The first thing one notices when meeting Ali Dee Theodore, 42, who goes by Ali Dee, is his intense charisma and the passion and drive he has for his work, which involves running his highly successful business, DeeTown Entertainment, a one-stop-shop music factory. Behind closed doors in his high-tech suite of production studios are writers, producers, musicians, artists and engineers crafting diverse music for blockbuster films and TV productions in every genre, as well as for advertising and production libraries. Dee’s a busy man. He’s also had a unique ride to where he is today.
The son of renowned choreographer/dancer Lee Theodore, Dee was surrounded by artistic influences early on. He got his start rapping and break dancing on the streets of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, was signed to his first record deal in 1989 and was soon making music videos and doing stints on “Yo! MTV Raps.” Dee thought he’d made it. But thirteen years and four record deals later, having worked with “pretty much everybody in the New York records game,” he realized he had to figure out another plan that would involve creating music, but offer a more secure lifestyle.
Dee’s entrepreneurial vision resulted in the creation of DeeTown Entertainment, a writers’ collective reminiscent of a modern-day Tin Pan Alley. After DeeTown achieved award-winning success with the Alvin and the Chipmunks series, Dee decided it was time to diversify and provide music for every possible outlet that requires it. Recently, DeeTown produced the certified gold single “Cups” (Pitch Perfect’s “When I’m Gone”) performed by Anna Kendrick for Universal Music Enterprises; has a distribution deal in the works with Universal Republic for his up-and-coming artists and catalog of songs placed in film and TV; has renewed its deal with Universal Music’s production arm “Killer Tracks” for the second consecutive year to produce 125 songs for their production library; and has just completed a writer’s camp hosted at DeeTown studios with Universal Music Publishing/Warner Music Group. “In terms of a company and in terms of our output in songwriting and music production, we are now doing everything that I’ve ever wanted to do,” Dee says, adding that he considers himself “the luckiest guy ever.” From his production studios in DeeTown, the magnetic rapper-turned-mogul shares some of the keys to his success.
1. You started out with a career in hip-hop. What was your transition like when you began writing for film?
So I got off Universal, and I was like, okay, I’m going to be the guy in Hollywood where I’m going to do all the songs. What I didn’t realize was that in Hollywood, every musician and songwriter is trying to get their songs in film and TV. And six months goes by and I’m like, gee, I guess maybe my brilliant idea is not a brilliant idea. And I remember one night getting a call on my cell phone from a 310 number, which, you know, I never got West Coast calls. And I pick it up, and it’s like, I licensed your song in American Pie 2, I’m working on a film, and I need four songs by tomorrow. And I only have $7500 a piece. Meanwhile, I’m like, thank you, Lord. I’m adding it up, that pays my three months back rent and I can go out to dinner tomorrow night. So I go to my friend’s home studio that night. We knock out all four songs, all different genres. They all get approved; they all go in the movie. The movie’s Big Fat Liar, which was directed by Shawn Levy, which subsequently, I did the end title for Night at the Museum and did a couple other movies with him. And that was the beginning.
2. How did you continue that initial success in Hollywood?
So I go out to Hollywood and I realize that the community is basically like 30 people who make a living doing music for movies and TV; it’s a very small community. So I meet them and I start forming my alliances and over the next couple years, it went from being the Head of Music to then the Vice President of Music, then to the SVP of music, then like the President calling me. It wasn’t about the money. It was about here’s the President of Fox Music calling me up saying he needs me to do something for him. And I nailed it. He’s happy because he got something great done for not a lot of money and I’m happy because the president called me. It’s about the relationship. We have a never say no policy. I never say no. My feeling is, you know what, $200 is more than we had 30 seconds ago. So why not create it? It’s creative, and you know what, if for whatever reason it doesn’t go, it’ll go for something, you know, and you’re building your repertoire. And you’re getting better every time you do something; practice makes perfect.
3. Tell us about the evolution of DeeTown.
In 2010, I probably had 10 writer/producers with the company, not all of them in-house. And I started to feel not as efficient as I could be. I also started to feel now’s the time to diversify as we’re on the upswing and as we have all this amazing stuff going on. Now I want to get into other fields. I want to now circle back to records. I want to do music for advertising. And I want to do production library business, creating for everybody who needs music. Now I went from doing music and film and TV to wanting to do advertising, writing for records, developing artists and production library. So everyone thought I was out of my mind because they’re like, you’re expanding three-fold in a down economy… and I’m like, no, no, no, I’m telling you it’s going to work. And it took about two years of hustle and ripping out the rolodexes and asking friends who they know to finally establish the dream of becoming that place where we are legitimately doing every possible outlet that requires music; we now provide that for them.
