Photo credit: Elle Schneider
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Adrian Younge is Ali’s writing partner. They first worked together on a Souls of Mischief album a little over five years ago. Then composed a score for Luke Cage season’s 1 and 2. They’ve produced songs for other artists, including one on Kendrick Lamar’s Untitled Unmastered, and last year they released and toured the album they made together over all that time, called The Midnight Hour.
Before all that, Adrian went to Law School then made a movie called Black Dynamite, an album called Something About April, which was sampled by Jay on Magna Carta, and an album with the Delfonics. I actually met Adrian independently of Ali just before they met when I was working on a story with NPR on an album that he made with Ghostface called 12 Reasons to Die.
So in this convo, we talk about how all three of us has changed since approximately 2013. What we’ve seen and learned, what we still believe, how are theories have been tested and what we think might be possible in the future. It’s important for us to have Adrian on Microphone Check, because his friendship and working relationship with Ali illuminates aspects of Ali’s vision of the world, but also because he’s forthright. Adrian and Ali have been in all the rooms, and they’ve decided how to conduct themselves regardless of who else was there or what’s on the table. I continue to learn from both of them, and now so can you.
ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD: What up, Mr. Younge?
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Chilling, man. How you doing?
ALI: I'm a little under the weather today actually, but besides that I'm doing really good.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Your friend is under the weather, but she's acting like it's allergies. She's a liar. She's trying to get me sick.
ALI: Winter allergies.
FRANNIE KELLEY: Listen, I just don't like the rain. My whole body is like, "No. No rain."
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Rain is for relaxation. You're not supposed to really be working when it's raining.
FRANNIE: That'd be great. That'd be lovely. So I can't believe that we are only now sitting down to talk to you. Although, in a weird way, this is actually the third time that I have interviewed you.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: That's true actually. Wow.
FRANNIE: I found the transcript of this interview I did with you the first time I met you. You were working on Ghostface's album Twelve Reasons To Die.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Yes.
FRANNIE: So this was probably 2013? I think '13.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Something like that. Yeah.
FRANNIE: Or '12.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Yeah, '12 to '13, something like that.
FRANNIE: And it was at this studio in Williamsburg I think.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Yes. I was very impressed by you.
FRANNIE: Oh, thank you.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Cause I remember as soon as I met you, I was like, "Yup. She's going to be somebody that's going to be in my life. For sure." I mean that. Because the one thing about being an artist is that when people interview you, most people just don't research and/or they don't ask the intelligent questions, and I was just so impressed by you back then. And then I remember when Ali told me he was working with you, I was like, "Oh, dude. I love her." Just saying. Yeah.
FRANNIE: Well, thanks a lot.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Of course.
FRANNIE: I like that a lot. I'm mad at myself, because I actually found the transcript of that interview yesterday and I meant to bring it here and read back portions of it to you, but –
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Are you saying you're unprepared or what?
FRANNIE: I'm absent-minded, I would say.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Well, go off the cuff, dude. You got it. You got it.
FRANNIE: But in that interview, we talked a lot about your origin story and how you career transitioned, but how you always loved music but I wouldn't say hip-hop was your first love, and then just sort of how you came into working with Ghostface and that whole situation. But that was – that feels like a million years ago.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: It does. Yeah, it really does. And hip-hop was definitely my first love, so you mixed me up with a different guy.
FRANNIE: My bad. I apologize.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: It's OK. But no, it's weird. It does seem like a very very long time ago. A very very long time ago.
FRANNIE: In your life, in my life, in the culture.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Absolutely.
FRANNIE: It feels like a million years ago.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Yeah, it was a – so let's just – 2013. So just to talk about that time, I had – right around that time I had a Delfonics album that – I don't know if that was released yet. I don't think that was released at that time.
FRANNIE: I don't think it was either.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Right. And the album I did that preceded that is an album called Something About April, and then what preceded that was Black Dynamite. Now, when I did the score for Black Dynamite, that was – I really consider that my debut album. My first album actually came out in 2000, and it was called Venice Dawn. It was just a fake Italian soundtrack CD that I just kind of put out. Black Dynamite came out in 2009. That was real first release, first release with Wax Poetics.
When I did that album, I wanted to plant seeds in there that showed the kind of people I wanted to work with. One of the people I really wanted to work with was Ghostface, so you were seeing a manifestation of destiny at that time, when that all kind of came together.
FRANNIE: But you hadn't started working with Ali yet, at that time.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Mm-mm.
FRANNIE: When did that happen and how did that come about?
ADRIAN YOUNGE: So when I was at that studio, we were finalizing the album, just making edits, making sure everything's good. And then we went on tour for that album. I don't know if that's six months later or something, maybe, six, seven months later, and we had a show in New York. And Ali had reached out to me on Twitter saying something in reference to, "Yo, I dig your music." And I'm tripping, because I mean, Tribe Called Quest is my favorite hip-hop group of all time. And I was like, "Bro, I am out here in Brooklyn right now. We should link." And then we just linked, and we're here now.
FRANNIE: That's wild.
ALI: Yeah, it is. So you said in 2009, you put out music that, for you, was a manifestation of working with Ghostface later on in 2013. What was it about Ghostface that you were drawn to?
ADRIAN YOUNGE: So I have to back up a little bit. I always say to people that are really into music, you go throughout life getting closer and closer to your core. Your core is the music that you really really like. So when you're younger, you may like this artist, and then as you grow older and you start understanding music a little more, you're like, "I don't even know why I was feeling that that much. I'm really into this artist." And then you realize that that artist was just a watered-down version of this artist. And you get closer and closer and closer to your core.
So I was always tell people that my favorite period of music is from '68 to '73. OK? One of the genres within that time I really love, really really love, are old Italian soundtracks, European soundtracks. And what I liked about it, or what I love about it, is that you have the flavoring of hip-hop, because it's a very eclectic version of black American music at that time, more specifically blaxploitation music at that time, that is created by, like, white dudes in Italy, white dudes in London making library music.
So you're having their classical approach on black American soul music, and they're doing things that are hella weird. They're bringing in these harpsichords and these different kind of instruments and having these different perspectives on something funky. And all that kind of synthesized and put together, it just feels and sounds like hip-hop. Now that feeling of that kind of music, this is the bedrock of bands like Portishead, or even bands like AIR. This is where that stuff really kind of comes from. A lot of people say it's old spy music. It's not that. It's these kind of soundtracks.
So I always saw Ghostface as a storyteller, a premier storyteller, and with most rappers, when you're creating music for them, you want to create something that's basically like a loop. Because a lot of MCs don't really understand how to move with chord progressions, generally speaking. It's just what it is. Ghostface is somebody that raps like a singer. You know what I'm saying? If I'm working with a singer, I can throw mad chords and they can fall within the chords and move and all that. Ghostface raps like that. He moves around like that. So I wanted to create something that was very cinematic for him. And you could see how that ties into the genre of music I love which is cinema.
ALI: When you're making music, are you thinking about collaborating with other rappers? Or are you just – it's a matter of when someone comes in in front of you that you then begin to see the possibilities of that dynamic?
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Well, it all depends on what time you're talking about. That answer's different if we're talking 2009 than if we're talking about 2019. Damn, dude. Wow. Damn. OK. Damn.
ALI: So, 2019 –
ADRIAN YOUNGE: That's crazy. Wow.
ALI: – when you think about that, the prospect of any MCs.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Man, I had to let that soak in a little bit.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: That's crazy. This is my ten year anniversary really of kind of being a professional artist, now that I really think about it.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Cause we started Black Dynamite in 2007, but it wasn't released until 2009. So nobody really knew that I was a musician. Cause I was a musician for a long time before that, but I was just doing my own thing. But nobody really knew I was a musician until that time.
And you know what's something I don't think I've ever told you? Is around the time I was making Black Dynamite – remember how I said in this I was creating things and I was kind of planting seeds? – I had made a version of "Excursions," before people were actually re-doing old – but I was doing a Tribe version, exactly how I record stuff now, the same kind of thing, before we even met or anything. I gotta find it, cause I want to show it to you.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: But it's crazy, because – we'll talk about this later, but in the Midnight Hour when we perform, we do a version of "Excursions." So – and when you're playing the bass, I don't even think about myself playing that bass.
