Photo courtesy of Abdu Ali
A low-key, Rust Belt ‘burg, Baltimore can sometimes repel pomp and flash like the wrong side of a magnet. Between those in the city who cling to an antiquated idea of what a proper hip-hop scene should look and sound like—basically 90s New York or nothing—and the outside expectation, thanks to the mythologizing of The Wire, that Baltimore rap should reflect certain hardcore, violent themes, the city’s creativity can become obscured. While there are certainly artists in the city following those paths, one of the most exciting Baltimore exports is Abdu Ali, an artist who’s more Blowfly than Bobby Shmurda, channeling Grace Jones and owing as much to Death as he does to DMX.
In the span of a few years, Ali has asserted himself as a standout in a thriving Baltimore scene that aims for the cultural outskirts, bringing together many of that scene’s familiar aural and aesthetic elements while cutting through conventions and expectations. Often decked out in a church hat and a Technicolor dashiki, he is a product of a patchwork environment that’s as grimy as it is splendid. Baltimore is a balkanized city, with creative enclaves in the Station North Arts District and West Side but also sprawling zones of what are essentially suburbs in the city and large, depressed swaths of vacant homes. Ali, who is gay and who grew up moving between the city’s distinctive east and west sides, bridges any number of cultural gaps.
This year, he’s released two projects, July’s Infinity Epiphanies EP and an EP produced by Baltimore’s Schwarz called Already that came out last month. These recent projects show a growing artistic versatility, with Abdu offering a forceful lyrical delivery and leaning into an eclectic range of production styles, such as on an ethereal Blaqstarr remix. He refers to Schwarz, a St. Louis transplant with whom he is currently on tour, as his “music boyfriend.” Between that collaboration and the success of the summer’s hit party series #KAHLON (which he throws with writer and Noisey contributor Lawrence Burney), Ali’s footprint in the city and beyond has grown markedly in the last few months.
Raised by a young, single mother, Abdu Ali credits his frequent moves from one side of Baltimore the to other with giving him a strong sense of the city on the whole. “My childhood in Baltimore was chill,” he tells me on the phone from tour, only mildly subdued by a sore throat. “I was kind of in my own world. I was a really shy, timid kid, but I always had that urge to perform.” Starting at Booker T. Washington Middle School on the city’s West Side was a poignant part of his life: This was where he would receive an atypically in-depth education on black history as well as begin to play trumpet. Though he was bullied and teased occasionally as a child, he makes the bittersweet admission to me that he “had a special sense of self that, unfortunately, a lot of black kids don’t have. I had a sense of ‘I’m something’ growing up.”
Ali headed next to historic magnet school Baltimore City College, which he says is “where I really found who I was.” In the school’s liberal environment (“where I really became a social butterfly”), he was crowned the homecoming prince as an upperclassman. “I kind of bullshitted with writing a little bit,” he says. “I just feel like Baltimore always had this rich culture. Dance circles everyday, going to Shake-N-Bake (a local roller rink that hosts kiddie discos), going to the ‘Dox when I was 13 (referencing the Paradox nightclub downtown). I was kind of privileged culture-wise. I was just around all this shit.”
Ali was drawn to the craft of writing via classes at the University of Baltimore. On his 2012 EP, INVICTOS, he embraced a Banjee style, tapping into the gay musical subculture while also rejecting the pressure to “go all cunty” with his unhinged rapping. “The Banjee shit came naturally because that’s who I am, a queer boy from Baltimore City, from the hood. From the projects, yet sophisticated, wise, and has a lot of common sense,” he says. “I wanted to get off my chest that not everyone from the hood is ‘ignorant.’”
At the same time, he felt he “needed to have Baltimore Club” in his arsenal, referencing the globe-trotting, house offspring native to the city that has rocked cookouts and clubs for almost three decades. The hi-NRG Bmore Club vibe has since been a constant throughout his work. Brandishing the signature sound of the city and augmenting it with a bevy of overdriven 808s and assorted glitches, he counts Sun-Ra, Erykah Badu and Missy Elliott as influences.
