Chicago Spotlight: A Conversation with Sean Ali

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DeShawn Ali, better known as DJ Sean Ali in the world of House Music, is a DJ/Producer and Label Owner.  His genuine love for music started at an extremely early age. Just like most families in the city of Chicago, he was introduced to a variety of genres of music in his household. When his father was not around, he would take his dad's albums, read the credits, and listen to the music from start to finish. There was blues, jazz, gospel, R&B, soul, rock, new jack, and everything under the sun. It did not matter to him because he just simply loved music across the board.  DJ Sean Ali was introduced to house music as a teenager in the mid-80's. Out of all the genres of music that he loved, there was something about House Music that he became fascinated with and passionate about. What he loved was that it had a taste of every type of music all rolled up into one. He became influenced by legendary house heads like Lil Louis, DJ Les, Danny Calco, Nu-Wave, and Alley Cats.  He has a great respect and admiration for what they brought to house music and for what they were willing to pass on and share with him. He went from spinning at block parties to skating parties, school parties, block parties, to family reunions, you name it. His name soon started to become the buzz in the house music world of fellow DJs. Soon after, he would be sought after for weddings, and booking gigs at major venues like Zentra, Betty Blue Star, Funky Buddha Lounge, Smart Bar, Prop House, China Club, and Jun Bar. He thinks of himself as a stress reliever for the public. His skill has taken him to many places as well. He has traveled to places like Detroit, Fort Lauderdale, NY, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic. He is also highly respected by his peers as well because he has taken his craft to new heights and he is constantly expanding and giving back the way others gave to him. 

To date, Sean Ali has multiple chart topping releases beyond "Sacrifice, such as "Still Standing" with co-production by Terance James featuring Thea Denee, "Electricity" remix off the Soul Element EP, featuring Sheree Hicks, "Hypnotic" EP featuring Sheree Hicks, including a bonus track called "Magic", "Dream Come True with co-production by Terance James Featuring Sheree Hicks, "Miles Away" EP and "Green Light" featuring Sheree Hicks which made top 20 on the soulful charts, "Present To Win," Featuring RaShaan Houston, "Love Is In the Air" Remix, produced and written by Sean Ali and Sheree Hicks, featuring vocals by Sheree Hicks as well, all available on traxsource.com. Recently, along with Sheree Hicks, Sean was co-writer of Sheree's new release on House 4 Life records, the title track "Celebrate" which also had remixes by Doc Link of Liberate Records, J. Caprice, and Milty Evans.  

I had a chance to speak with him about his various projects and the evolution of his career. 

Black Widow:  Can you tell me a little bit about your background and what part music played in your life growing up?

Sean Ali:  My father was good friends with a lot of musicians and singer/songwriters from back in the day.  He would take me to the record store or the musicians would come to the house.   I was immersed in old school music because it was always played in the house. My dad loved to play his records.  I wanted to learn more about the artists that I was listening too, where it came from and who produced it. I was always into it. That was the beginning of my musical journey.

Black Widow:  I totally relate. My grandparents were jazz musicians performed with some of the greats at The Apollo and Club Delisa and we used to have a ton of people at the house!  My grandma would host parties at her home with some of the singers and dancers and I would listen to their stories. It was fascinating. 

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Sean Ali: Right, Same here. There were times Jerry Butler, the “Chi-Lites”, some of The Artistics, and others were at our house too.    I had no clue who they were until I was older.

Black Widow: So your dad was an avid music lover?

Sean Ali:  Oh Yeah, he was also a photographer and worked with George Daniels at all his events too.    My dad was right there taking photos and show them to me… Keith Sweat, Run DMC, LL Cool J. He would be at concerts and parties all the time.  I couldn’t help but like music.  My dad is my role model, so I take after him in many ways.

Black Widow:   So when did you discover house music?  What drew you to it?

Sean Ali: Good Question!   So, Byron Stingley stayed like a few homes down from me and Lil Louis lived around the corner.

Black Widow:  Oh wow!  I had no idea!

Sean Ali: Yeah we are all from the same neighborhood.  When I would listen to music at home, I always listened to both sides.   I noticed the B-side would have a groove to it. So when I would go to parties in the neighborhoods or go around Lil Louis crib (they’d play music in the back a lot), and it would be the same music I heard at home but the B-side versions.  I’d go home and dig through all the records that had a faster tempo on those B-sides and listen to them all.  A lot of my friends in the neighborhood didn’t really go to house parties because they thought it was strange.  You know we were more…you know… thuggish!  [LAUGHTER]  The house scene was preppy then!

