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Derek Ali, better known by his moniker MixedByAli, is a 3-time Grammy Award-winning mix engineer and a longtime collaborator with Top Dawg Entertainment. He is also the founder and CEO of EngineEars, a platform for audio engineers to mix music and find projects. He walks us through his music career, the artists who launched him to fame, and the workshops he offered. He also talks about the challenges of launching a startup, how he scaled his business, and the power of niche.
If you’re an audio engineer looking to grow your potential or interested in building a startup, this is the episode for you!
[02:24] How Derek’s ringtone business in high school kick-started his interest in music
[08:05] What it was like to work with Kendrick Lamar and Dr. Dre
[10:10] About Derek’s team of engineers
[10:50] On “unlearning”
[11:42] Why and how he started offering workshops
[16:05] On running a small business as a sound engineer and getting the funding to scale EngineEars
[25:41] Lead by example and manage your time in a way that puts yourself first
[31:22] On understanding problems in real time and the importance of having a team
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Host: Dan Runcie, @RuncieDan, trapital.co
Guest: Derek Ali, @MixedByAli, EngineEars
Trapital is home for the business of hip-hop. Gain the latest insights from hip-hop’s biggest players by reading Trapital’s free weekly memo.
Dan: Hey, welcome to the Trapital podcast. I’m your host and the founder of Trapital, Dan Runcie. I had a really great conversation that you’re about to listen to with Derek “MixedByAli” who is a three-time Grammy Award-winning engineer and a longtime collaborator with TDE. Listen, if you are a big Kendrick Lamar fan or a TDE fan, Ali needs no introduction, you’ve known about Ali, but if you’re less familiar, you probably heard “Backseat Freestyle” and you know that line at the end where Kendrick says, “Let it run, Ali,” this is Ali. He mixed that beat and so many more projects for the whole entire team at Top Dawg Entertainment and he’s since launched a startup.
This startup is called EngineEars and it is a platform built for audio engineers to mix their music and find their projects so that they can leverage the full power of the internet to collaborate with others. Derek himself is an engineer and this is a group of people in the industry that are often not necessarily forgotten about but they don’t necessarily have the same tools that the producers have and some of the others. There’s so many types of tools out there for artists that sometimes it can be hard to keep track but Derek really found something unique, and, in this conversation, it really is a step through finding product market fit.
Derek starts with himself, finding out what his pain points are, then he had workshops across the world where he’s talking and understanding, learning more from customers, and that is what led to starting and launching EngineEars as a platform and he brought us through the journey of what it’s been like to fundraise, what it’s been like to pitch and get backing for that, and it wasn’t always the easiest. Even someone as successful as him still had his challenges when it comes to fundraising. I learned a lot in this episode and I hope you do too. Here’s my conversation with Derek “MixedByAli.”
Dan: So, today, we got Derek “MixedByAli” who is Grammy-nominated mixing engineer and he’s the founder and CEO of EngineEars and this actually isn’t the first time that you launched a business. You had a ringtone business when you were in high school and I wanna talk about that because, as someone that had sold CDs in high school, I always have a personal affinity, a connection to people that were hustling at a young age. So, talk to me about that.
Ali: Well, real quick, I don’t wanna but it’s three-time Grammy Award-winning, by the way. You know, I love —
Dan: Oh, three-time —
Ali: — I love my award winning, I love my accolades, I worked hard to get them so I wanna make sure they’re out there and known. But, yeah, and I started off doing ringtones. I’ve always been a hustler, you know? One of the guys in neighborhood, I had the paper routes. I had, you know, the lawn mowing and landscaping business in middle school so I’ve always just been intrigued and I love hard work, you know? I love, you know, when you do hard work, you get paid for it. But, obviously, when I got into high school, it’s a different time, you know? I’m playing football, I don’t have too much time to get a job but I’ve always loved computers, you know? My uncle has been a computer engineer all of my life so, you know, for Christmas, I would be gifted computer games and computers or whatnot. So, for the most part, I’ve been pretty computer literate, you know, during my upbringing and there was just one thing — it was a time, around the 2005s, where like the Nextels and the chirp phones were like a thing. Everybody had the, you know, the brr, brr, the walkie-talkie phones, and I found an application online that I could download and it cracked those phones and gave me the ability to upload actual songs instead of ringtones onto the phones. So, from that, it turned into me inviting people over to my house after football practice and after school charging, you know, 20 bucks a song and they will come record like 30-second snippets, just parody ringtones, you know? “Don’t answer this girl’s phone,” or, “Hey, your mom’s calling, time to get home,” whatever the case was and I kinda just fell in love with the art of recording at that very moment and, you know, I went from recording 30-second ringtones to, you know, doing full-length songs.
Dan: And was there a specific ringtone that was the most popular? I know you were mixing your own but for the ones that people requested.
