There Is Only Now: An Interview with Adrian Younge

[26 August 2014]

By Nathan Stevens

The interview with Adrian Younge had been going well. The only hints of something derailing the conversation came in the form of an occasional noise from Younge’s cooing baby. Then something changed.

“My baby just took a big dump right now. So let me change her,” Younge said with a laugh. “It’s like spilling outside of her legs. Wow this is a crazy one. I’m going to be doing this while we talk ...”

Upset baby aside, Younge comes off as exceptionally composed and passionate about his work. It was a quick rise in fame for the L.A. based composer and producer. He recorded the flawless ‘70s soul score to the spoof Blaxploitation film Black Dynamite and the more nuanced Venice Dawn: Something about April at the turn of the decade before he blew up. He’s been gaining massive acclaim thanks to a number of collaborations with stars like Ghostface Killah and he even worked with Jay-Z on Magna Carta Holy Grail. Younge has a unique voice in the hip-hop world, obsessed with high fidelity sounds from the ‘60s and ‘70s, completely ignoring modern trap trends. Younge’s newest project is There Is Only Now an album with legendary Oakland crew Souls of Mischief. We talked about the new record, the genius of Ennio Morricone, and why Younge doesn’t listen to modern hip-hop.

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What’s your average day in the studio like?

I basically wake up at five in the morning and grab coffee and just get to the studio. And I have a list of things I need to get done every day. Sometimes it’s just mixing, sometimes it’s actually writing, sometimes it’s writing, recording and mixing. It all depends on what is necessary that day. Sometimes I have seismic tasks [laughs] to try to complete, sometimes it’s just leisurely getting things done. So it all depends.

When working with rappers like Ghostface Killah or Snoop Dogg, what comes first: the beat or the lyrics?

It all depends. For example, if I’m doing a concept album, it’s usually the idea of the concept because I want to make instrumentation that is incendiary towards the vocalist—I want something to set a flame under them. I want to create something that’s going to provide a focus cinematically to where we’re going, so I just can’t have beats lying around; I always cater to the artist and what’s going on. If I’m just doing music I don’t need any inkling regarding concept. If I’m doing a conceptual album, I need to discuss the concept with the artist and make music thereafter. 

Going off of that, the new record has a few songs based around the near murder of members of Souls of Mischief and Hieroglyphics. How do you score those moments?

You’re doing it over the course of an album, so you have to understand what the different moods are throughout the album and once you understand those points of progress within the story are you compositionally illustrate music that denotes that feeling. So there’s one part where everybody’s panicking—that song’s actually called “Panic Struck”—so I wanted to make something that feels kind of jarring and pervasive, in your face, temperamental.

Then there’s a song about love so I want something that feels like love, there’s a song where there’s a finale closing out the whole story, the whole plot line. So I want to make it seem like a chase scene to the end. So it all depends on what’s going on because I’m a film composer first, so I like to approach my music cinematically.

Were there any songs on the album that were difficult to compose?

Yes, there was a lot of difficulty because I always try to outdo myself. So I set very high standards because I kind of want to be an exemplary example of who I should be as an artist. I always compare myself to what I did last, so I’ve got to try and beat what I did last I’m always upping my own bar. It’s one of those things that creates a lot of difficulty just for myself, but it’s the kind of difficulty I need to embrace because it makes me a better artist. And I do not want to be one of those artists that falls off later, I want to be one of those artists that is continually pushing the bar.

But going back to certain songs on the album that were more difficult than others, I would say. There’s a song called “Miriam Got a Mickey” that was pretty difficult, there’s a song called “Ghetto Superhero” that wasn’t that easy. I mean there’s a lot of… it all ranges. A lot of it is just, you know everything I do is samples. It’s tape, analog, hardware, hand crafted music and soul. It’s not just creating a loop; every single thing has to be done by hand. A lot of it is just tedious.

Going off of that, what are your opinions on the new flood of beat makers and producers that have become viable due to the low cost of software like Logic or Ableton?

Well, you know what, honestly, I’m down with people who use that stuff. I think it’s cool for what people do. However, it’s not anything for me at all. It doesn’t speak to me. That recording perspective does not speak to me for many reasons, one of the most important reasons being that sonically, it does nothing for me. People don’t realize how much it means to your music to record on tape, whether it be for new music or old music. People don’t realize how much or how imperative it is to use actual hardware when making drums because those are actual percussion samplers. They’re hardware instruments that are made to have the drum hit… I could go on and on.

All of that creates something palpable to the music, something that you can feel, something that makes listeners like myself revere the old music even more because it’s just better in many ways man. And for that reason, and some other reasons, I always tell people I stopped listening to hip-hop in ’97 because that’s when everything really started changing. Hip-hop stopped speaking towards the sub-culture and what spoke to them was more towards a popular majority on the pop side.

