The Self-Education of AF THE NAYSAYER
Meeting AF THE NAYSAYER (Amahl Abdul-Khaliq) is like being introduced to the hero of a graphic novel. You might not have heard of it yet, but it’s on the radar of all of the people in the know, and it’s about to get really big. AF stands tall at 6′ 3″, but his enviable dreads, which perch atop his head like a signaling device to an alien race much cooler than you, bring him up to about 6′ 6″. If he were from a graphic novel, he’d be the last DJ in the big city, holding out against the apocalypse to bring the last bastion of humanity the beats they want. Dressed from head to toe in vintage and wearing glasses that imply a solidly confident degree of intellectualism, he’s also quick to break out a brilliant smile and an easy laugh. This same balance of style, substance, and humor comes across in his music as well, which is a blend of the funktastic, the bass-heavy, and the groovy. It’s refreshing, it’s soulful, and it will definitely get you moving, whether it’s in full-on dance mode or just easy head-bobbing as you survey the scene of the illest, chillest party in town.
AF’s new album, The Autodidact Instrumentals, Vol. I (2014), was released on his own label, Self-Educated Vinyl. Unconventional education is a theme in his work. He makes it a priority to teach others the methods he uses for creating music, running trainings and workshops at the Upbeat Academy as well as the Moog Factory and Store. His sound invites exploration, leading you in and then enticing you to go deeper into the details until you get lost in them, finally pulling you out and back to see the whole. Songs blends elements from diverse genres seamlessly into unique pieces that consistently invite you to get your groove on. The beats are luscious, filled with character and depth. There’s an inherent quality of optimism in the beats, which are grounded but playful and always bouncy. AF draws from both East and West Coast influences. He grew up in the Los Angeles area but moved to New Orleans several years ago. I feel all of these strains in his songs, which possess the buoyancy of a carefree L.A. summer and the dark ease of a New Orleans night. This is apparent from the album’s first track, “R-96,” which opens with the sounds of a drum beat and a man’s lilting voice and then steadily builds into a funky expression of joyfulness grounded strongly in hip-hop beats. Sounds are occasionally broken and interrupted, but always come together and coalesce into an immersive, organic whole.
“Status,” the next song on the album, builds on a similar theme, and sounds cascade through a rainbow of beats. One of my favorite songs, “Shock,” comes next. While it’s in the same tone as the songs that begin the album, the winding riff that comes in after the first few bars adds an additional layer of texture that compels me to sit back for repeated listens. Songs like “Fine Tune (Ghost Remix)” possess a haunting quality that comes through the droning atonal sounds that rise and fall in the background, shading in mysterious, dark overtones (reflected in the titles, which read like little puzzles themselves and don’t have a clear connection to the sounds). There’s a complexity here that is deeply satisfying but also enigmatic, making the album good for almost any mood. “Post” is an example of this, mixing old-school funky synth sounds with a satisfyingly forward-focused edge. The longest song on the album, “Sunday,” actually does, for me, have a perfect title. Its higher notes, rounded by deep bass and the sounds of clapping, inspire me to actually take this album on the road, windows down, volume blasting. It’s a weekend song to save for your perfect summer day road trip. And now that the weather is warming up, there will be even more chances for you to bump it–along with the entire album.
The Autodidact Instrumentals, Vol. I, is available on Bandcamp. AF just started the Radiant Light Tour to promote his new album, and it’s taking him across the Southeast with fellow New Orleans musicians Metatron Sic-Hop, a bumping hip hop/electronic outfit that takes no prisoners through its deep beats and poetic, critique-laced rhymes. I caught up with AF at Asheville’s One Stop, where he played as part of an evening of groundbreaking electronic acts.
Ali: Tell me a bit about your background in music and in life more generally. What’s your story? How did you get into production?
AF THE NAYSAYER: I played trumpet very briefly, but it didn’t last too long due to the fact I didn’t own an instrument. I was never interested in marching band, but was interested in playing an instrument. I didn’t get into production until 2007. I always wanted to but never knew how to go about it. My friend Neiman shared a video of Nick Tha 1da explaining how to use the multi-pitch feature on the SP 1200. I got Nick Tha 1da’s information, and he basically mentored me. I started out wanting to make People Under the Stairs-esque productions. At that time, I wanted capture the vibe of Thes One production with my own flavor. Most of what I know musically is self-taught. I trust my ears first and foremost.