ALI: That's crazy.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: And now I'm thinking back like, "Oh, wow, dude." I actually played – I actually recorded that bass when I was, quote, planting my seeds.
But anyway, going to your question as far as MCs in 2019, you know, the reason why my answer to that is different now versus then is because I always say to people, "I'm hip-hop as hell. I'm super hip-hop. But I left hip-hop in '97." I stayed within the culture. I'm hip-hop to death, but I left hip-hop in '97.
So what that means is that the way the culture was going, I didn't really want to go that way. Because it was changing from something that had a real cultural perspective – it had just a different lifestyle to it – and then things started changing. And this – with music there's – it's cyclical. Things always – that's just what happens. It's always ever-going. And where it is right now, and what people think is super fresh right now, it just doesn't speak to me.
So to answer your question as to what MCs I would want to work with, I mean, I always want to work with artists that have a statement, and I want that statement to coincide with my own. So there's great MCs right now, but there's not many. I won't say there's nobody. There's not many that inspire me to want to sit down and put all the work in to make a whole album. And I'm referring to newer MCs.
Now, as you know, I always say to people that new music or old records that I haven't heard before – cause I really don't listen to new music; all I do is listen to old records. So like, you could show me something, I'ma be like, "Oh, damn, dude. That person actually has some skills." But I heard it before though. This is analogous to – let's go back to the first time I heard Low End Theory. That blew my mind. But there's not no new rap you're going to show me right now that's going to blow my mind more than you showing me a record that I didn't even know was out. You see what I'm saying?
So my understanding of music is deeper now. A vocalist inspires me to make a certain kind of music, but I'm already inspired to make music with or without a vocalist, with or without a singer, without a rapper. Me and you could just go in. "Bro, let's" – when we go in, are we thinking about the vocalist? When we – you see what I'm saying?
ADRIAN YOUNGE: We go in and we're just making music, and the vocalist is an afterthought. Not to say that they're not important, but that's what inspires us now. There was a time in my life where I was way more inspired by, "Oh my god, I get to work with this vocalist." Right now I'd be more inspired to say, "Yo, we get to record Roy Ayers. Or we get to record Gary Bartz." That's way more – and that's not a diss to vocalists. It's just our perspective on music right now is just getting so cavernous. It's just – it's taking us different places, you know?
ALI: So as you have been a little reflective of the ten years past the Black Dynamite album, and where you have grown and evolved to musically now, and by the example that you gave of through time to get you closer to musically your thing – I forgot how you said it exactly – but what is that for you right now?
ADRIAN YOUNGE: What is what?
ALI: The –
FRANNIE: Like his core?
ALI: The core –
ADRIAN YOUNGE: My core?
ALI: – of music that you're drawn to.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Oh. So my core – I hit my core around 2000, and my core has remained the same. So my core is literally '68 to '73. It's psych from that time. It's jazz from that time. It's soul from that time. It's cinematic music from that time. That is my core, my core core. So that could be Bobbi Humphrey Blacks And Blues to an Ennio Morricone soundtrack to an Isaac Hayes album to a Curtis Mayfield Superfly album. It's vinyl culture within that period, from a recording perspective and from a compositional perspective.
And also the kind of music that was being created at that time was something that was a derivative of the fact that we're going through all these crazy civil rights movements, all this stuff. People are being pushed to create music with a lot of emotion. They're being pushed to create something that has a message, that has a statement, that has ownership. This is the first time that you're hearing blacks sing, "I'm black and I'm proud" on music. Jazz cats were promoting blackness and promoting just equality and being different and believing in who you are, but this is the first time, in the late '60s, that just on some black music on the radio, you're hearing "I'm black and I'm proud" and stuff like that.
ALI: So aside from that as a backdrop for music for you, what is your backdrop? We're 40 years, 50 years removed from the Civil Rights Movement. So for you, musically, what is your backdrop?
ADRIAN YOUNGE: My backdrop meaning the music that inspires me?
ALI: Not necessarily music that inspires you but that it gives you the voice, the wings for you to –
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Oh, you're asking me what kind of music do I create?
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Well, my whole thing – OK, so Black Dynamite came out in 2009. My next album was Something About April. That came out in 2011. Now, when I came out with Something About April, I wanted to create an album that reflected my record crate. What that meant to me is that usually when people create albums it's one genre. If you're a country singer, you're making country music. If you're a rapper, you're making rap. If you're an R&B singer, you're making just straight R&B, right? But on Something About April, I wanted it to be literally like my record crate, because I knew that there was a lot of people in this world that love various types of music, you see? But all these various types of music is all the same thing to me because of the period I love, '68 to '73.
So on Something About April I have stuff that sounds like an Italian score. I have stuff that sounds like Smokey Robinson, some straight bubblegum-type Motown stuff. There's some stuff on there that sounds like straight Isaac Hayes. There's stuff on there that sounds like King Crimson. It's all these different musical cultures that existed during the same period, but all fall under the guidelines of what I deem as being vinyl culture.
So my backdrop is just vinyl culture, the stuff I love about records. I love that standard of excellence that they had back then from a recording perspective, from a compositional perspective, from a production perspective. And I make music for people that love vinyl.
FRANNIE: So when you say that you wanted to make something that reflected your record crate, you mean the crate that you would take to play out?
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Yeah, to DJ.
FRANNIE: So you're not just talking about things that you like. You're talking about things you saw people respond to, and you saw that people didn't insist on things being one genre only.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Well, so just like Ali, I started off as a DJ as well. When I go to DJ, there's two kind of sets I have. One set is, "Oh, we're having a good time. We're spinning people to dance." And the other set is, "Shut up and listen to me." So in my "shut up and listen to me" set, I got crazy breaks, just music I just love to hear that you're just supposed to sit there and kind of listen to. It's a journey. It's a journey in sound. That crate I'm reflecting on is my journey-in-sound crate.
FRANNIE: Got it.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: So I wanted the Something About April album to be that, and I wanted people to understand that you can make an album that all makes sense when it's put together even though it encompasses various musical genres.
FRANNIE: Cause sometimes the way that you describe it, it feels like you're making music for yourself. You're making what you want to hear. But then it would mean – then you have an audience of one, which has not turned out to be the case. Because not only does the music that you make, people embrace it, follow it, all that, also you get sampled, and then in sampled form that shit moves. I still remember when – I don't know why –
ADRIAN YOUNGE: "Picasso Baby" or –
FRANNIE: Yeah. But I don't know why we were together in the same room and it came on, and I was like, "When you hear that, do you just hear dollar sign?" Is that what that song is for you now?
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Well, what that song – to back up, I always say to people, as an artist, it's your job to be an arbiter of greatness. It's your job to tell people what's dope. You're a pioneer. You're a trailblazer. You don't ask what's dope. You tell people what's dope.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: That's your job. So with me, everything I did as an artist literally makes no sense, right? I have a fully analog studio. I'm playing live instruments. There's no computer program I'm using. There's no MIDI. There's no nothing. There's nothing in my studio when I'm making music that should put me in a position to be able to actually make a professional career doing what I'm doing.
So even when I started to really really make music, which is in the 2000s, it's the same thing just like now. People didn't have big-ass tape machines. So I started off just doing what I believed in. I have a studio that literally makes no sense in the modern world, and it's something I believe in regardless. And I always tell people that what I do is I create a false reality and just make that a reality. And I make music for an audience in my head, and I continue to try to impress this audience in my head. And when I impress them, that means I did something right.
Now when I'm in this fake world, I gotta try to transfer that into some kind of reality, and I transfer that into some kind of profession where I could actually make money off this. And my thing is always if you work hard and you take calculated risks, you could put yourself in the position exceed expectations when opportunities arise. So me kind of believing in this weird stuff I'm doing actually worked.
That song that was sampled for Jay-Z's "Picasso Baby" was one of the last songs I created for Something About April, because I wanted people to know I'm hip-hop. So I wanted to make a beat that sounded kind of like a hip-hop – kind of like a Dilla-ish type of beat that would've been made in the '60s. And when people would hear that, be like, "Oh, yo, this dude is hip-hop." That's literally the only reason I wrote that song.
