Roddy Ricch’s “The Box” means more to Ali than a check and song credit. He’s only 30 years old, but in rap years, he’s an O.G. He still mixes all his records on the gigantic SSL boards of yesteryear and prefers analog because “there’s just a certain texture you cannot duplicate.” He makes sure his mixes are pristine and clear, like Dr. Dre taught him. Before he engineered the biggest song of 2020, so far, people were telling him his mixes were trash and didn’t fit the current sound of hip-hop that leans toward distortion over clarity. Ali quickly was whisked away to an existential crisis due to the indomitable winds of change.
“I would say 2017-2018 was the hardest year mixing-wise because I was used to the fundamentals Dre taught me when it comes to the clarity and the way the drums hit,” Ali remembered. “I’m mixing the newest Soundcloud artists coming up, and they’re like, ‘The mix is too clean.’ You have to understand where music is at and adapt.”
The eyes of many in attendance incredulously widened when they learned anyone with ears could call a mix from Ali trash. But a random appearance from Grammy Award-winning engineer Fabian Marasciullo let everyone know that listeners aren’t the same. The man who has mixed every piece of music Lil Wayne has put out for more than 15 years remembers how Nelly Furtado’s Timbaland-produced 2006 single “Promiscuous” was the first Timbaland record he remembers that had no bass. As a result, he asserted that the song ushered in a trend of songs with no bass that didn’t need to sound big and round and could be narrow and loud.
“Listen to ‘A Milli.’ That’s the illest 808, no disrespect. It’s all bass, snare and vocals. It would come on in the club and hurt everybody’s feelings,” Mariscullo said. “Now, it’s not as loud to the ear as other records. Can we mix records like that anymore? No.”
Ali has learned how to adapt to the sound of today while not entirely abandoning yesterday. He’s now working with a mastering engineer, who “understands the new low end and bass that the new rappers come out with.” Before the workshop ended, Ali and the rest of the Engine Ears team made sure everyone went home with hundreds of dollars in plugins. Afterward, everyone was able to spend one-on-one time with Ali to continue picking his brain.
Throughout the workshop, Ali made a conscious point to hammer home the belief that there are no more rules in modern mixing. Rappers can record a song in their bedroom, upload it to streaming platforms and blow up overnight, without ever having their music professionally mixed. Even in these DIY times, Ali still believes this one rule Dre taught him is immutable and the core of every engineer’s value.
“It’s not what you’re working on—it’s who’s pressing the buttons.”