I’m turning the tables a little bit on today’s O.K. Show, because while my guest certainly contributes to the scene as a musician with his work in the Background Noise Crew, Ali Elabbady is primarily known as a music writer and radio host; he currently works for Reviler and Greenroom Magazine, and had a long-running show on Radio K called The Beat Box.
I was very eager to talk to someone else who does what I do — who tries to categorize, document, analyze, explain, and otherwise offer their two cents about music to the world. He also makes his own beats (under the name EgyptoKnuckles) and has collaborated with a lot of different artists over the years, so I knew he would have a unique perspective to share.
What I didn’t realize is that was true in more than one way.
In the conversations that led up to this O.K. Show episode, Ali and I started talking about his experiences not just in the music community here, but his experiences living as an Arab-American and Muslim in the Twin Cities. Ali had seen a series of tweets from one of my colleagues in the MPR Newsroom asking for input on the Muslim experience in Minnesota, and that’s how we started talking about not just his experiences in working with music but how his religion and ethnicity have intersected with his career.
I hope you enjoy getting to know Ali — and hearing his contagious belly laugh — as much as I did.
Andrea Swensson: This is exciting for me. Because you know how they always say how you hear someone on the radio, and you’re not sure what they look like? For me, I’ve been reading your writing for so long that it’s exciting for me to just hear you speak out loud.”
Ali Elabbady: Well, thank you.
I’m excited to learn more about you, because I’m familiar with your writing, and with the work you’ve been doing lately with Greenroom Magazine, but I would just kind of like to go back to your beginnings. Tell me a little bit about your background, like how did you come up, and how did you get into this crazy music world?
Oh man, so… my parents came to the country, they emigrated here from Egypt, back in about the mid-70s or so. My dad arrived in the country first, and then my mom came shortly thereafter. Both of them had prestigious jobs back in Egypt, like my dad was a mechanical engineering professor for the city that he lived in back in Egypt. So my dad did mechanical engineering, and my mom did payroll for the district of the city, so that was really interesting… and then they both came here to work blue-collar jobs, like my mom did retail for years. She still does now. And my dad’s now retired, he was working at a box factory for most of my life. I know that sounds like incredibly boring, and almost like a Simpson’s episode.
So I was born and raised in St. Paul for the first 13 years of my life, and then after that, my parents moved to Roseville, and I went to the U, and immediately I was just interested in doing something in radio, because I kept on hearing stuff like KDWB, and if any old Minnesotans remember WLOL-99.5? Or Rev 105, or you know, that type of stuff. I was raised heavily on that radio. And all I knew was I want to be the antithesis of what WLOL and KDWB were. Because I was just like, “I want to play more cooler music than these guys are playing, because they’re just playing the stuff I hear on BET and MTV all the time.”
So you were attracted to more alternative music?
I was attracted to a little bit of both. Hip-hop was definitely my first love, because like… I was like… 8 years old, and I went to the Sam Goode center in what’s now the Wells-Fargo towers, and the first two tapes I ever bought, before even knowing anything about what an allowance was, I bought De La Soul‘s Three Feet and Rising, and The Simpsons Sing Blues.
To hear a refreshing perspective from like Pos, Trugoy, and Maseo, was just totally a breath of fresh air. So that’s what got me inspired to do hip-hop. Not to mention DJ Jazzy Jeff also produced “Nothing but Trouble” on Simpsons Sing the Blues.
So, when you say that when you heard De La Soul, it made you want to do hip-hop, did it make you want to play hip-hop music, did it make you want to write about it, or how did you want to interact with it?
You know, what was interesting about De La Soul was, I always like the artists that I could peel back layers from, and take away a new thing each time. And so, the first layer of it was that it made me fall in love with hip-hop. The second layer is that it made me fall in love with all these other genres of music.
I’m really interested in how eclectic your tastes are. And you say you go outside your comfort zone, but I feel like even your comfort zone is very broad. You listen to a lot of different kinds of music. What was it like coming up in St. Paul, and then Roseville? Was it mostly white students?
It was mostly white students, for the most part. I think, when I went to Roseville, it had like a 2% minority rate. There were some African-American kids here and there, some Latino kids here and there that came in from St. Paul or something like that. Or else, they lived on the fringes, kind of by Rice Street, or by Cub Foods and stuff like that. I mean, what’s interesting is the one high school relationship that I’ve maintained – the one high school friendship that I’ve maintained, for the most part, is with Adam Garcia. Adam Garcia, better known as Snake Bird. I knew he had a knack for art then, but like to see it fully manifest itself was just amazing. Yeah, we went to high school together. We did “Rapper’s Delight” together onstage.
Yeah. We did. We did it with a high school band. It was actually a multicultural show, because we were part of this thing called the Multicultural Club at Roseville Area High School. And the teacher there – I believe her name was Ms. Jenkins if I recall correctly – she was all about it. And we kept on doing the multicultural show every year. This was kind of like my first year kind of like to actually recommend something and get it, and perform.
That’s what I was always known for, like, especially coming up as a youth, and especially being like, of an Arab-American background. I think that’s something that’s really interesting, is that those two sides of my world don’t intersect. Even when I do music now, or as far as like music critic stuff or like, music production stuff, or DJing, stuff like that, that really doesn’t intersect with my identity. Where, like if I go to an Arab-American gathering, such as a wedding, or like, an engagement for like friends of mine, they rarely know about my music side. They just know me as the guy who likes music. That’s it.
The O.K. Show, Episode 1: A candid discussion on mental health with Charlie Van Stee
The O.K. Show, Episode 2: Mary Beth Mueller and her one-woman crusade against cancer
The O.K. Show, Episode 3: Adam Levy’s devastating loss and beautiful new solo album
The O.K. Show, Episode 4: Irv Williams, the elder statesman of Twin Cities jazz
The O.K. Show, Episode 5: Lydia Liza on empathy, anxiety, and staying grounded in the music business
The O.K. Show, Episode 6: Hard-touring rapper Astronautalis talks about staying sane on the road
The O.K. Show, Episode 7: Mayda on her health and her journey as a Korean adoptee
The O.K. Show, Episode 8: Manchita on feminism, rapping, and her relationship with Eyedea
The O.K. Show, Episode 9: Lizzo on self-acceptance and falling in love with herself
The O.K. Show, Episode 10: Rock ‘n’ roll dreamer Dan Israel comes to terms with his divorce and his health
The O.K. Show, Episode 11: Claire de Lune on anxiety, imposter syndrome, and finding herself through music
The O.K. Show, Episode 12: A conversation with Greg Grease on self-care and community building
The O.K. Show, Episode 13: The evolution of Holly Hansen