And what's crazy, I swear to god, when I did that, I said, "You know what? I want somebody like Kanye or Jay-Z to sample this." I specifically remember saying that to the label at the time. So when I hear that song, it's something that reflects the fact that you always kind of just gotta believe in what you're doing. And if it doesn't work out, it's not a failure. It's only a failure if something didn't work out and you didn't try. So it just shows if you believe in something, just do it. And that's what hits me every time I hear that song.
FRANNIE: Yeah. So you are going to have to – as his producing and songwriting partner deal with that attitude, right? Do you share it or do you complicate it?
ALI: Yeah, it's definitely a shared attitude. I think when Adrian said that, I was actually thinking back to a time when I was making music outside of A Tribe Called Quest, and in my own way trying to bridge the hip-hop and R&B community a little bit. And I think at the time there was a call out for music for Karyn White, and so I submitted a song that I thought would be very – it was weird in my head, and I think it would've been a leap of faith for her and for the record company. And they didn't get it, and it inspired me to continue to make what I thought was weird music, cause I knew that there's a method to it, and something about it would work.
And so when that particular frame didn't work, the same time I got called to work with the Fu-Schnickens. And they liked the song, and that song became – "La Schmoove" is the name of the song. And to me, I knew that "La Schmoove" would work more so as a hip-hop record, but I was thinking more of an R&B thing, because to me it was my version Al B. Sure meets some banging type of beats.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: That don't make no sense, bro.
FRANNIE: It does too! It does too.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: No, that was hard, bro. That song was so – you guys were in the video, right?
ALI: I don't remember. I think I might –
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Or was Phife?
ALI: Phife might've been in the video.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: I remember I was like, "What the – why're they –" That song is hard as hell. In fact, it doesn't get played enough as much anymore. I don't hear nothing R&B-ish. To me it's like – I feel like this. I'm waving my hands up and down.
FRANNIE: You're doing the M.O.P. thing is what you're doing right now.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Yeah, it's super super hype. I don't see any caressing or sensuality behind that, bro.
ALI: But just to go in my head though, I always create a world that's just me, and it's – the reason why I think Adrian and I get along, not only just as friends but just from a creative perspective, is because there are so many aspects of our creative spirit that's so much alike. And I'm always creating music from the world that's in my head, and the world that's in my head, same with Adrian, comes from a DJ perspective.
When I would DJ, especially when I was 18, when Q-Tip and I were cutting our teeth in New York City and still trying to present ourselves as A Tribe Called Quest, which no one knew who we were, and Red Alert would let us come DJ at one of his events, I was always that guy who was like, "Oh shoot, you're going to let me go?" I'm going to give you Ultramagnetic, but also I'm going to throw in, I don't know, some random house record or something that just made absolutely no sense whatsoever.
It wasn't the thing to do. It cleared the dance floor at times, but I grew up listening to Spyro Gyra and George Benson at the same time, and to me that's hip-hop. And so I wanted to make music that was what was in my mind, a presentation of a lot of different, beautiful colors. So we definitely share that aspect.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: You were being ahead of the game, because Mary J. didn't even come out yet.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: And then – so if she was singing – that sounds like it could literally be on her album, on that first one. So yeah, I get it. People weren't – they wasn't there yet.
ALI: Yeah. And I'm always in the position where people are not there. When I'm presenting an idea, it is the weirdest and strangest thing to most people, and I've always been OK with that. And it's something I think Adrian and I talk about at the end of our performances at the Midnight Hour shows, is just explaining our journey and the leap of faith and the belief as he was just speaking about, believing in your creative spirit and where you can not only take your music but establish an environment where you can eat from it.
And not only can you eat from it, but you are – it's a continuous support system inside and outside, and that's just from being weird, embracing your weirdness. I think that's something that Tribe was always about, that identity, knowing who you are, not necessarily chasing other people. Adrian is inspired by some of the greatest artists that have ever lived in my opinion, but he doesn't sound like those artists and likewise with me. So there are a lot of – there's similarities, but also because we're similar, there's so much space because we think differently.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Mhmm.
ALI: So we're not stepping on each other's toes with the same belief system.
FRANNIE: Can you go a little bit further into that? How do you think as compared to how he thinks?
ADRIAN YOUNGE: So imagine two people that have the same kind of lifestyle, that really believe in the thoughts that exist in their head.
FRANNIE: Got it.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Now, you can be Curtis Mayfield. I can be Isaac Hayes, right? They write different music. If you look from the Impressions from Curtis Mayfield to even Isaac's early stuff to his later stuff, they write different music that can fall within the same genre. You look at Isaac Hayes Shaft versus Curtis Mayfield's Superfly, they could fall within the same genre. They're both great, but they're two totally different perspectives. I'll actually make the argument that Curtis Mayfield's Superfly is actually closer to Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, just from a bass line perspective and all that.
FRANNIE: Oh sure.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: So the thing is we have a lot of respect for each other in the studio, and we're also fans of each other working. So I could literally sit there and do nothing, just listen to where he's going to go, and then tell him, "No, stop right there." And I do that. He'll play bass. I'm like, "Bro, that's it." "You sure?" "Yes. That's it. Don't go any further. Stop. Let's work on that." And I could play something on the piano or something or bass, and he could say the same thing for me. So we can – we both are in the same worlds, but we think differently within the same worlds, but we're still part of the same world. You see what I'm saying?
FRANNIE: I think so. I think it's also about – I'm thinking about – I came to an orchestra session one time for Luke Cage, and you guys were conducting from the board. And you said, Adrian, to these classically trained musicians, you were like, "OK. What you need to do – I need 36 Chambers from you right now. This is what I need you to have in your head." And I saw – two people knew what the fuck you were talking about. Two people were like, "Yeah." And everybody else was like –
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Funny. Yeah.
FRANNIE: But I imagine when you're creating with somebody, to be able to say something like that, and be like, "Oh, I know exactly what you need." It's not just efficient. It's connected.
ALI: It's very connected, and that's the kindred spirit between the two of us.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Absolutely. You know what's funny? And this is analogous to my connection with Ali. So right now I just – I'm wrapping up this prog, psychedelic album with Jack Waterson. And Ali came in and helped with the last couple songs. It's funny. I was thinking about you a couple days ago. Because when Jack and I were thinking about the last couple songs, we both love old psych rock type-stuff, and we're like, "What have we not hit yet?" We were like, "OK, we hit the Space Oddity-type of thing. We hit the King Crimson. We hit some kind of 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.' What haven't we hit?" And he could throw stuff out, and I'm like, "Oh yeah. We haven't went Velvet Underground. OK, let's go."
So with Ali, when we're doing the Midnight Hour, we're like, "Yo, so we hit this Bobbi Humphrey already. We hit Donald Byrd. We hit this Coltrane. Where haven't we went yet? Oh, we haven't went Gary Bartz. OK, let's go." And we get it. We totally get it. We understand the world. We understand the statement that they're making and we can go. There's not many people that have that kind of musical knowledge.
FRANNIE: The breadth.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Exactly. And that can compartmentalize all these styles and now kind of soak up all the pulp from it and create something brand new. Get all the concentrate and just do something brand new but still continuing in a direction. So when you find somebody like that, it's something that's very very special and very rare.
FRANNIE: Yeah, cause what has struck me about watching you guys perform as the Midnight Hour, and I felt this much more in the audience as opposed to listening to the album, is it's not that what you make is this weird melting pot of – it's not an amalgamation-type thing. You can distinctly hear the conversation between – across generations and across genre. It's like these things are distinct. They're not melted down to make something new. It's more of an additive thing. How do you do that though? I mean, I feel like that's – in a way that's a thing that hip-hop aspires to be, is conversation.
ALI: I think for us, if I can go off of my memory in recording some of it, it's, one, again knowing who we are as musicians.
FRANNIE: For sure.
ALI: It's knowing the music that we've been inspired by, so it's kind of woven into our DNA, so it becomes innate in a sense.
FRANNIE: Right. But it's an awareness.
ALI: But that's what I'm saying. It's not something that you have to think about. We don't have to go, "OK. Let's go to Bobbi Humphreys," like he's saying. We could do that, but there's an element of that that's just been a part of us for so long it's in our DNA.