“I wanted it to sound like me, and I think I’m doing good with that now,” he says. His 2013 follow-up, Push + Slay, was more focused, a declarative statement of Abdu Ali as an artist. “Being black and gay is like being at the bottom of the totem pole,” he explains. And the sonic narrative of Push+Slay urges that it’s not enough to just survive. You gotta thrive. “As I got into it, each project, each one just became more and more real,” he confesses. “I don’t just want to be a rapper. I didn’t choose to do this, it chose me. I feel honored to be in this position, to be an artist.”
On “Push + Slay’s” “Bleed,” produced by Bmore Club heavy-hitter James Nasty, Ali raps “I’m gonna give you want you want / what the fuck you want / I’m gonna give you what you need / ‘til it fucking bleeds.” The ominous “Thornz” references the Bible with a mild twist. Speaking on the chorus (“I got thorns in my flesh, but my thorns got roses”), Ali stresses that one should “honor your negatives, embrace your sins. You don’t need nobody to wash ‘em away. Your sins are beautiful.” The song’s monochromatic video is like the prologue to a post-apocalyptic hood opera. Covered in nuclear ash like some fallout-addled Fela Kuti, Ali emerges from four walls to the relative safety of a Baltimore rowhome rooftop. The Lord Bby-produced “Mad Ambrosia” goes harsher, with Abdu chanting “three shots to the head, I ain’t dead / instead I was fed / fruit, wine, and cocoa bread.” The unofficial trilogy is rounded out by “Machete Warz” (“I’m ‘bout to slay you all!”), whose video is like a scene from the impending blood rave’s pre-game.
In the wake of releasing Infinity Epiphanies and Already, Abdu Ali has been on the “Motivational Tour” with Schwarz and New Jersey producer and DJ Kilbourne. It’s in this live context where Ali thrives: “On stage, I feel like I’m a martyr, like Joan Of Arc, delivering a message so people can feel motivated, feel alive and awake,” he says, which would seem contrived if not for the way Ali thrashes, headbangs, and two-steps at a punk rocker’s pace, dripping in sweat and showing James Brown levels of exertion. “You don’t get an understanding of who I am as an artist until you see me perform. The performance is the finale,” he adds. “Like, ‘Oh OK, this is who Abdu Ali is’.”
Photo by Diamond Dixon / Courtesy of Abdu Ali
For those in left field, as so many of Baltimore’s artists are, there will always be an external pressure to make shit palatable. Ali’s music is often labeled as “noise rap,” and he’s frequently lumped in with Death Grips, a comparison he resents. “Just because I’m dark skinned and have a shaved head doesn’t mean we sound alike,” he makes sure to remind me. “I’ve had mad people on tour compare me to them.” With a grown out beard and a penchant for shirtlessness on stage, he does bear at least a physical resemblance to MC Ride. Yet while the comparison to the polarizing outfit may have its pros and cons, Ali’s sonic ethos comes off as more earnest, as carnal as it is cerebral. Distortion and feedback seem like the natural soundtrack to an increasingly chaotic human experience
Of the highly perishable “gay rapper” aesthetic, he hopes that he’s surpassed labels. “Nobody can really put me in a box, because I’m a rapper first. Being gay does have its challenges. It’s this quiet thing that people don’t really say, but they automatically place a judgment on me, and it does make it harder. But I feel like we all surpassed that whole ‘gay’ thing.” In this sentiment, Ali echoes fellow Baltimore rapper DDM, who has been a power of example, by Abdu’s admission, that he too could be gay and rap, aggressively even.
“My music is for the forgotten, the overlooked people, places, things and environments,” he says. “I can’t not do music,” Ali assures me. “This music thing is addictive, on a whole other level. I cannot stop doing this. I want to open up a little bit more, and I want to captivate more people,” he says of his next project. “I want a lot of different people to feel what I’m saying. My next shit, I really want to be big and amazing.” And when someone who’s as passionate as he is puts words to that drive to keep that creative fire going, it’s best to put down the visor and watch the magic happen.
Kasai Rex is a writer living in Baltimore. Follow Kasai Rex on Twitter.