Two to Tango: The Midnight Hour’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge

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The Midnight Hour
The Midnight Hour | photo courtesy of the artist

While T2T is normally reserved for a full-bill’s worth of entertainment, the joining of together legendary rapper/instrumentalist Ali Shaheed Muhammad (best known for his role in A Tribe Called Qwest) and equally audacious producer/player Adrian Younge (collaborator to Kendrick Lamar, Ghostface Killah and Philly’s own William Hart) for The Midnight Hour is worth breaking precedence.

The jazzy, soulful, and freeform orchestration, rhythms, and lyricism of the pair’s recorded output (their eponymous 2018 album, a soundtrack for Netflix’s Luke Cage) certainly does. I caught up with the dynamic duo — together, in separate cribs in Los Angeles — right before they camped out at Johnny Brenda’s for a mid-week jam, November 28.

The Key: What did the two of you know of each other before this project began?

Adrian Younge: I was always a big fan of Ali. While I was on tour with Ghostface in New York, Ali tweeted something in reference to the fact that he liked my music. I responded to him that day, and because I was in NYC where he was, we hooked up, and we became friends ever since. When we were at lunch, I asked if he would help me with a project I was working on, a Souls of Mischief album, and he agreed. As we were doing that, I realized that we were not just making music for someone else. We were making music for OUR group, even though we didn’t have one yet.

TK: Ali, do you mind telling ne what you liked so much about Adrian’s music that you tweeted on it?

Ali Shaheed Muhammad: I heard the music he did for Black Dynamite. I was doing my digital digging-through-the-crates thing, and I kept hitting upon these songs that, at first, I thought was old head stuff. The music had such a classic and soulful feel, something that is not the norm in this contemporary setting. Somebody brought up getting together with this cat ‘Adrian Younge,’ and I figured that could never happen; that this was an older man I had heard. Next thing you know, I’m doing my show on NPR (Microphone Check), I kept hearing his name, found out that he was gigging in New York and shouted him out. I thought that his stuff was just soulful, brilliantly so.

TK: Both of you have famously collaborated with other artists. What would you say that the two of you are doing here, with The Midnight Hour, that you simply couldn’t do elsewhere or with anyone else?

AY: It’s different because it is more progressive than anything we’ve done before. Our foundation comes from the old records that we wanted to sample, but, In doing that, we realized the limitations for what we could do creatively. So we both started playing instruments, at first unbeknown to the other. By us learning that, we put ourselves in a position to be even more inspired by these old records, and to break free. We’re looking back to push forward, how previous producers created and how we can mix it up to forge something brand new.

TK:. The old Art Ensemble of Chicago line, ‘ancient to the future’ — a motto made real.

AY: That’s a great way of looking at it.

ASM: When you’re looking for samples, you’re looking for another layer to add depth to a particular song. That was the bulk of much of my previous work. With Adrian, it’s not that, Yes, the foundation is source material from which classic hip hop sampled from, but our music is not constructed as such – it is all our own composition. It’s understanding the frequency of the bass, how what got chopped and pastes, how that all works with the groove, and making it ours. Working together, is like walking into a room with someone who thinks exactly as I do, yet differently. We have the same language. If he’s on bass and I’m on piano, or vice versa, we know where to take the song.

TK: I’m listening to the two of you and you both sound simpatico, as if you genuinely like the other guy. As you have been in close quarters with band mates and collaborators in the past, is liking each other a necessity and important to the music?

ASM: It is important to like the other person I mean, forget the writing relationship. Why stay if you don’t? You see marriages where that doesn’t work out for long. I’ve been long enough in the music space to know that you got to like the other person. And you have to be able to have fun. That’s the other part of the puzzle. Some people overlook not liking someone because the money aspect is so important, but for me – and I can say this for Adrian I think – we are not driven by money. We work on things we like and have fun doing, because if not it is not wroth our time.

AY: Neither of us would like to waste time in an unlikeable situation. We really like each other, a genuinely get along.

TK: What was the first song or sonic moment shared between you tow where you understood that this project had legs?

AY: When Ali and I create, we’re in my studio, or his, and we’re recording. When you’re recording to tape, you elevate your level of seriousness and focus. There’s a whole bunch of stuff you have to do in order to set up a recording, so when you do it you’re at a high performance level. That being said, we don’t record anything that we throw away, so every single time we record, we love what we’re doing. When it’s finished, we might like it even better, but, from the start we liked it and just kept liking it more and more. Unlike sampling which takes a lot of back and forth, we can finish what we’re doing as instrumentalists at that moment. There’s not much trial and error. We’ve been through that part of our careers already.

TK: I hear you.

AY: There was an interlude called “K-NOW,” that we did first for that Souls of Mischief record where Ali is on drums. That was the first thing we made together, and it gelled. Within an hour of us working together, we nailed it.

ASM: Yes, I agree.

TK: The live manifestation of the album feels and sounds different than the recording because it just is. Are you guys improvising?

AY: There is improv in what we do, but, we are producers and composers rather than hardcore session musicians. Now, we both love jazz, but the one part that I don’t like is the one where the solo, the improv goes nowhere. Music is emotional and the lead instruments should be directed at the listeners. When there’s improvisation and solos, it often goes too far. That takes away from the composition, or the composed journey. Our improv is very compositional. We’re not going off, and seeing what happens for the most part.

TK: So, if were talking saxophonists, you’re coming from the Gerry Mulligan school where you solo and head straight back to the main melody or the chord, rather than go way out and avoid structuralism as would an Ornette Coleman. You’re keeping it tight.

AY: Exactly. The same with Duke Ellington.

TK: Is this process of The Midnight Hour stretching who you guys are apart from the outfit, or is it all a learning tool for what you two might do together next?

ASM: We’re always learning and refining our craft as musicians. That never ends. Being in a live space definitely pushes us. Plus, we are so driven that once we get to the live setting we are ready. The innovation happens between us as soon as we are done writing a song, The live thing is another greater element, adding it to the palate. We bring that innovation wherever we go. The dynamic of being a live performer is already way different. When I was in Tribe, it was two microphones and a turntable. Performing off of vinyl is way different than having this bass-based performance.

TK: Considering the live show, how do you see the audience as part of the dynamic?

AY: Basically we’re all here, and a family, and enjoying this together. All we ask is for the energy of the crowd so that we can give that back. We’re united trying to create a wonderful experience.

ASM: And I just want to add that, I am all about people coming out and seeing what happens. Neither we nor you can dictate everything you’re going to see. We don’t know what you’re going to see and hear. You can listen to the album to gain some familiarity with what we’re doing. But, It’s a conversation that happens that very moment. We’re here with you. Let’s see where we’re going to go together in that particular venue.

The Midnight Hour performs at Johnny Brenda’s on Wednesday, November 28th. Tickets and more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.

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