Ali: I mean, it was always the ones that, you know, “Your girlfriend’s calling, don’t answer,” you know? It’s always one of those immature high school ringtones, but really they will come over and, you know, sometimes, they would even record full songs and I would just take a 30-second snippet of it and just use that but it ranged, you know? It ranged. Everyone was a comedian back in high school so it was a range of funny and different type of ringtones.
Dan: Right, and I’m sure with something like that, you probably had your intro price but then, for the repeat customers, probably had some type of discount because I’m sure you were the only person that were offering something like that, right?
Ali: 100 percent, 100 percent, yeah. At that time, again, you know, all the ringtones just had the basic, the beeping tones so when people seen the phones that I had and they had, you know, full-length recordings on them, people were like, “Yo, like how can I get mine?” But, na, you know, I wasn’t that deep into business to have different rates and things like that. It was 20 bucks. You come over, give me dub, and we can keep it pushing, you know?
Dan: And I could see how, even though you said the business skills wasn’t the thing that were there, the mixing and the ability to understand sound and what works and what doesn’t, that stuck with you and there’s obviously the through line of that to how you had started things and got things kicked off with your music career and mixing.
Ali: 100 percent, man. Again, I was one of those kids, you know? I had severe ADHD. Nothing can really tame me. I was one of those kids that would break apart a toy or an RC car or an RC helicopter or a computer, tear it apart just so I could see how it worked and then try to put it back together. And when I learned that I could do that with music, that’s when, okay, I fell in love with the art of recording at that very moment, like you’re telling me I could take a kick and a drum and a vocal, I can add specific, you know, elements to it, reverbs, delays, some type of compression or EQ on it and I can end with a completely different product, you know? That kinda was like, you know, it kinda messed my head up and I kinda caught the bug and I just, you know, I couldn’t afford the music schools and I did most of my research online, just forums and blogs and just studying people that, you know, looked like me that I knew of that did it and seeing what route they took. So, I kinda just took all the things that I’ve accumulated and learned online and things that I’ve seen on Myspace and kinda just built my own path that way.
Dan: And what was the breakthrough point for you that things started to hit the traction, you were like, “Okay, this isn’t just me doing this as a hobby or this isn’t just me doing this to see where things happening, no, there’s a future here”?
Ali: It wasn’t until a few years later after that, I would say, so I started around 2005 when I was doing the ringtones, around 2007 or 2008, that’s when I was really — I really had the bug and I was really on a quest to really find out how to get the best equipment, what is the best equipment, you know? How can I get my hands on it? If I can’t get my hands on it, how can I get access to it? Obviously, you know, it’s a cliché story, from the hood, didn’t have no money, you know, I didn’t have two wooden nickels to rub together so how am I gonna go pay for this, you know, thousands of dollars of equipment? But, at this time, Dave Free, who was the president of TDE, he worked at my high school at Gardena High so I knew he was on the scene doing his music thing and he DJ’d as well so, you know, naturally, that was the only person in my network that, you know, did what I did but at a higher level at that time so, you know, I reached out to him, saying, “Hey, you know, I’m not looking for any handouts, you know, I’m willing to work for anything, I just wanna just learn, you know?
I wanna be put in a situation where I can learn to create a future for myself in this field,” and, you know, he brought me onboard and, you know, I came since — that was maybe 2000, like I said, 2008, 2007. From then, you know, I kinda just took all of the recording that we did from TDE and I just, you know, that was my trial and error. So, it wasn’t really until Kendrick signed to Dr. Dre in about 2012 until I really said, “Okay, this is something that is changing my life.” You know, I’m one of those people who’ll keep my head underwater and, you know, I can’t really look up and see what’s going on until it really hits me in the back of the head and, you know, when Kendrick signed to Dre, that was the smack in the back of the head that woke me up, saying, “Hey, you know, it’s time to build.”
Dan: Right, yeah, because when Good Kid, M.A.A.D City came out, that was obviously big for him, it was big for the label, but he gave you the shout-outs too and then you became a known entity from that point.
Ali: 100 percent. That time is, you know, from the Kendrick Lamar EP to the Kendrick Lamar OD to Section 80, you know, we’ve been curating a sound, you know? We curated a sound that was so unorthodox compared to everything that was out in that time so that was one of Kendrick’s stipulations, you know? When he did the deal and we was working on the album, like, yo, like, obviously, Dre is a master when it comes to audio engineering and mixing but we have a sound that we’ve curated that’s so unorthodox that not one person can really learn it off the bat so I want Ali in those rooms as we’re mixing the album to make sure that we get the best of both worlds. We get the effects and all the crazy quirkiness that I brought to the table with the clarity that Dre brought to the table so it was a perfect marriage when he created that classic album.
