Ye Ali is nothing like what you may assume.
Born and raised in a Muslim household in Hammond, Indiana, Ali first gained his affinity for music from his father. Though he was banned from listening to the genre he peppers now with his hazy cuts these days, back then, he drowned his young ears in ‘70s and ‘80s music. “My dad’s a country fellow from Chicago, who grew up on a farm, so he appreciated music,” he says of his first introductions to melodic tunes. “[I listened to] a lot of country and a lot of old soulful music. Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder, Sade, Anika Baker, George Jones, and a lot of Dolly Parton. I grew up listening to Garth Brooks and Shania Twain.”
As any normal child would, Ali eventually snuck to get his first taste of rap, copping Ludacris’ Back For The First Time, Word of Mouf and hitting a Lil Wayne show. From there, he was hooked.
Nowadays, an earful of the former English teacher’s Soundcloud-accessible R&B loosies, like “Cashin Out,” “Thigh Kisser” and “LateNightFlex”––which were eventually compiled into his 16–track effort Private Suite––could force any casual listener to draw hasty comparisons to the handful of artists situated neatly in the melancholy genre of rap-singing. (See: PartyNextDoor, Bryson Tiller and Tory Lanez.) But according to the self-proclaimed southern boy outta Indiana, he’s been carving out his piece of The Weeknd’s sonic frontier long before anyone else rode the subdued, vibey wave. “I’ve been making my brand of music since 2011,” he says. “You can trace that back to any artists’ timeline. See what they were doing then and then see what I was doing. I was TrapHouse Jodeci before anybody was anything else.”
With the release of his long-awaited 12-track project of the same name, TrapHouse Jodeci––a moniker birthed from his Kappa Alpha Psi party days––the now L.A.-based rap-singing songwriter offers more cuts best fit for drug-induced after-parties, bedroom foreplay or sunny days riding around in a drop-top but with added introspection. “As you listen to the project, I give you a real sense of who I am, where I am right now and where I’m headed.”
On the anniversary of Aaliyah’s death (R.I.P. Baby Girl), VIBE picked up the phone to rap with Ye Ali about Static Major’s influence on his life, his affiliation with The 6ix and how he shrugs off comparisons.
Ye Ali: I’ve always had a stronghold in Toronto in a weird way just because of certain artists I worked with early in their careers, producers I’ve worked with since 2011. Since Toronto’s boom, a lot of those artists and producers got bigger and we pretty much stayed cool. You wonder how somebody from Indiana could have so many people over there, but it’s kinda like extended family. My engineers are over there, my producers, my younger brother. So, I’ve always had a family thing in Toronto. They always showed me love early in my career when I was mainly doing songwriting and features here and there, so they just love me over there and I love ‘em back. I actually worked with some of these best producers from Toronto on this album.
Co-production for the intro track “Ammunition” was done by Neenyo. He did a lot of work on that Drake and Future collab album [What A Time To Be Alive]. He works mainly with the guys over at the OVO camp and he reached out to me on Twitter. He heard a snippet of a song I was previewing and he hit me up like, ‘Yo, I wanna add something to this.’ I was like, ‘Dude, definitely. You’re a legend.’ My homie G.RySls isn’t from Toronto, but he works really exclusively with those guys over there, and he did “Autograph” off my album. Then, my last homie’s name is Jordon Manswell. He produced “Songs About You.”
It’s just a small world. My name over there has a pretty good reputation so people don’t mind reaching out and working with me knowing that they’ll get fully credited and properly championed when the release is here.
You’re originally from Hammond, Indiana. How did your Midwest upbringing shape your sound?
My childhood was a fun one and my dad always challenged me to push myself and choose to understand what’s around me and what I listen to. He wouldn’t let me listen to rap until I essentially went to college, so I used to have to sneak and listen to rap. Rap had a lot of negative connotations to him and he didn’t see why I had to listen to music with cursing in it and why I couldn’t appreciate other forms of music. On many drives home, my dad wouldn’t let me listen to songs with words in it. He always expressed that I needed to appreciate instrumentation more than words, even from me watching Tom & Jerry or Looney Tunes, stuff that had classical music in it. He just made sure I was in band, choir and acting classes to get me familiar with the art and how to appreciate it.