4. What advice would you give up-and-coming composers and producers?
Do what I do: Go on IMDB or go on Box Office Mojo. Look up the top 30 pictures of the year; look at who the supervisors are … look in the music department. Don’t be a nag; don’t be a psycho. Call them up. Say, are you looking for anything? Can I send you my demo? They might say yes, and you know what, that demo may go in the garbage. Check in with them a month and a half later. Send them maybe an MP3 via email. Be nice and at some point, somebody’s going to hear your material. But you cannot give up. Patience. Persistence. You gotta have drive. And the other thing I’ll say is that you have to let go of your piece when it’s created. You can never treat what you’ve just created as the best thing you will ever create. If so, you might as well stop.
Meanwhile, listen, it’s called music business. Music is for our soul, right? The business is so that we can pay rent and send our kids to school. So you have to find a fine balance between saying, I love this piece of music, it’s really great, but I’m trying to service a client with the best thing possible. And you know what? That piece of music is going to earn you money.
5. Why did you choose BMI?
I was always told and still have the opinion that BMI is younger, fresher, cooler people. And when I signed, I just never had a reason to leave. I just became friends with people. Everybody there, it’s kind of like a family. So it was pretty cool.
6. What is it about producing soundtracks for film that speaks to you?
I believe that writing for film and TV, even advertising, is actually more the essence of songwriting than a lot of songwriters and producers do when they do it for a record. And what I mean by that is, I feel songwriting is supposed to be very visceral and very now; it’s supposed to speak to you. So when we get sent a scene and we need to write a song that broadens that plot line, that carries story, that the viewer is going to feel that emotion as they’re watching that scene, then it’s coming from an emotional place, not a technical place. I’ve always written records and produced things from a feel perspective, from an emotional place. I’ve never written anything or produced anything from a technical place. So everything we do up here up as a collective comes from emotion, feel and organic. We try to learn and understand what needs to be communicated and then we just kind of go.
7. What’s the most satisfying part of your career?
There are two satisfactions. One is winning a challenge. So when I get a call from a big music supervisor in Hollywood and he’s doing Turbo, which is a DreamWorks film, and he calls me up, and he goes, hey, I got your name from Kevin Weaver, who is EVP over at Atlantic, he says you’re the guy. And I go, send me the scene. I see the scene, and I’m like, got it, you’ll have it tonight. Boom. He calls me up the next day, he’s like, the filmmakers love it; one little tweak and it’s in. Boom, done, song in the film. I love that. I love a challenge. I love saying, okay, we’re going to blow your mind. So that’s satisfaction number one. Satisfaction, number two is, hey, to be able to create and write something that comes from your heart and to be able to make a dime at doing that is magic and a dream.
8. Who has influenced you, personally and professionally?
Well, look, my mom and dad are absolutely my biggest influences. My mother was a fighter. And my dad was a brilliant man, amazing inventions and patents and stuff like that. Music wise, I love doo-wop, I love Dion and the Belmonts, I love the Four Tops. I love that stuff because I relate to doo-wop as I do hip-hop because doo-wop was street music of the ’50s. You know, it was guys on the corner, didn’t have money for a band so they were making horn sounds with their mouths. My inspiration also is my staff. Every day I don’t get bored with what I do. And every day I feel like I learn something new whether it’s a new thing in Pro Tools or a new way to use a tambourine, I learn something new every day. And I learn it from them also.
9. What is a typical day like for you?
There’s no typical day. Every day is fun. I had a meeting last night with four of my writers. And I said to them, I want everyone to have more fun. I said, you know, I get being down; I get down. But, you know, when I’m writing, when I’m producing, when I’m being creative, all those things go somewhere else. Writing, that’s my therapy. This is my therapist.
10. What’s the key to your success?
When I penetrated the market, I was a hip-hop guy. You know, I went in, like, there’s nobody that’s going to give you better hip-hop than me. I went in thinking, hey, at some point someone’s going to ask me if I know someone that can do this or whatever. And that’s exactly what happened. And I said, I can do that. I believe it’s the future. I believe that for songwriters, music producers, it’s not gonna be anymore about one thing. I think that you have to be a triple threat, so to speak. I never gave up. And even though there was adversity, I believed that there was always a solution to every problem. Whether it’s a song, whether it’s a production, whether it’s a deal, whether it’s a person I want to get to, whether it’s a job I want to have, I just stay at it. I’m very, very persistent. I do not say no to jobs. I love my craft. When you’re able to create something, it’s a beautiful thing.