Dan: And I think that’s one of the things that I’ve always loved and respected about hip-hop from a production perspective itself because, of course, artists have their own style but you saw so much of that, you heard so much of that from the producers and the mixers and being able to hear that through, you know the minute that you hear our record that sounds like it’s a TDE record and even within that, a Kendrick record and that’s a pretty powerful position to be in.
Ali: Right. I mean, that’s always been, you know, like my thing coming out the gate is, you know, anybody can just do an up-and-down clean mix but what’s gonna make you stand out, you know? What is gonna be your sonic thumbprint, you know? And that’s when I started playing with sound imaging and just doing things that make complete no sense, like on “Swimming Pools” with Kendrick’s high-pitched conscious vocal panning left to right. You know, during that time, there’s not too many mixers that were jumping out the speakers like that and I call that experiencing the song. I want you to experience the mix. And that mindset kinda made my career because, at that point, once that album kinda blew up, people noticed the mix and they’re like, “Yo, who did that?” and when they checked the credits, they said, “Okay, I want Ali to do it. I want Ali to do it. I want Ali to do it,” and then, from that, you know, I just build my network, build my relationships, steady grinding, learning as much as I can throughout that process and I’m here today.
Dan: Right, and I’m sure now it’s from the other lines where you probably have so much demand that you can offer all of the opportunities or you can offer all of the gigs or the things that may come your way.
Ali: Right, right. I mean, I also understand, like I said, bandwidth. I understand that fully but — and I understand my demand so what I do is I’ve, over the past years, I’ve built and trained a team to listen exactly the same way I listen. So I have a team full of engineers that start mixes for me and I come in and tweak them to get them finalized to make sure I can keep up with the demand and also maintain my quality control.
Dan: And I can imagine that stuff too, because what you’re doing, you’re mixing both, I’m sure there is some aspect of science to how you may go about things from a technical perspective but there’s an art. You are an artist and being able to replicate that, I think certain things can be taught but I’m sure there’s still some of it that requires that high level of quality control because of that.
Ali: I think nowadays, it’s more about unlearning. It’s about unlearning the stigmas of how these books were teaching you to do things that were relevant in the 70s and 80s. Compared to now, it’s just what sounds good, you know? So it took a lot of me really untraining my assistants and even myself to not go by these standards that are thrown our way from these music schools and institutions, you know? Music, to me, is — how can somebody tell you how to hear something, you know? It has to be a certain type of feeling so what I preach to my team and I preach in our workshops that I do around the world is, you know, try to find the feeling and try to find the momentum of the song and then attach yourself to that and next thing you know, then, you know, you’re gonna really, you know, find those sounds that stand out within a song and know how to really, you know, manipulate that.
Dan: So talk to me a little bit about these workshops, like what are those like in terms of how you’re trying to obviously communicate things to a certain group but how have those been in terms of being able to communicate and spread that message?
Ali: Right, right. Well, for me, you know, it all came about because, like I said, I couldn’t afford the music schools, you know? I didn’t know the terminologies, I didn’t know how to speak about specific things. Again, everything is trial and error with me. And once I realized there’s thousands, maybe millions of kids the same way, diamonds in the rough that, you know, want to be in this field, you know, have the inkling to wanna be the best but they just don’t have the funds or the resources to, you know, go out and go to these schools or, you know, have the conversations with the people that know the terminologies and so on and so forth so, you know, I kinda created it to really shed light on those diamonds in the rough and show them I’m no different from you. You don’t have to know the ones and the zeros to be the best, you just have to want to be the best.
So, you know, we did the workshops. We really started with our Instagram, you know? We started this EngineEars Instagram where I was just giving tips and, you know, techniques and things I have acquired over the years to really inspire the youth, you know? Let the youth know that you can use a random plugin to affect a vocal or you can use a drum plugin to affect, you know, a snare, just things that make no sense, right? It’s using all these things as tools. And as the, you know, the community grew from that, we realized and I just realized quickly, like there’s a lot of people out there that want this information but they just, again, don’t have resources, they don’t know how to get it so we said, you know, how can we make our Instagram more tangible? How can we give our following, our community something more hands on to really feel part of this family? So we decided to do a workshop. We did the first one in LA at the end of September of 2018 at the 1500 Sound Academy. The first one was a five-hour workshop.
The first half was me telling my story, the good, the bad, the ugly, you know? Letting them know I’m human, I’ve made mistakes, I still make mistakes. I go through mental health, you know? And then the second half, I go through a full deconstruction of some of my biggest work, whether it’s my process, my thought process, techniques, tools that I’ve used, so on and so forth, really that everyone feel like they’re in the studio with me at that very moment so they understand why I did specific things and how I did it. So we launched those, we did the first one, it blew up. We posted the recap videos online on our socials. Our community just completely just lost their shit, excuse my language, but they, you know, we started getting requests from Germany, from Japan, Korea, all through Europe so we said, you know, let’s do it, you know?
