Adrian Younge On ‘Magna Carta’ Samples, Working With RZA And Roc Nation And Soundtracking ‘Black Dynamite’
Adrian Younge has had a busy year. This April, the producer and musician released a collaborative concept album with Ghostface Killah titled Twelve Reasons To Die via Soul Temple Records, a project that was executive produced by one of Younge's longtime idols the RZA. Since the highly acclaimed album dropped, the duo went out on a tour of the country in support of the record, after which Younge hopped right back into the studio with Souls of Mischief for a second helping of the concept album idea, this one centered on the hip-hop group nearly dying and the aftermath of the incident. But before that project was even announced, his name popped up again—as the source of two samples used by production duo Timbaland and J-Roc for Jay-Z's Magna Carta Holy Grail. His song "Sirens" forms the basis of Jay's "Picasso Baby," while his track "Reverie" was flipped into Hova's "Heaven." XXL caught up with Younge earlier this week to talk about his samples on Magna Carta, working with Roc Nation and the RZA, his respect for Joey Bada$$, and his film work on the classic 2009 Blaxploitation film Black Dynamite.—Dan Rys (@danrys)
XXL: Tell me how you came to be on Magna Carta.
Adrian Younge: My man Andre Torres is the editor-in-chief of Wax Poetics. Hip-Hop Since 1987 [aka Kyambo Joshua] is his boy, and a couple years ago [Andre] introduced me to him [and] Alchemist. Hop wanted to make sure that people out in the mainstream heard my product. He was always championing my sound to different people, and one of the people he showed the beat to was Jay-Z and Timbaland. Basically Timbaland sampled two joints from my Something About April album because Andre introduced me to Hop, showed me to Hop, Hop took interest and then took it to Jay-Z and them. The rest is—I can’t say it’s history because the album is not officially out yet—so the rest is almost history. [Ed. Note: This interview was conducted Monday, July 8, the day before the album hit retail markets.]
Did they reach out to you afterward?
Well, after they sampled it, they reached out to me for clearance obviously. Now I’m in discussions with different publishers, including Roc Nation, regarding the future, so we’re all kind of talking. I still haven’t spoken to Timbo or Jay-Z at all, but I’ve spoken to Jay Brown, CEO of Roc Nation, and some of the other representatives about the future. They’re all in London right now actually.
In terms of publishing or working on future Roc Nation albums and stuff?
Nothing specifically. Well, yeah, in terms of publishing stuff, but it’s bigger than that because I have some other projects I’m doing and issues as to, where are the homes for these projects. And they have expressed interest in being a part of my brand, you know. So we’ll see where that leads to; I mean, that’s one of the reasons I’m in New York right now. Just to try to—who’s doing what and how this infrastructure is actually going to be run. So that’s what we’re trying to figure out now, so nothing specific.
So tell me about the beat for “Sirens.”
That beat is from my album where entitled Something About April and that song was one of the last songs that I did for that album. The reason why I wanted to do that song for the album [was] 'cause I wanted to have one song that had more of a traditional hip-hop type feel to it. Because I basically always had a dark, psychedelic, pop-rock, deep soul [influence] but this—I wanted to do a track that was a like a hip-hop instrumental that could have been made in the late ’60s. Like if Dilla was in the ’60’s, what would Dilla do? That’s how I kind of wanted it to be. I wanted to have that last track on the album because I feel as if everything I do is sold through a hip-hop perspective and I really wanted that song to be a staple to just serve that purpose and to convey that perspective. And it’s crazy because me and the Wax Poetics cats always said, “Man, I hope somebody like a Kanye or a Jay-Z would sample this." And now it’s like two years later...Yeah, it happened.
You’ve always had that cinematic bend to your music.
I mean, I learned as a film composer. I love film, my favorite type of music is something that hits people in the heart, you know. Something that has feeling. To me a lot of the dopest hip-hop tracks [are] shit that just has feeling, you know? It has a romantic love-type feeling, but it still bangs. You listen to some classic Tupac shit—all that stuff is cinematic. All that old type stuff, the ill stuff, is cinematic. It's pain that htis you in the head and that’s hard to compose. I like music with depth where you don’t even have to hear words. The composition is already taking you somewhere and when you hear words [they] synthesize with the music. It takes you even further. So that’s why most of my music always has the cinematic element to it, because I visualize music.
Had you worked with RZA before Twelve Reasons to Die?
No, no. Twelve Reasons was the first time we actually worked together, and it basically it changed my life. It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of RZA. When you’re working all your life and you have goals, and then you accomplish those goals, [it's] something that is very special. One of my goals was to always do a Wu-Tang-oriented project and for years I studied RZA and studied his compositional perspectives and learned a lot and molded my own sound through his eyes, you know, for a lack of better perspective. And to meet him and talk about stuff that I’ve done, and hear him actually interested in things that I’m doing, it’s one of those things that lets you know all the hard work really means something. Your mentor, your idol, who you've looked up to and learned from, is actually looking at you and learning from you, you know what I’m saying? And that’s how it was with RZA. He’s a really humble dude, he’s a very smart, smart, smart, talented person, and to know that a person like that cares about stuff that I’m doing and actually wants to release stuff I’m doing on his own label when he could just do this stuff himself, it’s—it’s humbling.