And so another part of that is that we wholly trust in our ourselves, in our individual selves, and we wholly trust in each other, like, wholly, completely. There's nothing that Adrian's going to do, and I'm going to be like, "I don't know where he going right now." It's like, nah, "I don't know where he's going, and I love the fact that I don't know." Cause whatever the reveal is, the a-ha moment for me that he already has, I know when I get there, it's going to be great. And then when I kick in with my part on top that. So there's a complete trust factor there.
And then there's also the unfolding journey as it's before us. I can give Adrian a set of chords and he's hearing it for the first time. He's like, "Show me how you play that." and then I'll show him how I play it. And then he takes it somewhere way far that I'm just like, "Yes." I knew that he is the person I needed to give this to. And so there's the unfolding in the moment.
And there's also this element of: we're still learning. Even though we know our instruments, we're also still inspired at the fact that – like kids, when you're 13 or you're 15 and you're with an instrument and there's that joy of like, "Oh shoot, I could do this?" That exists every day in our writing, which for some people, they lose that part. And then when they lose that continuing conversation that you're talking about, what you hear in the music is lost, because it becomes mundane a little bit.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: I always say that when you're making music for that audience in your head, as long as you stay true to them, you'll never have writers block. You'll never lose that audience. Once you start taking other people into consideration too much, that audience in your head starts leaving. And by the time you're getting ready to do another show for them, only a couple of them are left. And you don't even know how to really assess what you like anymore.
ALI: What's been really surprising to me though is with the Midnight Hour, I've watched it in Adrian's world and the music that he's put out and how he's cultivated a really serious and dedicated fanbase. They're not people who are just like, "Yeah, I'm here for the moment, cause I just discovered or I listened and I'm on to the next." He's cultivated a real strong fanbase.
But with the Midnight Hour, one of the things that I'm also shocked by is the fact that going off of this example of the music in our head and creating that world of you and having to please you musically and ultimately you'll please people who discover and who like you, people really like the Midnight Hour music. And it's funny when as a DJ, you have a record and you're like, "Oh, I got something new. I can't wait to play it for somebody. Oh, everybody's going to be bugging off of this." They're going to appreciate it as much as you do. For me, and I don't know if – it's the somewhat opposite when it comes to presenting my music. I always think I'm the only one that's going to get it. It's different than when you're a DJ and you know everybody's going to get it when you drop that one song.
So I'm always surprised to hear how people receive the Midnight Hour.
FRANNIE: Cause you just thought it would outside their zone somehow? Or –
ALI: Not that it would be outside their zone, but Adrian used to say to me all the time, "I don't think you understand what this record is." And I always keep things internally. I'm not like, "Oh yeah, I think it's going to be the" – no. I have a reserved way about me. But with the Midnight Hour album, I really believe that we – there would be certain people who would definitely mess with it, without a doubt. Because we make a connection with a certain type of fan. We know that. Without thinking about it, we know that there's a reasonable amount of people that we know we're going to connect with.
But that's a given, and I don't make music with a guaranteed like, "Oh, yeah, that" – I don't take anything for granted. But at the same time there was just an element, a small part of me, that was like, "Man, I just only think there's only going to be a few of us that get it." And just seeing the overwhelming response of people who – they really understand this album is very surprising and really – it means a lot to me. Because, again, coming from that weirdo perspective, it's like, you're a weirdo, and you're a weirdo alone and comfortable about that, but not realizing that there're thousands more who are feeling like you feeling. It feels good.
Can I go back a little bit though, pre-2009, when you said no one knew who you were, making music? I had recently spoken to Taboo from the Black Eyed Peas, and he gave you so much praise with regards to what you did for the dance community in Los Angeles. Can you talk about your dance side and where you come from and the name of your crew and what you established?
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Yeah, so my first – I've always loved music, but my first real contribution to the hip-hop community was me being a dancer and throwing events. I was hardcore into dance, hardcore into freestyle dance and all that stuff. If anybody ever knew about the Moptops or Soul Brothers and all that, with those kind of cats there was a subculture of hip-hop that focused on the notion of freestyle dance. And it's something that was really, like – late '80s, early '90s to mid '90s up until around 2000 is when it was going hard. Cats like Divine Styler and even the Pharcyde, everybody was into this stuff. And it was a very special time in our culture.
So what I started doing, and this actually ties right into music, because when I did my album in 2000, I just released it by myself, a fake Italian score. And it was kind of – it was my version of Something About April before Something About April. And it was an album that I created where I said, "I want to spend a year playing a bunch of instruments, and just, I want to do an album by myself, not relying on people." And I did it. I did that album, and when I was doing that album, I realized how much I wanted to score for film. I really wanted to do it.
So during that time, I was in law school and working full time, and I was also – at night I was DJing events, dancing at these events. So I was doing a whole bunch of stuff at the same time. I said, "Damn, something really cool is going on right now in L.A. We're going to these events. There's all these dancers that are coming out, and it's just dope. It's a real culture. It's not just people having fun. It's an actual dance culture." I was like, "Yo, it'd be cool to document this." And I was like, "You know what? If I could figure out how to kind of make a documentary thing or kind of turn myself into a filmmaker, maybe this could help me get a chance to score something."
So I bought a video camera, I just started filming a bunch of dancers at these events and everything. And then I put together a documentary called Respond To Sound, and it was a documentary on just freestyle dancing, the culture of freestyle dancing. And people loved it. It was great. We did events on it. And then when I did part two, that's when I met Taboo. And I got really into the documentation of this.
And then I did a documentary on black American street dancing from 1765 to 1965. And what I was doing at that time was I was collecting old 8mm reels, old 16mm reels of film, and this is all pre-YouTube, and I was cutting all this stuff up together to show how similar black dancing, black street dancing, has been over the last centuries.
And that's when I really got into understanding just kind of black history and that street culture of art. That's how I got into Harlem Renaissance. That's how I learned about tap dancing and where it came from, and I was just super immersed in it. So I created that documentary, and then it went at film festivals. It, you know, did good, got love, but I was – I had real discernible eye for editing. Cause I was editing. I was producing. I was doing all this stuff.
Now, in 2007, one of the homies that was DJing with me was also a director. One day he came up to me, and he was like, "Bro, I found that Venice Dawn album that you did, and it is freaking amazing. I didn't even know you did music." Cause I never really told people I did music. I was like, "Aww, thank you." That was like seven years later.
Six months later, "Yo, man. Would you be interested in possibly editing a blaxploitation movie and doing the soundtrack for it?" I was like, "Uhh, hell yeah!" Cause my whole studio was in my garage, and he would tease me. He'd be like, "Dude, why do you got all this weird-ass shit in your garage. It makes no sense." Cause like I said, nobody – everybody knew I was dancer and DJ; nobody knew I did music. And it wasn't anything I was shy about. It was just like, this wasn't for everybody yet.
So he said, "Look. I want you to meet my friend Michael Jai White, cause he has a script called Super Bad." Met with him. I said, "This thing is amazing." I said, "Yo, let's film a fake trailer for it. See if we can get funding for it." So me and Scott rented a bunch of old VHS – VHSs, not DVDs, VHSs of blaxploitation films. And we shot stuff on 8mm with my Mike Jai White, and put together a fake trailer. Sent it to a financier. We got funding for it.
So what dance did for me is put me in the position to want to become a filmmaker, and that was one of the ways I diversified my abilities in hopes it would bring me closer to being able to score, and it actually worked. So yeah.
FRANNIE: OK, so I've watched some of the scoring things, your guys' entering into that realm. And it seems to me like you don't have the ability to speak that same language with the people that you need to – to get all the levels of approval that you need to get when you're making a score for something. What I mean is the language that you guys have between each other, you don't share that with somebody at a studio or somebody at some type of production house or whatever, and that those conversations are not efficient, and that you don't feel connected in them. I don't want to characterize them, but I do want to ask, how do you deal with the feeling of not being understood?
ADRIAN YOUNGE: So you tried to just basically say to me, "Yo, these cats don't be feeling you sometimes." That's all you had to say.
FRANNIE: That's not –
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Oh yeah. OK, OK. Well, this is what it is. Nah, nah. The thing is –
FRANNIE: Well, what I'm – OK. But I think what happens is you say, "This is what we're going to make." And they're like, "Tight." And then you give it to them, and they're like, "Oh, that's not I thought."
