Together, they’re called The Midnight Hour, though both Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad have forged careers that seemingly intersect at instrumentation even when they’re not performing together. As part of the legendary A Tribe Called Quest, Ali Shaheed pioneered the reinvention of hip-hop’s sound that continues to echo throughout the culture and beyond. Younge is a modern-day composer, with an onus on live instruments that poses a hard left from some of the current production styles in hip-hop as of late. The short film Artform, in partnership with Fender and out today (below), is just one of their effort that is meant to amplify voices across music genres.
With Artform, you’re really showing the importance of how sampling interacts with instrumentation. What made you decide to bring that message to a wider audience with this short film?
Adrian: It’s important. Right now, I’m actually doing a 30-day challenge and I’m asking my fellow hip-hop producers to put down the sampler and close the laptop for the next 30 days and just focus on learning an instrument. The reason why is because when you sample, you can make some of the greatest music, but the thing is, you’re making great music with limitations. When you pick up an organic instrument, you can make great music with no limitations. You can just keep going and keep going. Part of this mission is to ask people to expand and diversify their abilities. We really want to show where we came from. So Ali and I, we were DJs, we love records, we’re sampling records to make derivative music. When we picked up an instrument, that’s when it was like, “Oh, wait a minute! You’re telling me I could actually make stuff like these records? I don’t have to just make derivative music?” So the thing is, we wanted to help to let people know that you can do it if you try. We didn’t have formal training. We didn’t go and have music class and go to music school. We just picked up an instrument and decided to make something happen. It’s as if it’s a testimonial. It’s kind of like, “Yo, you can do it because we did it.”
There’s a lot of these artists that are picking up guitars and kind of inventing their own ways of tuning them. I mean, that’s why power cords even came into play. But I think that as the years went on, instruments became intimidating because people thought it required this lengthy training, which it doesn’t if you have the music in your heart. Plus, so many artists ultimately got by through tuning. So it’s almost like their own little beat machine in essence, right?
Adrian: It’s interesting that you say that, because think about the diaspora of hip-hop, then think about something that was parallel to hip-hop which was punk, right? So hip-hop and punk, they both went against the cultural norms and it’s like a do-it-yourself perspective on making music. It’s like sticking the middle finger up to the establishment, saying, “I’m doing it my way and this is it. This is what it is.”
So when hip-hop got to have the ability to have samplers or beat machines, you could now literally start making music immediately—not just making noise. This is an immediate thing. With punk, when you have instruments that you don’t necessarily know how to play, the culture behind it was then, “Yo, we’re going against the norms here! We’re not doing the kind of stuff you hear on the radio right now. We’re doing something way different, and guess what? We can’t play our instruments properly! And guess what? Our instruments aren’t in tune, AND we can’t really sing that well! But this is our perspective and we’re letting you know that we’re trailblazing a new way to make music.”
It’s great that people are now really realizing how important records are, but also you have to realize that the record never died.
Obviously, you learn the instrument, but also, it helps with other areas of education. When those were cut out, a whole real great connection of our brains was now lost. It’s like, not exercising your certain muscle and with that comes all these other social issues that I don’t want to get deep about. I’m not a scientist like that. So with hip-hop, it was created because in the summertime, those kids who were the pioneers, they had to give up their instruments in the summertime. So there’s this love affair and a lack of money to buy some of these instruments that just inspired this art form that we now know that’s transformed the world on so many other different levels.
But as the art form grew outside of a community room in the Bronx and into this global space—where it is such a leader of economics on a lot of different platforms and these other technologies were introduced—the technology went electronic and introduced a void of the instrument aspect of it. Our DJs were children of that, but again, the limitation is realized when you’re sampling and when you’re left only to an electronic-based instrument. So that’s the other reason why we felt that it’s important to speak about taking up an instrument: because we understand that the platform of music education is also a dinosaur.
Adrian, you have a point when you said you can make these sounds yourself. It’s not like they’re primarily synthesizer-based samples or things that come from another beat machine. These can actually be replicated if you pick up the instrument that originated that sound.
Adrian: Exactly, but it’s like, I think one aspect of marketing—especially with guitar companies—is that they never really earnestly marketed towards the Black and urban demographic. If you walk into Guitar Center, it’s the white rocker hair metal guys. It was never really the cool hip-hop producer that produces the next Kendrick Lamar song. It WAS never really that guy. And this campaign and documentary is to show that there is another side, and that’s one of the reasons why we came together with Fender in order to really show this side. In doing that, we’ve created an exclusive bass for people that want to learn how to get our sound. We created a limited run of bass guitars that give people a tool to sound like us.
Well essentially all music is Black music, and now in 2018, rappers are the new rockstars.