What kind of reception did you get to Twelve Reasons to Die?
It’s like one of those things—I always tell people I pretty much stopped listening to hip-hop in ’97. It’s not necessarily that there wasn’t any good hip-hop being made after ’97, but my era of hip-hop was, like, the golden era, the late ’80s, early ’90s. And when the spectrum of music started to change, I started getting more into records, just digging for records and listening to that old music. So what I wanted to do was create an album that took me back to how I first felt when I heard 36 Chambers, when I first heard Iron Man. And that was my goal, to make something that was different, something that impacted you. Something that wasn’t just, “Let me skip through this album and see what kind of song I like.” Something where the whole album fit like a puzzle. And this was that for me, and I’m glad that many people felt that way about it.
What I noticed is that when you pay attention to the details and you create a form of art that requires thinking, meaning that you’re communicating something to your listener, you’re giving them a riddle and they got to figure it out, that’s what the enjoyment of the music is supposed to be. It’s not only my goal, but something that is absolutely flattering for me because that’s my reason for communicating. [Did] you decipher that? And if you decipher that, it means you actually enjoyed it on the inside and it’s something that when you hear it, it’s not something just in passing, you can see it, you can hear the depth. So it’s deeper than just hitting your ears and instantly, "Do I like this or not?” It’s like, you’re falling into the chords, you’re thinking about, “Well damn, if that’s not a sample—how is that not a sample? Damn, Ghostface talking about this and this relates to a whole story...“ It’s all the levels, deciphering the whole riddle, that’s what I wanted the enjoyment of the album to be. And it was just very refreshing to see that people got that and appreciated [the] attention to detail. So it was very well received and the tour was very successful, and it was just good, man, very happy.
Especially linking up with such like a famous storyteller like Ghost.
Well my thing was Wu-Tang, the Wu-Tang Clan is cinematic MCs; Ghostface is arguably the most cinematic out of that crew. And I thought if I gave him a format to a tell a story from, if I gave him musical inspiration to tell a story from, he could just take it and run. And he took it and ran, man. I’m very, very impressed on what he did on that album.
You were talking about bringing things back to the old ’90s sound. Have you heard some of Joey Bada$$ at all?
I’m a fan, I like what he’s doing. I don’t listen to much new music; I have a record store in downtown L.A., so all I do is dig for records and listen to old music. I don’t listen to any modern music—not to say that there’s not any good modern music, because there absolutely is—[but] I find so many good records I’ve never heard of before [that] that’s my new music and that’s my inspiration. And people were telling me to listen to Joey Bada$$, and I listened to it and I said, “Oh shit, I see what he’s doing.” And that shit was dope, you know what I’m saying? I like what he’s doing, I like where he’s going, I like his brand, I like the fact that he—you could tell he’s somebody that is up on his history, you know. The best artists always look back to see what happened before them and they try to determine what they need to do to move forward, and I can tell he’s that type of cat. So he’s dope. We should try getting him on an album, dude.
Speaking of old school, you also were involved with the movie Black Dynamite [in 2009].
Yeah, I’m the editor of that. I’m the editor and composer of Black Dynamite. So that’s where I got my start, basically. That was where people started recognizing my music and all that stuff. If it wasn’t for Black Dynamite, I wouldn’t be sitting here with you right now.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you got involved, how that happened?
The director, Scott Sanders, was one of my really close friends. Before that, I did a few documentaries [which] I edited and directed. Scott always loved my music, and he always loved my editing style. So what happened was, Michael Jai White—who plays Black Dynamite—they had done a movie about ten years prior called Thick As Thieves. So ten years later, Mike hit up Scott and was like, “Yo man, I got this idea for this crazy like old Blaxploitation movie, I need to talk to you about it.” And then Scott called me, and I was like, "Hell yeah, I want to be down." So when the concept was brought to me, I said to him “Let’s shoot like a little trailer with Super 8 Film and try to see if we can get financing that way. And we shot that trailer and we actually got financing for the movie, took it Sundance and it got purchased by Sony, and the rest is history. So it’s one of those things where you just believe in a project and someone believes in it too, and it just kind of happened. But that was my real published start.
Were you taken back into the ’70s, the old ’70s Blaxploitation films for inspiration?
Oh hell yes, I mean the detail in that movie is so meticulous. Just off of editing, I was doing a lot of different cuts like they would have done back then. There’s a bunch of little mistakes that are very nostalgic that I had to incorporate. There wasn’t just me, there was Scott Sanders, Byron Minns, Michael Jai White, everybody on that set was [working] meticulously on details, so all had checks and balances. If the director was doing something that I felt was out of pocket because it was a little too ’78 or '74, I was like, “C’mon, dude. Disco wasn’t that big back then, we can’t have no Disco song in this shit." And then the same thing back to me. He was like, “Why are you doing that, why you make that cut? They don’t do that kind of cut." It was all that little stuff, so it worked out and we did it as a team and it was great.