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Dude. I understand exactly. Literally, "All these cats don't be feeling you sometimes." That's it. I know – you don't have to – I know exactly it is. I know exactly what you're asking.
FRANNIE: It's a specific flavor of not feeling you sometimes.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: So what it is is that now you have composers that are career composers. So you go to school for music. You had music in high school, all through your life. Your dream is to be composer. You get a job composing for television, and you want to finally get a job doing film. You get a job doing film, and this is all – this is it. This is what you want to do rest of your life. That's it.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: OK. Now Ali and I are different. See, we're outright artists. We just happen to love scoring a lot. So the thing is, what's priority to us first is us being artists.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: First. That's not what it is for most composers. So when we are doing music, if the music is not statement oriented, if it's not something that we think is really fresh, we just don't want to do it, because it's taking away from us being who we're supposed to be. We're artists. We're not work-for-hires per se. You see what I'm saying? That's what a composer is. So if we're doing – like, Ali knows. When we go into a meeting, what is one of the things that – you know what I always say, bro.
ALI: I can't believe you say it sometimes. I'm just like, "Adrian really does" – it's not that you don't care. It's just you care so much, and you want to convey the fact that, "Listen, I love saying no to things, because it allows me to say yes to the thing I like to do." And that's the best position that you actually want to be in, because it allows you to give your best work, to do your best work.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Right. The worst feeling is – and Ali and I, this is part of the job. We do have to do that sometimes, no matter what it is. But that feeling of like, "Alright, bro. We gotta do this cue. You ready to do this cue right quick?" And so what happens is, say he's on the piano or something and I'm on bass, but like, "That's the dope as hell." And then like, "Damn, dude. Damn! Why aren't we just making – why aren't we making our own album right now?"
FRANNIE: Right. Yes.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: So we gotta battle with this. Composers don't deal with that. They just do the music. They are work-for-hires. They do what they're asked for. What we do, we're asked for something, and we do our version of what we're asked for. Now, this is a little different than doing Luke Cage, because Cheo Coker, the showrunner, he's one of us. So he's not in the studio with us when we're writing physically, but spiritually he's right there sitting next to us.
FRANNIE: And he does share your references.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Absolutely.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: But those situations are rare. Because you don't have that many people in the film and television industry that are as cultured as Cheo. And also just black composers don't really get those kind of opportunities. Because whenever we're making music, it's going to sound like black guys are making it, and not from a trap perspective, it's just going to have soul, dude. It's going to have soul. And a lot of people are afraid of having soul in composition. And it sounds dumb. It sounds stupid. But it's the truth.
FRANNIE: Do you think it's cause they think it's distracting or because they think that mainstream audience will be put off by it?
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Most of them don't know nothing about music, dude. Most of them literally don't know nothing about music.
FRANNIE: They're just not used to it.
ALI: Yeah, I think it's also that they're accustomed to a mold, and so it's funny, because just right – a moment ago, we have this new keyboard here by Moog. And just pressing the preset, and I was like, "Oh wow. All we need is this one sound. We could finish five films."
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Exactly. Exactly.
ALI: Just with this one sound. And I'm like, "This is what people are accustomed" – those people who are hiring composers, it's like, "Oh I want to hear that." And it's like –
FRANNIE: It's a paint-by-numbers-type thing.
ALI: It is a paint-by-numbers, and because so many people do it, then – and it's no different than our own music careers. If we think about just again, being in our own head, when you're a grand production of a television series or a movie, it's not really about you and what's in your head. It's about this whole big idea, and so when they are hiring that career composer, that career composer understands – or their approach to making the music is, "I'm really here just to be a vessel to serve that thing that everybody – that vision, that fantasy that everyone else has." Because they're not an individual. They're there. But when Adrian and I – we're individuals. We're artists, which is another reason why we've heard from our agent and other showrunners is like, "They don't like to hire artists, because artists think as individuals."
I think, however, the best thing – and this is just me speaking from my perspective – you want to hire someone who thinks as an individual, but not only thinks as an individual but understands the world that's being created and can think outside of what is in your head of what this world is. Because there's more to the world, and things I think sometimes that a director or a showrunner hadn't thought about. And it wasn't until someone says, "Had you thought about it or saw it this way?" And it's like, "Wow. No. You just elevated it." And I think when you're an individual thinker like that, you shake up life, and you make it uncomfortable. And I think that people are accustomed to being comfortable.
And so when we come in bringing in the soul, which shouldn't be strange, but it is, and to identify what most people call as atmosphere, for an example, what does atmosphere sound like? That's a subjective answer. We don't present what they are accustomed to seeing atmosphere like. We have another way of presenting that. So it makes it a challenge for us sometimes, because we really believe that we can offer something greater than what they're imagining when they hire us.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: To add on to what you're saying, perfect analogy, one of the greatest soundtracks of all time to me is Superfly, and I have a very deep knowledge. I love soundtrack music. Superfly is one of the best ever created. Now, you have Ennio Morricone who's also a master. How many opportunities did Curtis Mayfield get to score films? OK? He had a Short Eyes. He had Superfly. He had – god, I'm looking at the album cover. I can't even think of the name. What's – Sparkle? He did Sparkle?
ADRIAN YOUNGE: I feel like there may be one more, two more maybe. Now, Ennio Morricone, white dude, Italian dude, is he doing funk? Hell yeah, he's doing funk, right? So you got Curtis Mayfield doing funk at the same time. He doesn't get that many opportunities. Ennio Morricone, who's a master – nothing against Ennio, I love Ennio Morricone – he's done over 500 soundtracks.
Black people don't get the chances to do great soulful scores, cause they're black. If you're white, and you're doing great, soulful scores, you'll get more opportunities. And that's just what history has shown. Now, conversely, Ennio Morricone is a career composer. Curtis Mayfield is not, but that doesn't mean he doesn't have the ability to create a great score.
So my lifestyle, my perspective, is that I work very very hard doing the things I love, and I really prefer not being hired for something that's going to give me security when I don't really love it. And Ali and I have accepted some of these jobs, just said, "You know what? Let's just do it. It's an opportunity to get us closer to doing other things that we want to do." And every single time we say yes to do it, we look at each other like, "Yo."
We were just on tour, and I was like, "Bro, can you imagine if we were scoring blah blah blah right now?" And he's like, "Oh my god." Opposed to going to perform for a bunch of people. It's like, yo, we do what we love. Our vision – there's no ceiling on our vision. For a lot of career composers – and this is not no diss to them at all – they don't look as far as we do, as far as what we want to be at the end of the day. Our legacy.
FRANNIE: Yeah. So how do you respond to the argument that some miscommunication or tension that might be felt is more about your conversational style or the way that you are in these meetings or whatever? Because just speaking – I'm not talking about race right now, but in my experience, people spent a lot of time telling me that it was more about my tone or the way I approached a phone call or whatever that was preventing me from achieving my vision or pushing forward an idea that they were sleeping on. And I have come to believe that that was all – all of that shit was a lie, that it was never about my tone or the way I approached a phone call or whatever. That that was just cover for something else. But I do think it's important to challenge that argument head on.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Well, you're a very smart, intelligent woman, so you will be discriminated for that. I know you have been discriminated for that. So that's just a part of the life that we're in right now. There's going to be certain things that happen because people may be afraid of you for whatever reason.
And it's not to say that you can't say something that offends somebody or I can't say something that offends somebody, but the thing is I really am a firm believer in whatever's supposed to happen is just going to happen anyway. So if there's somebody that rubs Ali wrong, I know Ali's a hella nice guy. I don't work with those people that rub him wrong, same thing with me. So we're not chasing things. If somebody's not feeling us for some reason, yo, it's super cool. It's really OK.
And people start to really understand this concept obviously as life goes on, and you reflect. But when you read books on people like a Marvin Gaye or like a Duke Ellington or whomever it may be, you look at what they did in their past, and you look at the kind of decisions, the conundrums that they were in. You look at what they had to say yes to and what they had to say no to in order to become the legends you know them as. And what you start realizing is like, "Oh, if you're dope, you're just supposed to be dope, and you're going to be cool anyway."
So don't trip. Whatever's going to happen's going to happen. Just work every day, and it'll figure itself out. You put yourself in the position where it's like, "Alright, yo. I ain't working with that person. It's cool. It's giving me more time to do what I want to do anyway. I ain't tripping."
