Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge grew up on opposite sides of the country. Muhammad hails from Brooklyn, while Younge is from Los Angeles. But musically speaking, the two have been on a collision course their entire lives.
What began as a very solitary odyssey for both men—spinning records and punching out beats on drum machines—would eventually lead Muhammad and Younge to find careers as producers, composers and collaborators with many great artists. Fans of Golden Era hip-hop will surely recognize Muhammad as the producer/ DJ for one of the most respected rap groups of all time, A Tribe Called Quest.
While Younge’s name may not carry the marquee prestige of Muhammad’s, his resume reads like a who’s who of hip-hop talent. He’s got production credits with Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q and Common. It was Younge’s work with Wu-Tang Clan founding father Ghostface Killah that put him on Muhammad’s radar.
Younge composed and produced Ghostface’s critically acclaimed 2013 record, Twelve Reasons to Die. On the tour in support of that album, Ghostface rapped along with a live band led by Younge. The tour was passing through New York when Muhammad tweeted at Younge.
“I was tripping, because I love Tribe so much,” Younge recalls. The pair met for lunch, and soon they were in the studio together. It was there that seeds were sown for The Midnight Hour, Muhammad and Younge’s collaborative album, which takes everything the two have learned from the world of hip-hop and spins it into a sprawling, 10-player neo-soul ensemble.
But before Muhammad and Younge made The Midnight Hour—a 20-song set featuring guest appearances from the likes of Raphael Saadiq, CeeLo Green, Luther Vandross and Bilal—they embarked upon what was arguably an even larger project: scoring two seasons of Luke Cage, a Marvel Comics-inspired series, which ran on Netflix from 2016 to 2018.
While working on the show, the pair sharpened their craft even more, as they were expected to produce anywhere from 30 to 50 minutes of music per episode under tight deadlines.
“We learned how to make great music in less time,” Younge says of the experience. “We were finishing multiple songs in a day. When you streamline your process and have to do things under a television deadline, you become better.”
Muhammad, who admits he had been accustomed to the “luxury” of working on his own timeline, says the two years on the show changed the way he approaches writing. Specifically, he says, he no longer accepts the excuse that he simply isn’t feeling the vibe of a song.
“I don’t do that anymore,” he says. “This is the idea of the song. I’m going to do it. I’m going to complete it and move on. You can advance a song every day. Writer’s block shouldn’t last long.”
That’s not to say that genuine inspiration and interpersonal connection aren’t essential to making music. Muhammad and Younge know that, considering how well they work as a team.
“When Adrian and I got together and started working with each other, it was like an instant connection,” Muhammad recalls of their early sessions in the studio. Younge agrees: “It’s a kinship I’ve never really had with another producer.”
That kinship extends to the pair’s shared interest in history. A Tribe Called Quest’s music often stood out from that of contemporaries thanks to Muhammad’s knack for infusing the group’s beats with a jazzy swagger. Similarly, as a producer, Younge first made a name for himself by riffing on the sounds he picked up in his parents’ classic soul and R&B records.
From a philosophical perspective, Muhammad notes, jazz, blues, funk, soul and R&B are all inextricably linked to the African American experience. “The music came out of a place of being oppressed,” Muhammad says. “The same happened for hip-hop.”
Younge agrees, adding that hip-hop is both literally and figuratively a collage. Songs are constructed by piecing together scraps of older music while weaving in bits of the new. And while it’s true that The Midnight Hour is working with live instruments as opposed to snippets of sampled vinyl, the goal remains the same.
“I think that what we are trying to do is to tap into the experience of our forefathers,” Muhammad says.
The Midnight Hour
Dec 22, 11pm, $25
Cafe Stritch, San Jose