As someone who regularly peruses the popular platform, constantly searching for new and diverse local music, I've found it's always good for a decent song or two. But every once in a while, it yields solid gold.
After several consecutive weeks of browsing, one name popped up again and again: Kareem Ali. In 2020 alone, the beat-maker and producer had 33 or so releases. These aren't mere sketches or tidbits, either, but lush soundscapes that span from ethereal, ambient, and soulful R&B to bombastic hip-hop and hardy house music.
So, just who is Ali exactly?
He's been around music all his life, he says. "My mom is a classically trained vocalist and she went to the famous High School of Music & Art in New York City. I would always hear her singing her arpeggios in the shower."
It was only natural that Ali himself became a musician, picking up the trumpet around fourth grade. That eventually led him to major in jazz studies at SUNY Purchase. But he ended up leaving school around 2013 after just one year — "there's only so much more you can do with jazz and all this music," he says. But he did make one connection that would forever alter his creative aspirations.
"[My roommate] was studying studio engineering and he made electronic music, which I'd never really listened to," Ali says. "He had a drum machine and all that stuff, and so he taught me."
From there, Ali sought out more and more electronic music to explore and reference. He eventually uncovered the Chicago-based producer Hakim Murphy, specifically his Innerspace Halflife recordings, which inspired Ali to start fine-tuning his own musical efforts.
"I didn't know what I was doing early [on]. I found [Murphy] on Facebook, and he said, 'Oh, that's house music.' So he pretty much was my mentor in the beginning stages."
Around the time of his entry into the world of production, Ali had already moved back home with his mother, working at a golf resort near upstate New York. (If you're wondering, yes, Ali's classically trained mother does love "some of his stuff.") It was then that he decided to make a drastic life change.
"I transferred to [Scottsdale's] Westin Kierland in the summer of 2015," he says. "I was 21 years old, and [my] first time moving out. ... When I first got here, it was rough, getting my finances in order and getting an apartment. But I think that definitely shaped who I am."
Beyond that, Ali believes the move influenced him creatively.
"It definitely opened up things for my creativity, like just seeing the mountains and all that stuff," he says. "I do a lot of hiking and I ride my bike everywhere. Just seeing all that stuff always inspires me. That's why a lot of my album covers, I take those with my DSLR camera. Having 300 days of sunshine definitely made me happier."
There is a certain joy to Ali's music. It's made with an enthusiasm for boundless exploration, as he spins in new ideas and rhythms to create gorgeous constructs that exceed their primary influences. It's deeply gripping music, the kind of projects that you have to sit with and let unfold.
"I start off with a kind of artist's approach, where I want to have a blank canvas," he says. "I sort through sounds the way you might sort through colors."
And the resulting songs aren't just deeply moving; they're a kind of unique snapshot into Ali at any given moment. His output may be plentiful, but these releases routinely include pieces from as far back as 2014. There's a reason for this approach, he explains.
"My whole life experiences: that's exactly what I put into the music," Ali says. "Whatever I'm feeling, I've got to let this out for the music. I just channel that energy in and make it creative. Kid Cudi once said that he just wants to make people feel like they're not alone."
"I hate holding on to too much, you know, especially when I feel like it should go out," he says. "You never know when the day is going to come when you're going to leave this earth, and so I'd rather have this stuff out there then hold it forever. You can show your creative growth and have a discography for fans to look back on. Or your new fans can go back and listen."
"We don't have the luxury because we're not major artists," he says. "You don't have the luxury of releasing one album, or one single, and then just disappearing for two or three years. People have such a short attention span. If you release something, unless it's insane, it'll be gone for the most part [in a week]. It's just part of the job. A lot of artists lose themselves on the business side of it, so you have to have a strategy."
If his work is centered around making these varied connections, Ali instantly recognizes that Arizona is an interesting choice for his specific career path.
"I don't really think I feel connected to the scene out here," Ali says.
But that may have been the larger point of his entire journey.
"I wanted to go somewhere where there's no scene," he says. "So I can kind of establish something. People were like, 'Oh, wow, Arizona?' But I kind of want to put the spotlight on that. New York is already saturated."
So far, the approach seems to have worked. Not only is Ali breaking new grounds across his releases, but he's earned the attention of outlets like Rolling Stone. So, in a way, Ali has made good on his story thus far: a talented kid leaves home, travels to the desert, and makes a name for himself in the genre he'd never heard of before.
Yet Ali isn't exactly resting on his laurels, and he's planning for a big 2021 and beyond. That includes upping his game by possibly creating music for "a big show at a planetarium." But will he remain just as prolific as ever, or has the 27-year-old earned himself a little rest?
"For this year, I'm not going to release as much," he says. "It's going to be more curated. It's still going to be a lot, though."
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.