I reached out to a few booking agencies like ICM and William Morris and, you know, they all kinda turned me down because I guess, that time, there was no value in an audio engineer doing a world tour so, you know, again, I’m one of those people who if you tell me no, I’m gonna figure out a way to tell myself yes, so I self-funded the workshop, the tour, self-funded the tour, through presale tickets and it sold out within six weeks. So, again, we traveled the world, you know, linking up with all these talented producers and engineers and artists, really inspiring them to wanna be the sound of tomorrow and, yeah, that’s kinda how the workshops came about.
Dan: That’s powerful and, clearly, you saw that there was an opportunity to reach one to many in these settings. It’s mind boggling that these booking agencies didn’t see the value in what you were doing but, obviously, you were able to show that with the demand and you have the ability to quantify all of that, whether it’s through social media or anything else you have, but in hearing you describe this, I can also see the next evolution of this to how something like EngineEars as a tech platform came to be because, as much as you can reach one to many through these workshops, it still isn’t scalable in the same way that a technology platform can be.
Of course, being able to communicate that message is really important and powerful but you being able to have the tools to make it easy for the thousands, the tens of thousands, the millions that wanna be able to see what you’re doing and also certainly reaching out to the engineers, the mixing folks specifically, because I do — I don’t necessarily think that they always get the type of tools and opportunities made for them, I can see the connection to why you would wanna launch the type of company that you did.
Ali: Right, right. I mean, first of all, when it comes to me, in general, like if you put my back against the wall, I’m gonna come out swinging every time, you know? I was in special ed through high school. I’ve been through, you know, people not understanding my ADD and categorizing me a certain type of way and I proved them wrong every time. So, when somebody told me I couldn’t do workshops, that’s another mission that I had to prove everybody wrong. And even with the platform, you know, people said it wasn’t possible and, again, proving people wrong.
But, you know, again, engineers are the most underrepresented creatives in the industry and I’ve learned that throughout the time being who I am in the industry and also doing the workshops, you know? There was one thing that we did at the first workshop that we did at all of them that kinda gave us the spark to create this platform and what we did is we asked all of our attendees to fill out a questionnaire: “You know, as a small business, what are you dealing with in real time?” You know, me being an audio engineer and me also running a business as an audio engineer, I realized I am a small business. I pay my own taxes, you know, I do my financials, promote myself, market myself, deal with my own customer relations, so on and so forth. So by me asking these people, you know, what are the issues that you’re dealing with in real time as a small business, whether you’re a writer, producer, engineer, we got thousands of people from all of our workshops filling them out so we were planning on doing Africa, Australia, and South America but COVID came so we had to take, you know, we had to pause all the workshops and, again, I’m a firm believer in everything happening for a reason because, at this time, we came home, we looked at all the R&D from the workshops and I realized, like holy shit, these people around the world, in 2021, are dealing with the same thing that I’m dealing with.
Now, I’m fucking one of the biggest mixers in the game, whether it’s, you know, tracking payments, whether it’s getting credited, whether it’s dealing with antiquated processes of communications and transferring files, you know? It’s like, you know, as the independent music sector is continuously growing at such a rapid rate, there’s always new things being created for the musicians, for the artists and the producers. But for the first time in maybe all of music industry history, the engineer is being championed by the artist and producer more than ever but there’s no tech or nothing being created for them to help them manage staying in their businesses.
So, by looking at the R&D, by me realizing the problems because I’m still dealing with them in real time, it made the most sense, okay, now, we gotta create the solution because we understand the problem. So, we spent maybe about 10 months just building out the team. You know, we hired Luke Sorenson who is our CTO, putting all the ideas that Dan had in our head on paper to make it real and, you know, January 21, we launched our MVP and we’ve been growing since then, you know? Constantly talking to our users, constantly doing outreach, constantly just hyperfocused on product, figuring out how can we make this the best possible product for recording and mixing engineers around the world.
Dan: That’s great. And, in the past six months, while you’ve been testing it out after the MVP, what have been some of those learnings? Because I’m sure it’s always a little different from spending the time internally making sure that it’s right but then, okay, you get the feedback and you’re iterating. What have been some of those learnings since you put the MVP out?
Ali: And that’s the most interesting part about it, because these tools have not been provided to, again, the most underrepresented creative in music — like they all love every aspect of it. It’s just fine tuning them to make sure that, you know, we’re adding on the right specific features. You know, as of now, the platform, it offers engineers to give you the ability to, you know, really track payments, send files, communicate with artists, and give you that automated streamlined workflow and, as of now, as we’re doing our hours, you know, we just crossed, you know, in the six months that we’ve been live, you know, our gross merchandising volume just crossed 150,000.
