Amahl Abdul-Khaliq (AF THE NAYSAYER) is a driving force in Louisiana’s often overlooked electronic music community. In the late ‘00s, he waded into a scene dominated by dubstep and helped steer the ship toward deeper waters. He founded Dolo Jazz Suite, a loose collective of like-minded producers across coastal Louisiana who burst the sonic barrier that seemed to be preventing anything electronic (aside from EDM) from gaining traction here. Now he’s working with local middle and high school students at Upbeat Academy, teaching the basics of music production so they can push this burgeoning scene into the future. AF’s last project, Armed Wing Battle Unit, was a video game concept album, paying homage to the arcade instrumentals that soundtracked his childhood and adolescence. In March, he’ll release PARTS: Act I, the first in a three EP series.
I met AF at the new HEY! Coffee Roastery on the Lafitte Greenway. He arrived shortly after me, rolling in on a mint condition, electric blue Bianchi fixed gear racing bike. He left it unlocked, resting on a rack in plain view of the café’s garage door-style glass window, and entered, slightly out of breath, decked out in full riding gear. We discussed a few of his many interests, which include BMX, pro wrestling, competitive bike racing, competitive gaming, non-competitive gaming, plant-based living and—when he has time—music.
You’re from California originally, right?
Yeah, I moved to Louisiana in 2000.
Was that for school?
Family issues. Complicated story.
But you did end up going to McNeese University in Lake Charles, right?
Yeah. That’s where I started the AF THE NAYSAYER project.
Can you describe the scene out there? I imagine it’s a lot different than the scene in New Orleans—not quite as much experimental music.
Actually, you’d be surprised. There’s quite a bit. Maybe not so much on the hip-hop side of things like I was coming from, but people were definitely fans of Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin. I found people in small towns like De Ridder appreciating Aphex Twin. You never know who likes what and where. I definitely found people who made experimental music. It just wasn’t so much of a scene when it came to playing music live. But there’s this band, when the word was (((sound))), and I got my first show through them. They found my Myspace music page and reached out. They were like “Ayy, we like your music! We’re doing some cool things. We’d like you to play a show with us.” And I was like, “I don’t know how to do that.” That’s kind of how I got jumped into playing live. At that time, it wasn’t AF THE NAYSAYER. I was making beats for my friend who’s a rapper, and I brought my friend’s DJ setup to play those shows. At the time, I didn’t know how I was gonna play instrumental music by itself live. I didn’t know what to do. It wasn’t so common like it is now. This was in 2009.
How did those first shows go?
They went really well. I knew how to promote. It’s way easier to promote a show when you’re in college. We had a lot of people at the shows and lots of them really enjoyed it.
When did you make the move to New Orleans?
I was living in St. Charles Parish for like six months—not New Orleans, but I was getting down to the city since like 2010-—and then I went back to Lake Charles. I’ve been in New Orleans permanently since 2014, but I’ve been in and out of the city since I was in high school.
You’ve built a scene of producers around you since you got here with the Dolo Jazz Suite.
That was a necessity. Before me, you had Justin Peake [performing as] Beautiful Bells, and he had a series called Merge Music that focused on improv music of all types, but he made beats too. So my first glimpse of that scene was very much through Justin. He was the only producer I really knew who was playing shows, and he was on Moodgadget, which is a subsidiary of Ghostly International, so I was like, “Wow, look at this guy!” He definitely was a mentor to me. But then I kind of took over with Dolo Jazz Suite by necessity. We had a pretty big presence in Baton Rouge at one point, and then I just kinda got burnt out at the end. And now that there’s a new crop of producers, I’m just trying to curate them all together, like, “Hey, there’s a scene for you to play beats live and know other producers.” It’s very much an online-based community, so I’m trying to be like, “Instead of being online, let’s be person-to-person and talk and have a community here, like when people think of the Los Angeles scene in 2008 and 2009.”
Do you feel that there’s more of a community now than when you got here?
Well, there really wasn’t an actual showcase or scene. There was Headset, which was basically like [Los Angeles’] Low End Theory here, but I think it was too ahead of its time. It was more about the dubstep and EDM here at that time; and it still is, oddly enough. So Headset would have very low turnout at their shows—barely anyone would show up—even though they would bring out people like Jonwayne and Dibiase, all those L.A. guys. They weren’t ready for it yet. Lo-fi wasn’t a term. It wasn’t marketable. If that was going on now, it would be a different story.
