Sitting outside a Mid-Town Belvedere coffee shop on a warm October afternoon, Abdu Ali Eaton was dressed a lot like his music sounds. He wore beat-to-hell pink-and-yellow Adidas high-tops, black sweatpants that scrunch at the bottom and a vintage Cosby sweater that peaked through a buttoned-up oversize camouflage jacket.
It's a messy, couldn't-care-less-what-anyone-thinks collage that defies categorization, yet somehow works in the 23-year-old's hands.
When talking with Ali, who records simply as Abdu Ali, it quickly became apparent he is adamantly uninterested in following any trend — fashion, music or otherwise.
"I don't want to sound like nobody else," Ali said, punching his fist. "That's one of my main goals. It's kind of crazy; a lot of these rappers want to sound like ASAP Rocky or they try to sound like Kendrick Lamar. I don't understand. Why do you want to sound like other people?"
As he has made clear on his two mixtapes (November 2012's "Invictos" and May's "Push + Slay"), Abdu Ali does not sound like ASAP Rocky, Kendrick Lamar or any other rapper who has even sniffed a Billboard chart. He describes his music as a mix of noise, punk, Baltimore Club and funk, but it has rapping and ambient vibes, too.
In a short process, the man who grew up in central Baltimore's Orchard Mews Apartments has become the city's most transfixing new artist. From his chaotic, danceable music and surreal videos to his electric live performances, Abdu Ali is a creative force making must-hear and must-see art that is rooted in Baltimore but aims for global acceptance.
"A lot of people would be scared to say this out there, but I'm not going to be scared," Ali said in his Charles Village bedroom, a few days after our first conversation, between sips of hot green tea from a jar that once held pasta sauce. "I do want to be respected by the biggest, most talented artists that I look up to. I want my name to come out of their mouths. If anything, I'm striving for international respect as a musician. Not fame, not mainstream."
When discussing his music, Ali boldly talks with confidence, but he grew up "this shy kid who didn't really say anything." Ali, who is gay, can vividly describe being teased and bullied in elementary and middle school. He remembers a peer frequently pointing at him while singing the Jay-Z song "Girls, Girls, Girls." He was called "faggot" for declining to play in a neighborhood football game. Ali wonders now if he was being overly sensitive, but knows these moments have stuck with him for a reason.
"I know it's serious because I still remember these things at 23 years old and I still feel some type of way," he said.
Things improved when Ali attended the magnet high school Baltimore City College, which he describes as "very open" and "free-spirited." The change of scenery was the catalyst Ali needed to discover who he truly was.
"That's where I started to grow as me. That's when my personality came out. I built confidence in myself," he said.
He went on to attend the University of Baltimore, where he is set to graduate this spring with a bachelor's degree in creative writing. Ali mainly expressed himself through poetry until January 2012, when he recorded his first song, "Banjee Musick," an ominous dance track produced by Baltimore producer Schwarz. He adds that he was lost, in a "real dark place" when he finally decided to write it. "I won't be afraid. I can't be afraid," Ali chants.
Although his only musical background was singing in the middle school choir, Ali says he had always wanted to make music but never had the courage to follow through. He partially credits seeing the success of DDm, a Baltimore rapper who is also gay, for inspiring him to finally record. To Ali's surprise, modest music blogs and YouTube commenters responded positively to "Banjee Musick," which encouraged him enough to create his first mixtape, "Invictos."
Ali played his first show in March of this year, and in the same month he traveled to Texas for the South by Southwest music festival. On the last day, Ali played GayBiGayGay, a festival-within-a-festival described as "a yearly celebration full of queer music." Standing before about 300 people, his biggest audience by a large margin, Ali knew music was now his No. 1 priority.
"When I did that, I was like, 'I can't stop,'" he said. "It felt so good. People was feeling it."
Fully committed to music, Ali shifted his attention to his second mixtape, "Push + Slay." He considered "Invictos" an announcement of his arrival — an introduction of sorts — but the follow-up had to be more raw, aggressive and abrasive. His sources of inspiration came from the soundtracks of the nights his family played Spades together: the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Ready to Die," Lil Kim's "Hardcore," Three 6 Mafia's "Lord Infamous" — albums obsessed with power, respect and hustling at all costs.
