Push and slay: Abdu Ali finds his voice

With latest mixtape, 23-year-old Baltimorean blends Club, noise, funk and whatever else he wants

November 05, 2013|By Wesley Case, The Baltimore Sun

DOWNLOAD: Abdu Ali, "Push + Slay"

Sitting outside a Mid-Town Belvedere coffee shop on a warm October afternoon, Abdu Ali Eaton was dressed a lot like his music sounds. He wore beat-to-hell pink-and-yellow Adidas high-tops, black sweatpants that scrunch at the bottom and a vintage Cosby sweater that peaked through a buttoned-up oversize camouflage jacket.

It's a messy, couldn't-care-less-what-anyone-thinks collage that defies categorization, yet somehow works in the 23-year-old's hands.

When talking with Ali, who records simply as Abdu Ali, it quickly became apparent he is adamantly uninterested in following any trend — fashion, music or otherwise.

“I don't want to sound like nobody else,” Ali said, punching his fist. “That's one of my main goals. It's kind of crazy; a lot of these rappers want to sound like ASAP Rocky or they try to sound like Kendrick Lamar. I don't understand. Why do you want to sound like other people?”

As he has made clear on his two mixtapes (November 2012's “Invictos” and May's “Push + Slay”), Abdu Ali does not sound like ASAP Rocky, Kendrick Lamar or any other rapper who has even sniffed a Billboard chart. He describes his music as a mix of noise, punk, Baltimore Club and funk, but it has rapping and ambient vibes, too.

In a short process, the man who grew up in central Baltimore's Orchard Mews Apartments has become the city's most transfixing new artist. From his chaotic, danceable music and surreal videos to his electric live performances, Abdu Ali is a creative force making must-hear and must-see art that is rooted in Baltimore but aims for global acceptance.

“A lot of people would be scared to say this out there, but I'm not going to be scared,” Ali said in his Charles Village bedroom, a few days after our first conversation, between sips of hot green tea from a jar that once held pasta sauce. “I do want to be respected by the biggest, most talented artists that I look up to. I want my name to come out of their mouths. If anything, I'm striving for international respect as a musician. Not fame, not mainstream.”

When discussing his music, Ali boldly talks with confidence, but he grew up “this shy kid who didn't really say anything.” Ali, who is gay, can vividly describe being teased and bullied in elementary and middle school. He remembers a peer frequently pointing at him while singing the Jay-Z song “Girls, Girls, Girls.” He was called “faggot” for declining to play in a neighborhood football game. Ali wonders now if he was being overly sensitive, but knows these moments have stuck with him for a reason.

“I know it's serious because I still remember these things at 23 years old and I still feel some type of way,” he said.

Things improved when Ali attended the magnet high school Baltimore City College, which he describes as “very open” and “free-spirited.” The change of scenery was the catalyst Ali needed to discover who he truly was.

“That's where I started to grow as me. That's when my personality came out. I built confidence in myself,” he said.

He went on to attend the University of Baltimore, where he is set to graduate this spring with a bachelor's degree in creative writing. Ali mainly expressed himself through poetry until January 2012, when he recorded his first song, “Banjee Musick,” an ominous dance track produced by Baltimore producer Schwarz. He adds that he was lost, in a “real dark place” when he finally decided to write it. “I won't be afraid. I can't be afraid,” Ali chants.

Although his only musical background was singing in the middle school choir, Ali says he had always wanted to make music but never had the courage to follow through. He partially credits seeing the success of DDm, a Baltimore rapper who is also gay, for inspiring him to finally record. To Ali's surprise, modest music blogs and YouTube commenters responded positively to “Banjee Musick,” which encouraged him enough to create his first mixtape, “Invictos.”

Ali played his first show in March of this year, and in the same month he traveled to Texas for the South by Southwest music festival. On the last day, Ali played GayBiGayGay, a festival-within-a-festival described as “a yearly celebration full of queer music.” Standing before about 300 people, his biggest audience by a large margin, Ali knew music was now his No. 1 priority.

“When I did that, I was like, ‘I can't stop,'” he said. “It felt so good. People was feeling it.”

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