Baba Ali has never wanted to live his life in a straight line.
It's a journey that has taken him from New Jersey to London, but it's also one that has broadened his songwriting, absorbing all manner of elements.
As a teen, he matched his Nigerian heritage against frenetic No Wave shows, or sitting indoors dosing up on hip-hop culture courtesy of NYC’s Hot 97.
Hitting Europe, he was equally at ease immersing himself in Berlin's techno scene and London's network of DIY communities, pulling elements of each - and more - into something vivid, and unique.
New album 'Memory Device' is out on August 27th, constructed over lockdown alongside Hot Chip's Al Doyle.
Bubbling with colour, his extra-dimensional pop instincts tie the album into a neat whole, one that feels both familiar and groundbreaking.
Ahead of its release, Clash caught up with Baba Ali to discuss his cultural pursuits...
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Being unable to move around as freely in the past 18 months has made Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown an addictive watch. For a pretty straight-forward food and travel show, it's actually quite disorienting because of how Bourdain’s adventures are almost frantically shifting between locations and cultural contexts - sometimes within just one episode. At one point you can be watching Bourdain visiting a near abandoned train station in the Congo or just having a meal with a family on the outskirts of Rome.
And then next he is touring a wine cellar in a Billionaire’s club in Shanghai or eating a hare with Paul Bocuse in Lyon. | love that he highlights those strange but actually very common juxtapositions in this way. Most travel shows are pretty one dimensional and try to present an airbrushed reality. Parts Unknown is almost going out of its way to be comforting and discomforting in equal measure. | think that’s what makes traveling the world so appealing, and why touring is such a privilege.
My guitarist Nik has a penchant for stories about pretty rough and nihilistic (normally male) characters. He gave me Ham On Rye by Charles Bukowski to read on a tour once, for example.
A favourite of his is the Martin Millar novel Milk, Sulphate & Alby Starvarion. It is set in 1980s South London and it sounds pretty manic. The main character thinks the Milk corporation has put a price on his head, and he is being pursued around Brixton by an assassin. I think what is enjoyable about these sorts of novels to someone like Nik is their ability to still find humour up against the backdrop of dangerous events or squalid living conditions.
I will admit he has managed to sell me on this book, but he also gave it away to someone he met from Brixton at his local pub - and so I will have to wait and see if it ever gets passed back around to me someday.
I find it impossible and a bit nerve-wracking to name just one masterpiece, because the tastes of Baba Ali are really scatter-brained, so here's four selections... Each are beautiful, strange, urgent and ear-grabbing.
Sly and The Family Stone - 'There’s A Riot Going On'
I'm not the first and I surely won't be the last to shower praises on this record, but I| had to include it on the list because it's a necessary reminder of the beauty in staying true to your rawest and freakiest self. At the surface, the songs on this record are firmly rooted in soul and funk traditions, but when you listen closer it's immediately apparent that the way Sly recorded and mixed it totally breaks from any rules or logic, and yet it works. It's not easy to pull off, but I think the trick is to trust your intuition no matter what.
The Kills - 'No Wow'
Me and Nik are huge fans of the Kills, and actually hanging out and working with Jamie Hince is still something we pinch ourselves about from time to time.
Perhaps unsurprisingly we learned that Jamie is a huge Sly Stone fan, and he actually found and used one of Sly’s mixing desks for this album. In a way, No Wow takes that same raw recording approach from Sly and gives it a thrilling electric shock. When I first heard this record, | was instantly hooked on The Kills. The first three albums by them have a real “trilogy” vibe and in my books they are all underrated.
Tyler the Creator - 'IGOR'
I am always intrigued by Tyler the Creator's evolution as an artist. I think 'IGOR' is a moment where | felt he really pushed himself up to a new level, in terms of songwriting, production and fearless storytelling. Also the sequencing of the album is so tight and it flows effortlessly with no need to press the skip button. I return to this album a lot already.
Alan Vega - 'Alan Vega'
Alan Vega had a real influence on our debut album ‘Memory Device’. Al Doyle is also a huge fan and we'd spend a few boozy late nights in the studio listening to Suicide tracks, as well as his solo stuff. Alan Vega’s solo work is incredibly haunting. This album sounds like Elvis Presley in a dark, dingy basement and all but a few blinking lights on the ‘ELVIS’ sign have burnt out. Alan Vega’s persona as a frontman both in Suicide and as a solo artist is definitely something I reference a lot on stage for Baba Ali, I think almost unconsciously. Perhaps Vega’s ghost is haunting me. That'd be nice...
Or if you're in a pinch, go with 'Madonna' by Madonna.
I think Downtown 81 is a really essential film because it transports me to my favourite cultural moment in New York. All the lines dissolved between different creative scenes and everyone involved was just trying things out, and looking to push beyond the conventional. There was no “right” way, just “your” way, and that attitude created this situation that birthed so many new and radical forms of expression.
The protagonist is the undeniably stylish Jean-Michel Basquiat, and although the plot is a bit sketchy, the film saves itself in how it follows the artist as he floats around a derelict downtown Manhattan, flipping his art, checking out Fab 5 Freddy’s early hip-hop jams, shuffling to the wacked out funk of James Chance, spacing out to avant-garde punk poetry, and at the end he has a surreal encounter with Debbie Harry.
Does the mute button count as a gadget? Yes?
Perfect. The mute button.
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'Memory Device' will be released on August 27th.
Photo Credit: William Spooner
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