Amahl Abdul-Khaliq was raised in the arcade. His knowledge of obscure Japanese video game composers is as deep as his love for the games themselves. Before his career as electronic producer and Gulf South scene maestro AF THE NAYSAYER, the one-time aspiring game designer (just one problem: "I hate programming") traveled the country competing in Street Fighter gaming competitions, earning a reputation for playing "weird, low-tier" characters.
His latest release, Armed Wing Battle Unit, is a fictional video game soundtrack for an imagined generic spaceship shooting game fit for a 1990s console or arcade box in deep suburbia. "As soon as you hear it you know exactly what it is," he says. An opening 8-bit-inspired chirp signals Player One before squiggly synths and bass lines bounce along a sleepy beat. "The idea was supposed to be generic, but it was my twist," he says.
Abdul-Khaliq counts video game soundtracks among his influences, listing Japanese composer Yuji Takenouchi, whose lush '90s techno template threads throughout AF THE NAYSAYER, as a crucial gateway to his music, alongside Washington D.C. hardcore punk.
"My music's a little strange," he says. "You can say I'm a hip-hop guy, but that's not necessarily true. Throw me on a hip-hop show and a lot of people might be scratching their head. Throw me on an EDM bill, half the crowd's gonna scratch their head. ... I can kind of chameleon my way on to other sets."
AF THE NAYSAYER's 2014 release The Autodidact Instrumentals Vol. I condensed his signature skillset into a G-funk sample pack — dripping with '80s-influenced airbrushed futurefunk, effervescent steps into or out of a dream, and late-night driving music built around his meditative layers of textures and silky synthesizers. Adbul-Khaliq stresses the importance of his music as an extension of his personality — at times calming and relaxed, and at others, wandering and daydreaming.
"I also like being ambiguous. I don't like people knowing exactly what's going on. I like being cryptic. I don't know why," he says, laughing. "I like to be like that musically, too — it's not quite exactly that, it's not quite exactly this. That makes it like, 'Hm, interesting.' I'd rather be interesting than 'That's just OK.' 'Interesting' is 'I might need to listen to that again.'"
Abdul-Khaliq grew up in California and landed at McNeese State University in Lake Charles before moving to New Orleans, where he's become a nucleus for a network of bedroom producers and electronic artists. "I've been putting in work," he says. "It's nice to be credited as an ambassador. ... I don't take it for granted."
His Dolo Jazz Suite showcases — which The Buku Music + Art Project added to its 2016 lineup — glimpse a diverse scene spanning the Gulf South, linking hip-hop-inspired producers with their peers in power electronics and noise.
"Some people ask me for help, a lot of times I help people get their first show, or give them the confidence to put their music out there, get out in the community," he says. "We're bedroom producers. A lot of us are introverted; we don't tend to go out. There are so many people in this city who make music and you'd never know. They never speak out and talk about it."
Abdul-Khaliq also encourages younger artists-in-the-making as the lead instructor with Upbeat Academy, an electronic music production program for at-risk high schoolers. Abdul-Khaliq helps develop the curriculum and teaches basic music theory, keyboard playing, songwriting, beatmaking and mixing — "a crash course in the world of music and making music on the computer," he says.
"We're dealing with kids who are really hip to technology, and we're teaching them how to make it on their own," he says. "I'd felt a bit conflicted at first. ... I'm teaching kids, to me it's a form of entertainment. Shouldn't I be teaching them math? Science? ... I realize I'm teaching these young men and women critical thinking skills, teaching them how to think for themselves, teaching them how to take their idea and take steps for it to become reality, and I'm building a confidence. ... They may be meek or shy, not personality wise but when it comes to using their voice creatively.
"I'm trying to get them to believe in themselves. ... Sports aren't for everyone, you know?"