What do you get when you mix the talents of one of hip hop’s most legendary producers and an entertainment law professor-turned-composer and arranger? Quite possibly one of the most sophisticated, opulent releases in recent years. Added bonus: a celebration of the pioneering African-American spirit that sculpted jazz, soul and hip hop into three of the 20th century’s most endearing art forms.
Of course, when Ali Shaheed Muhammad, longtime producer for landmark hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest, flew to Los Angeles to break bread and make music with Adrian Younge, such a vision wasn’t yet on their minds. But once the duo started crafting analog beats for the likes of Souls of Mischief and Kendrick Lamar, they knew they were on to something. Then, they were tasked with composing the score for Marvel’s Netflix series Luke Cage. They worked with a 30-piece orchestra to soundtrack the stylized, cinematic Harlem the celebrated black super-hero inhabited.
With that landmark project in the books, the duo shifted gears back to their own music, releasing a self-titled debut album as The Midnight Hour in June. With vocal features from Cee-Lo Green, instrumental appearances from Raphael Saadiq, and even a reworking of Luther Vandross’ 1986 classic “So Amazing,” Younge and Muhammad describe The Midnight Hour as “Black excellence: an ode to the cultural sophistication that the Harlem Renaissance established for its people.”
Folio Weekly: First things first: Is the 30-piece orchestra on this current tour with you?
Ali Shaheed Muhammad: We’ll have a full band—and a very small piece of that orchestra accompanying us. As for specifics, I believe in the mystique of the presentation. I think it’s best when people come to the show to see how we present the album.
The album took a long time to come to fruition; some songs were written as early as 2013. Did you have a creative vision for back then?
We didn’t. Our relationship began thanks to a mutual friend, Chauncey Sherod. When I met Adrian, he was working on the Souls of Mischief album and invited me to be a part of that. We liked writing together and kept linking up. After that, we got hired to do the first season of Luke Cage, and that experience helped us when we came back to the drawing board for The Midnight Hour. One of the biggest things was the orchestra. Prior to Luke Cage, we thought maybe we’d bring in a couple of string players to do basic overdubs. But our composing and scoring process with the 30-piece orchestra changed the scope of our writing and our vision.
Did writing with a pre-existing audience in mind affect your process as well?
We didn’t focus so much on Luke Cage’s audience as the fact that it was the type of story Marvel had not told before—a story told through the eyes of black people in black culture, from a black experience. Luke was created in the ’70s during the Blaxploitation time period, so we wanted to have a hint of that throwback while also making it more modern. So there’s a tie-in to the ’90s era of hip hop, where you’re talking about a lot of sampled material. It was important that we tapped into that Golden Era and what made it so special: sampling from certain jazz, soul and funk records, along with breaks from psychedelic rock. We had a lot of elements to draw from, and they weren’t all hip hop.
Through that process of revisiting the Golden Era, were the differences that separated West Coast and East Coast hip hop in the ’90s still present?
I don’t think it was an intentional, conscious effort of division. Instead, it came out of the natural order of the environment where people came from. Every human being is a unique individual; we may have similar experiences, but as creative beings we place our own fingerprint on our music. That still exists today. Different regions have different sounds. That’s the beauty of being an artist. But I don’t think The Midnight Hour is an East Coast or West Coast-sounding group. Also, remember that we’re all cousins. When you think about the migration of blacks from the Deep South to environments that were open-minded and not oppressive, that happened on the East Coast and the West Coast. People went where blacks could find work. So I think our music is a culmination of all those things: Duke Ellington, Barry White, Lou Rawls, David Axelrod, Ennio Morricone, Curtis Mayfield, A Tribe Called Quest.
Do you think any modern rap group has the ability to be as culturally influential as A Tribe Called Quest?
I ask that question a lot. Using Tribe as a reference, the only two big media platforms that helped us gain popularity were radio and video. As the internet came to life, those two platforms lost their dominance, and that diluted the possibilities of stardom and greatness. In this era, it’s hard for a group of artists to establish a movement. Everyone’s jockeying to have that sort of influence and cultural impact. I think Drake, Kanye and Kendrick Lamar have done it. Maybe Adele, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga as well. But this is a strange time period for artists, so I don’t have a definitive answer. Everything is so spread out. All I know is that, with A Tribe Called Quest, we felt the love and vibration no matter where we went. What I’m hoping with The Midnight Hour is that the music touches people in a similar way. Adrian and I want to express the love and adoration we feel for this music while we’re on stage. There are a lot of intelligent music fans out there who don’t just want the humdrum stuff that pop culture says is cool, and we know there are a lot of people in Florida who know what that cool sh*t is. So we’re looking forward to seeing whether we all speak the same lingo.