There's Something About Adrian: An Interview With Hip-Hop / Soul Producer Adrian Younge
Having just released the second installment of Something About April, Adrian Younge pauses to reflect on the art he makes and why the way he makes it makes a difference.
Adrian Younge is said to be an early riser, a man who gets up while many of his contemporaries are still dreaming dreams of counterpoint and harmony and laying down the best and most forward-thinking tracks. By the time they stumble to the kitchen for their morning cup of coffee, Younge has probably tracked half of his next album. When we speak it's in late January, on a Saturday morning and at a fairly early hour; Younge is a few days away from starting work with a large orchestra, though he can't specify what that the project is. All he can give away is that it's a film score and that Al Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest is involved.
The matter at hand is Younge's latest record, Something About April II, which arrives in stores four years after its predecessor. That first record brought together elements that previously seem incapable of coexisting anywhere except for in the record bin at a Salvation Army store: Early King Crimson mixed with soundtracks to European erotic cinema; soul and jazz rubbed elbows with the base elements of psychedelia. On paper it may read like a collage of the impossible but on disc, specifically, vinyl, it sounds like music we didn't know we were missing. If you didn't know better you might almost mistake the sounds as coming from some long out-of-print release on a tiny Swedish label.
The record, like everything Younge produces, was recorded on vintage analog gear direct to tape. One can hear doses of Black Sabbath in the heavy, distorted bass of "Psalms", Fairport Convention in passages of other songs and even a nod or two to the strange sonic collages Todd Rundgren made during the early 1970s.
Younge says he knew the record would have two volumes long ago. The project, he says, originated from his desire to be original and create something that audiences, like him, had never experienced before. "It's something that I've never really heard before but I knew that there's a lot of people like me who enjoy a lot of different types of music and would enjoy hearing that all on one album," he says. "In modern black music you don't hear a lot of that stuff. It's just great music that comes from that old vinyl culture. And there are those classic compositional progressions, I feel, are important and I want to incorporate them in music of today. I feel like there aren't a lot of people trying to do that and the ones who are, I feel, aren't trying to do it, 100 percent, all the way."
Much of that "all the way" approach comes down to how the music is recorded. Younge, you quickly understand, isn't trying to repeat something that already happened. He's making something new out of the old. Listening to the drums on the first Something About April and the new one as well will send listeners back to the glory years of players such as Max Roach. You can hear the drums breathing and the sticks hitting the cymbals. These instruments are being played.
"When you're recording live, really good vintage instruments onto two inch tape, it's the best fidelity you can get. A lot of people accept below par things in music right now and it's because a lot of modern musicians are successful at cutting corners," he notes. "You know, people will do 'live' drums but use drum machines for the cymbals and just sample their snare. I just want to give the consumer something that feels artisan."
That artisan feel extends to how Younge mixes his albums. Everything occupies a special place on the sound spectrum. Instruments and voices don't have to fight each other to gain the listener's attention and there's a clarity to the performances that's almost unheard of today.
"When I'm playing a part, I know where it's supposed to sit. I know where it's supposed to jump out. With my unorthodox way of mixing you can hear a lot of things jumping out. When something's tucked, I recorded it that way and it's intentional. When something's jumping out in your face it's recorded with the notion that it should jump out and pop," he says. "There's no battle here."
That also means that there's not much of a battle to get the sounds bound for tape. Although some might suspect that Younge is an experimenter that's not an entirely accurate picture. He's meticulous and determined, leaving little to chance.
"I like to approach the recording like a chemist. I know all my different formulas to get certain sounds. I've been doing this so long that I don't experiment anymore. Or, let me rephrase, I've been doing this so long that I don't have to experiment as much," he says. "You always want to evolve and change but if I go in and I know it's a certain type of song, I know exactly where I'm going to place the mics. If I want something different, I'll experiment a little but I'm way beyond experimenting to find my sound. I've been doing this since the late '90s, so I got it now."
What he's also got is vocalists. Younge, who claims he "can't sing for shit," has surrounded himself by a talented cast of singers once more. These aren't vocalists out to break mics or win awards for sustaining notes. They're there to carry the emotional weight of a song from the ether to the listener. Young has simple criteria for selecting those performers.
"I try to find a vocalist that I don't have to make better," he says. "I try to find a vocalist that can make me better and in turn I can make them better so that we are, as a team, making ourselves better. I like the vocalist to challenge me. I love to challenge a vocalist. I love to find the kind of vocalists that captivate me with their sounds, with the color of their voice. I just try to do something different with them."
One of those singers joining him this time out is Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab. "I'm a huge Stereolab fan. I've always been and one of my dreams in life was to work with her," Younge says. "On one of my trips to London I was able to meet up with her and we just totally hit it off and since then we've become very close friends and made quite a few songs together now. So, on Something About April II, you're hearing a few of them but we have a lot more that we've made that people haven't heard yet."
He also brought in his good friend Loren Oden for a few tracks. "He's like a Marvin Gaye to me," Younge says. "He has that sweetness and also that rawness of Marvin Gaye to me. He's just a very integral piece of my very well-oiled machine. I love making music with him and he's definitely a rising star for sure."
Younge doesn't lack outlets. He has collaborated with Ghostface Killah on Twelve Reasons To Die LPs, worked with The Delfonics, A Tribe Called Quest and, of course, scored the film Black Dynamite. The records he releases via his Linear Labs imprint carry a uniform look and a sound that recalls the heyday of record labels (he owns a Los Angeles vinyl shop called Artform Studios) in an era Younge himself is quick to point to.
"Everything that I do is based on the music that was created from '68 to '73, through the scope of a hip-hop producer from the golden era," he says. "I look at those times to make music now. In both of those times, album covers represented what the artist should sound like. As a record collector and somebody with a record store, when I'm digging for records and I don't know about something I can look at the cover and that can help in determining whether the record should be good or not. And more times than not, I'm right. The art reflects the depth of the music. When they see the artwork I want them to feel intrigued. And when they listen to the album I want them to picture the album cover not as something salacious but something artful, something deep, something that people can relate to."
And if listeners want to hear the records not as a collection of songs but as one song with several movements, he's OK with that.
"When people are listening to the album I want them to feel like they're on a rollercoaster ride," he says. "It's those high moments, those low moments, those emotional moments of peril. There's that vulnerability but, at the end of the day, everything's OK. That's how I want the listener to feel when they're listening to it from beginning to end. It should be listened to as a whole piece."
Despite using vintage equipment and vintage techniques to capture his sounds, Younge eschews the "retro" tag.
"There's a lot of groups that do 'retro' music and a lot of these groups rehash the past. They'll go back, listen to a Gladys Knight song or a Curtis Mayfield song or a Temptations song and want to do exactly the kind of song that those acts would have done back then and keep it in that time," he says. "What I do is look back at the works of these kinds of people and I also look at the works of other soul artists from that time to now and I try to handpick certain elements from the various eras and synthesize them in order to try to make something progressive. If you listen to my drums or how my bass is, it's a lot fatter than you would hear on a lot of the old records because that's what a hip-hop dude would do. That's the kind of progressive direction I try to intertwine with the music."
Although, he says, he does occasionally turn to the past masters for inspiration.
"If you listen to Curtis Mayfield's Superfly you can tell that Curtis Mayfield was listening to Marvin Gaye's What's Going On. You can hear that. But Curtis Mayfield took it in a whole new direction. That's what great artists do. They listen, become inspired, and interpolate and re-create. That's what they did. That's why I look up to these iconic artists and try to follow their footsteps."
And maybe, just maybe, leave behind some giant footprints of his own.