FRANNIE: Right. But what do you say to people who say, "Oh, it's not that we're racist. It's because this other person responds to emails this way on this time schedule or whatever?"
ALI: I think it goes back to just whatever will be will be, which is what Adrian just said.
ALI: And the acceptance that you're OK with the outcome. Either in your mind you're going to be cool with it, or in your mind you're going to think that you should still be attached to that thing that ultimately no one wants you to be a part of. And it's like, do you fight to be a part of that, or do you just go and do something else that – and builds something that actually is going to be more gratifying, more fulfilling. And I think we choose to not even look backwards.
FRANNIE: You're not going to have that argument.
ALI: We look forward. You know, there's – fairly recently, we just got let go from a job, and it's interesting how we even got into that job, because we always wholly represent ourselves. We never hold anything back. We're just like, "This is who we are." And so when we were hired, it was off of our understanding that they understood who we were. There was a level of expectations based off of what was communicated completely. However, for them, they had a change, an awareness that I don't think they knew at the time that they hired us.
Now in that departure, we could've been emotional and clung to it, and I think could've made a point that we were duped, but that wasn't the case. We looked bigger to that and just say, "We weren't suited, based off of your understandings of what you want to do. Where you want to take this vision, we didn't fall into that. And that's actually OK for us, because we want you to have what is going to make your production better for you as you build it, as you construct it." And again for us, it's a weight off of our shoulder, because we're not trying to force ourselves to be somewhere where it's just not really ultimately meant for us to be. Yeah, so I think you have more of a peace of mind just accepting that and just moving on.
Now if it's something that you retain ownership in, I think that's a different – you operating differently there. When we're being brought in and hired, we don't retain ownership of these things. But when it's something that you retain ownership in, that's a different type of a conversation and a different type of a, I'll use the word battle, but not necessarily battle, but just a way of communicating.
FRANNIE: You're invested differently.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: To add on to what he was saying, and this to all the listeners, one thing that you realize as you get older, as you get wiser in the game, is that you have to really respect yourself. You have to respect yourself. Now, Ali and I are the type that will not even go to sleep just to make a deadline. We do that for people that have a lot of respect for us. If somebody's disrespecting us, hell no. We ain't doing that.
So when you are in the position where people are asking you for the impossible, if they don't respect you, don't do it. Respect yourself. Spend time with your family. Do the things that you need to do, and give them whatever whenever they're supposed to get it based on the agreement that you had. But if they ain't respecting you, nah, you gotta let them know. You know what I'm saying?
And that's something I really didn't know as much early on. I was like, "Let me just stick my head down and work." But then once you realize, yo, they don't care, dude. They don't care. Then you're like, "Alright. Cool, you're going to be like that? You're going to have to wait a little bit. I got other things to do right now."
ALI: So many times Adrian has said, "Ali, you care too much." He tells me that all the time. "Dude, why you care so much?" I'm like – and I have to really think about it when he says that. I'm like, "It's a good check." Cause it's like, "Yeah, I'm now emotionally investing in something that, on the other side, they're not emotionally investing in in return." So it's just like, "Oh yeah."
ADRIAN YOUNGE: I have to tell him to put some respect on his name. You know? And that's coming from – I mean, we both have that thing. On Luke Cage, the amount of sleep that we didn't get just because of our love of the people that we worked with and the respect they had for us, yo, we go all the way to the end for them.
FRANNIE: Yeah, I remember.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. You know. But then there's some cats that just want us to do things, and yeah, I don't want to name no names, but it's so dope not – just to say, "You're going to wait." Cause then it's like they're like, "OK. We can't talk to them like that again."
FRANNIE: Right. Yeah, you gotta train people. It's just like dating really.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Oh, OK.
FRANNIE: Another that happened kind of around that time that I saw – and we've talked about this a little bit before – but early Luke Cage days, you guys kind of had a change in style, in presentation. It wasn't a total turnover a new leaf-type thing. It was an evolution. But I mean, it just became very serious. I would come in here in leggings, and you guys would be three piece suits, and I would be like, "God dammit. Again."
But what you and I have talked about is that when you do kind of elevate, you should present yourself differently. Cause you're presenting yourself to yourself, especially as a contractor, freelancer, independent actor. You're impressing yourself.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: OK, so I'll tell you something. I remember – this was maybe about six, seven years ago. I remember going to – I had a show. I had to fly out somewhere to do a show with my band. And I remember going to the airport, and I was telling my manager, I was like, "Shit, bro. I am fucking broke as fuck right now." And I looked down at my luggage, and it was some Louis shit, right? And I was like, "You know, but I'm fucking fly right now." OK?
And this sounds funny, but it was a real moment for me. Because what it really meant is that I am myself, and I'll be OK. So I said – the Louis luggage I had, that would've been – that's like, say, a few Gs or some shit, right? Just from fucking luggage. But it was a part of who I am. I said, "Damn, dude. I could really use that money right now." But I said, "Nah. This is just me. I'm fly. I'm cool with it." It's not – a normal person would look at that as excess, but what you wear, what you do should represent who you are. So rocking three pieces and all that shit, well, if you understand the history of just what blacks had to do as far as how they had to dress in order to show that they're equal to – in order to show that they should be respected, in order to show that they should not be subjugated to whatever nonsense, there's a history behind it.
And there's a correlation behind dressing the part, and I underline "the part." Because if a dude rocks sweats everyday and he's broke, every single day he rocks sweats, versus if he puts a three piece suit on when he's just going to the grocery store, and he's just doing that every day, you walk different, and you think different. You won't be broke as long when you're actually being that person. And obviously to each his own, but for me, I'm myself, and that's what really really really matters. It's not for anybody else. Unless I'm going to the gym I can't even rock tennis shoes outside, cause it feels weird to me. When we met, I wasn't like that.
ADRIAN YOUNGe: I had dreads on. I had – I actually remember I had dreads on. I think I had some camouflage-type pants and a – I feel like I had this red – this is real stupid. I don't even know why I remember this. I feel as though I had this Ralph Lauren – I was super into Ralph Lauren and vintage shit back then.
FRANNIE: You were. I forgot about that.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Hardcore into that.
FRANNIE: You so were.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Exactly. But that was me. I always wanted to be who I am now, ever since I was a kid. When I was a kid, I said, "When I grow up, I want to be able to rock suits every single every day." So I finally got to the point where I became myself. You see what I'm saying?
FRANNIE: How do you feel about that?
ALI: It's interesting, because coming from the hip-hop and the place where hip-hop is liberating in the sense that you can be who you are and – it's funny –
FRANNIE: You can wear sweats in the boardroom. Deal with it.
ALI: Yeah, it's like – exactly. It's like, "Yo, this is me. If I'm rocking Adidas or whatever, yo, handle it. Nah, I don't care what the constructive environment of is." And that's the beauty about hip-hop. It made it so that you can wholly make it about you, which is not always about dress. But then again, the other aspect of hip-hop was that, yeah, it was about fashion, because the fashion was a part of it. It was just it might've been more denim than wooden plaids, right? And that just depends on the era of your hip-hop too. Cause there was an era of hip-hop where people were leathered outfit out, or they were dressed up.
But for me, it's funny. I look back at my childhood photos, and my mom always had me in the three piece, like always. And so that was a just a part of me that people didn't always get to see, even some of my junior high –
ADRIAN YOUNGE: From J.C. Penneys?
ALI: Exactly. My grandmother worked for J.C. Penneys, and still to this day, I don't know, 50 years later, not working for them, still talks about her J.C. Penney – the glory days of J.C. Penney.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Ah, damn!
ALI: That's so funny you bring that up.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Cause I was imagining you getting a little suit from – and probably you had the family pictures in there too.
ALI: Oh, man. I don't know if my mom really was messing with my grandmom on the J. C. Penneys level. I don't know where she got a lot of clothing, but that's so funny you said that.
But just for me, growing in hip-hop, I'm 48, and moving through a lot of different environments as one matures and have made a career, in not just hip-hop but just in music and transitioning into scoring and composing and even more environments, it really is a matter of people taking you seriously. And think, for an example, when Barack Obama was president, could you imagine if he showed up to every meeting in khakis and a t-shirt? Like, every meeting, with every head of state, every prime minister, every president of every nation that he dealt with. If he did that, how seriously people would have taken him, just in look alone? Which is wack! You don't want people to judge you, but we do. That's what happens.
