Arts & Culture

Q&A with Abdu Ali

We talk to the Baltimore Club artist about his new music and the future of Kahlon.

Meet Abdu Ali, the young prince of Baltimore Club, or the breakbeat genre that fuses hip-hop, house music, and choppy, looping samples into a frenetic dance party. The 24-year-old city native grew up on the sound, living in central Baltimore’s Orchard Mews Apartments, attending Booker T. Washington Middle and magnet high school Baltimore City College, before earning a degree in creative writing at the University of Baltimore last year. By that point, he’d been making music for two years and had already started to garner a solid reputation as both a bold, unbridled artist who champions and pushes forward Bmore Club, and also as the mastermind behind Kahlon, the exceedingly popular, monthly, underground dance party at The Crown. Now, on the heels of his new Best Of mix tape and at the end of his “Keep Movin” tour, we talk with Ali about the future of Kahlon, his upcoming album, a new festival, and about always carrying Baltimore on his back. He performs his tour finale at The Crown on March 26.

So you were living in Brooklyn for a while last year, but you’re back in Baltimore?
I moved back a couple months ago. I’m a traveler, you know, I tour a lot.

Did you like Brooklyn?
I love Brooklyn. I love the energy. I love the vibe, but as far as lifestyle, it wasn’t worth the compromise. I went because, as a musician or creative, you feel like the Big Apple is the harbor, and in order to prosper, you have to go to there. I had just graduated from college and had no obligations so I thought that was the best place to be for what I wanted to do. I came back because that wasn’t the case.

Was Baltimore pulling you back home to it while you were up there?
I was pulling myself back. Sometimes you can outthink things. Before I went, I didn’t really look at the true benefits of being an artist while staying in Baltimore, especially in a place that’s my hometown. My urge to go to Brooklyn was more superficial and idealistic, but it definitely taught me a lot. It taught me to hustle, and about hard work, and to get stuff done.

Before you released your first mix tape, Invictos, in 2012, you’d never written any music before, but you did dabble in poetry?
Poetry, journalism, I had my own blog where I spotlighted local artists. I went through all the mediums I thought I’d love to do, but they weren’t completely satisfying. Then I got the urge to start doing music. It was something I’d never thought I wanted to do, but deep inside, I always saw myself as a performer, so I tried it, and it just kept flowing.

Did performing always come naturally for you? Seeing you now, you’d think you never had a nervous bone in your body
[Laughs]. I don’t know where the hell it came from, but it did come weirdly naturally. I was in the middle school choir and took some acting classes with the TWIGS program at Baltimore School for the Arts. It might have come from there, but to be honest, it just came. When I first started, I wasn’t as confident as I am now. I’m still not as confident as I probably can be.

Is performing just as rewarding for you as making the music?
They go hand in hand. It’s just as much my responsibility to perform, as it is to deliver music. It’s all one medium to me. What is music that can’t be performed or visceral to a crowd of people when you playing to them? It brings it all together.

Your performances have garnered such a following in Baltimore. How does that feel? It must be kind of strange.
People leave Baltimore for places like New York with this sort of bitterness or resentment towards it, like, Aw, you can’t make it there, you can’t be creative there, you gotta go somewhere else. To be in a city where people have that attitude, it feels really good, because I proved them wrong. Like, no, you can do it. You can be a creative. You can have people support you. In New York, a lot of people are disposable or just come and go, but in Baltimore, the people who love me or love what I do, it’s feels more genuine. It’s long lasting. It’s family. I feel really, really, really proud to have that kind of support in my hometown. I’ve especially seen that with Kahlon. Every time we threw it, the crowd just got bigger and bigger. It’s been beautiful to watch it grow in a city like Baltimore—where a lot of people doubt things, but where things like Kahlon, or artists like me, can be pioneers.

Did you have any idea Kahlon would turn into the sort of underground institution it’s become?
I’m an optimist, so I definitely envisioned it becoming big because that’s what I wanted, but it’s still shocking to see it actually happen. It’s like it’s own entity now. People are coming from D.C., Philly, New York, just for the party.

Are you going to keep throwing them?
Slowly but surely, we’ve been trying to build a good reputation and following, and I haven’t told anybody this yet, but the goal is to turn Kahlon into a festival. We’re actually starting to move in that direction. Another goal is to have it traveling. A lot of people hit me up like, Yo, you need to bring Kahlon to Philly, D.C., New York, so over the summertime, I plan to do that.

How would you evolve the party and still keep the heart of it?
I’ll figure that out. I definitely want to keep the vibe and aesthetic of an underground party, with Baltimore Club, a lot of electronic music, maybe some rap and punk, R&B. It would definitely be indoors and probably an extended one-day festival, like a long party—5 or 6 hours. I’m drawing inspiration from what I hear is happening in Berlin, where they last for entire weekends. I want it to have the vibe of this different world you go into for a moment, where you get an experience that knocks you off your feet, and then you leave like what the hell just happened. I’ll probably bring like a few national and international acts into it, but it will still have a handful of Baltimore artists on the bill. That was my main reason of starting Kahlon in the first place. I wanted to create a substantial platform for Baltimore musicians to perform, showcase their work, and get exposure to a really good audience who will support and follow up on them.

You’ve had the likes of Dan Deacon, Al Rogers, and Baltimore Club forefather Scottie B, among others. You bring a lot of local people on board with your music, too.
I definitely hold Baltimore on my back, because Baltimore Club music is so universal and so powerful and it’s really important to me. Its something I grew up on; it’s a part of my narrative not only as a musician but as a person. I always try to bring awareness to it, but I also try to push the sound, push the envelope—make it more futuristic and incorporate other sounds.