Ali: You have some eclectic influences, like G-funk producers and video game composers. DJ Battlecat is really funky and danceable, for example, while Yuji Takenouchi, from the bits I listened to, is very emotional, a bit melancholy, but can also get very jazzy. I feel like I hear a lot of jazz in your work, too. Can you talk about your various influences? How do all of your influences come together in your music?
AF THE NAYSAYER: I honestly just want to keep it real and just say, “I’m black, it’s rooted in my ‘self’” but, I don’t know—I’m a sucker for complex chords and ostinato lines. I’m honestly more into the fusion of jazz and r&b than traditional New Orleans jazz. The fusion of disco and funk is great; I’m fanatical over Peter Brown and Patrick Adams’ catalog. I’m also a huge fan of the Blue Note Records and ECM’s record catalogs during the 60’s and 70’s, and some of my favorite artists are Weldon Irvine, Gil Scott-Heron, and Don Blackman.
Yuji (aka TechnoUCHI) is one of my favorite video game composers but I’m even more of a fan of his various house and techno aliases than his work in game music. Also Battlecat, in my opinion, is the face of the West Coast G-Funk sound. His music embodies the sound of how I remember Los Angeles. I don’t know where my experiential taste comes from exactly, I just know I enjoy the work of Tom Dissevelt & Kid Baltan, as well as Silver Apples.
I guess, really, I’m influenced by a lot of producers. Dimlite’s music pushes me to become more emotional and creative with my music making process. Jan Jelinek changed the way I think about sampling, and Mr. Dibiase influenced my live show. If I had to define it, I’d say the one thing all these artist have in common is that they are all “funk” in my eyes.
Ali: What are you listening to right now that’s exciting?
AF THE NAYSAYER: I’m currently listen to OG Maco’s Breathe EP, and also this producer who’s currently based out of Asheville (North Carolina), named Nick James. His music is phenomenal, and makes me question my production. I get the same feeling listening to Nick’s music as I did when I first stumbled upon Dimlite’s catalog.
Ali: How has Southern culture (Southern hip-hop culture and Southern culture more generally) influenced your music?
AF THE NAYSAYER: Being in Louisiana for so long now, and hearing underground classics like U.N.L.V.’s “Drag Em N Tha River,” subconsciously put Mannie Fresh and KLC in my brain, whether I liked it or not (laughing). Even though I never lived there, I always was able to relate my taste more toward the Houston style of production, because it was more similar to the laid back g-funk I was exposed to as a child in Los Angeles. Like in the school of West Coast production, a majority of the instrumentals coming out of Houston in the mid- to late-90’s used interpolation which included fat synthesizer bass lines highlighted with a grown-up and sexy vibe, adding contrast through the gangster-boogie edge that defines Houston’s culture.
Currently, hip-hop as a whole is influenced by DJ Screw’s chopped-and-screwed mixtapes, and Memphis and Atlanta paved the way for this current TRAP production movement that’s been going on for the past couple of years. I actually make trap influenced production; it generally tends to favor the qualities of a mid-90’s Houston track than one of the Atlanta vibe.
I feel like it’s impossible not to have been influenced by the musical stylings living in the south introduced to me. Hopefully you’ll hear my more southern influenced production soon. I created a remix for Boyfriend (New Orleans artist) which, production wise, is the perfect example of the influence living in the Dirty South has had on my sound.
Ali: Can you talk about living in New Orleans now, after Katrina? I read that you’re from L.A.—what motivated you to come to Louisiana, and New Orleans in particular? It’s obviously always been the place for jazz, blues, etc. Where does your sound fit in?
AF THE NAYSAYER: I can’t really talk about living in New Orleans before Katrina because I wasn’t living there. I was living in Lake Charles, LA at the time, attending college. Lake Charles is closer to Houston, so I would end up in Houston in my college days more often than in the city of New Orleans. When I would visit New Orleans, I was generally in the outskirts (Metairie/Kenner), going to the arcades, playing fighting games competitively: things that were not in any way related to music production.
