You have sat and witnessed this musically genius’ ideas in some of America’s top films. He was behind the music for Training Day, Brooklyn Finest, Waist Deep, Gun Hill, and many others. Jabari Ali is a trailblazer as a music supervisor. His most recent work, The Equalizer 2, included popular music artists Migos, Tee Grizzley, and more. Ali worked as the music supervisor working alongside the film’s director Antoine Fuqua.
ATM: How do a professional on your level stay humbled each day?
JA: I keep God first and have a wonderful family. When you are behind the scenes there is no need for security. It is really about the work.
ATM: Express the appearance of the string based that led you to pick it up in elementary school.
JA: I’m going, to be honest. I really wanted to do percussion. I played the drums, with the local drill team, and performed at the Watts Parade every year. I was a tenor drummer. I could never really get out of evolving into a snare drummer. Percussion was my love as far as instruments. I was larger than the average boy in elementary school.
ATM & JA: Laughs.
JA: Mr. Miller was my band director. He said, “Hey, I want you to try this string base because no one else can hold it.” This became my instrument. I could carry and log it around.
ATM: Explain the opportunities of working behind the camera.
JA: There is a more longevity with your career. There are sound mixers, music supervisors, composers, post-production supervisors, and sound designers. Post-production is where the magic happens. Young people have a lot of opportunities behind the camera. People have to make it to these conferences to receive the information. It is about the contacts and the relationships you build.
ATM: What did Coach Major Dean teach you about masculinity at a young age?
JA: I went to the legendary high school called Crenshaw High School. We are soon going to celebrate the high school’s 50th anniversary. I will participate in it as entertainment. I will put a black tie event together. He would have been honored if he was still alive. I have so much love for Coach Dean. He was very passionate and coached hard. Coach Dean loved even harder. In reference to masculinity, he taught me that you have to care. You have to care for people and respect them the way you want to be respected. You receive these things from home, but it was applied to sports. He taught me beyond masculinity. Coach Dean was a spirit man, coach, teacher, and mentor. He had a way to get you to understand that you have to do certain things. This can really bring me to tears because he believed in me when I did not believe in myself. He would pick me up and leave if I was not ready. My mother would be at work. I could not really get there sometimes. Coach Dean would say, “I will pick you up on my way to work. If you are not ready, then you are on your own.” He would come and honk. I had to be ready or else it would be a 45-minute walk to school. I was not a gang member. I had to walk through 2-3 different neighborhoods at night to get home. It was challenging. Especially if you are younger and your name is not in the papers. You do not have that pass yet. He would drop us off and made sure we got in. He was also our Dean so you did not want to get in trouble.
ATM: What is your family’s response to you working as the music supervisor on The Equalizer 2?
JA: They are very proud and excited. We are a proud family. My family is extremely supportive including my daughters. We all went to go see the movie together. It was about 40 of us. It was equivalent to. . . wait. What is your favorite sports team? What do you like?
ATM: I like the Steelers.
JA: It is like Hines Ward scoring the game and getting a touchdown. Everyone goes crazy. It felt like that. All 40 people were of family and friends. The credits roll, and your name comes up. The sounds are like the noise in a stadium.
ATM: Do you at all take the chance to sit back and say wow? A lot of times people are so in tune with the process that it makes them not see the magic or the creativeness that is currently going on.
JA: Yes, with this film in particular. Everyone has this wow factor. There were several wow factors with this film. You know when you have that right marriage between scene and music. You can just feel it. You get the chill bumps on your arm. When you lock the music up to the scene it just becomes it. It is magic. This is what I look for.
ATM: Have you ever second guessed yourself?
JA: This is a good question. It is more about making sure. It went from Nipsey Hussle’s Dedication to Kendrick Lamar to Tee Grizzly to Migos’ Supastars. I was making sure we had the best that served the picture and narrative.
ATM: Your job is about combining music and media. How does Jabari pick songs? What elements in creativeness do you look at in a song to pick it?
JA: The song has to enhance the storytelling. It must echo what the director wants.
ATM: What’s a day like for you?