I knew I liked the music so I decided to check a party out and I remember walking in and watching how they were dancing, how they got along and interacted with each other, how they played the music and I was sold! 

Black Widow:  Do you remember the first party you went to?

Sean Ali:  Wow! Yeah, it was at a friend’s house. He was deep into house music. He was a few years older than us. That’s when I really experienced it.   It was around 1984/1985 and I was maybe 15 years old.  I heard every disco song ever at his house.  I was bugging him, who sings that? Every week he’d play music at the house and I was like a student taking notes, writing down the artists who were on these records.    As far as some of the larger parties, I think my first party was at the Bismarck.  I used to go there on a regular. I was too young to go to Sauer’s and stuff like that.  I know folks say they were there but I’m only 45 you know what I’m saying?

Black Widow:  Same here! I was too young to go to any of those spots!

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Sean Ali: Yeah I wasn’t even trying to get into those parties. [laughter] I’ve been to COD’s before, but I never experienced The Underground and Original Warehouse and stuff like that, but my uncles and aunts would go. I was going to the Bismarck, The New Warehouse, the Alcatraz and Elbo Room. 

Black Widow:  So when did you did you decide you wanted to DJ and how did you learn?

Sean Ali:  About 1990/91, my neighbor was DJing and we lived across from each other. My bedroom window faced his bedroom window. DJ Boxx used to live upstairs from him.

Black Widow:  Get out! All of y’all lived around each other! That’s crazy!

Sean Ali:  I moved to Forest Park and in our building, we would always hear someone playing house music and we would be like who is that? All the DJs were in the city on the southside and we were in Forest Park, so it was unusual to hear house music like that.  I asked a friend who he was, and he told me his name was TJ and I said, I need you to introduce me to him.  I wanted to sit down with him.  Even before that, I would go to friends’ houses and try and mess around a bit on equipment but back then people didn’t want you messing up their turntables’ trying to scratch and do tricks like that.   I had my own equipment, but I needed someone to show me how to get started.  I had a friend named Lester and Dannon who would show me the ropes but I was more comfortable with TJ because he was younger, around my age. I’d go to his house and chop it up with him and borrow records and get a feel for it.  I still wasn’t serious about it though because I was too busy going out.

Black Widow:   Enjoying the parties and music!

Sean Ali: Yeah I was enjoying it more than I was playing it back then.  I got serious out it late 90s/2000s.  I stepped away from it for a while and got into hip-hop a bit then I started promoting parties; like Ice Bar and stuff like that.  The money was good but the gangs, drug money and stuff like that took me away from it.  It went a different direction and I had to leave it.   After I left hip-hop, I didn’t know where I wanted to go.  I knew I didn’t want to go stepping every night but I still loved that club scene. 

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Black Widow:  Yeah, you didn’t want to deal with all that extra stuff. I get it.

Sean Ali: Yeah and when I got married, I moved up north and started hanging with Chris Underwood and feeding myself back into the game a little bit but because I was up north, I was at Betty’s, The Note, Ventra, Red Dog…

Black Widow:  See that’s where I was going because I was living up north back then too in Wicker Park.  So I didn’t start coming south to party until about 10 years ago. Everything I did was north back then.

Sean Ali:  Same here!  I think the Dating game was the first time I think I was at a south side spot.  Maybe around 2007. 

Black Widow:  So when you got back into it, who were some of your influences?

Sean Ali:  Oh Wow…whew!    I know people always say Terry Hunter but he was always one of my favorites. I loved his taste in music, how he produced music and how he selected and played music. It was always on point and I was never disappointed on the dance floor.  Vick Lavender as well, He was another one.  Vick was going to give you that soulful journey.  Dimitri from Paris, Lil Louis, Gene Hunt, Gene Farris, Lil John, Grant Nelson, Masters at Work, Joe Clausell…it’s so many, I hate to feel like I’m missing someone. It was dope because everyone had their own style and people weren’t trying to be like one particular person.

Black Widow:  When did you decide to get into producing?

Sean Ali:  About 2006 I think.  I knew how to program and produce because I was doing hip-hop tracks.  I would always buy equipment, beat machines, keyboards anything that was coming out.  I remember a friend was telling me I could make house music on this equipment. So, I started playing around with it and creating sounds, but I never put it out or took it seriously per say.  You know I never asked a “Terry Hunter” to check it out or a “Farley” to listen and/or play it. 

It wasn’t until I started to see the opportunities to get gigs dry up a bit that I realized I had to be more than a DJ.  To get that visibility as a house artist, you really had to be multi-faceted.  I knew I had to step my game up. DJ, Producer, Label owner…I had to at least do two out of three. I wasn’t even thinking about a label yet.

