ADRIAN YOUNGE: MAKING BEATS IS TELLING STORIES
photography by theo jemison
Producer-bandleader-polymath extraordinaire Adrian Younge will be celebrating his newest project Linear Labs: Los Angeles at the Regent on Fri., May 15, with a roster that reads like the wall of honor in a quality record store. To celebrate, we’re reposting this archival interview done at the release of Twelve Reasons to Die, his 2013 collaboration with Ghostface Killah. Enjoy this discussion of the step before the step that got Younge to Linear Labs: Los Angeles and don’t miss the show!
(originally published in spring 2013)
Adrian Younge and Ghostface Killah made a movie without a movie—instead, it’s a soundtrack album to something called Twelve Reasons To Die, a maniacal cross between Italian giallo, Hammer horror and American blaxploitation. (And yes, someone should film this.) Over the course of the album, Ghostface is betrayed, killed and then resurrected in the form of twelve haunted LPs that summon his vengeful ghost when played. And once the Ghostface Killah is summoned … well, you can imagine the rest, and if you can’t, you can just imagine the color red. Younge speaks now between extremely menacing live productions of Twelve Reasons and explains exactly how to let someone know you’re going to come kill them with just one chord change. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
What’s your favorite Italian disembowelment scene?
I kinda put all that stuff together, even with some of the American stuff. I love 60s films, late 70s films. I watch a lot of old horror but I love all those films together cuz to me it’s all about the cinematography and the music. I could study that stuff. I don’t have a favorite disembowelment scene—it’s just shots. Certain lenses, certain perspectives, little shit like that is what gets me. That’s what makes those films.
Like Suspiria—it’s artistic homicide.
Oh yeah. Absolutely. What I love about a lot of those films is how people die but you don’t see the death. It’s very artistic. And that’s what’s really creative—not showing every single thing.
I talked to Spencer from Death Waltz Recording Company about this same thing—the idea that soundtrack composers got to experiment more because they weren’t supposed to deliver just-so hits.
My favorite type of music in the world is old cinematic music—more particularly European cinematic music from 68 to 73. It’s essentially European composers, classically trained, that were requested to create American soul music for their films. And the purpose was to enhance the visual aspect of the film. They weren’t limited to making music that was pop-oriented. They have some of the illest stuff, the illest beats and the illest compositions, with a lot of soul and class and opulence. A very regal sound. To me, when you compile all that and listen to it, it serves as a precursor to what a lot of cats in hip-hop like. That’s the kind of stuff that fools nod their head, like, ‘Damn, that shit’s bangin’.’ But the stuff they were doing back then was totally class. The stuff they did with an orchestra was like hip-hop shit. Some of them had a big budget so you hear a big budget sound, and some are low budget so they’re raw as shit. It’s a very creative music and time. Rare music, too, forgotten by many and hard to find outside a lot of record collectors. I look for that stuff. That’s new music to me—stuff from that era. Put it this way—it’s a world where everybody records to analog tape, everybody plays live instruments. You had a plethora of good solid organic music going around. So much music around the world never came to America. There was no net. You had people in the Middle East where it was illegal to make some of this music—how do you expect that to get to America? The world was bigger then as far as communication was concerned. Now the world is smaller, and it’s easier to discover all those lost gems.
How did you plan a soundtrack when there was no movie to see? Where were the images for Twelve Reasons To Die?
I’m a filmmaker, and as a filmmaker and composer I see all the stuff in my head. What I did with this album—I already knew what I wanted it to look like before I started making music. I’m already seeing the film in my head. Or like the album cover. I shot that while I was recording some of the beats cuz I had to show the label what it was supposed to look like. It’s like closing your eyes and imagining the world. It’s a mix between Blacula meets The Mack meets an Argento movie. A mix of all that and the colors I saw, and the colors I tried to use for music.
So how do you keep all this in focus?
