–but also still have songs about self-empowerment and conquering societal shade. I want to make more tracks specifically and only for the healing and empowerment of black and brown people all over the world.
Like always, I want the sound to be next level, but in this album more instrumental, meaning playing with more jazzy sounds like saxophones and horns. Of course there will be some Baltimore Club up in there. I’ve been getting folk like Mighty Mark, Mental Jewelry, and Gobby to work on some sounds for me and what they’ve been making is the shit! The album will be called Octarine.
BTR: You’ve always been adamant about going your own way, expressing yourself and disregarding if it sounds like anyone else out there. Why do you think so many artists are concerned with making songs that sound like someone else instead of fighting to find their own voice?
AA: I don’t believe artists want to intentionally sound like someone else, I think they are not thinking about sounding unique.
BTR: Who are some of your favorite artists out there right now?
AA: Now, I am obsessed with Chance The Rapper after seeing his performance at Trillectro. Chance and his band are geniuses. Fetty Wap is the bae and his music is the shit. I love DRAM! Rahel from Harlem. And Uniique give me what I need for the club right now! I’ve been getting into Alice Coltrane a lot, too, and Brandy. B L A C K I E from Houston will always forever be an inspiration to me. I listen to him a lot. I really love what Elon from Baltimore is doing, too. I love “Cheerleader” by OMI! I like a lot of shit, good shit [laughs].
BTR: What’s in store for the rest of 2015?
AA: I’m ready to conquer some more shit! I will be doing a lot of touring soon, with Lower Dens, by myself, and Kilbourne. I will have a visual for “Keep Movin (Negro Kai)” coming soon and some new music. My album won’t be released ‘til January or February 2016. Or maybe not.
To hear more from Abdu Ali, check out his official site or tune into BTR’s very own In the Den.