Do you remember your earliest memories of hearing Baltimore Club? What it was about it that made you feel a certain way?
It wasn’t necessarily the sound itself but what the sound did for my community, my family, my people. It brought us together. It made us happy. We always heard it at celebrations, whether it was birthday or block party. Amidst all the things that were going on, when many families in Baltimore were dealing with drug addiction and HIV and AIDS and just poverty in general, that put a smile on everybody’s face. Baltimore Club brought everybody together and created this pathway to another planet. It was like an exit for us to leave our realities for a moment and just enjoy the beauties of life, music, and family.

Beyond Baltimore Club, you’re also inspired by the mid-90s hip-hop you grew up on.
Hard Core by Lil’ Kim. Reasonable Doubt by Jay Z. Ready to Die by Biggie. Illmatic by Nas. As a child, I didn’t necessarily understand everything they were saying, but as I got older, I became really drawn to them because they were something I could relate to. I grew up in the ghettos of Baltimore. I didn’t come from the most rich or financially stable family. I had been through or seen or witnessed or had family members who went through a lot of the stories they were telling. Especially Ready to Die. I empathized with Biggie’s voice and struggle and hustle, even if he had to do things he didn’t want to do. He just wanted the juicy life; he wanted something better for himself. I can always relate to that because, even as a child, I always wanted something better for myself.

What are some of the newer influences that you used on, say, the Already EP or anything you’re working on now?
I’m so topsy-turvy with music right now but I’ve been getting really into jazz.

You can definitely hear that in “Keep Movin’.”
Jazz is really futuristic music, even if it was made a long time ago, and I think those artists knew that, especially people like John Coltrane. It’s a timeless genre and I find that really powerful. I need to study and tap into that because I feel like it would be important for me to know why it’s still so beautiful.

I been getting into Alice and John Coltrane but I’ve always been into Sun Ra, who was a jazz legend and more out there than most jazz artists. I’ve also been into a lot of what I call “body and soul” music: DonChristian, an R&B artist who lives in New York, and Kelela. She’s really, really good. I love what Kanye West is doing with his new music, but I just feel like rap is turning into a lot of other things right now.

Some people have called what you’re doing the Yeezus of Baltimore.
That’s a huge compliment, you know. Kanye, and a lot of other artists, are thinking about how we listen to music. We listen to Taylor Swift in one click and Patti Smith in the next. That’s what I mean when I say rap is turning into something else. Music in general is turning into something else, where all the genres are blending into each other. It’s starting to become genre-less in a way.

I don’t even know what to call half of the stuff I do. In reviews and articles about me, everybody says its something else. It’s futuristic. It’s punk. It’s noise. It’s brass. It’s soul. You know, you ask me what it is and I say it’s a gumbo. It’s everything put together—you know what I’m saying?

Maybe that’s why so many different kinds of people resonate with your music or your performances, as you can see in the crowds of your Kahlon parties. There might be some aspects they’ve never heard before or don’t understand yet, but there also might be something in there they have or do. Your music is rooted in Baltimore Club, but with your new tracks, you’ve been striving for a sound that’s a bit more global.
I want to make music that’s more open and universal without comprising who I am. It’s kind of elitist when some musicians say, Oh, people don’t understand my music, I don’t care… I don’t think music is meant to be limited to one audience. As an artist, it’s my responsibility to make music that everybody can be a part of. I want it to be tangible. I don’t want to cast anybody out. I know what its like to not be included and I think that’s unfair.

Is that something you thought about when working on “I, Exist“? That is definitely your most accessible song yet.
I knew that Already and “I, Exist” were definitely the start of that. I started thinking: I want my mother to like my music. I want my dad to like my music, and they do. I want everybody to feel it and still keep my flare and boldness and grittiness and explicitness and rawness or whatever you want to call it. The sound is more open while the lyrics are still me and still a little out there.

Is that the direction you’re going with your upcoming album, Octarine?
It’s going to be real spacey. A lot more cosmic. But it’s really going to be dance stuff that everybody is able to feel and get into. It’s also going to be a softer side: I’m opening myself up in my lyrics, trying to put more of my life and story and feelings into them. In a lot of my earlier stuff, I was speaking out against something like a commenter, instead of putting my actual self into the narrative of the song. With Octarine, I plan to talk about things like heartbreak and love and family tragedy or, you know, simple things like smoking weed. I want people to be able to relate to my music on a personal level. I can only go so far as an artist if I don’t do that.

You’ve said that you haven’t created your definitive debut yet. Is that what this is going to be?
This will be the book. [The Best Of] is for people to be able to reconnect with my old stuff, because Octarine will be the big bang of all those songs and albums put together.

“Octarine” means the imaginary color of magic, right?
I just liked the way it sounded and the idea that it’s whatever color you want it to be. It’s whatever you see it as.

For people who have never been to your shows, how would you describe them?
It’s actually easy to describe my performances. I feel like sometimes I’m a priest who is delivering messages or speeches through music. I’m shouting. I’m in your face. It’s very visceral, and very punk; it’s intense and aggressive, but at the same time, very soft and approachable. I don’t think I scare anybody. I bring a lot of comfort through my performances—I touch people, I hug them—but they’re very raw and priest-like.

Your next Kahlon is at The Crown on April 18.
It’s going to be a mega knockout Kahlon before we take it on the road this summer. We’re going to hopefully take it traveling to New York, Philly, and D.C., followed by the festival in fall.

So I guess we better catch you while you’re Baltimore.
The next Kahlon is going to be a big-big show. I’m trying to make it huge.