It’s like studying. If you have a test Monday and you study every day and categorize and make compartments in your head and you know you need a song for this category and that category—it’s being disciplined and organized and sticking to your guns. And not starting until you’re absolutely sure you know where you wanna go.
What were the categories? ‘Chase’? ‘Revenge’? ‘Betrayal’?
The first song was the overall theme. The second song, he’s leaving the DeLucas and starting his own crime family. The third continues and that, and the fourth? That’s when they’re really starting to die. The fifth, he realizes enemies are all around him, and the sixth is when he realized the girl he fell in love with is an enemy—and then he dies, turns into the Ghostface Killah and is killing everybody. And the epilogue is like … he’s trying to figure out what to do now. He killed everybody. Like—‘OK, I’m Ghostface, I’m dead but I got revenge.’ You got all those acts and you determine how they feel sonically and musically. You can tell stories without any words. Making beats is telling stories. This chord change can mean ‘I’m sad,’ ‘I’m happy and things are resolved.’ This chord change can mean ‘I’m going to kill people.’ When you create a sonic foundation like that that’s cinematic, it tells the story on its town. And then when you put a great storyteller like Ghostface on top of it, it really enhances the direction and makes it more poignant.
What chord change suggests ‘I’m going to kill people’?
If you listen to the song ‘Revenge Is Sweet,’ there’s a choir singing. Like building up and building up in a very antichrist ominous way. You get to a point where it’s an epic driving vintage Wu Tang rhythm, and then goes into some Axelrod choir stuff. The Axelrod choir is stuff you’d see in a Jesus musical—like Jesus Christ Superstar—
—so it’s a resurrection?
Exactly. You mesh all those feelings together and those are the chord changes. If you listen to the words, those changes are manifested to deliver that type of visual. You can see it.
I know the Wu Tang guys used to go see all the kung-fu movies in the cheap theatres—but how did you very first come in contact with like Italian giallo? They don’t show that on TV in the afternoon.
Lemme stop you—how do DJs find rare vinyl? The answer is you search for it, you study something you love and you’re passionate about it so you search for the best. The best DJs had the best breaks and the best grooves and all that cuz they searched. Nobody showed it to them, it didn’t come on the radio—they searched for it. Same with old films. If you hear there’s old French film noir films that are super-ill you need to check out, and you watch one and like it, you search for more. And if you keep searching, you can find anything. My studio is all analog. There’s no computers in there. People ask me how I find that stuff? Search, and when you do that for years and years you start finding shit.
What’s your most special piece of equipment? Like the mixing board Sly and the Family Stone used or something?
To me, it’s not really about who used what. When you get something like, ‘Oh, this is what Jim Morrison sang through,’ it triples the value! But is that just cuz he sang through it or does it sound dope for what you’re doing? It’s more what the item is and how exclusive it is to my sound. My piece is a Lang EQ—a rare solid-state equalizer from the late 60s. That’s my favorite piece in the whole chain. One of the illest EQs for drums and bass and all that shit. Jack Waterson—he’s in my band, a good friend and he also owns the vintage music store Future Music—a lot of my knowledge came from him early on. He always gave me advice and pointed me in certain directions so I’d research the info he provided. And I’d come back with more info and we’d go back and forth. Like I said—when you’re passionate, you study it.
What are you most passionate about right now? What’s the new thing you want to explore?
Right now I have so many projects on the table. But I’m getting better at becoming more efficient at getting things done. My process is a lot harder than the average producer or engineer, cuz it’s live and analog. It’s a lot more difficult. I can’t let that difficulty and that time serve as an excuse to delay my publishing music. I’ve learned how to streamline my process a lot more compositionally, and just the execution itself of engineering and production and all that. Basically I’m making everything easier for myself. Like spending two days to wire a patch bay all nice. Little stuff like that goes far for me.
What do you imagine the music on the records in the movie sounding like? What do the DeLucas hear when they set down the needle?