So things just started changing, and I just stopped listening to new hip-hop and I just really got into the source material that hip-hop was sampling: old records from like the ‘80s and ‘70s. I just really engrosed myself in that entire world and in doing so I found that all my inspiration started coming from there and I just didn’t need to listen to new music any more.

So, to go back to your question, it’s kind of hard for me to say, because I don’t listen to much modern music. I listen, I love people like Black Milk, I love Kendrick [Lamar]; there’s different cats I like, but I’m just not well versed on new music.

I have a record store called the Artform Studio; it’s a boutique record store in L.A. that’s actually a full on salon-record store. I own that with my wife [Sherry Younge] and my business partner Patrick Washington. It’s a record store that focuses on golden-era hip-hop perspectives. So we have all the prog-rock, classic rock that hip-hop dudes sample. All golden-era hip-hop stuff, rare and cool stuff. That’s where I listen to a lot of records and that’s what I do for inspiration dude, I’m digging all the time.

You do a great job of marrying music from film soundtracks and spaghetti westerns with hip-hop. What’s the commonality in their DNA?

Well, a lot of that music is what I loosely define as: “Dark Cinematic Soul”. A lot of that stuff is super dark in a very cool interesting way and there’s so much music from that time that was sampled by hip-hop cats and, unfortunately, a lot of hip-hop fans never went to sourced out the source material. So when I discovered all this stuff, it blew my mind because I realized the reason I loved hip-hop so much was, obviously the lyrical content and how it spoke to a sub-culture, but, in addition to that, it introduced me to a whole type of sound and music that I never knew existed, you know?

And that’s going to like Ennio Morricone stuff, rare psych-jazz stuff, rare psych-soul, rare blaxploitation stuff, that kind of stuff. It introduced me to all that cool music and it’s just like, when you hear that kind of stuff it’s hard to actually go back to other stuff because you’re like, “Wow, this is on this level.”

You know, I always tell people that when I started making music back in 1996, I started off with an 8-track cassette recorder. With having that I was listening to all these cool records, and I always thought I was just going to be just a hip-hop person. And then, this stuff just started changing my life!

I never realized that there was music of that caliber out there. I just started really getting into that music, started getting into even more old records. Those things made it hard to come back. I love hip-hop and I’m hip-hop for life, but the stuff on that level is just mind-blowing. It’s funny because a lot of people are now discovering that stuff.

What was your gateway drug? Ennio Morricone?

I would say yes. What happened was that I was hearing this stuff being sampled. I was hearing Portishead, loving Portishead. I was listening to Air, loving Air and obviously loving groups like Wu-Tang and all that stuff, and it was all based on that old dark sound. So, you know, I said, “I need to find this stuff.” So I just started searching and started buying soundtracks and then Morricone was the first soundtrack I bought where I’m like “Wow I found the source.” So it was really Morricone.

You said you don’t listen to a lot of modern hip-hop, but are there modern film composers you listen to?

I don’t. And it’s not that there aren’t great people out there, because there are. It’s just that I listen to old records because I listen to, not only the composition, but the sonic palate that they use to create that music. Nobody really uses old stuff anymore to create music, and if people do use old stuff right now to make music, they’ll do it in a half-assed way. They may record their drums on tape, but everything else is on ProTools or they record everything on tape maybe, but they’re going to loop it in pro-tools instead of playing it the entire four minutes, it’s half-assed and I just can’t stand that stuff. I just don’t even look for it.

People show me stuff that could blow my mind that I’m willing to hear, for sure; I’m not a hater. It’s just, you know, there’s so much good music out there that people have not heard, and I find it all the time while I’m digging for records.

I feel like you have a massive list of artists people don’t know, but should know.

I agree. Actually it’s funny that you say that because I’ve been gearing up to do a classic rock 45 set that sounds like straight hip-hop shit, but it’s really classic rock. When people listen to it they’ll be like “damn, this shit sounds like hip-hop.” I want to do stuff like that, just kind of educate people, ‘cause there’s a lot of great music out there that people don’t know about.

Are there any future plans for you working with rappers or film scores?

I don’t like to focus on just hip-hop because with hip-hop I can only do so much, with a vocalist I can only do so much, but the limitations are varying. When I’m with a vocalist, I can work on chords and a whole bunch of chord changes; I can’t do that with an MC. However, with an MC, I can get down into some gritty little base type things that I can’t necessarily get into with a vocalist so I like to split it.

That being said I’m working on the follow up to the Ghostface album as we speak, I’m working on a new album with [A Tribe Called Quest’s] Ali Shaheed Muhammad, I’m working on my next [Venice Dawn’s] Something About April part two album, I’m working with Raphael Saadiq, Cee-Lo [Green] and a bunch of other cats. I’m mixing it up.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/184568-there-is-only-now-an-interview-with-adrian-younge/