Who were some of the first rap artists you listened to? You’ve been very vocal about being a Lil Wayne fan.
Yeah, Wayne is where I get my confidence. I freestyle a lot of my stuff after seeing Wayne freestyle, hearing how crazy he was with the bars and how creative he was. He didn’t limit himself by necessarily structurally writing everything out. He just said what he said. So I got my recording process from Wayne. I’ve watched every documentary and interview on him and how he records and how he can make so many songs. It’s just because of his recording process. My first concert I ever went to and one of my only concerts is a Lil Wayne concert. I stood out there for like six hours to see Lil Wayne when I was in high school. Tity Boi opened up for him before anybody knew who he was, when he was back with Playaz Circle. I became a huge 2 Chainz fan that day and I became a bigger Wayne fan.
Now, you were locked up at one point? How did catching a charge change your art and you as a person?
It put me in a tough position. I got kicked out of school and then I lost financial support from them. My dad wasn’t too pleased obviously ‘cause he was the one that bailed me out. That was the first time he ever told me that he thought I could do [music], but he just told me that it was the only choice I had. Either get a shitty job with a felony or just go to L.A. and figure it out. I opted for the latter. Even though I didn’t think I did that much wrong, it was a federal thing. It looked worse than the actual act, but there was no way for me to escape that just because it was a federal thing. Unfortunately, me and one of my friends got in trouble, but it just gave me a fork in the road.
Can you elaborate on what you were charged for?
Actually I cannot. When I did it, I didn’t know it was a federal thing, so it was one of those things that you don’t think about that much. But the Feds are watching, so kids, keep your nose clean.
You’ve mentioned making a song in 10 secs, 5 minutes — Is your songwriting process typically that rapid?
The way I write a song is I get into the booth and record for like 10 minutes. After so many takes, I have the engineer piece together the words that I want him to keep and delete. Now, the hook is the first thing I write. That usually takes about five to ten minutes at the most. I just go through melodies and usually the production is so good that it’s 50/50. The beat speaks to me. I talk back to it, and we meet in the middle. I never really think of it in the sense of time. I do like five or six songs a day. Of those five or six, there’s always one that I put in a folder and build on it the next week or next month. Ninety percent of the songs on TrapHouse Jodeci were started a year or before. It’s just stuff that I kept going back to and didn’t finish and finally realized I liked.
Since you’ve been working on these songs for some time, do any of them feel old to you?
Nah. Even though I wrote parts of the records earlier, it’s all new production. So it all sounds new to me.
Which was the easiest song to make on this album?
I would say “Ammunition.” It’s the first time I let just anybody play with me in the studio with their instruments and not knowing them too well, and we jammed out. First, the guitarist laid his part, then I laid the melody, Then the saxophonist came in and we blended it all together. It turned out to be one of my favorite songs. Just because the process and what I’m talking about is such a relatable topic to talk about on the first song.
On “Fulla Diamonds,” you mention your uncle’s death. Do you feel you’re being more vulnerable with this project?
“Fulla Diamonds” was just like three minutes of therapy for me. My uncle had just died so I just had to talk about it at least. I tried to pack [the song] full of the stuff I was going through in the past year. I don’t even tell my homies stuff like this, so it was just good to get it out. With this one, I was able to just let it all go and it was very therapeutic for me.
Is that something you want to do more of in the future?
It depends. For instance, the song “Dedication” is me opening up ‘cause I’ve never had an ode to someone. Usually I never really think about it because everything I say is about me in some way.
Now, some R&B purists would argue that this new wave of R&B is watering down the genre. What are your thoughts on the new sound?
Music as a whole is in a good place. There are purists in every genre. You have hip-hop purists, rock purists, so I don’t think about it too much. If people understood that they don’t have to like everything, they would feel better in life. I’m not a fan of polka music, but you’ll never hear me tryna push onto people that I don’t like polka music. I say that to say that if you like something, further understand it. If you don’t like something, you shouldn’t give it spotlight in the universe. They’re just saying, ‘Hey, I’m not sure what this is. I’m not sure if I like it, but I’m gonna say I don’t like it.’ When people are uncertain of new things and they’re used to the norm, they’re a little hesitant. But to those people, I say listen to what you like and we’ll all be fine.