Most of the damage from Katrina happened in areas near New Orleans I never frequent much. The biggest difference, in my eyes, would be that predominantly black neighborhoods have been becoming less black since Katrina. Gentrification is a real issue here; the lower 9th ward is currently being targeted by the movement. I’m not a native here, so I don’t feel as if I’m the one who should be speaking about it. I’m honestly a just traveling vagabond, making a temporary home out of this great city.
Any who, I moved to Louisiana because of family. Now, I’m sticking around here until the Baraterria region erodes into the Gulf (of Mexico). Coastal erosion is no joke (laughing). I started to feel at home here around 2010 being a part of Justin Peake’s Merged Music Series. It was definitely an outlet for music rooted in the left field. Nowadays, we have Dolo Jazz Suite, Couches, and the Progression Music Series. I’m kind of all over the place here still trying to find my voice in this city, but I do enjoy the history and rich culture New Orleans has to offer. There are so many talented musicians living in this city, it’s almost overwhelming at times. It’s for sure the most un-American stereotypical city in USA. A lot of parts of the city remind me of the Caribbean.
Ali: Do you use any actual instruments in your recordings? Is it all produced/sampled? Do you ever do tracks with vocals?
AF THE NAYSAYER: A majority of my music is made in the box, but I do record keyboard parts from time to time. I personally don’t sing or rap, but I have had rappers featured on my music (Myka 9, Bluechan, Luke St. John, etc.). I rarely sample from vinyl nowadays. I’m honestly more interested in re-creating sounds and composing. When I do sample, I tend to take the Jan Jelinek approach: organic synthesis. I have used a jaw harp in some of my music before, but it hasn’t been heard publicly. I hope to start collecting instruments and incorporating them in my music, but I move around too much to be able to collect anything.
Ali: I just listened to “Imagerial Denouement.” What an amazing track! How did that collaboration with Myka Nyne work? Did the music or the vocals come first, or did they build on one another? What vision did you guys have going in?
AF THE NAYSAYER: I originally made the instrumental as a tribute to Nujabes. The title of the song is a play on his song “Imaginary Folklore.” When I completed the instrumental, I thought it would be nice to have Myka Nyne rap or sing on the track. I contacted him on Twitter, and we exchanged a handful of e-mails. The rest, as they say, is history. The only direction I gave to Myka was to take into consideration the title of the song. Overall, it was pretty simple collaboration.
Ali: There are lots of references to self-education and self-growth in your music. Your EP is The Autodidact Instrumentals, the record label is Self-Educated Vinyl. Is this something that’s been important for you and your process?
AF THE NAYSAYER: There’s only so much one can learn in the flawed American school system. From my experience, my teachers in primary and secondary school were more concerned with making sure students remembered material to be covered in federal and state-wide standardized tests than actually deciphering the material we were supposed to be learning. There are many variables that play into this matter, one of them being that schools with higher test scores generally get more funding. I can go on for days criticizing the school system, but there should also be parental responsibility taken into account in the field of making sure that children are learning critical thinking. I was fortunate enough to be raised by my step-father, who was always and still is a wise man. He never went to college, but he’s an extremely intelligent man. He’s, for sure, the force that influenced my thirst for knowledge. Knowledge of Self!
Ali: What has the experience of starting your own label been like?
AF THE NAYSAYER: I never really wanted to start my own label, to be perfectly honest. I did it out of necessity. The biggest reward is control. I control my content 100%, artwork, release, date, etc. I can also help out my friends and help them release their music, which is the biggest reward of having my own label. It’s a place where I can bring other musicians who are like me together, and give them a platform from which they can express themselves without having to jump through the hoops.
Ali: Can you tell me about the artwork for the “Shock” cover? It’s such an interesting image.
AF THE NAYSAYER: It’s a concept piece about morality by my friend Sam Bridgeman that he re-branded for my album artwork.
Ali: What’s next? Any new music in the works?
AF THE NAYSAYER: Let’s see…I’m touring with Metatron Sic-Hop for the Radiant Light tour this month. I’m releasing a music video for the song “Status” off the Autodidact Instrumentals Vol. 1 [above]. I have production credit on Mega Ran’s upcoming album, and I believe my featured song will have a music video, so stay tuned for that. I’m also gearing up to release my follow up EP, Armor Wing Battle Unit, in August or September of this year. In between that, I have various official remixes that are going to be released though out the year.