Meet the Soulful Composer Who Loves Being Sampled
Adrian Younge inspires DJ Premier and Timbaland with his Blaxploitation-style instrumentals and directs new albums for Ghostface and Bilal
“Don’t half-ass it. If you’re going to go, earnestly go and do it.” Adrian Younge is speaking about experimentation. Younge is passionate and driven, traits that seem to run through everything he does, from his music to his opinion. In the space of a decade, the Los Angeles-based artist has gone from relative unknown to celebrated film score composer and producer for the likes of Ghostface Killah, Souls of Mischief and the Delfonics.
In 2000, Younge released his debut, Venice Dawn, the soundtrack to an imaginary movie he wrote, played and produced. Eight years later he scored and edited the Blaxploitation film Black Dynamite. The success of the movie cemented him as one of the brightest and most able of his generation, bringing him to the attention of some of hip-hop’s greats. What followed was a string of conceptual albums composed and shaped by Younge, part sonic fiction and part throwback to hip-hop’s greatest era.
While much has been made of Younge’s reverent interpretation of the sounds of the past, his work within hip-hop has been equally important. Younge has been sampled by Timbaland for Jay-Z’s Magna Carta and by No I.D for Common’s Nobody’s Smiling. Most recently he was the sole sample source for DJ Premier and Royce da 5”9’s PRhyme project. Not only does Younge seek to blend his cinematic approach with a love for classic hip-hop, he wants his work to be used by his peers as a way to advance the music he loves.
I reached Younge at his Los Angeles office to find out more about how he went from budding bedroom producer to acclaimed composer and go-to musician for some of hip-hop’s greatest.
Cuepoint: Going back to the start, you began making beats in the 1990s with an MPC?
Adrian Younge: What I started realizing after I begun making beats is that the music I was sampling was what I liked the most. I was sampling to make hip-hop, but I couldn’t believe the source material. So I taught myself how to play instruments. And I also taught myself how to create that old school sonic landscape, especially between 1968 and 1973, in order to make music like that but with a golden era hip-hop perspective. In the late 1980s, early 1990s, they were sampling this music and making derivative versions of it with a bigger embodiment, fatter bass, you know. Really getting into the sweet spot of the break. What I do now is create music that is based on that sweet spot that hip-hop producers have illuminated.
In a previous interview you discussed Portishead making a big impression on you. How did you discover their music?
I was at a hip-hop club, and some dude spun it, and I couldn’t believe what I was listening to. “What the fuck!?” He told me and from that point on I was just… my life changed. It really showed me that there is no boundaries to making psychedelic music based on that ‘68-‘73 perspective synthesized through hip-hop.
How do you try and incorporate that classic hip-hop feel you’ve mentioned in your music?
The music that people like RZA and Premier were doing was limited by the sampler, but it also spawned creativity through the limitations. They couldn’t change chords, so they had to use the ones provided to them. They were also focusing on the concept of syncopation, especially RZA. They created their own pocket that was a little off, yet still a pocket. A lot of music is based on that, a lot of producers do that now. Dilla did it a lot. At the same time the idea of the pocket has been around for decades. It’s not new, but it’s something that hip-hop illuminated in the golden era, and I try to incorporate that in my music.
You’ve gone on record before about not being stimulated by modern hip-hop, and I wondered if that was part of the reason why you’ve worked with people like Ghostface, Souls of Mischief or more recently Premier and Royce da 5'9?
For sure. Humbly speaking, I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me to work [with], and I only work with people I’m excited to work with. I pass up a lot of big money stuff because it doesn’t excite me. I have a lot of work on my plate. If I’m taking away from that, it has to be for reasons that make me happy. The modern state of hip-hop generally is just dismal to me. It’s not what it once was to me because it’s not as creative. Obviously, there’s still great music being made, especially on the underground, but as far as stuff that you hear, stuff on the airwaves, it’s just pop music to me. Nothing intriguing.
Your stance, especially in terms of being reverent to a certain era in the past, could perhaps be seen as somewhat of a purist approach, and that can have its own downsides.
Yes, but everything I do is wrong. If I wanted to blow up and make crazy money, everything I’m doing is wrong. I really started my career doing the wrong thing and doing the wrong thing, which is the right thing to me, has got me to the place where I am now. I always feel that at the end of the day you can cultivate whatever audience you want and they can be yours for the rest of your life as long as you take care of that audience and work with integrity and perform in a way that they can trust you. A lot of people I used to like that still make music I can’t listen to anymore.
A lot of people try to do things that are different, out of their element. And if you’re going to go there, you have to truly understand where you’re going. But a lot of people just experiment on things and see what other people think is good without knowing themselves if it’s good. So I don’t feel like this thing I do gets stale at all.
Are you saying that within that lane you’ve found for yourself you’re comfortable changing directions and trying new things?
Yes. I’m always down to experiment and change, but it has to not feel contrived. It has to be done in a way that works. A good example is Andre 3000 when he did “Hey Ya.” He went in all the way.
You’ve mentioned doing the wrong thing, and I wanted to bring up a Sun Ra quote: “Make another mistake, do something right.” Do you subscribe to that?
For sure. It always happens to me. But that’s art. You might drop the brush and it inspires you to do something new. It’s all art and it’s all about moulding your art. Whether it comes from absolute intention and/or mistake.
You’ve admitted to an interest in history, in looking back to push things forward. It’s not necessarily a popular opinion today, in a world where surface knowledge is more accessible than ever. What is the value of studying history for you?
It’s always good to look back and see what people have done, especially in art because so much of it is essentially experimentation. It’s good to study the results of people’s experiments and see how you can synthesize those results to create something new. That’s one reason to study history, it’s one of the reasons I love it so much. I get so many great ideas from it to make new renditions of.