Yesterday was the 15th anniversary of Aaliyah’s death and her music still influences sounds today. That whole vibe, including Static Major, who you’ve credited as a major influence, continues to seep into today’s music. How are you still influenced in your music and your personal life?
First of all, his image was pretty cool. He looked thugged out, but he was a nice guy, well-spoken songwriter. That’s why I got the braids. I just liked his approach and how he could seem menacing to the unsuspecting eye but was just a songbird who people looked up to. On a personal level, when he made that Pretty Ricky album [Bluestars], that was the first time I could appreciate him because essentially he got me laid [laughs]. All those songs were so fun and raunchy but had that soul to it, which is the element he brought.
Hearing him and his camp gave me a sense that I did not just have to do one thing. You can look one way, sound another way, feel a different way and everybody in that camp rapped, sang, produced, wrote. And it’s not like they were skipping genres. They understood that music is music and it’s universal. Whether you’re rapping, singing, playing guitar, it’s pretty much the same thing. That is something that I adopted in my approach to songwriting.
The first singer I ever heard rap was Missy Elliott. A lot of people don’t know, but most of her earlier work was singing. She was in a group doing a lot of singing stuff. My dad’s girlfriend’s son worked for Coca-Cola doing jingles. He gave me this Missy CD one day––I guess they were working on a jingle or something––and it was a bunch of R&B stuff. It just sounded so wavy, and I saw Timbaland was making the beats. Mind you, I wasn’t making music then. It just sounded really cool to me. At the time, I was listening to Bone Thugs and Crucial Conflict and Twista, so I always heard rappers sing. To me, I didn’t know there was a difference between singing and rapping. All rappers do is sing faster and singers rap slower. That’s why Chris Brown raps so well. Trey Songz raps so well. Those guys can rap cause those guys can sing and write.
You said there may be an original track with Static coming soon. Is that still in the works?
This producer I work with produces for Beyoncé, J. Lo and Selena Gomez, and he happens to know Static Major’s family. He was able to obtain some unreleased vocals from his family, so I’ve heard it. He put it in a beat before and it sounds crazy. It’s one of those things that I’ll probably approach a little more when I’m established. Maybe [around] the second project, because I wanna make sure I do it right. When all eyes are on me and I create a Static Major feature, if that happens, I want to make sure it’s represented right. I wanna have the best producers, the best writers and the best engineering on the track before I give it to the world.
What’s the producer’s name?
I cannot say.
With more eyes on you with every release, how are you adjusting?
When I was in college, I dated a girl that used to work for Birdman. She was like a video model so I would always kind of be around certain people and situations. Tiara Thomas is one of my friends from college and she got famous and blew up. We did a lot of work together early in my career and she was the one who actually convinced me to not only rap but to incorporate singing and other aspects, so big shout out to her.
I like to just record and watch Seinfeld when I’m not recording. When I have to do something other than that, it’s an adjustment just because my intention isn’t just to be known. I just want to make good music. I think when the money comes and I start spending it and buying shit, maybe I’ll answer this question a little differently. But my life is still regular.
Are you tired of comparisons?
The reason people in Toronto fuck with me so heavy is because in their eyes, they realize I was one of the first artists post-The Weeknd who got into that sound pretty early. That’s why you’ll never hear a Toronto artist or person criticize me in that respect because they know I was in the trenches, doing this early before these guys were these guys. I can’t tell you how many DMs I would get from poppin’ producers telling me, ‘Yo, you’re the real guy.’ I don’t know what would make them say that but people aren’t stupid. So, I don’t get mad at comparisons as long as the music’s good that you’re comparing me to, I have no problems. I’ve always been me and I leave it up to the audience to do their research and question if their favorite artist has always been who they are.
Okay, so I can’t end this interview without asking… Are you single?
I work so much that.. I don’t know. Somebody might be dating me, but I’m single. [Laughs]