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A Tribe Called Quest's Ali Shaheed and Adrian Younge team up with Fender for an insightful, inspiring new documentary

Exclusive: The two producers tell Roisin O'Connor why they believe aspiring hip hop artists should understand the importance of 'real' instruments

Monday 29 October 2018 18:46 GMT
Adrian Younge (left) and Ali Shaheed Muhammad in Artform
Adrian Younge (left) and Ali Shaheed Muhammad in Artform

Ali Shaheed Muhammad (of A Tribe Called Quest) and Adrian Younge have long-been prolific artists in their own right. But in recent years, they’ve become something of a powerhouse duo.

Having worked on the soundtrack for Marvel’s Luke Cage series (sadly cancelled after two seasons), and released a debut, self-titled album as The Midnight Hour, the artists/producers/composers have since shared a short documentary with iconic guitar manufacturer Fender: Artform.

“Most major guitar companies fail to focus their marketing on a black and urban demographic,” Younge says, “because a lot of these companies feel as though black people only use instruments in church, or something.”

“From Kendrick Lamar to whoever else, everybody uses these instruments,” he continues. “Fender felt the same way, so we came together to make this kind of statement, to show the real side of who uses these instruments – which is everybody. It’s not just the hair metal guy or the rock star. Everybody has a different reason why they love guitars.”

Artform offers a brief but incredibly insightful look at how the two producers were inspired by records from a young age to explore and create their own sounds – and are now encouraging aspiring future hip hop artists to do the same.

One thing that Younge shows particular interest in is the use of analogue recording: “My thing is always to tell people what works for them, but personally my stuff is really strongly based in analogue,” he says. “For me there’s nothing better than how analogue records sound. A lot of people are afraid of it – they look at it like you’re repairing an old car or something.”

Shaheed isn’t as enamoured by analogue recording as his colleague, although he does see the appeal. They both believe strongly in picking up an instrument and creating your own sounds: “Expanding your mind,” he says, “and inspiring people who are maybe more electronic sample-based musicians. Whether your recording devices are to tape or to a Pro-Tools rig or something, it’s more about picking up the instrument and having a relationship with it that broadens your creativity”.

The bulk of his body of work is sample-based, and there is “a great value” in creating work that is built from samples, he says. But there are limitations to that method. “You’re relying on someone else’s creative thoughts, on someone else’s emotions, to establish art,” he says. “Which is beautiful – we all borrow, we’re always borrowing and innovating – but I think it’s better to find your own voice.”

He speaks about this at some length in the documentary, calling it one part of “the fingerprint aspect”, where making your own, original sounds allows you to put an individual, personal stamp on something. There’s also a lucrative aspect to it: “When you sample someone else’s music, that diminishes your share of that song,” he points out. “So when you pick up the instruments, guess what? You increase your ownership.

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“This is something like that may not matter in the moment, when you’re 19, but when you’re 30 years old and you look at how much money you lost…” He chuckles. “Not taking the risk to tap into your own mind – you realise you just gave away a lot. You don’t wanna stifle the art, but when you’re creating the ideas… it’s more gratifying, I think.”

“We’re encouraging people to pick up an instrument in order to unlock the hidden artist within them,” Younge agrees. “We’re not discouraging people from sampling, we’re just asking people to add to their repertoire. Ali and I came into music via records. We were sampling, we were DJ-ing. And then, if we were just doing that, we wouldn’t be able to score for film. We wouldn’t be able to do television. So, it’s great for artists to expand their abilities by being willing to learn, to put in the work, and that is the real foundation of what this film is.”

‘We’re encouraging people to pick up an instrument in order to unlock the hidden artist within them’

To coincide with the documentary, The Midnight Hour and Fender are releasing a stunning, limited edition precision bass. “It’s funny because Ali and I, even before we started working together, we had a particular sound when it came to bass,” Younge says. “We’ve always say there’s nothing more important than bass and drums, and people would ask how we get our bass to sound a certain way…”

This particular model is based on a vintage ’59 precision bass, built to spec, and inspired particularly by the sound on legendary – but at the time widely uncredited – Motown Records bassist James Jamerson, who was a big inspiration to both Shaheed and Younge.

They use it in the documentary to show how much potential someone who can play the bass, or guitar, or drums, can have when it comes to making their own music. Shaheed and Younge are filmed essentially creating a song on the spot, then taking it back to sampling, chopping it up and showing viewers the result – “which was kind of like working backwards,” Shaheed says.

Adrian and Ali in the studio

“There are a lot of techniques to sampling,” he continues. “I’m not the author of it though, I’ve learned from other people, and one of the parts of the journey is not knowing.”

They’re both upbeat – although they don’t pretend they’re not disappointed – about the cancellation of Luke Cage. They’re scoring Netflix and Michael B Jordan’s upcoming superhero series Raising Dion, which is a “whole different take” on the superhero genre, and they’re also wrapping on Run This Town, about the late, former Toronto mayor Rob Ford.

“When bad things happen, we both have a way of looking at the positive about it,” Younge says. “The great thing about Luke Cage is that it brought us together as a whole new family of people. We made really great friends. The fact we were able to do that puts a big smile on our faces.

“The question of how it feels to have that gone…” he pauses. “It’s a bummer that it’s not gonna ‘continue’. But what people have to realise is that it allows all of us to do even bigger and better things. We’re very excited for our future.”

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