So you’d say the scene has grown here since then.
Yeah, I would say so. For sure.
At Upbeat Academy, you’re training a new generation of producers. Can you walk me through the instruction process a little? It must be tough to teach a younger age group something as abstract and technical as production.
Definitely if they’re in middle school, it’s really tough. It’s hard to keep their attention. Some people lose interest because music production is so technical. It can get really nerdy. Some kids just want to press buttons, or they want me to make the beat for them. A lot of the kids we get aren’t necessarily producers. They’re rappers or singers that want to learn more about production. But then we have some students who are super producers. Like really, really good. I’ve seen kids go from not knowing how to work any of the programs to crafting some really good tunes.
What programs are you working with?
We primarily teach in FL Studio because a lot of the students have experience with it, and it’s real easy to get the demo version, so it’s very practical. But we also have Logic and Ableton and Maschine. Those are the main four.
Is it a traditional classroom setting, or is it more of an interactive workshop?
It’s a little bit of both. When we get new students, it’s very instructional—more of a classroom setting, but very laid back. I’m not requiring people to take notes. I don’t give tests. It’s all about the knowledge. At the end of the day, I just want the students to be able to work on music without my assistance, just asking for help if they need help. I want them to be that comfortable. I don’t want them to be using the instructor as a crutch.
“You can eat healthy on the road. It’s a misnomer that you can’t. It’s a lot easier when you’re with other people who have similar lifestyles, people who are willing to be patient and say, “Hey, instead of eating at this gas station, let’s pick up some things from the grocery store. Let’s not go for fast food.'”
Let’s talk about your music. When did you start messing around with production?
It started like this: I got some scholarship money, and I was like, “I want to learn how to be a turntablist.” So I got two turntables and a mixer. I didn’t realize, at the time, how important it is to have a really good mixer. You can have OK turntables, but you have to have a really good mixer. So I got this setup, and I learned real quick that I could only progress so far with a crappy mixer. I went looking for a better mixer, but it cost too much money. Later on, my friend who was into turntablism showed me a video of this guy making a beat on a drum machine. The producer’s name was nick tha 1da, and he was programming a SP-1200. I saw that video, and I was like, “That’s how you do it? I think I can do that. I want that.” I looked it up, and it was like $1500 at the time, so I decided to get in contact with the guy and say, “Hey, I don’t have enough money. I can’t afford something like this. What do you suggest I do?” He told me to use FL Studio. At the time, the FL Studio suite had a reputation of really bad electronic music, and hip-hop was so closed-minded, like, “If you don’t have an MPC, it’s not hip-hop.” So I had that in my head, but the guy was like, “That’s nonsense. 9th Wonder of Little Brother, this is all he uses. That’s it.” So I was like, “Wow!” and I took to it. After he told me that, I just started crafting, from 2007 until now.
What were you listening to back then, when you were just starting up?
When I was first starting to make beats, I listened to a lot of different music: Carl Craig, People Under the Stairs—big influence from Thes One—and then of course Pete Rock and J Dilla. There was a lot of older school hip-hop that my stepdad would listen to like Special Ed. There was a producer named Howie Tee who was a big influence on me. And the rest of it, I guess, was video game music.
You’ve clearly got a lot of 8-bit and video game influences in your sound. What are some of your video game soundtrack greatest hits?
There was this obscure Japanese import game called ChainDive. It’s a PS2 game with a really great soundtrack. Then you’ve got Chrono Trigger, which is a classic. That’s everybody’s go-to answer. There’s so many good ones. This arcade game called Mystic Warriors has an awesome soundtrack. Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike is a really good one. There’s so many, too many to name.
You were big into Street Fighter as a kid, from what I hear. You used to travel and play in tournaments, right?
Yeah, that was my past life, for sure. I took it really serious. But then, in 2005, I was like, “I gotta stop this. There’s other things I want to do in life.” I didn’t really like the scene as much. There’s a lot of toxic masculinity in that scene. And I got super fat, so I was like, “Wow, maybe I should ride BMX instead of playing Street Fighter.
You were trying to get into pro wrestling at one point too, right? Is that still happening?
