Adrian Younge & Ali Shaheed Muhammad on 'The Midnight Hour' & Working on Season Two of 'Luke Cage'
Adrian Younge and A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad have had quite the run over the past couple of years. Younge has risen to prominence as a composer, having worked with everyone from Ghostface Killah and JAY-Z to Bilal and Souls of Mischief. His compositions were the choice of DJ Premier to sample and chop for his PRhyme collaborative album with Royce 5’9”. As for Muhammad, his portfolio doesn’t need to be reiterated as part of A Tribe Called Quest. The duo was tapped to compose the musical score for Marvel’s Luke Cage, which was met with much critical acclaim.
With season 2 hitting Netflix on June 22, the duo are back at it and sat down with Billboard to discuss what will be different about the score for season 2 and their own album The Midnight Hour, which was five years in the making and features the likes of Cee Lo Green, Ladybug Mecca, Marsha Ambrosious and Bilal, plus a fantastic rendition of the Luther Vandross classic “So Amazing.”
What was the goal for Luke Cage’s second season after getting such a good response for the work on Season 1?
Adrian Younge: Our job here was to create the musical world for Luke Cage. He grew up in Harlem right in step with the hip hop generation. He’s one of us. That means we had to create the kind of score that we would want to listen to outside of Marvel, but at the same time, we wanted to create something that when you hear it, you know it's Luke Cage. The music has been noted as an additional character and that was something that we hoped for. To take that idiom a little further, we expanded the sound and continued to push the envelope. We opened up the musical compositions a little more and wanted to create a soundtrack that you just don’t hear anymore. We wanted to have a rhythm section and an orchestra. We wanted our viewers to see that character grow.
This season also has a heavy reggae element for the character Bushmaster.
Adrian: [Luke Cage showrunner] Cheo [Coker] was originally looking to license a bunch of old reggae tracks. We said that we wanted to create something called “symphonic reggae.” You don’t hear reggae with orchestras. We could use that to exemplify the Jamaican idiosyncrasies musically. Once we talked to Cheo about it, he agreed. It wasn’t something that we reacted to; it was something we saw while Cheo was writing that we picked up on before the show was even filmed.
Did the overwhelmingly positive feedback on season one and the music surprise you in any way?
Ali Shaheed Muhammad: It wasn’t a surprise, because that was our goal the entire time. We really wanted to make the music for a television show as great as a film score. Outside of that body of work, we both have been making music that has been greatly received over the years. It was definitely gratifying knowing that we hit our goal and that people really supported the music aspect of Luke Cage just as much as the show itself.
Have you been contacted to do other film and TV scores?
Adrian: We’ve been contacted but, to be honest, I thought we’d be contacted a lot more. Most people that create content aren’t trying to create content out of the box. People look for what they are comfortable with and music like Luke Cage is viewed more as niche. We don’t look at what we do as niche. When you package the music as more of a statement than an undercurrent of what’s going on, people get scared of that stuff. Because of that, we haven’t received as many calls as I thought we would from a composing standpoint. When we do, many times we are asked to just do regular shit and we just say no.
When did recording The Midnight Hour begin?
Ali: I think we started in 2013. We met when Adrian was doing the Souls of Mischief album. He had asked me to come in to do the DJ character for the album and then he asked if we could work on music. The nature of us working together was seamless and [there was] this kindred creator spirit that I found in him. I think some time after that, we were just doing some songs together and realized we really liked working together. We had a couple of pieces and we said, "Let’s just keep doing something with this." It wasn’t specifically to do The Midnight Hour but we kept recording and then made the decision that we should make an album from this.
Adrian: When Cheo reached out to both of us individually to compose the music for Luke Cage, not knowing that we were working on The Midnight Hour, we said that this is important enough for us to stop working on this album.
When season one of Luke Cage was done, did you pick up right where you left off recording The Midnight Hour?
Adrian: Yeah, we stopped because you have to understand, Luke Cage was a crazy endeavor for us. Luke Cage means that we are just working our asses off everyday. We had to focus and we had deadlines. But what Luke Cage did for us is expand our compositional palate so far because we were just forced to learn things that we didn't have to learn before based on the fact we had to produce so much music. We did way more music for Luke Cage than what the average composer does for a show, because of how important the music is to Luke Cage.
It pushed us and made us better musicians. When we came back to The Midnight Hour, you could see compositionally what's going on. You could hear certain songs that were dope and they're a lot more simple, then you could hear some shit that's, like, crazy complex.
How did the re-imagination of Luther Vandross’ “So Amazing” come to be?
Adrian: Sony Legacy invited us to meet with the Vandross estate and after some conversation, we asked if they would be okay with us doing something new to a Luther Vandross song. They okayed us doing something and we chose to re-imagine “So Amazing.” Ali worked with Luther when he was alive. I never even met the dude. So, it was one of those crazy special things where it was like, "Fuck, dude. Like, we ain't supposed to be touching this shit. So, if we touch it, we gotta do it right, you know?"
We just literally went all fucking in to make this thing what it is, and just like put our hearts into it. It was just one of those things where it was a crazy homage because, 27-year-olds, 30-year-olds and even 35-year-olds don't really know much about Luther Vandross. He should be our Sinatra.
What do you want people to get out of this album?
Ali: I always say to musicians that I start off with a sampler, and when I put the sampler down and start picking up instruments, that's when I actually unlock the true artist inside of myself. So, the sampler is definitely an instrument. It's something that you could make excellent music with. But you're using an instrument that limits you to what other people have provided for you to sample. When you pick up an instrument, you can actually be who you are inside and go further than you ever expected.
Adrian: I just want people to know that you could do anything you set your mind to. We're playing mad instruments, composing shit, playing orchestra on it. We're trying to bring black excellence to this level of music right. I feel like soul music has lost a lot of that element of sophistication. That's what I want people to feel when they listen to this album. I want them feel the regal-ness, I want them to feel the opulence, I want them to feel the soul.