"A lot of the '90s hip-hop albums was about survival of the fittest. Social Darwinism and all that," Ali said. "I wanted to contribute to that scenario and put my own perspective on it. Like, 'Now I'm about to tell what the [expletive] I want, how I want and what way I'ma go and get it."
"Push + Slay" is Baltimore's "Yeezus," an uncompromising album that is unafraid to be ugly, forceful and harsh in the name of impassioned deliverance. "Mad Ambrosia" sounds celebratory and utterly paranoid. "Told Em (Pig Wigz) Remix Magahour" denounces law enforcement ("It's very direct: cops, pigs. I don't think they're good people, to be honest with you," Ali said matter-of-factly). "Crye" is his version of a "hip-hop sexual song" where Ali tells a lover their encounter is strictly physical.
He recites "Crye's" lyrics: "Ain't no point in loving a man who running like a bullet from a gun" before adding, "It emphasizes that all I'm thinking about is hustling. I'm not into making love. It's like 50 Cent." He smirks while quoting 50's "In Da Club."
"Bleed," a "Push + Slay" standout, was produced by Baltimore Club producer James Gross, aka James Nasty. Ali's hook echoes the same fortitude found all over "Yeezus": "I'm gonna give you what you need until it [expletive] bleeds." Gross said the pair's studio sessions succeeded because they forced each other to explore sounds they normally shied away from.
"We get pretty heated sometimes. I would always consider it challenging," Gross, 32, of Mount Vernon, said. "With my Club background, I'm way more into this tribal, percussive, guttural, earth-y sound. He challenged me to add more atmosphere and space to things."
Gross says Ali is poised for a national breakthrough because he refuses to compromise his integrity.
"He has a unique vision and he ... makes sure he gives all of him," Gross said. "He's far from the cookie-cutter hip-hop artist right now, where it's about a certain lifestyle and all that. He's like, 'This is me.'"
Ali mentions "Push + Slay's" other influences: Blackie, Death Grips, Patti Smith, the Beatles. While there is no guarantee that elements of those acts will find their way onto Ali's next project, one influence definitely will: Baltimore Club. It was a staple in his adolescence and remains a source of pride. He's a child of drag-performer Miss Tony, "Club Queen" K-Swift and the genre's other unforgettable stars.
"Baltimore Club was probably the No. 1 musical influence in my childhood," Ali said. "I didn't grow up in the best neighborhood, but it was always a way for us to express ourselves. It was our music. We owned it."
Ali wants his music to reach the world, but he will not do it without incorporating his hometown's genre. It's in his DNA, so it must also be in the music's. And he's frustrated and frankly dumbfounded more Baltimore artists don't do the same.
"Me and my friends always talk about, 'Why don't local artists rap on Baltimore Club beats?' It's kind of like they're ashamed of it or something. They're so afraid of being localized, but then they end up sounding like other people," Ali said. "You have to use it. I can hear Magnolia [Projects in Louisiana] in Lil Wayne's early [music]. I can hear New York in Biggie or even Nicki Minaj when she first came out. You can hear it."
Randy Seay, the 22-year-old Cedonia producer known as Matic808, crafted "Push + Slay's" opening track, "Hustle Da Apple." He says "Push + Slay" and "Yeezus" are similar because both push listeners beyond their natural comfort limits.
"His music doesn't sound like anybody else's here," Seay said of Ali. "Some songs, he might be screaming. Then the next one is more chilled out. It's a totally different vibe for a whole new scene on the rise."
Next year, Ali wants to perform at New York's annual CMJ Music Marathon and "big festivals." He also plans to release "Octarine," what he calls the third installment of the trilogy. He predicts "Octarine," named after the imaginary color of magic, will turn his art into his career.
"This is going to be my project that is going to make people pay a lot of attention," Ali said. "It's going to be that mixtape that a lot of rappers did before they got signed."
And yes, the goal is to get signed. At first, Ali's DIY ethic turned him off to the idea of signing with a major label. As his aspirations have grown, he is more open to it. In his words, Abdu Ali is on a mission to "uplift and inspire" the world, and he plans to hustle his way to the mountaintop by any means.
"I will get signed. I'll get distribution, a management team — whatever works," Ali said. "At first I was anti-[corporation]. But no, I gotta do whatever it takes to get where I need to be."