No, not anymore. I’m a little jaded from talking to some of my friends who are actually pursuing it. It’s some of the same complaints I have with the music industry. I don’t want to get into something that’s exactly like music because that would just make me go crazy. So right now, all the energy I had for wrestling, I’m focusing that on the track, the velodrome, racing. That’s why I have the fixed gear bike.
It’s a beautiful bike.
Armed Wing Battle Unit was clearly a video game concept album. I had a pretty clear idea in my head of the type of game it would line up with. What’s your vision of the game that music is meant for?
It’s a shmup—a shoot ‘em up—a vertical shooter like Galaga. I guess you would say the subgenre is a “bullet hell” shooter. There’s lots of projectiles floating around, and you’re maneuvering around, shooting things up. I came up with that concept in 2010. I had just finished working on the soundtrack for a video game called Mecho Wars, and I wanted to do something else. I didn’t want to hustle for opportunities. It’s really hard to work on a video game that actually gets released. So many things you work on never get released, so I just had the concept of a game in my head, and I scored it. And the songs I still wanted to sit down and listen to, I put those on the EP.
Have you ever thought about getting that game produced?
I would love to, but one of my producer friends, Derek Scott (who goes by PRIME8 PIMPIN)—this dude literally disappeared for three years trying to get his game up and running. So I see how hard he’s working with his game, and I don’t think I would want to do that unless I had a team of really good people, especially a programmer. That’s the hardest part: finding a programmer who wants to give up their time.
Right. Everyone’s got game ideas but not many people can actually program.
It’s easy to find the art. It’s easy to find the music and the sound. But getting a good programmer to stick with you is really hard.
Since that EP, you’ve mostly been putting out remixes of other people’s music. You’ve worked with a pretty eclectic mix of artists. How do you choose tracks to remix?
I just hit up the artists. With Phony Ppl, I reached out to their manager and said I wanted to do a remix of “End of The niGht.” I pestered him for like two months, and I think he was so impressed by how much I kept following up with him that he eventually got the stems to me, and I remixed it. But yeah, I generally just reach out to the artists. With Boyfriend, she reached out to me, but that was the only case where someone reached out to me like, “I want you to remix one of my songs [“Company Ink”].” And since it was the first time someone was asking me to do it, I was like, “Alright.”
What do you look for in a track that you’re remixing? Do you just hear a song you like and go, “Oh, I want to remix that,” or do you hear something lacking and go, “Oh, I could make a better version of that?”
It might sound egotistical, but I’ll hear something that I might not like—I’ll take a capellas of different songs that I may not like—and make it a way that I can actually like it. That’s kind of what a remix is, making it appeal to a different crowd… With “End of The niGht,” I chose that because they had a music video for it. Not the most artistic answer, I guess.
You’ve been touring a lot these past couple years, including backing up a lot of other artists. Besides the obvious benefits of cash and exposure, what have you gained from doing instrumentals for other artists on tour?
Most of the time when I’m on tour, we set up a system where we all split everything individually and equally. So I never look at it as being a headliner or co-headliner. We’re all the same. I never really thought of it in that way.
But in terms of playing instrumentals for another artist’s set.
I’m not sure I understand.
Like when you were touring with Charm Taylor, doing her instrumentals.
Oh, OK. I just looked at that as a job. Charm hired me to back her up, and I was gonna do my best to back her up. But it was weird because she looked at me like, “Yo, you are Charm Taylor,” whereas I thought I was just a hired gun. We were doing photos and I was like, “Oh, I’m supposed to be in the photo too? This is you, though.” So that was a little awkward, but I love the fact that she’s showing all the love. I guess I treat it the same way as if I was playing my own show, but I also realize that I’m not the face, and I’m OK with that. I understand that.
You spend a lot of time on the road, and you’re very outspoken about self-care and clean living. How do you keep that up on tour, especially when you don’t have a big starting budget?
You can eat healthy on the road. It’s a misnomer that you can’t. It’s a lot easier when you’re with other people who have similar lifestyles, people who are willing to be patient and say, “Hey, instead of eating at this gas station, let’s pick up some things from the grocery store. Let’s not go for fast food.” I usually just go to Marshalls and Ross looking for processed food because they have all the hoity-toity gourmet food but discounted pretty cheap. And I bring a food processor so I can have my smoothies with me. I get it set up in the green room or wherever I’m staying, and that helps out a lot.
