Adrian Younge’s most accomplished album was both defined and jeopardized by a point blank gunshot. Last year, the studio guru began working with Souls of Mischief, the veteran Californian lyricists who had always been his biggest influence. But rather than kicking off the session with some conventional mentoring, the elder foursome opted instead to reminisce about an early brush with death.
The story began two decades earlier, as the Souls left a nightclub with their cohorts in the larger Hieroglyphics rap crew. Despite their socially conscious rhymes and crime-free lives, the group nearly met a cliched hip-hop end when a crazed gunman shot Hieroglyphics producer Domino in the face, before turning his weapon on the others.
“They thought he’d already died, and then this guy chased them, tried to kill them all,” Younge says (during a recent phone interview) of the tale that Souls regaled him with, adding that he was even more astounded to learn that Domino survived his wounds. “It’s one of those spontaneous circumstances where it’s shocking that nobody died. But, at the same time, it’s shocking that it happened at all, because they didn’t live a gang-style life.”
Upon hearing the story, the producer/composer knew that he had a concept for the entire album. Younge not only provided his trademark throwback instrumentation, composed of self-penned and performed ‘70s-style soul grooves, recorded to equally vintage tape. He also pushed Souls to lyrically recount that harrowing shooting. The result was 2014’s There Is Only Now.
Upon hearing the album, Domino was deeply moved. “It was a weird feeling because I hadn’t given that event much thought in a long while,” he tells Paste, adding: “(There Is Only Now) made me revisit that moment, which was very humbling. It made me reflect a bit, which was a deep experience since I’m lucky to be here right now.”
Critics praised the album, with one reviewer writing “Themes of crime, lust, jeal-ousy and revenge are each woven into the tale through some impressively-choreographed lyrical interplay between the group’s four members, who juke and jostle to recount their own sections of this unwieldy chronicle while sidestepping Younge’s numerous spontaneous beat shifts and beautiful orchestral breakdowns.”
The veteran crew were clearly revitalized by Younge’s production. But the composer says he was equally inspired by how Souls utilized his instrumentals.
“I can’t do too much musical movement with a lot of MC’s, because they don’t know how to follow me. But with Souls of Mischief, I could go anywhere because they are musicians—they rap as musicians and they play instruments and produce, so they get that. That’s why I was able to go in a lot of different directions that I couldn’t have on other albums.”
Indeed, Younge has had to be more patient with other, less musically inclined rappers. The composer and his band once struggled to connect with beloved Wu-Tang Clan rapper Ghostface Killah during a SXSW gig in the lead-up to their collaborative 2013 disk Twelve Reasons to Die.
“It’s not as rigid as just rapping over a pre-recorded beat. With a live band like mine, there’s movement and improvisation,” Younge says of the adjustment that many MC’s have to make while performing him.
But Younge is more than willing to help those vocalists overcome such hurdles. His approach to working with Ghostface, for instance, was much different than his collaboration with Souls of Mischief.
“I wanted to give Ghostface a lot of room to just be his character. I’m not looking for a lot of melody with him. So I gave him a lot of room, and learned to compose in a way that blends with him very well. It’s the reason why I’m excited to do this second album with him, because we make each other better,” Younge says of working with the Wu-Tang Clansman on the original Twelve Reasons to Die and its sequel, which is slated for release later this year.
Aside from that forthcoming project, Younge says he’s also looking forward to wrapping another album with Ali Shaheed Muhammad, formerly of A Tribe Called Quest, who narrated There Is Only Now’s skits and also released a remix of the album. Younge says his new album with Muhammad will hearken back to Tribe’s “lineage,” while still “sounding like nothing Ali has ever done before.”
Domino says these established MC’s are clamoring to work with Younge for several reasons: “Adrian is amazing because he reflects the best era in music, the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, but appreciates hip-hop’s extension of that period. Also, there had been plenty of producers that have brought live instrumentation to hip-hop, but I feel they mostly made lackluster attempts to have a ‘70s aesthetic. Adrian’s work actually sounds like it was recorded in that era, as if it was some unearthed lost Stax masters.”
But Younge’s most ‘70s-saturated melodies weren’t actually recorded for rappers. In 2009 he began writing and recording a Curtis Mayfield-styled soundtrack for an absurd new blacksploitation flick called Black Dynamite, which was hailed as a hilarious parody of a bygone genre. But Younge, who also edited the movie, did not treat it as a joke by any means.
“I liked being the editor, because I could record music to the film based on how I cut it,” he says. “It was a really creative project, and for me there was nothing really comedic about it. I could control certain stylistic things that only a composer and editor could do.”
From then on, Younge has stayed steadfastly serious and old school. Despite working with a wide swath of A-list MC’s, he’s never been tempted to exploit those prestigious occasions and splurge on cutting edge software.
“I’d never record digitally,” he says, adding: “It’s not because its’ a horrible way to record, it’s just not the best way to record my music, because my music is rawer, darker and a little more nostalgic.”
And although young hip-hop fans have grown accustomed to auto-tune, and other sterile modern studio effects, Younge believes they still crave something organic.
“My music sounds different because the techniques are archaic, seeing as most people only record digitally. To me, recording with live instruments and tape takes things back to an older sound that I like, but that’s still fresh.” he says, adding that notion is constantly affirmed by one of his youngest, and by far most important critic: his 10-year-old daughter. “She loves all my music, she sings it all. She probably hears more of my music than anyone else.”