'Blindspotting's' Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal on Finding the Movie's Authentic Bay Area Sound

Ariel Nava
Daveed Diggs as Collin and Rafael Casal as Miles in Blindspotting

In Blindspotting, Daveed Diggs is Collin, a thoughtful felon desperate to finish his last three days of probation unscathed, through no help from his best friend Miles, played with taut agitation by Rafael Casal.

Diggs and Casal, real-life pals since high school, also wrote the acclaimed buddy dramedy, which takes place in their hometown of Oakland, Calif., a city whose gentrification has begun to render it unrecognizable to Miles and Collin. 

“The whole point of making the movie was to represent Oakland in a way that hadn’t been seen before,” Diggs tells Billboard.

Not only seen, but heard: The Carlos Lopez Estrada-directed film, which opened in wide release last Friday (July 27) to uniformly stellar reviews, features 40 needle drops, nearly all of them from Bay Area artists such as J. Stalin and legends E-40 and Tower of Power. “The sound of the city was as important as anything else,” Diggs says, expressing his and Casal’s fierce dedication to authenticity in every facet of the Lionsgate-distributed film. “For us, maybe even more important because we have real input. We can make a music choice that we thought will add to the humanity of everything.” 

Following an opening sequence featuring music from Verdi’s La Traviata, the film bursts forth with the propulsive intensity of  “Born In It,” from East Oakland rapper Chippass. “The opera ended up giving us a strange and weird juxtaposition into the intro sequence,” Casal says. “It’s a bird’s eye view, so when we actually drop into the world of the movie, we get right into the music from the city.” 

“I don’t know if he’s ever been on anyone’s soundtrack before,”  Diggs says of Chippass. “The track had just come out not long before we started cutting the film and I suggested that one because a bunch of things weren’t clearing, but we needed something definitely [from] Oakland to be there and this song also speaks to the situation of that moment.”

Like “Born In It,” several of the songs serve not as background, but to propel the narrative. “There are so many choices where we needed the music to help tell the story because it’s not a long film, it’s 90 minutes,” says Diggs, who won Tony and Grammy Awards for his roles as Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton.  “We’re trying to get a lot in there. Just because a song sounds great in a place wasn’t enough, we didn’t have time to waste on things that sounded pretty.”

Though the casual viewer is unlikely to notice, the movie, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, goes so far as to try to match the music to the part of the city in which the scene takes place. For example, West Oakland rapper J. Stalin’s “All Around Me” (feat. 4rAx) plays during a scene set in West Oakland. “That matters to nobody unless you’re from West Oakland,” Diggs admits, “but it helps in the specificity that people pick up on throughout the movie because it’s that kind of attention to detail that really allowed up to make all these people feel honest.” 

Producers Keith Calder and Jess Calder enlisted veteran music supervisor Jonathan McHugh to suggest and wrangle songs. With a music budget in the low six figures, McHugh secured obscure soul gems like “Legs” from late Bay Area funkster Darondo, as well as classic rap tracks like “Feelin’ Myself” from murdered hyphy pioneer Mac Dre. McHugh found working with Diggs and Casal inspirational. “The guys were so cool to deal with,” he says. “They had such a great vision and when someone has a vision, you’ve got to go with it.”

Following that vision meant allowing for last-minute additions, such as E-40 delivering his verse on Diggs and Casal’s end-title track “Not a Game” after the movie had wrapped. “I think I can speak for Rafael, 40’s both of our favorite rapper,” Diggs says. “He had contacted me not long before that on Instagram because he saw me sitting court side at a Warriors game in Los Angeles and so I was already kind of geeked out from that experience. We reached out and he said he’d be into being on the soundtrack. That verse came in at the last possible second.  We were actually printing the final copy of the film. We were like, ‘Oh, guys! Give us half an hour to mix this.’ Rafael had to run home and mix it on his headphones and send it back and then we had to spend however much it costs to open up a movie and put a song back in, but it was totally worth it.” 

The Oakland connection extends to the score with Diggs and Casal enlisting local musicians to play on Michael Yezerski’s compositions.  “Rafael and Daveed were really focused on nailing that Oakland sound,” Yezerski, who is Australian, tells Billboard. “All of our main players come from Oakland— drummer John Mader, the Regiment Horns and bassist Josh Hari feature prominently in the mix. It's really unusual, as a composer, to have my film collaborators hand pick my band; however, with the musical pedigree that Rafael and Daveed bring, it was a no-brainer for me.”

“Michael was so excited about the kind of music we were going to dive into and he knew we had so many touch points that were so regionally specific and that he was outside of that sometimes, so I think he worked double and triple to earn our trust,” Casal says. “There were scenes that we never envisioned original score for and he would stay up all night and write two or three original pieces just so he could find our tastes.”

Instead of a traditional soundtrack, Republic Records is releasing three EPs around Blindspotting, each featuring music in the movie, but also including material taken from the more than 100 spoken works pieces Diggs and Casal have recorded over the years.The Collin EP came out July 20, while the Miles and The Town EPs arrive  Aug. 10. 

“It really felt like a way for people to drop into the music environment of the film,” Casal says. “The spirit of each project is driven by being in the head or environment of the character. The Collin EP is a little more cerebral, it’s if Collin were to think out loud. The Miles EP is shaping up to be the trappier, 808 kind of music that the Bay Area is also known for that I imagine is what Miles drives around listening to. I imagine he’s a little stoned, it’s a little angrier, a little grittier. The Town EP is more anthemic in trying to represent a little more sense of the timeless sense of the town.”  The EPs also allowed Bay Area artists, like the iconic Too $hort, whose tracks didn’t arrive in time to make the movie, to still be affiliated with the film. 

Casal and Diggs, who began work on Blindspotting a decade ago, can’t hide their delight that their creation has reached fruition. “Our artistic trajectories over both our careers that are spanning 15-to-20 years at this point have found a home in this film,” Casal says. “I think we put everything we’ve ever learned and been able to channel into this goddamned movie. Everything we’ve ever done artistically conspired to this moment.”