We have 2,500 engineers on our waitlist waiting to be onboarded and we have over 5,000 total users on the platform between artists, producers, and engineers, and this is with zero dollars in marketing, this is all word of mouth and all really fixing a problem. You know, we really fixed the problem so they’re all coming in waves to figure out how can they be onboarded. But through the projects that we’ve had, that we’ve taken, so out of the 5,000 users that we have onboard, only 100 of them are verified engineers. Verified engineers are the ones available to actually book work and the reason for us only onboarding a specific amount of engineers is so we can kinda understand both sides of the spectrum.
We wanna know what part of the process you like and don’t like as an artist, what part of the process you like and don’t like as an engineer, and also asking them in real time, “Okay, you are an engineer that has used the process and used the platform, what can we add? What could be — what could and should be the next feature that we should add to make your life even more easier?” you know? So we’re being real strategic, we’re being very intentional, and, again, it’s all about community, reaching out to our community daily, reaching out to all the engineers and artists that are booking projects just so we can understand, “What do you like? What don’t you like?” so we can hyperfocus on next features and move accordingly.
Dan: That makes sense. That makes sense. Yeah, because I think that being able to limit the group probably just made it even more valuable too, right? I think after a certain point, not that there’s noise when you have too many people, but you need to have that cohort of people that you at least develop some sort of cadence with moving forward. I think that’s important.
Ali: 100 percent. And that’s been value itself, you know? It’s like we get people just posting, “Yo, I’m on the waitlist, I can’t wait to be onboarded,” like, you know, we’re seeing that we are building the community, you know? We are the ones that are really going to be verifying engineers to letting the industry know that this is the next guy coming up or the next girl coming up, you know, come take a look at her or him here, you know? The whole goal is to really standardize the process and the business behind the recording arts. For so many years, there has not been a standardized process to managing your business.
It’s just using Gmail, Dropbox, Instagram DMs, so on and so forth to conduct and manage your business. That’s not scalable. That’s not sustainable, you know? You’re gonna spend more time dealing with the stress of managing all of that than you would be creating. So, the fact that I can understand that because I am sitting in the studio daily dealing with the problems, not in Silicon Valley in some 40-story building skyscraper trying to fix a problem, I understand it. So, again, we’re just being real strategic, real tactful, and very, very intentional with our every move.
Dan: What has the fundraising process been like for this? I know you mentioned with the workshops, you had to put a lot of money up for that yourself and you got a bit of pushback when you tried to get some outside help and backing for this. What has it been like with the EngineEars platform?
Ali: So, you know, because we had so much pushback on the workshops, it kinda set us up for success in the future with the platform because we used the profits from the workshops to fund the early build of the platform. So we’re able to kinda, you know, just move things around and such to have the workshops fund the platform. But as we build out the MVP, obviously, we gotta build teams. We gotta hire developers and that costs a lot of money. I’m a music guy and I’m trying to get into tech and understanding tech and, you know, every day I wake up, I’m learning something new and new and new and new on how, you know, to move tactfully in this industry. So, you know, we brought on a growth advisor, Jacob Shamberger.
He previously was at a company called Vise, you know, helping with growth and operations and we brought him on. You know, since then, he’s helped with infrastructure, help understanding what we need as a business runway for the next 10 to 12 months, you know? Just understanding how to properly run the company from the inside. So, the main goal when he came onboard, once we started getting users, once we started booking projects, we’re like it’s time to figure out how to scale it at a way that we can manage it and, to do that, we need some funds. We need financing. So, I tapped into my network. You know, I hit Ajay Relan, who is one of the managing partners at Slauson and the co-founder at Slauson.
We had a relationship just being from LA, LA cat. I seen that he launched Slauson & Co. and, you know, I just shot my shot in an Instagram DM. I said, “Hey, I got a crazy idea. I got a MVP that’s out. This is our deck. You know, I know this is not the right approach but, man, give me a chance,” you know? I’ve been talking to VCs here and there but, you know, a lot of them don’t understand music and, you know, I’m not a tech guy so I wasn’t getting that much interest, you know? I had to oversell myself to these VC guys who just didn’t understand the business and I knew what we have is way bigger than me selling myself short so I wanted to be real intentional with the team they brought onboard and, you know, I felt like Slauson & Co. with Ajay and Austin were the best fit because they understand music, they understand me and the culture and they’re just super supportive.
So, once we got Slauson involved, you know, instead of getting more VCs involved, I wanted the industry to see that the industry — I wanted tech and everybody to understand and see that the music industry is supporting this so instead of me having a whole cap table full of venture capitalists, I got one VC — two VCs, we got some Slauson & Co. and The Community Fund, and then the rest, I got all angels, which are artists who are some of the biggest in the game but also understand the problem because they’ve dealt with it in their early career. So now that they’ve dealt with that problem, they’re involved with fixing it with the solution which is EngineEars. So we got investors from Kendrick Lamar, we got Roddy Ricch, we got DJ Khaled, DJ Mustard, YG, Russ, Young Guru, you know, the list goes on and these are all producers, artists, and engineers who’ve been in the game, who understand the problem, and for the first time now could be a part of the solution.