What are some of the lifestyle changes you’ve made in the past few years, and how do you think they’ve affected your well-being?
End of 2015, I was so burnt out on music because I was touring for like two years straight. I was like, “I’m done with music! I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t even want to make a beat.” So I moved in with my best friend, Ahmed, in Los Angeles. We BMXed for like a month straight. He lives a plant-based lifestyle, so by being around him—being in close proximity, eating the same things—I was detoxing. While I was out there, I was invited to a party where I wasn’t eating clean. I ate some chicken or something and got food poisoning, and I told myself, “Never again.” I devoted myself to living a plant-based lifestyle after that because I realized I was sick and had problems with breathing through my nose. A lot of those ailments were cleared by living a plant-based lifestyle.
“The abstruse function [AF] is my take on a problem that can’t be solved because it’s changing all the time. It doesn’t have a definite answer.”
You’ve got a lot going on in your life: producing, teaching, touring, biking, etc. How do you find a balance between all your ventures and maintaining some degree of health and sanity?
I just focus on certain things more than others. Each thing has a time and place. Right now, for instance, I’m not really creating a lot of music, but I’m doing the business and promoting and ticketing stuff—curating, finishing up projects. I’m in that mode, and that frees me to do other things. I’m focusing more on training for racing too. I think you can only really focus on three things at a time, and after that, you start deteriorating in those things. If you try to do four things at a time, they all suffer. That includes being in love, in a relationship, your job life, your hobbies. I try not to do multiple hobbies at the same time.
What are your big three right now?
Being a good friend and a good lover, racing, and pushing the music business side of things. BMX has taken a backseat.
Let’s talk about the new EP. Are the new tracks more in tune with Armed Wing Battle Unit or more hip-hop oriented?
It’s definitely weirder. I did a track, “Honey Vinegar,” that starts off as this minimal dance track with very experimental sound throughout, and then it slows down; and Darby Capital, who has the most gritty lyrics, starts rapping over the beat. So already, that track is nothing like Armed Wing Battle Unit. There are three rappers on this EP and one instrumental.
With all the influences you blend into your music, one would think your sound would be a lot busier, but it’s pretty clean and pared down most of the time. What attracts you to minimalism?
I think anyone’s art is a representation of themselves, whether you’re projecting that or it’s true to yourself. And I don’t like clutter. I like cleanliness and function. I don’t like clash, so I’d like to think that comes out in the music, that everything’s enough, just enough.
Do you listen to a lot of minimalist composers?
Yeah, I’m a fan of Steve Reich and some other classical minimalism, if you want to bring it there. Jan Jelinek is one of my favorites, and his tracks are very stripped down and have very repetitive loops. “Honey Vinegar” is very influenced by him.
Despite the minimalist approach, you seem to have a competing desire for complexity. Even your name is mysterious.
It’s a very convoluted name, for sure.
AF stands for “abstruse function,” right?
What do you value about keeping some parts of yourself in the dark, not showing your whole hand?
I’m not even trying to be that way. I’m not like, “Man, let me not let anyone know about me.” That’s just how it came out. The name AF THE NAYSAYER represents how I feel about myself and how I project out towards other people. The abstruse function is my take on a problem that can’t be solved because it’s changing all the time. It doesn’t have a definite answer. I can be very stoic; and a lot of the time, people have a hard time trying to judge me or figure me out. I’ve had people say, “You’re like an enigma,” so I took the word “enigma” and came up with “abstruse function.” The “NAYSAYER” part deals with my punk background and roots. It’s not about just saying no to everything. It’s about not being afraid to speak out against an injustice. It’s about not putting up with bullshit.
AF THE NAYSAYER will play a VIP set at BUKU Music + Art Project on Friday, March 22. PARTS: Act I drops in March via Sinking City Records. The entire three-part series will eventually be released as a double vinyl set. AF will hold an album release party on Friday, March 29 at Gasa Gasa with support from Cavalier, Charm Taylor, and Mykia Jovan. Follow AF on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and stream his music on Soundcloud and Bandcamp. For more info on Upbeat Academy, check out upbeatacademy.org.
top & bottom photos by Lenore Seal