Black Widow:  So the label came after?

Sean Ali: Oh yeah, I had to get the producing down first.  I hooked up with a friend who was already doing great music.  We decided to link up and create “Sol4orce” around 2009. That’s around the time we linked up with Sheree (Hicks). We started working on some tracks but we would only give them to a few people. We were still nervous about giving them to bigger name DJs at the time.   We didn’t know if the music was strong enough yet.  We realized we needed some vocalists. So, we got Lafayette Parker to do a song for us in 2010 and we tried to shop it to a few labels. I wrote the song and I remember telling my brother, we got a hit! This a runner right here!  [LAUGHTER]

I remember telling folks “yo… when you see Terry (Hunter) or Ron (Carroll), let em know I got some heat!” [LAUGHTER] Thinking they are going to call me or approach me like “Hey I heard you got some heat, let me hear it” …. [LAUGHTER] That’s not how that works!

Black Widow:  Nope…not at all! [laughter]

Sean Ali:   I remember asking a cousin to find Sheree on Facebook because I wasn’t even on Facebook at the time.  We’ve known each other for a long time. She wasn’t even thinking about doing any house music back then!

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Black Widow:  Right! That’s what she said when I interviewed her!

Sean Ali:  Yeah, I reached out to her and told her what I was doing, and she told me what she was doing.  I had to convince her that she could do house music.  I told her about the sound that I was hearing in house music and sent her YouTube videos of Stephanie Cooke because I knew she would like her style and she loved it.  So, I sent her a track and the next day she sent over the vocals and that’s how I got my first song with Sheree Hicks.  It’s so dope because it was a song I was confident in too. 

Recording with Sheree was so intimidating initially because she was already out here doing her thing with some big names.  I was on pins and needles.  I used to travel with her back in the day so I knew she worked with some big name cats and here I am in a studio apartment with her and engineers that were scared to mess up. [laughter] "you push the button…nah you push the button"…

No one wanted to mess up so I stepped in. I remember after it was done, she said, “I don’t like it, it doesn’t sound right. I was like WHAT!  [laughter] I knew I could learn from her. I couldn’t’ act like I knew everything or like I was too good to learn. She knew people that would help me and teach me. I knew we had something special and she took me to another studio with professionals and hooked me up with a cat named Chris and he really knew what he was doing. The way he recorded her vocals left me speechless.   

Black Widow:  That’s dope that you understood that I’m new to this and I can still learn...

Sean Ali:    It was a great experience and from that one song, I was ready to get it out there.   I was confident now and I had Sheree Hicks so I was feeling myself.  I remember running into Stacy Kidd at Green Dolphin and telling him about it. I sent it to him and he took a listen and loved it.  He wanted to put it out and that was it after that.  It was called “Sacrifice”.    Sheree had this subtle and smooth voice and I knew the music was going to be different from what other producers were doing. 

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Black Widow:  What made you decide to start a label?

Sean Ali:   I got tired.  Once I found my niche, I was doing songs daily. We were building our catalog and we were tired of sitting on it.  We wanted to get it out there. When you go through a label it’s always, “I can’t do it for three months, or change it or I don’t like it” and then if you do put it out, you aren’t getting paid what you think you should. It got to the point where I had to learn the business side and start to handle that. 

Black Widow:  It was the way you controlled your art…Artistic and financial control?

Sean Ali:    Yeah I wanted to know what I made, what I sold, and what’s happening with this music especially on the financial end.   I wanted to see the numbers.   That was one of the reasons I decided to run a label but I wasn’t sure how to go about it or even if I had time to do it.  Distributors, artists, contracts, other people’s business and stuff like that. I met up with RaShaan Houston and then I met Munk Julious and we clicked right away. He was about business 100%.  He was like start that label. 

Black Widow:  You had to learn the in’s and outs of the business…not just the creative stuff?

Sean Ali:   Yeah absolutely.  Sheree and I were at the same place at the same time. We met Josh Milan around that time too. I would send him stuff and ask for advice and he said the same thing…start your own label.  I had Munk, Sheree, and Josh telling me the same thing, so I was like, yeah, it’s time.  He had just started Honeycomb Music and he had someone call me and explain it to me.

Black Widow:  I love that! So many people act like we don’t share information and that we don’t help one another with different endeavors but that really isn’t the case.  It’s a lot of people that want to see everyone make it. 

Sean Ali:  Exactly!

Black Widow: That says something about the quality of people you keep around you.

Sean Ali:  Yeah Definitely.  Once I did and started getting paid…that was it.  I was all in! That’s how “Sounds of Ali” was born.  It’s been 4 years and counting now…

Black Widow:  And you have no regrets do you?