Dan: And, to be honest, even though you may not have had some of those institutional backers that a lot of other platforms have, you having some of these very influential angel investors that have their own investments and their own distribution, that could end up being even more beneficial for you in the future because of just how the landscape is worked. There’s so much power shifting from institutions to individuals and, in a lot of ways, I feel like hip-hop artists have been early on this and those are the folks that are on your cap table.
Ali: 100 percent and all those people are first-time investors. You know, a lot of these people who are big in the music industry don’t get into investing that much. So, you know, we’re just happy that we’re able to kinda, you know, help diversify some of these already big people into tech and it’s like what better place to do it than, you know, with one of their peers, you know? Not some guy sitting, again, on 40 floors of a building in San Francisco. So, you know, it’s a lot more intention — it’s a lot more genuine, you know? And I believe the industry will realize that over these next six months.
Dan: Yeah, I think so and I think that I’ve even seen Kendrick, for instance, like I know he’s on the cap table of Triller now so I’m seeing his name come up and like even his name, he wasn’t someone who I saw come up as often than, let’s say, some of his peers that were investing as much so it’s good to see that transition. I do think that, of course, there’s the big names in hip-hop that have always been investing but there’s a lot of folks who haven’t and that’s where I think the momentum and things can start to shift because it then just makes it more likely that some opportunities, like what you’re building, can get even more traction because I assume that this is just the beginning for you, right? If EngineEars continues to grow and have the potential, there is going to be a bigger opportunity to wanna have more funding, to be able to take that to the next level but that may not necessarily come from the angels, that’s going to most likely come from the next level up.
Ali: Right. And that’s really, I mean, it’s all about inspiration, right? Like, you know, who inspired me to really just take my business and go forth was Nipsey Hussle, you know? As we were mixing Victory Lap, that was his main thing is just talking to us about business, you know? “You’re not cool unless you coming here talking about business or talking about a new book that you read,” you know? It’s really empowering the people and the fact that I came where I come from and I’m building what I’m building, I got the opportunity to really reinvent or even disrupt the industry, you know, it’s just showing somebody who’s looking like me or looking, you know, who come from where I come from or the neighborhood that they come from, like, yo, I can start here but I can grow into the next biggest CEO in music, you know, just by having a good idea and executing on it.
So, it’s more than just coming with a good product, it’s inspiring the youth to know that you’re not stuck in a box. You can, you know, sit in these meetings with a sweat suit on, raising millions of dollars from just the idea that you have in your head and you don’t have to change for nobody, you know? So it’s more of that for me that I feel like it’s my purpose doing this whole thing is leading by example in that light.
Dan: Definitely. And Nipsey is a great example of this himself, right? Like he is not a suit by any stretch of the imagination. He is not a suit. He was somewhere like, I mean, he had the tats, he had the cornrows, he was authentically himself and he was talking about, “Okay, yes, I’m gonna put myself in position so if I’m sitting courtside, I’m gonna be sitting next to the CEO of Tinder and I’m gonna be rapping with him about how I can get involved,” and it really would have been dope to just see the future of what he would have been able to do in this landscape, right? One of the things I’ve often thought is I look at the success, success may be a strong word, but I looked at the wave of interest in NFTs over the past few years and Nipsey would have been all over this. I feel like the whole scarcity model of his $100 mixtape is right aligned with this type of mentality.
Ali: 1,000 percent. He was — Nipsey was big on crypto back in 2017, like I can’t imagine what his portfolio is looking like if they have access to it, like he was big on crypto. I think he invested on one of the crypto marketplaces, I forgot which one it was, but he was big on crypto really, but, again, like you said, it’s just being ahead of the curve. It’s just having foresight and having vision and, most importantly, execution. So those are the lessons that I’ve learned being around Nipsey and, you know, God rest his soul, you know, I’m able to implement that in what I’m doing today, you know, based on those learnings that I’ve learned from him over these past few years.
Dan: The marathon continues, right?
Ali: Marathon forever continues. Rest in peace to Nip Hussle.
Dan: Definitely. I’m curious for you because, now, for so much of your career, you’ve been able to focus on mixing and the work that you’ve done, not just with TDE but with others in the industry, but now you have this business that you’re running as well. How has it been managing both of those? Because you were already someone that wears a number of hats and now you’re a startup founder.
Ali: You know, for high risk come high reward, right? You said it’s my time management, you know? One thing I learned early on, again, you know, from mixing everyone’s album, I hit a brick wall in 2017, you know? I spread myself way too thin doing too much trying to please everybody and not putting time for myself. So, during that time, I was dealing with depression badly, you know? I hit a brick wall, point blank, period, and, again, everything happens for a reason because, now, going through that, I realized how to manage my time in a way where I put myself first but still make sure I execute on all my ideas and plans and work.
