World-renowned Composer And Producer Adrian Younge Opens Up About Music And Entrepreneurship

Michael Porter chats with producer Adrian Younge who has recently provided the soundtracks to films like ‘Black Dynamite’ and the hit Marvel show ‘Luke Cage’.

1:45 p.m.
Tuesday.

I’m two joints deep when the phone rings. It’s Jazzmin, Adrian’s assistant/swiss army knife, and she wants to know if I can interview him in less than an hour. Adrian Younge is a world-class producer and composer. I agree to terms, wash myself and hop on my red Cannondale in a blaze. I arrive, lock up the bike and wipe my brow still slick with shower water. The Artform Studio shares a huge brick building with a health food store, a convenience mart and a yet unnamed entity that is still under construction, but maybe yoga?

I walk in. Jazzmin leads me towards the back, past the records, past the books, past the turntables, and oh yeah, past the beauty salon. (The Artform Studio is both record store and salon, the brainchild of Adrian and his wife Sherry).

They have existed at this location, at the intersection of Avenue 56 and Figueroa for roughly one year after previously calling Little Tokyo home. The labyrinth is coming to a close, and before the last set of doors can be opened, I ask Jazzmin if there is indeed a studio back here?

She grins.

Adrian sits hunched over his laptop, squinting. Focused is probably the best word for his current demeanor but even that seems to do him some injustice.

Adrian Younge

Michael Porter: Thanks for taking the time to sit down with me, Adrian. I know you’re crazy busy.

Adrian Younge: Of course, I’m happy to do it.

What was your earliest musical memory? How’d you get started?

The pivotal or defining moment in my career happened in 1996. My parents bought me an MPC 2000 and a * Trak recorder. I just started sampling records, and making music for myself to listen to. I was experimenting with sound, and I realized that all of the music I liked was not the hip-hop records, no, it was all of these amazing soul records. The rare soul, the rare jazz – the more rare, the better! I found out that I wanted to learn how to play instruments, so, I started buying pianos, guitars, drums – everything. I was teaching myself how to play and after one or two more years I had this need to make an album where I played every instrument. And I did that in the year 2000. The album was called Venice Dawn, and the album did well, it really started my career as a musician.

Can you talk a little bit about how you get to a point with a soundtrack where you feel it’s complete or that it accurately captures the mood/theme of a project?

Well, when you’re creating a soundtrack your job is to enhance the visual element in the best way you can. So, it’s an audiovisual job in that sense. When it comes to putting together an album or soundtrack that someone is gonna buy – I always want to make sure that the sound of the album is cohesive. Making sure that it’s a worthwhile journey from song one, all the way to the end is my number one goal. I want the listener to go on a rollercoaster. I just want some kind of emotion to be felt by the listener at the end. It could be a dark feeling, it could be absolute euphoria, but I want to make sure that the listener goes somewhere. Everything I create is made from the perspective of someone who wants to craft a complete emotional experience. I want them to know where I’m coming from. I want you to join a part of my universe.

Adrian Younge

When you start a job, or when you select a project, do you read the script in its entirety?

I always have to read the script, whether it be a tv show or a film before I say yes. Just to make sure we’re all on the same page. And after that, they’ll (the films producer or director) film and assemble a number of scenes and say; “hey we need this scene to feel a little darker, we need this to be slightly happier or uplifting in the mood.”

So, the process is sort of broken up that way, does that conflict with you trying to make something cohesive in nature?

Well, I will see it – how it’s cut up, and then they’ll point out a scene that needs pumping up. But no, I am used to this method and every project is different in that sense anyway.

You talked about liking rare soul and jazz, talk to me a little bit about who influences you.

Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield. Guys like that. I am also a big fan of the European composers – Morricone, Francis Ley…

Schiffrin?

Love Schiffrin, absolutely. Love him, love psychedelic music. I love music that has a soul, and a lot of the European guys were asked to make music that was akin to black American soul music back in the day, especially blaxploitation music. So, you had these classically trained composers in Europe or wherever they may be, listening to black American soul music and then adapting that style of music with their own classically trained ears and doing something new and derivative.

Adrian Younge

You named a few of your favorite composers already; do you prefer to work alone or are you better with collaborations? Who are your favorite collaborators if so?

In general, I prefer working alone unless there is somebody who I really, really enjoy working with most of the time. I really enjoy everything I do with Ali Shaheed Muhammad, he’s my partner on Luke Cage, and we’ve scored other projects together as well. We have an album together called ‘The Midnight Hour’ that’s coming out soon. So if I’m not working by myself, I’m working with him or someone like NO I.D. or even Raphael Saadiq. I love working with like-minded people, and it’s hard to find those kinds of people. So, when I find someone I mesh with creatively, I tend to get straight into the studio with them.

When you say like-minded, do you mean in terms of how they approach the idea or how they conceptualize it?

You can be like-minded creatively and live in one world, and still make two totally different things. Interpretation is the most important thing.

What’s the hardest part about being in the music business? What don’t people realize?