It’s like they’re hearing the album, you understand? That’s what it’s supposed to be. The album tells the story forecasting the death of themselves, so that’s what they hear.
So they hear the story in the story?
If there was a sequel, could you defeat Ghostface Killah by playing these records … backward?
The thing is Ghostface is the hero, and I never want the hero to die. I’d never have that defeat Ghostface. But it could definitely be a way to add a point of fear into the story. We’ll see what happens.
You’ve wrapped two of the most fundamental themes there are into this album—love and death. Why both at once?
When you’re trying to hit people with a story, trying to make people cry with your music, there’s certain emotions to tap into—certain sensitive spots. Love is one, death is another. Instead of one, why not have both? It’s something people deal with every single day. It hits people at home. You always wanna put things in that jump out of the album and hit the listener personally when they’re at home by themselves. The more of those elements are properly executed, the better your chances are at getting a proper reception.
Someone once told me the moment he understood why Hemingway was a good writer was a point in a story when he’s describing a man in an Army uniform walking a woman down the street at night, and he writes like, ‘And the light glinted off the captain’s bars on his collar.’ And suddenly you can see the entire scene.
Perfect example. It’s not giving too much. You’re just giving enough for the patron of your music to see it on his or her own. Not too much. You don’t wanna be contrived. Just enough to get them to see it. A listener always respects the fact you pay attention to detail and respect their intelligence.
What was the moment like when you first heard Ghostface rapping over this music?
This was the first time … I think in fifteen years that anyone rapped over anything I produced. So just hearing a legend like that rap over it initially was like … damn! It was shocking! And then you wake up the next morning like, ‘Oh my God, this shit’s dope!’
This was a real no-net collaboration, right? You do all the music, he does all the lyrics and you have to totally trust each other.
I’m professional, he’s professional—he writes really quickly. He’s been doing it for over twenty years. I’m very focused, he’s very focused. When we come together, it works out.
You do so much good work when you’re connected with another person—like William Hart from the Delfonics. Why?
I’m a music producer. Most music producers love working with vocalists. That’s where the other artist comes in. You take in consideration the artist you’re working for and in your head you create pockets for their art to fall into, and when they fall in and it makes it more beautiful and sweeter and sexier, it works out. You gotta know the artist and support the artist you’re working with, and try and extract the best out of them and push them. My thing is … it’s all making good music. My accolades come, my band’s accolades come. But it’s all making good music. With somebody else or without somebody else. It’s that simple.
You said that the 60s were raw and the 70s were clean, and music just kept getting cleaner, and you like music best when it’s raw. Why do you wanna go back?
To me, the best music ever made came from that time. The golden era. 68-73. Even before that. If that’s what I believe, of course I wanna go back and try and make classics like they had. It’s not that they were better composers or anything. We have great composers to this day. But when you write on a computer, it emulates an organic sound. That’s the reason. The organic nature of everything they had back then, and the musicianship of the people and also what pop music represented back then—it was a lot more complex, organic and fresh. Everything was novel, trying to make a dime off being novel and cool and all that shit. Now today it’s trying to make a hit for the dancefloor, and that takes a lot less work than a hit for the dancefloor back then.
ARTDONTSLEEP PRESENTS ADRIAN YOUNGE’S LINEAR LABS: LOS ANGELES WITH ADRIAN YOUNGE’S VENICE DAWN, BILAL, LÆTITIA SADIER (STEREOLAB), KAROLINA, ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD (A TRIBE CALLED QUEST) WITH DJs ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD AND ADRIAN YOUNGE AND HOSTED BY FAB FIVE FREDDY ON FRI., MAY 15, AT THE REGENT, 448 S. MAIN ST., DOWNTOWN. 8 PM / $28 / 21+ / GET TICKETS HERE! VISIT ADRIAN YOUNGE’S ARTFORM STUDIO AT 701 E. 3RD ST., DOWNTOWN. THEARTFORMSTUDIO.COM.