So, you know, it’s just building a good team around you to help support the full vision is very important. And also just no excuses, you know? A lot of people use excuses. I’m one of them at times, you know? I get lazy like the average person but it’s all about the end goal, right? It’s all about the vision that you have and how you’re gonna get there. Are you gonna get there by, you know, taking two days off to watch TV, play video games or are you gonna get there by sacrifice? And I’m taking the sacrifice route.
Dan: And in terms of your vision for EngineEars, specifically, where do you see things a few years from now? Where do you see things five years from now?
Ali: EngineEars, as of now, again, is in MVP. We’re strictly focused on building the tools to help audio engineers succeed and manage their business but that’s just scratching the surface. You know, obviously, engineers, nine times out of ten, is also a producer so once we’ve perfected the workflow and perfected all the tools necessary to help set up engineers for success, we wanna add on producer marketplaces to allow them to then sell beats and then, at full scale, give an artist the ability to go to EngineEars, book an engineer, you know, book a studio, buy a beat, and then distribute your song to any platform.
So, we wanted to make it a full vertical, you know, from creation all the way to distribution platform for creatives, really reinventing the music industry for the digital age. So, again, we’re strictly just starting out, perfecting the audio engineering services, because I understand we’re in the trenches, we’re at the bottom of the totem pole but because it’s such an underrepresented part of the music industry, the trust that we’re building within the community is bigger than any other platform, I feel, and I can see can build because we’re really in the trenches with them and I understand that because I am them. So, you know, as we organically grow and we keep building out these tools, obviously, naturally, we wanna grow into, you know, something that, you know, I probably can’t even explain right now, you know, which is exciting.
Dan: Yeah. And I think that that’s the path that makes the most sense because you are focusing on an underserved niche right now which is the audio mixing engineers. There are tons of tools out there. I hear so much from people that there are so many tools that they can’t keep track of, but I think that’s because a lot of these tools can start to look the same, whether it is a music distributor or some type of distributor, that’s such a broad term, but you’re focusing on an aspect of this that you yourself can speak to. You put all the energy in there, you master that, and then, naturally, you can expand into the other areas and I think that’s where the power of niche comes from, especially when it’s from someone like yourself who has walked the walk and you’ve seen what the challenges can be and now you’re fixing that, not just for yourself but for the next generation.
Ali: Exactly, exactly. You know, people always talk about, you know, we’re a marketplace and that’s not it. You know, we’ve built a marketplace on top of the tools that we allow engineers use to facilitate a project. So it’s just, again, it’s just understanding the problems in real time, you know? Not analytical stuff that people might be looking at to try to create their business. I’m really understanding the problems because I’m dealing with them so I think that alone really was the X Factor to help us get to where we are today and I think it’s gonna be one of the biggest factors in growing this company into the next, you know, billion-dollar company.
Dan: And is it ever tough as a mixing engineer yourself to both manage that side of your hat versus the founder side and, by that specifically, I mean, I think there is a perfection that can come in wanting the music to sound the right way and wanting to make sure it gives off this certain vibe and spending the amount of time that’s required to do that as opposed to more of the MVP aspect of like, “No, we gotta get this out, we gotta get this out. Done is better than good.”
Ali: Right. 100 percent. I lose my mind about that all the time because I’m such a perfectionist when it comes to this work in the studio but, you know, the whole goal of an MVP is just throwing it out there and see if it sticks, you know? Throwing it out there, you know, having all these bugs, having people having issues and uploading problems, you know, and that’s how we know what to hyperfocus on moving forward is, okay, we gotta focus on this feature, focus on this bug, focus on x, y, and z, but, again, it all boils down to building that team out, you know? I understand that these are two different worlds, you know? That’s one thing that I am blessed to have is just being able to understand that I don’t know everything in this field, you know? I know my strengths and I will play those strengths but I also know my weaknesses.
So, the goal is to bring the team around that can help with those weaknesses but also we can move together as a unit that all learn and grow together. So, you know, thanks to, you know, Dan, Dan Maynard, my co-founder and COO, again, we got Jacob Shamberger who came in helping with growth and Luke Sorenson who’s helping on the tech side. We just brought on our first full-time developer, Ali Rahman, and we’re looking to hire more. We’re constantly recruiting, we’re looking for more developers, we’re looking for more team players and, yeah, just playing our strengths, you know? Hiring the best in the field at what they do to come, you know, add to the puzzle.
Dan: I hear that. And that’s the way it should be, man. That’s the way it should be. And I know we’re getting to the tail end here but, before we let you go, I do wanna go back to the music quick, and I know I shortchanged you before. I know I said that you’re Grammy nominated and you are three-time Grammy Award winning, as I should have said.
Ali: I’m just messing with you.