And so it's funny, me coming in at different times, cause you're going to get casual Ali. You're going to get dressed up Ali. And Raphael always – even today, when I just said – when I went into his room and said what up, he was like, "Oh, I'm so happy you're not suited up today."
FRANNIE: Me too. God dammit.
ALI: He said, "Man, you make me feel good."
FRANNIE: I'm with Raph on this one.
ALI: But on the other side of that, when people come to the studio and I am, it's such an unexpected aspect of it, but I feel great.
FRANNIE: Yeah, you can never tell.
ALI: You can never tell.
FRANNIE: I can never predict.
ALI: But that's always been a part of me. I just think that because of my hip-hop life and those environments, it is a lot more presentable to rock a hoodie and some jeans and sneakers. And in certain environments, it's warranted. You have to be that comfortable. But I think in certain environments, at least the ones that I'm in, it's a different conversation when you walk in the room presented that way.
Whereas most people that they deal with, especially because hip-hop is so prominent in a commerce level, in a business level, where people are so comfortable that the people working at the companies are super cas-ed out, when Adrian and I walk in, it's a statement. And it –
ADRIAN YOUNGE: It's like slow-motion, baby.
ALI: It's a statement that we have to be taken seriously in every element of our existence, especially because we're creatives. And I think often – or talent. In this business, when someone labels you as talent, it's already a negative connotation.
ALI: And it's just like, "Yo, you just here to entertain the troops for a little bit, and whatever it is that you think about or whatever doesn't command our respect." And that annoys me, because we – if that's all you deduce, our being too as just talent then, yeah, I'm looking forward to educating you, what talent from Brooklyn looks like when we're dealing with each other, when I've grown to the level of, I don't really need my lawyer to negotiate a deal for me or a contract. I can read a contract and tell you what's right and what's wrong with it. That's the level of what you're dealing with. That's experience.
And so when we walk through the door, it's just – it's a, "Oh wow. I have to" – those people have to now adjust whatever their approach was about to be with us.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Just to add on to what he's saying too. When we're dressed, in our heads, we're not dressed up. When we're on stage, we're dressed up.
FRANNIE: Well, that was going to be my next question. Was the way that your stage outfits, not costumes –
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Yeah. Evening wear.
FRANNIE: Evening wear, right. The way that that elevates the whole situation. I mean, people put effort into what they wear to your shows as well, which makes it more of a commitment sort of to the space.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: That's still strange to me.
FRANNIE: What do you mean? That people dress up?
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Yeah. We was just talking about that. We did an interview, and dude asked, "Would you be offended if when I came to your show I was wearing a hoodie?" And it's like – so you gotta look at it – I mean, in all honesty –
FRANNIE: That's a weird question.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: No, for real. But in all honesty, even though we be rocking suits and all that on the daily, it's just regular clothes. So it's literally synonymous with the person that rocks the Gucci sweatsuit or whatever. Honestly, this is just the clothes I have. That's just what it is. I'm just wearing clothes I have. I'm not – I forgot we even had this today. You know what I'm saying? So I'm like, "Oh damn. OK, I'm on my way over here."
FRANNIE: Yeah. I didn't think you put on something special for us. I was not under that impression.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: But it's just regular. It's just what it is. We dress up for our shows though, and we dress up for our shows, because we want the patrons to understand that we really appreciate the fact that they came out to see us. And that we take what we're doing very very seriously. To me, when I see cats come out on stage and they're not dressed up – I mean, like I said, this is always to each his own. In every situation, it's a different situation. But when I see cats look like straight bums, I'm like, "Bro. I perform. You can't dress up a little bit? Just a little bit?" And it's really OK. This is just more of a personal – this is a personal thing.
FRANNIE: Yeah, sure. I get it. And also – but it feels like you're in a sort of professional environment. I would think that people give you a little bit more respect also when you're up there. You're using the lights in a totally different way when you do that.
ALI: Absolutely. I just think that, again, everyone has their ritual when they're going to a show, a performance. They're going to see their favorite group. You have your ritual. Part of that ritual of getting dressed though might not even be that thought out, or maybe it is. I can recall going to the Garden at 18, 21 and being like, "Yo, I know I need to go get some fresh kicks, cause, you know." You know?
FRANNIE: Right. Yes.
ALI: So there's –
FRANNIE: Cause why? Why are you looking at –
ALI: The honey dips. Go see some honey dips.
ALI: Yeah, exactly. Just brand new whatever it is. So there's an element I think that comes. And that ultimately means you know you're going somewhere and you want to look good, going to see something that you really love and you enjoy. And so when it comes to the Midnight Hour, when people know that we come in like that, I think it brings another element of joy to the fact that you're going to see something that is really special. You believe – for those that haven't seen us yet, they believe – a lot of people say, "I had no expectation. I don't know what I'm coming to see." But there's a belief that it's something exciting and outside of the norm of every day.
And I think when you can take that approach of dressing up, and it's not a wedding. It's not a funeral, which most people do. It's not a job interview. These – weddings are – that's separate, because that's a joyous occasion. But funerals is something that's just a different type of emotion. Job interview is just anxiety. But going to see your favorite group? That's just sheer joy.
And if you're going to just dress up, and you happen to have a date, and your date's going to get fresh, and you – when y'all see each other for the first time, it's like, you can – that's something else you can share and connect with and be like, "Yo, you was looking good when we went to go see Midnight Hour." We going in here arm-in-arm. That's a feeling.
And that's going to stay with you, cause then you go see your favorite group and it's like, "Oh man, and they were looking good. We were part of this" – it's not anything that we set out to do, but just that level of a connection with a musical group is something that lasts a long time. And it's something that I know when my mom – when I was growing up and watching my mom go out, I can only imagine that connection. That's something that I don't think I've ever really felt in my adult life going to see some music. So –
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Also just to add something on to that, something I really don't see many people talking about, have you ever heard of the concept of the black dandy? Have you ever heard about that?
ADRIAN YOUNGE: OK. So for those of you that don't know, in slavery days in Europe, white slave owners, like when you got to that point where you were so ill as a white slave owner, like you were flossing, you would have a dressed up black slave that's not a slave. OK? You'd have a black dude that's dressed up as good as their master that hangs out and don't do nothing. OK?
Now think about this concept. You have to understand at that time slaves were not even allowed to have more than one outfit, two outfits. They couldn't be designing their own stuff. There were certain occasions where they could dress up, like once or twice a year-type stuff. But you were only allowed to wear one thing. You weren't allowed to read. You weren't allowed to be sophisticated. You weren't supposed – you weren't allowed to have your own free will to really do anything. So there was a time in America when blacks could not express themself through clothes, OK?
Now times are different, obviously. But people don't realize how much of a statement it is when you choose to wear something. People think it's just clothes on your back, but nah. You get judged every single day. You may not realize, but you get judged every single day. And you should always just really be yourself, but understand who you are. I don't rock a suit every day to impress people. I really don't. When people say I look nice, I'm like, "Oh really? OK. I appreciate that." I don't even – you know what I'm saying? I'm just being myself. Always have your clothes exemplify who you are in life.
ALI: You mentioned earlier the word legacy, and when it comes to you Adrian, one of the things that I admire about you in establishing not only just your legacy from an artistic perspective but from a mentorship perspective, you have what's called the Adrian Younge Challenge. Can you talk about the Adrian Younge Challenge?
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Well, first of all, it was called the Frannie Kelley Challenge. But she was like, "Yo, I don't want no part of that." I said, "Cool." Turned it to the Adrian Younge Challenge.
So basically one day – I always say that your social media is your television channel. It's your way to have people tune in to your brand. And we would always talk about the notion that people don't play enough instruments and all that stuff. And I remember seeing the Isaac Hayes interview from the '90s, and he was like, "Man, I wish some of these kids would just play an instrument, cause they're missing something."