Sean Ali:  None at all!  I love it.  It’s just so dope because people ask me my opinion and want to shop music to me from all around the world. I love it!  It means a lot.

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Black Widow:   Are you partial to a particular sub-genre of house music?

Sean Ali:  This is hard. I love good house music…just good music. It doesn’t matter to me. It can be deep house, jacking house, techno house, soulful house…it just doesn’t matter the sub-genre.   If it’s good, it’s good!   If it’s produced right, with great sound and melody, dope artistry, it can happen in any genre in house music. I just love good house music. 

Black Widow:   I love that answer! That’s it!

Sean Ali:  I do produce a lot of soulful house music because I love a lot of jazz sounds. That’s part of my background. That’s what I grew up listening to but I can groove to anything as long as it’s good.

Black Widow:   Good music just moves you!

Sean Ali:  Look, I’ve seen you dance before and your reaction to music.  So I know you get what I'm saying.  I see what music does to you and I see how connected you are to the music as an artist and as someone who just loves music. I saw you watching Dawn (Tallman) perform and you were in tears!

Black Widow: Yeah I had a moment!  Like For real!!!

Sean Ali:   Good Music…that’s what it does!  That’s power!   People try to be cool but I don’t care…it does something to you.

Black Widow:  I’m drawn to music that moves me.

Sean Ali:   That motivates me!  When I see that, that motivates me to go back into the studio and get to work.   I want to touch the heart and soul of people. I just enjoy all of that and it’s not just soulful house that does that.  That’s just good music. It affects people in so many ways; even with the spoken word…it touches people.  For example, I love Ursula Rucker…

Black Widow:   OMG! I can’t believe you mentioned her!  She’s literally my favorite modern day poet! I’m a huge fan of hers.

Sean Ali:  Yeah she’s dope.  I just dig her vibe!  You know It can be done and what you and (Dee Jay) Alicia did with “Rough”, you guys took it up a notch and gave it more energy with that strong afro vibe and those drum beats.

Black Widow:  Thank you so much! That’s so dope of you to say! What’s coming up for you in 2018?

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Sean Ali: Monk Julius has joined the production team. You can create better with more hands!   We are working a lot together on various projects, including some Afro tracks to show our versatility.  We also are working with Tasha Larae from Arrested Development along with DJ Pope out of Baltimore on a track coming out on Quantize.  We have Lester Jay coming out too.   We got a couple of tracks out now on Traxsource.  Actually, we have one coming out the same time as you guys.  Jaleal Meadows is an artist under Chic Soul Music and we did two songs off of his EP that’s coming out on the 20th. 

Black Widow: That’s what I love. It’s so much new music coming out of Chicago right now. 

Sean Ali: I love it when we all have releases coming out. It’s good for Chicago. Terry (Hunter) got joints, Mike (Dunn) got joints, Greg (Winfield) has a #1…

Black Widow: If you look at all of the artists just right now from Chicago on the charts,  it’s so different but it’s all dope!

Sean Ali: Right! Everything!! Soulful, Jackin, Afro, we are out here!

Black Widow:   Yes we are creating…Chicago is creating good music!  

Sean Ali:  So much and we all make the city shine! That’s what it’s all about!

Black Widow:   What does it mean to be a Chicago artist and represent your city?

Sean Ali:   Wow that’s major!   It means the world to me.  I’m going to represent Chicago anywhere I go.  You have to understand that Michigan Avenue used to be full of record labels back in the day.   It’s so many musician’s from here who impacted the music world from so every other genres too.    Chaka Khan, Curtis Mayfield, The Chi-Lites, The Stylistics, Frankie Knuckles, Ron Hardy…it’s so many!   You can go on and on!  Chicago is not just the mecca of House Music, we are a huge part of Music Culture!  I feel like a millionaire being from Chicago…our history is just so rich!!! Growing up in the house scene, you have access to people who are considered legends. We have access to so much talent here! It’s a blessing.

Black Widow:  Indeed we take for granted the quality of musicians and artists we have here and the access we have to them. That’s something that you don’t get anywhere else!  Thank you so much for speaking with me and I wish you nothing but continued success and growth!

Sean Ali:  Thank you! It was my pleasure. I love what you are doing with the site and with your music. I can’t wait to check out “Fenix”!

Black Widow: Thank you! I’m really excited about the song!   I appreciate that!

Thanks for checking out my latest interview with a musical creative from Chicago! I hope you enjoyed it. 

Until next time, see ya on a Dance Floor!

Black Widow

 

You can find Sean Ali at the following:

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