The bulk of your work in the past few years has been conceptual albums, with a heavy cinematic approach. What are the limitations and benefits of concept albums?
The limitations are… right now I’m working on the follow up to 12 Reasons to Die with Ghostface. So I’ll have people that I want to be on this album but I can’t just have them rhyming, I need to tell them the story so they can become a character in it, and it limits me. But within that limitation is something cool, painting pictures for people. It’s just cool to have a perspective at the onset of making an album because it also drives the kind of music I write for it. It all depends. I love doing both equally. But the cinematic approach is something I’ll always want to do. I love it. That shit is my favorite type of music straight up. Whether or not there’s a concept behind the album it will always be cinematic music.
Your bio states that you consider yourself a composer, not a beatmaker. Now, the role of the producer, and composer, has evolved and changed in the past 50 years. I wondered how you view this evolution and where you see yourself within it?
For me, if you have an idea, go 100% with it. Don’t cut corners. There are people who want to make, let’s say for the purposes of this discussion, throwback music. They wanna make throwback music using all plugins and looping drums. It’s just like… you’re not going 100%, you’re cutting corners. I don’t like the use of computers when trying to do something where a computer shouldn’t be involved. Making music on computers is fine, I think it’s great, as long as the computer is not taking away from the creativity of the artist. It all depends. If you’re making a beat for Britney Spears it probably doesn’t warrant tape and spring reverbs. For me, for what I do, computers can’t be involved in the recording process.
Now I do take on the role of producer and composer in both traditional and modern senses. The reason for my approach is because I’m disciplined. A lot of people want the easy route. I’m a real control freak. For me it works, and there are others who do that too but might not have recognition.
You were sampled by Timbaland for the Magna Carta album, and on the new PRhyme project DJ Premier used you as his primary sample source. The ’68 to ‘73 era you’re interested in was one source for much classic hip-hop and it’s interesting that you’ve gone from being a kid who sampled on the MPC to being the sample.
It’s always been a dream of mine. Even when I did the Black Dynamite score my goal was to hopefully be sampled by major hip-hop producers and it happened.
When did you realize that was something you wanted?
From the onset, I’ve always looked at things like that. When somebody samples my music and I like it, it actually makes my music better. I get to look at my music in a whole new way, based on what somebody else did to it. It’s very flattering and to me it’s good for hip-hop.
I can’t think of any other people in the same situation. You’re maybe the first to become the sample source for hip-hop in such a willing manner.
I’m good friend with RZA, Tribe, all these people, and I hear all these horror stories about sampling. I feel like it’s morally wrong how these hip-hop dudes have been treated. A lot of the people they sampled don’t like hip-hop so they’ll want 100% publishing. Or whoever owns the publishing just wants to rape them. I’ve always felt that was wrong. Especially because if your stuff gets sampled, you’ll likely sell more albums. So I always want to be… advocating the sample.
What was the impetus behind the creation of your Linear Labs label this year?
I wanted to create a label to run all my projects and not have to answer to anybody. I want to be in a position where if something goes wrong, I’m responsible for it. Like I said, I’m a control freak, so I love that. Nothing more. My goal has always been to build an empire, and this is part of the process.
How do you try to balance the artistry with the industry?
There is no balance really. To me, it’s pure artistry, and I hope it makes money. That’s how I look at it. My thing is, if I do it like that I will never lose fans. And that’s how I always felt. I always said I make music for an audience that’s in my head and as long as I please that audience I’m happy. Thus far people have been happy being treated like the audience in my head. I’ll just keep going.
I heard the track you did with Bilal, “Sirens II,” and wondered if there was more to the collaboration?
There’s a full album. I’m mixing it right now. This album with Bilal is like Pink Floyd meets Stevie Wonder meets Radiohead. It’s really deep and the Sirens song you heard is on the album. The first “Sirens” was one of the songs Timbaland sampled for Jay Z. And so with “Sirens II” I brought Ali Shaheed Muhammed on board and we re-arranged the song, sped the tempo up and re-recorded it. And then we had Bilal come in.
I wanted to touch on your background as a lawyer and the teaching you do on entertainment law at the American College of Law. How did that come about and how does it fit in your work?
I have a law degree, I’ve always worked in law in some capacity. My dad’s a lawyer, and I worked at MTV’s legal department back in the days. I got the opportunity to teach, and I jumped at it. I did it for about three years, but then music took over to the point where I had to stop for now. I miss it.
Going back to your willingness to be sampled, I’d imagine something like that comes in useful. It must be a great tool.
For sure. I always say that if you want to be an artist, it’s great to understand the business behind it. When you do, you’re unstoppable.
Do you think our current copyright system is viable?
Not really. It’s a little behind still. Someday it might catch up. But right now it’s behind.
Law moves slower than reality.
Absolutely. In my class, that’s the first thing I say. Law as applies to entertainment follows technology. That’s how it goes. Technology moves, trends move and law follows it to try to protect people’s interests.
To finish I wanted to ask about the salon and record shop you run in Los Angeles?
I run it with my wife and business partner, Patrick Washington. It’s in downtown L.A. It’s a full on boutique record store and salon. Different artists come in, we have different people film there. It’s like an artist spot.
Do you feel it’s important to have places like this to help foster a community, especially in this day and age where record stores are becoming fewer and fewer?
Yes. I’m offering people a space where they can come and enjoy music and art. Something that inspires me. People come in and tell me about music, and I tell them about other music. That’s one of the biggest losses with the vanishing of our favorite record stores.