So I just said, you know, I'ma start a challenge, a 30-day challenge, where on social media, I ask people for 30 days to put the sampler down, close the laptop, pick up an instrument, and try to learn the instrument by playing three hours a day for 30 days. And within those three hours, it could be you just playing. It could be you reading about it. It could be about you talking to somebody about it. But just prove to yourself that you can spend three hours a day on an instrument.
Because one thing us both starting off as DJs, us both starting off sampling, one thing that a lot of producers don't realize is that most of them have an artist that's locked away in their head, and it's not going to come out that cage until they learn how to touch an instrument, because why did we start playing instruments? Well, we were limited so much by the sampler. We were limited so much by making derivative product from somebody else's idea that when we picked up an instrument, it was endless. And then once you learn how to play one instrument, that could turn into you playing another one. The knowledge just transfers over very easy. I would not be doing what I'm doing right now if I didn't make that leap 20 years ago. So I always tell people, "Pick up an instrument."
So I've been doing social media; I go on my – I go on Instagram Live every day, and kind of help people with their journey and give them advice. And people send me messages, ask me this or that, and I respond to everybody. And you know, I didn't expect it to be anything that really meant anything to anybody. We always love just giving advice and all that, but I've been totally taken back by how many people have just given me their testimonials about how this has changed their life and all this stuff. And it's just like, it really kind of changed my perspective as far what I mean, as far as what you mean, to people.
So a lot of times when we perform, every single – actually, every single time we perform, we talk to people at the end about what it means to be an artist, and how you should not be afraid to be who you're supposed to be. And every single show I say, "That's Ali Shaheed Muhammad on the bass." Because you never really pictured that. People don't really picture a hip-hop dude jumping into like, "Yo, wait. You playing jazz? Wait, what? I don't even get what's going on." So I always like to shed a light on that, and to show people you could be whatever you want at whatever age.
FRANNIE: But it's also like, you don't just tell people – you're not shouting from the mountain like, "You should play an instrument, asshole." You're like, "Here's an achievable thing that you could try. Things are possible. You do need to start, but there are ways to start. You don't have to be overwhelmed."
ADRIAN YOUNGE: I always say – one of the things I say in the challenge is that fear causes trauma to the brain, which causes paralysis in one's soul and mind. And the only way to cure that is by understanding. And the only way you cure that is by understanding that there's no reason for you to be afraid, and once people realize that there's no reason to be afraid, then it's like, "Oh my god. I could do anything I want."
I know that when I was in elementary school, when I was in junior high, when I was high school, I never had any formal training for any instruments. I got a sampler when I was 18, MPC-2000. And I soon realized that I needed to learn how to play instruments. My homies was hella getting jokes, like, "Yo, bro. What are you doing? You're stupid. What are you doing?" And they were afraid. And they were like, "Yo, man. You could make yourself look hella wack. You could start making some hella wack stuff." I'm like, "Whatever. You'll see." And now if I was listening to them, if I was afraid, I would never do it.
Now you have to realize that I'm the exception. Because I just picked up an instrument and just did it. Ali is the exception cause he just picked up an instrument and just did it. And because we literally have had a similar journey as far as us believing in ourself to become who we are now, we love to convey the fact that anybody could do whatever the hell they want to as long as they don't succumb to this stupid notion of fear. Because the only opinion that really should matter is your own, not anyone else's.
FRANNIE: What are you guys going to do next?
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Damn, dude. This whole next month is about to be crazy.
ALI: Well, about to make the next Midnight Hour album, which I'm super amped about.
ALI: There are other things if you want to talk about –
ADRIAN YOUNGE: OK. So we're working on Angela Muñoz. She's a young singer that's featured on the Midnight Hour. We're doing an album with her. Wrapping up Loren Oden's album. He's a lead singer that rolls out with us with Midnight Hour. Working on the next Midnight Hour album. I just finished that prog rock album with Jack Waterson. Got a Snoop album that's going to be coming out some time within the next year.
It's funny, because that Midnight Hour album that we're doing, if you ask Ali what's more important, "You doing a big film or you doing that Midnight Hour album?" he could make more money doing that big film.
FRANNIE: Well, more short money.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: More short money, yes, but –
ALI: Probably more money.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Yeah, yeah. Probably more money.
But the point is what are we the most excited about? We're always excited about doing the things that we love. We're always the most excited about doing the things where we're our own boss, where we're making our own statement. So it's like, as an artist, you can live doing what you want to do as long as you're OK with working at it every single day, and understanding that you're going to have your ups and downs, but you don't have to have a life where you need a, quote, stable nine-to-five job. You can actually make a living doing what you want to do every single day as long as you work on it. And we exemplify that.
So when I think about the Midnight Hour, I'm like, "I cannot wait." Like, I'm fiending. Especially when we're on stage. I'm like, "Bro, if they only knew what we had cooking right now." I'm like, "Ali, yo, let's perform some of the new stuff." He's like, "No, man. You gotta wait, bro. You gotta wait. You gotta wait. Because when we come back" – I'm like, "Alright, alright. You're right. But yo, man. We just finished this song, bro. Let's get this new one, man. It's hot!" "Bro, you gotta wait." I'm like, "Alright, man. I get it." So that's even another reason why we gotta get this next album out.
Also we got Roy Ayers, Brian Jackson, Gary Bartz –
FRANNIE: That's crazy.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: – coming out. We working with some heavy hitters on this next one. So yeah, we're very excited for what's to come. And also every single year, our job is to be better, right?
ADRIAN YOUNGE: The reason why is because most artists tend to get wacker over time. Why is that? Cause they stop listening to that audience in their head. I mean, think about how much more of an audience we just gained in our head over the last year or two. When we're making music just how we love, we're not trying to say, "You know what, bro? This song just came out, and it's hot right now. I got an idea to make another song that's kind of like this. It probably goes another direction. Let's do that cause it's hot. Maybe we could get this push on the radio." So then we're trying to be trendy. We're trying to do what's in vogue, instead of just trying to make something timeless. And we're chasing, chasing, chasing all the time. When we're doing what we want to do, people are chasing us.
FRANNIE: Yup. Well, you guys have individually and your partnership have been super inspiring to me.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Thank you.
FRANNIE: Yeah. It's hard to leave behind stability, security, that nine-to-five thing, and you do need I think constant reinforcement that you can do it, that it's going to be OK. You need to hear it in lots of different phrases from lots of different people. And so I hope that people keep listening to you.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Just to speak on that, I had this conversation yesterday, literally about that, and talking about the notion of inspiration, right. And you should get to the point where you just don't even need anybody else to inspire you. You don't need – you should be inspired by looking at what you've done and what you're doing. Think about all the things that you've done. Think about all the things that you've created. Think about all the visions that you have for the future. All that stuff should make you just want it even more and more and more.
And as far as the stability versus instability thing, I was talking to one of my really close girlfriends yesterday, and she was talking about how her husband, which is also one of my really close friends, is mad at her, because they need to make more money, cause she ain't, quote, working, right? I said, "You know what? He's my homie, but I'ma let you know something right now. As long as you are working hard at what you want to do, as long as you're streamlining your process in order to try to make that happen, he should support you. Because you'll make your money whenever." I said, "When I quite my nine-to-five job years ago, it's because I was broke anyway, so I said, 'You know what? I might as well be broke working on myself every single day.'" So anybody can do it. You just have to believe in it.
FRANNIE: Yeah. It can be a lonely road, and I think it's really nice to be around people who are similarly oriented.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Absolutely. But part of the journey is just being around kindred spirits.
FRANNIE: Yeah, that's what I'm saying.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Yeah, because running a marathon is easier when you're running with people that run as fast as you.
FRANNIE: There you go.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: But how I slightly discern that from being inspired is that, if I lived in the middle of Wyoming, I would still be super hype, even if I was in the forest, to just do things. But coming out here and then being with Ali and everybody else, yes, there's an added excitement to it. Because now we can do things together. But if I'm moving to Wyoming, I'm still hype.
FRANNIE: I feel you.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Cause I can still come back and play this album for Ali. And that's how – everybody should have that internal battery. You gotta have that battery cracking. You shouldn't have to plug in all the time. You gotta realize what you've got inside of you.
FRANNIE: Yeah. Well, thank you for coming through and talking in this way.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: You're welcome.
ALI: Yup, thank you.
FRANNIE: Really appreciate it.
ADRIAN YOUNGE: Absolutely.