JA: Showing up to the Sony studio. Antoine Fuqua and I have a run through for ten or fifteen minutes. I go in with music editor and go through the music chart. I put up a chart for every film. I go over my Sony notes with him. I go over source music and spotting music. I spend a lot of time spotting different things. I have to make sure the scene starts correctly. These are the creative things you get into. I sit at my desk to call publishers and people who represent copyright from a business standpoint to put together a deal. This is what I think we should offer. I meet with Antoine again. He might what to talk about things musically. The sound editor thought to put Mozart in it. We did not use the piece. I found a rendition of the song out in Italy with an orchestra. It all worked.
ATM: What distinct qualities about you as a music supervisor differs compared to others? What makes you different?
JA: My relationships makes me different. I pride myself on my relationships. This is not just with publishers, artists, producers, and songwriters. I am not afraid to go outside the box to strive for something special with a scene. I just go for it.
ATM: How did you gain respect for people to notice you?
JA: You gain respect as a doer. You can talk but you get respect based on what you can do. My respect for filmmakers is mutual. They put their all into it. I cannot help but reciprocate this.
ATM: Where do you see your career in five years?
JA: It as such a monumental feeling to have the number one movie in the country. This was a first for me. I am proud and grateful for this. I see myself making a transition. My goal is to produce some features and shorts. I have some great projects in mind. One is the Ohio players biopic. I am excited to get back in the ring again with Antoine Fuqua. We use boxing terms. We have the Scarface reboot.
ATM: Jabari, do you consider yourself successful?
JA: There are more things that I want to do. I have considered the things already learned as successful. I really do. There is more to do. They’re not too many people of color who are music supervisors working behind the scene. This shows young people that it can be done. It is a success from this point. I came up during an era without social media and Google in this business. I had to earn relationships. You really had to get out to earn and make these relationships. I still value this today. I got my first start on Training Day. It is 17 years later. One in between was Brooklyn Finest. This is my third time with Antoine Fuqua. The third time is always a charm. Having the number one movie in the box office is equivalent to winning the Superbowl.
ATM: How many failed attempts did you go through to get where you are today?
JA: I have had soo many no’s. I have read so many scripts. I have been up for so many hours and worked so many projects. When you get down to one or two films and they go in another direction. I can name quadruple no’s than yes’. This has been for television shows, films, and documentaries.
ATM: What keeps you progressing?
ATM: Yes I did.
JA: What was your favorite scene?
ATM: When Denzel yelled at the young man about deciding a different route in life other than drugs and guns. You see the intensity in both of their eyes.
JA: So powerful! “Why not me.” “Why me.” “Why not you.” This was heavy.
ATM: What was your favorite scene?
JA: This was my favorite scene. I read this scene out of context meaning the film was not put together but only in parts. This scene made me cry. Denzel freestyled this scene. This was him being himself with this character. Antoine and I both had a bad youth in the inner. He was in the inner city of Pittsburgh and I was in the inner city of Los Angeles at 13. I am passionate about music and film. There are some stories that have to be told. He found a way to bridge the gap between generations. Similar to yourself you can feel the passion. This was important for Antoine. He had to give this scene passion and realness. We had to include Migos’s Narcos. It brings it to a real place. Not only visually, but also what you are seeing. You get the emotion on top of this. You suck all the music out of it and only the dialogue with Denzel. It makes it special and amazing.
ATM: Describe a life without music. What if the outside noise was just music?
JA: There is no life without music because music and rhythm is your heartbeat.
ATM: This is deep.
JA: Music is life. There is no life without music. We listen to music while in our mother’s womb. This is the first music and beat that we hear. When it stops that means life is done.
ATM: Music is something you cannot escape. These tunes come from the streetlights, rain, and the wind pushing your hair back and forth. It is inevitable. Music comes with life once you receive the key to be born. Our voices have just become music.
Music has a way to fill one’s soul. Ali invited us inside his musical mind and agenda once again with The Equalizer 2. This film helped us understand each scene through emotions musically. Ali is currently working in the music department on Fox’s Shots Fired.