Dan: But I’m curious though, is there a project of yours that you are most proud of that you look back and be like, “Ah, this was that record right here”?
Ali: Yeah, man. I mean, it’s cliché to bring up anything Kendrick related but, I mean, one of my favorite albums is To Pimp a Butterfly and that’s because, you know, we’re coming off of Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, right? An album that, you know, just really sculpted a generation and then Kendrick jumps into this, you know, this whole — it’s a whole different sonic sound to how To Pimp a Butterfly sounds compared to Good Kid, M.A.A.D City so remind you, I’m self-taught, wet behind the ears, you know, still figuring it out, and I go from a whole program to album with program music to live album, recording 15-piece bands and mixing upright bass and doing things that I was not, you know, familiar with. You know, I had to do a lot of studying.
I went back and listened to the Mo’ Better Blues soundtrack and a lot of Beatles. Abbey Road was on repeat, understanding just placement of drum elements and sonic textures but that album taught me patience and it also taught me it’s okay not to know everything because, again, because I didn’t know how to specifically blend an upright bass with a live program bass, you know, again, added to the creation of my sound which is making sure it feels right rather than the ones and zeros lining up so when I say it taught me patience, it taught me patience all around to just make me feel comfortable with, you know, not knowing it all, if that makes sense, you know?
I don’t know if that answer makes sense to you but, you know, that album stuck with me, it helped me grow as a person, as an engineer working with all these different elements. The board that I mixed the album with, this — I bought it so this is the board from Interscope that, you know, I had the, you know, through my career, I had the opportunity to buy and now it’s inside my facility, which is NoName Recordings which used to be the old Death Row Studios so, you know, that whole time kinda really shaped and molded me into who I am today and where I’m going in the next 5 to 10 years.
Dan: That’s powerful and I do think that a lot of people really do look at that album as the album of the decade that is defining just with everything that happened, especially right after the Black Lives Matter movement really kicked off, we really needed some type of music to speak to that and he obviously did that with that album and you all, obviously, worked on that to make it what it is. It’s dope.
Ali: Right. That’s like — just music in general is like, it’s always been an escape but, you know, being able to create in a real time, it’s a different type of superpower because you can really see — you see it being created but then, again, I was Kendrick’s DJ as well so I will be in the studio as we’re making it then I will be on stage with him as he’s performing it and we will be in countries that they don’t speak any English but they’re reciting the words word for word and I’m like, holy shit, this is powerful, you know? And, you know, just frequencies in general, like, you know, mixing music is religious to me, you know?
That’s the only thing, like I said, I have severe ADHD and when I mix, that’s the only thing that can sit me down for 10 hours at a time, you know? I get this kind of tunnel vision when I’m working on a song and, you know, there’s power behind that, there’s spiritual behind it and that’s why I’m going so hard with building this community around the art of engineering and helping those diamonds in the rough that were like me, just not having no access, you know? I wanna be that access for these people, whether it’s through my workshops or through the platform that we’re creating.
Dan: I hear that. I hear that. All right, before we let you go, though, talk to me quick because you mentioned it, talk to me quick about the Death Row piece and you now being in that studio, what does it feel like?
Ali: It’s surreal. I feel the energy, you know? Again, this studio used to be called Can-Am Recorders. It was Death Row Records from ’93 to ’98. All Eyez On Me was recorded and mixed here. A lot of the Kurupt albums, a lot of Nate Dogg albums were done here. It’s a full circle moment. Like I said, Dre is my mentor, you know?
And Dre, when Kendrick signed to Dre, you know, I learned how to use this board from Dre so the fact that I’m able to now own this building and, you know, have a piece of history and continue the legacy that came out of this building, you know, again, it just affirms that I’m moving in the right direction in life, you know? I’m a big firm believer in everything happening for a reason in the universe and, you know, these things are not happening by mistake, you know? I’m trying to harness that energy, stay true to myself, stay true to the music, and try to, you know, make my family proud.
Dan: It doubles down on something that Snoop Dogg said himself, right? I think that was about a year ago when he said that, “Na, TDE, they’re a better version of what we all had done at Death Row.” I may be misquoting it verbatim but he said something along that lines and you now being in that studio brings that to life even more.
Ali: Right, right, right. Again, it’s intention, intention, you know? It’s very intentional and, you know, just, yeah, this is — universe works in mysterious ways, man.
Dan: I know, right. I know, right. All right, well, Ali, this is dope. Before we let you go, is there anything else that you wanna plug or let the Trapital audience know about?
Ali: If you’re an audio engineer or an artist, go to engineears.com. You know, you could book some of the world’s most talented mixing engineers in real time. You can view rates and instantly book them, follow EngineEars on Instagram, and Seeing Sounds, we’re gonna be launching a workshop toward top of 2022, yeah, and anybody, if you want knowledge, information, access, you know, reach out to us. Let’s continue to build this worldwide network.