Adrian: Yeah! So the issue is that the new rockstars only make beats from their laptops. Can these new rockstars use these organic instruments to make that music? All this music comes from somebody understanding notes and playing something, essentially speaking. Now it doesn’t mean that you can’t incorporate the laptop and a sampler because that’s a great way to make music. But when you pick up an instrument, you’re unlocking a brand new artist that’s inside you that’s trapped. We’re just trying to be prime examples of that, showing how it’s changed our lives in doing that.
There’s a number of reasons why I feel that regarding sampling as not being musicianship even though it definitely is whether it’s a cultural bias, a racial bias because it was primarily done by hip-hop artists when sampling first became super popular – how do you go about then conveying that message after a campaign like this that the beat machine is in and of itself its own instrument as well?
Adrian: So our thing is that the sampler is a very unique instrument. There should be no ambiguity; the sampler is its own unique instrument. However, the sampler is an instrument with limitations, but it’s still a great instrument. Now if you take up a guitar, there is potentially no limitations because everything you play on a guitar can be transferred to a string, can be transferred to a horn. There are no limitations when you pick up an organic instrument.
So the campaign is not converse to the notion of sampling and making music with the sampler because some of my favorite music ever was made with a sampler. The campaign is to say, “If you can make this kind of stuff with samples, don’t think that you can’t be the person actually creating the samples! Don’t think that you cannot be the person that puts a whole bunch of instruments together to create a wholly original composition where you own the publishing.”
Ali: So in this campaign, we’re saying that there’s value in the sampler as an instrument, and the turntable as an instrument. But in addition to that, because there are limitations with that and because like Adrian just mentioned… When it comes to publishing, perfect example: I have a song that I co-produced with the Black Eyed Peas right now and I did not add samples to it, but will.i.am did.
Now our publishing is being chopped up, and it’s saddening. So when you are playing instruments, you can also help your ownership of the composition. More so, it’s just really about the opening up the limitations that exist when you’re trying to take the music and add additional layers. Usually if you don’t know how to play an instrument, then if you’re not calling someone else in the room who knows how to play an instrument, you’re looking on a record to add more dynamics and more layers to your song. If you know how to play an instrument, then you might not have to do that. I will say though, because of that limitation of not knowing how to play an instrument, there have been these great strides in sampling creativity, like speeding up a song to get a completely different pitch and a different sound. They work hand in hand.
Adrian: So I own a record store called The Artform Studio out here in Highland Park, and basically the record store is an expansion and duplication of my personal record collection, which is based on the kind of stuff that the Golden Era hip-hop generation sampled and expanded beyond that. So it’s all the music that really influences us. What I’ve realized, in my day-to-day studies of the consumers, is that there’s a whole consumer base that did not have records in the home. So this is their first time seeing records. I mean, I have 18-to-20-year-olds coming in saying, “Do you guys have those black discs? Those big black CDs?” You have to think about the age we’re in! It’s just like when I was young and I came home withPurple Rain. It’s a special thing when you put the needle on that record.If you’re in the generation where other people don’t experience that, it’s okay to celebrate something like that in vain and put it on the wall, because it is a celebration that that person decided to be different and to lock into an experience that has a lot of heritage when it comes to Black American music and all kinds of music. It’s great that people are now really realizing how important records are, but also you have to realize that the record never died.
How did you go about working with Kendrick Lamar on his “Untitled 006”?
Adrian: Well, Kendrick heard a demo that Ali and I were making for The Midnight Hour with Cee-Lo [Green], and the song is called “Questions.” So he heard the demo and literally asked for the demo and they just flipped it. We weren’t even there, and that’s why that song “Untitled 006” came out with him flipping our demo version. If you listen to me and Ali’s Midnight Hour full recording, you’ll hear a full orchestra and the real, full composition of “Questions.” So Kendrick is a really smart dude, because he’s not just the dude who’s going to say, “I’m just gonna stick with this or that.” He loves instrumentation. He just loves music; he’s a head. When he heard that, there was something that triggered inside of him that said, “I want to do something with that!” and it was as simple as that.
What do you hope that a person who is a hip-hop head but is still quite intimidated by instruments will gain from Artform?
Ali: Really we just hope that people who view it realize that their dreams in terms of how they make music—with the electronic instruments, with the samplers, with vinyl, with even grabbing stuff off of YouTube even—that they can further their artistic ideas and really hang on someone else’s ideas and spirit to be a source of inspiration and pick up an instrument. It’s such a world behind these instruments and unlocking what’s inside of you. So if it’s already a foundation of the music that you’re making, wouldn’t it be incredible if you could pick up that instrument and make something really special that someone else may actually want to sample?
We just want people to be inspired and not intimidated. One more thing about that is that when you have an instrument—let’s say you’re playing a bass guitar—it’s great when you meet someone who plays a regular guitar and the things that you guys can do together. Then you meet a drummer and there’s all these things that the three of you can do together, versus trying to do it all by yourself. The artistic creativity can just grow and grow and grow. I’m hoping that people will view this and feel like, “You know what? That guitar did look hard, but maybe it’s not as hard as I thought it was sitting up there on a rack somewhere.”