Detroit has long had a penchant for producing talents who go largely unnoticed ... until you suddenly look up one day and see they've taken off somewhere else. Think of Amp Fiddler, posters plastered on subway walls in Europe but barely turning an eye at the local dollar store.
This could well be the future for local producer, songwriter and actor Malik Alston, who's been heading his own personal revolution for 10 years now, churning out seven albums, four EPs, more than 30 singles and various collaborations during that time. He's traveled to Japan, where he distributes his own product. And, among other things, he ran the Pocket, an eclectic jump-off that ran Wednesdays at Downtown Fifth Avenue and was one of the better Wednesday night affairs at that club last year. The event drew noted artists, including MonicaBlaire and Dwele. And he's accomplished all of this from his base and headquarters — a modest home studio on Tuxedo Street. That's in Detroit. On the west side. In other words, in da hood.
"So many people don't know about me," agrees Alston, sitting at home with his wife Badriyyah Wazeerud-Din. She's his "memory," he says, helping him recall his own broad résumé. "But I'm now eager to get the masses to know more about Malik Alston and the talented people who surround me."
That isn't to say that Alston is completely anonymous within the local music community; in fact, he's already widely respected for being a multiple artistic threat.
Alston's first attempts at singing were in school choirs, and he claims gospel music as his original roots. He recalls singing in the hallways of his mother's house — the same one on Tuxedo that became his when she passed away four years ago. Decades later, this love of gospel would lead him to work as a background singer and session performer with such gospel heavyweights as James Cleveland, Mattie Moss Clark, the Clark Sisters, the Winans, Donald Vails, the Hawkins Family, and Thomas Whitfield. He would also appear as a featured vocalist with gospel and R&B artist Ortheia Barnes, as well as singing with Rejoice Community Choir and his early vocal groups, Voices of Joy and Love. Those roots also served him well in his acting career, as he's toured as a lead in several gospel-based theatrical plays.
But his first recording didn't come until 1997, an album titled Malik's Mind, released just a year after he formed his first band, Planet Pluto (which included Dwele as a member), where he enhanced his skills as a keyboardist. His latest solo project, This Music is Life, was released three months ago in Japan, though it's available in the United States via independent distribution outlets like Dusty Grooves, CDBaby.com, Disk Union (Japan) and Niche Distribution. Alston has produced all of his own solo material.
"Malik is very, very, very talented," says vocalist MonicaBlaire, who appears on the new album. "He's one of those people who handles himself in a very unassuming way. And you don't know until you see him onstage, and then suddenly, you're like, 'Wasn't he the guy just standing here next to me?'"
Due to his musical breadth, Alston has never put down roots in one style of music or in a formula, like an R. Kelly. He's interested in experiencing sound and pushing boundaries, fusing soul, jazz, hip hop, funk, house and, of course, those gospel roots. His lists of influences run a gamut from Marvin Gaye to Jimi Hendrix to Ella Fitzgerald to Thelonious Monk.
If being such a jack of all trades weren't enough, Alston has also delved heavily into the spoken word field, producing several poetry and music events at the Detroit Institute of Arts, which led to him performing with the EmRuop poetry troupe and in concert with the Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron and Jessica Care Moore.
But his vocal prowess seems to be his strongest calling card; he's even studied vocal music (in addition to engineering) at Wayne State. His singing abilities led to a stint as a support vocalist for old friend Dwele's overseas tour two years ago. He's been well received at several of the annual Winter Music Conferences in Miami. And then there was the stint in Japan, where his star has certainly risen a lot higher and faster than it has in his native land. This foreign love fest was triggered when a song he produced for the Beat Down Sounds compilation caught the ear of a Japanese DJ. He was invited to do a club date, performing sets that lasted hours, during which he programmed sounds and performed them on the spot.
"That's one of my highlights," he says of the Japanese gigs, "performing in front of an audience where 75 percent don't even know what you're singing, but they're feeling you. That lets you know that there's soul in your music. 'Cause soul is undeniable. It's like winning the gold medal."
Alston's forays into acting — including major roles in the plays Where Is My Father? and Sunday Morning — could raise the question as to whether he's given his audiences ample opportunity to get to know him through any single identity. But in an age when a lot of artists get into music just so they can get into other ventures, it's not unreasonable to recognize his true identity as multi-faceted. And, again, this is true of his music itself. His new This Music is Life mines both soul grooves and soul searches. Tuxedo Sessions, from 2005, was a jambalaya of house, jazz and funk. And Dinner Music, from 2001, was a piano-driven semi-live jazzy opus, recorded at the Hotel St. Regis on West Grand Boulevard.
All of this activity has made him a very busy, if not wealthy, man. But maybe there is some gold on the horizon. Last year, he recorded the music for a commercial spotlighting the American Red Cross that featured actor Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson as well as members of the Detroit Pistons, Red Wings, Tigers and Shock. And his latest album is doing well overseas, even though he's not quite certain how many copies he's sold. Money, he says, will pave the way for more projects. But the main goal is to make music and create new sounds.
"A lot of people say you're not successful until you have a million dollars," Alston says. "Well, it's a whole lotta rich people that's unhappy. I think success is based on defeating failure. To me, success is when you enjoy what you do, get paid for what you do, and have a happy home.
"I'm pretty happy."Khary Kimani Turner is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org