How hard it is to maintain your day to day income as a freelancing artist. You have to say yes to some things, you have to say no to some things. You have to manage your time well because that is your single most valuable asset. So, the most difficult thing for most people is being your own boss and being professional over your ability to finish things, making sure you have enough capital for equipment, being able to efficiently complete work, it’s not about saying yes to things, it is about finishing the projects you take on – having perspective, and exceeding expectations when opportunities arise.

Adrian Younge

You talked about sustaining a vision over the length of a career- creating a mosaic in a way. Making each separate piece mean something to the whole and the whole being your entire catalog of music. Can you talk about the importance of controlling your legacy?

Everything I do is about legacy. I want people to easily identify my work when they hear it and go; “That’s dope, that’s Adrian Younge shit!” It’s about me being the person I always wanted to be – which is someone that’s in the vanguard of what I feel is fresh, not what other people think is fresh. I always say to people: it’s my job to tell people what’s dope. It’s not my job to figure out what other people like. When I’m creating art, it’s about me creating a piece of art and then welcoming them into my house, and if they don’t like how my house looks or smells, it’s all good – it really is, it’s super cool but I’m continually inviting people over anyway, because I want to keep trying new things as well, and seeing what the effect is. I’m creating worlds and I want people to know what type of world they’re visiting when they pick up an Adrian Younge record. This isn’t some whimsical… or… cheap, uncultivated type of world that I’m building. If you get it, you really get it and something sinks in and sticks with you to the highest degree. I make music for music fans. I respect the intelligence of the listener.

What kind of movies do you watch?

I mean, there are movies that I love like The Godfather to City of God to you know, I love movies that are very stylized, intelligent and impactful. I always look at how the director and other artists involved in the film approach the subject. I like to see the cultivation of hard work and ideas. Not to say I can’t enjoy a blockbuster movie or anything like that but that’s more of a family night type of thing.

Adrian Younge

You’re also an entertainment lawyer, a huge benefit to a musician, I imagine.

I have always thought that it behooves you to have an education in something that directly impacts your day to day and helps you to become successful. So, I can read contracts and understand what the contracts mean, unlike most of the artist friends that I know. My thing when I was younger was IF MY ARTISTIC ASPIRATIONS DONT WORK OUT, I CAN BE A LAWYER

What are you working on right now?

On March 28th at the lodge room in Highland Park, I have a project called Voices of Gemma and I’ll be performing with two vocalists – Brooke DeRosa who is an opera singer and the other is Rebecca Englehart, a trained jazz singer. I made an album that is like a spiritual jazz and psychedelic soul concept album, so we’ll have a full orchestra down there and that’s later this month. I’m preparing that, writing charts for that, so I’m not sleeping a lot. On the 25th of March, we are having an installation by beats here with DJs, and we will have an orchestra back here in the studio and I will be recording some new work with Ali Shaheed Muhammad for our Midnight Hour album.

What was it like working with Ghostface Killah?

It was awesome. I’m a huge Wu-Tang fan in general! I love Ghostface to death, he’s a very talented dude – one of the nicest people you will ever meet, very compassionate and very smart. Great guy. There are some people that you meet and you know it’s just a privilege just to know them – just to be around them. He’s one of those people.

Are there times where you don’t enjoy what you do, that you second guess yourself?

Everybody’s job in life is to figure out how to make a living doing something that they really love. And to me, that’s everybody’s goal and I’m happy doing what I do. I found what I love, but my journey is different from yours because I make the kind of music that isn’t necessarily considered to be top 40 music. So, in order for me to pursue and do what I do, I have to work a little bit harder, especially being a black dude doing this kind of stuff. I’m creating a kind of music that is very niche.I have to be able to make x amount of dollars just to cover my overhead, we aren’t even talking about living expenses. So, that means I have to believe in what I’m doing 100% and be okay with failing at it.

I always refer to my life as a false reality because it’s something that I made up that I have to make real

What helps to even catalyze or fuel my desire to push harder is just how I see my music inspire people within my own circle and outside of it as well. You know, I try very hard to make my false reality a reality. I always refer to my life as a false reality because it’s something that I made up that I have to make real. What this means is that I can have a fully functioning analog studio with zero computers – making music with all live instruments. That is just not something that people do. And I’m trying to make a living doing that while kids are listening to a bunch of trap and music in that vein, sonically. I’ve been able to make this false reality a reality by diligently creating new products, partnering with diff brands, coming up with new ideas, manifesting growth in diff areas by diversifying and I willed all these things to happen. But I am fortunate to have my own studio and none of this is promised to me, so, I remain cognizant of that. Every single cent I make, I put back into building my empire. My whole life is about doing what makes me happy, what calculated risks will present themselves that will allow me to persevere and also take care of my family?

Thanks for sitting with me, good luck with everything.

Anytime!

Michael Lorenzo Porter is an American-born short story writer and occasional journalist. His love of card games and fear of spiders have formed his world view in equal measure.
FacebookTwitterGoogle+WhatsApp