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Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad on the Power of Instruments in Hip Hop

Written by on July 20, 2016

Adrian Younge Ali Shaheed Muhammad

Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad are certainly two of the most prolific artists in the world of hip hop.

In addition to his own psychedelic soul projects – including composing the score for the Michael Jai White-led film Black Dynamite – Younge was sampled by Timbaland for two songs on Jay Z’s Magna Carta  Holy Grail, his work was incorporated into the production of DJ Premier and Royce Da 5’9″‘s PRhyme LP, and he teamed with Ghostface Killah for the acclaimed albums Twelve Reasons to Die and Twelve Reasons to Die II.

As for Muhammad, his career with A Tribe Called Quest is legendary, not to mention his production company the Ummah and his work with D’Angelo, John Legend, Maxwell, Mos Def, Mint Condition and Gil Scott-Heron, among many others.

Younge and Muhammad have combined their mighty powers in the past, including the Souls of Mischief album There is Only Now and the Kendrick Lamar hit “untitled 06 | 06.30.2014″ from 2016’s untitled unmastered.

Recently, they reunited to score the latest streaming series from Marvel’s landmark deal with Netflix, Luke Cage. Not only is the show set to be a blockbuster, but having Younge and Muhammad on board demonstrates that the musical component will undoubtedly be top-notch.

In anticipation for Luke Cage‘s Sept. 30 debut, Fender.com caught up with Younge and Muhammad to talk about their respective musical backgrounds and why using live instrumentation has taken their creativity to new levels.

Fender.com: How did you get into playing the bass and guitar?

Ali: That came from me when I started DJing and finding loops to use. That was limiting. It’s one thing to take a loop and make a collage out of it and give it a new identity. But the music I was sampling, I was enamored with all the musicians and how the music made me feel. It had so much movement. I wanted to be free. I felt restricted in the confines of sampling, so that began my journey into instrumentation. I wanted to learn why I liked these sounds. That led me to exploring music theory and feeling confident enough to capture those sounds and recreate it. Having the fundamental understanding of what they were doing and doing it myself.

Adrian: I started making music with a little cassette 8-track, and I realized that them usic I was sampling was inspiring me more than the music I was making out of it. You put a record on and sample it, and you find that loop, and the first three bars is exactly what you want, but in your head you’re hoping it goes in a different direction. What’s really happening is you’re starting to discover the composer within. Nine out of 10 times, it would never go in that direction. It got to the point where in order to really be my best, I needed to learn how to play instruments. I started buying instruments and learning how to play, and it got to the point where I was competing with the source material that I was sampling. I wanted to make music that was parallel to the sample, and that’s an endless journey. Sampling is a highly respected instrument, but it’s got limitations. There are no limits when you’ve got live instruments.

Did you have a breakthrough moment when you were starting out? luke-cage

Ali: For me, the ultimate ‘Ah Ha’ moment was I was in Trinidad working on Tony Toni Toné Sons of Soul album. I programmed this beat, and the guys instantly without discussing it – there was no jam session, nothing like that – and Raphael called everyone down and said ‘Follow me.’ He had his bass and everyone else just jumped in. I was watching it and was blown away. I needed to figure out how to get to that point. It wasn’t going to happen with just sampling. I was fascinated that they just did that off the top of their heads. Raphael had the bass, Tim had the piano, everyone else joined them. I left Trinidad and straight for the airport, I went to Manny’s and Sam Ash and went to go buy a bass. I called [Grammy Award-winning producer] Bob Power, and he gave me some advice. My first bass was a Fender P Bass that I still use.

Bob showed me how to hold it, and he tried to show me how to properly use it. I actually ignored it. I’m left-handed, as well. Any time you pick up an instrument for the first time, it’s strange. It’s foreign. My fingers were hurting, I just played all the music that I love, note by note and figured out how to use the instrument.

How do you approach playing the guitar? How is it a key part of your creative process?

Adrian: To me, how I approached instruments as if they were all part of the sample. So hip hop is based on the break. That hot part of the song. The break has given us hip hop producers compositional direction. Within the break, there are certain sounds that they have, the drums and the bass. But then because we’ve heard so much music from around the world – because we’re always trying to find the illest sample – there are so many different guitar sounds. Acoustic, archtop, Tele, Strat, Westerns. It’s such an expressive instrument, and it’s a whole world of samples. We see Spanish things, British rock, classic rock. But at the same time, we see Earth, Wind and Fire. That’s just guitar. Applying that concept to a plethora of instruments, we look at them with the idea that there are so many possibilities. The guitar is always one of those very special elements.

One thing with me is I was never the one in high school in band class. So I didn’t pick up an instrument until I was like 19 years old. When I did, my friends were like, ‘What are you doing? You’re not a band guy!’ People were talking so much sh*t. Hip hop producers, because we listen to so much music, compositionally there are so many things stuck in the back of your head that you can’t get it out. When you get an instrument, you’re throwing up all over it trying to catch up and get all those ideas out. I was just working on it every day. I remember when I first got a bass, I hardly knew how to play it. It’s weird that that feeling seems really foreign now, but to the novice person that doesn’t know anything about it, that’s how it feels. You plug it into your stereo or something. One of the most difficult parts of all this was making the transition from a person who isn’t defined as a ‘player’ to being a player. That’s a big jump, because you have to have balls. You have to have confidence and not care about what other people think. If you’re shooting to be a professional.

Ali: I totally agree, and I’ll add that m introduction to instruments was still from a DJ-based perspective. I thought, ‘If I could just get this one bar right, I can sample it and I’m good.’ My focus was solely from a loop perspective, even though I wanted to get to moving it, I was still locked in to that same space. I knew I would get there, but it was all about just making it happen in the now. I should have been doing it at 12 or 13, but I was doing it at 23 and 24. For people who have never been in the studio, I would have to show them how instrumentation can make the some bigger. The biggest challenge was having confidence to do that, because I wasn’t taking any classes and didn’t have people tell me what to do. It was just playing the music I listened to.

A perfect example is coming to Adrian’s side of the world and recording on two-inch. I still had the programmer’s perspective and thought you could just move little things around. Adrian was like, ‘No, we’re going to rewind the tape and do it again.’ I hadn’t been challenged that way. I’m still trying to overcome those bad habits or not having the quiet time to properly learn the instrument. That’s tough, because while I’m learning I’m actually working. Learning literally on the job.

Adrian, you once said you like to do things wrong in order to get it right. Can you elaborate on that?

Adrian: From this hip hop perspective, we love everything that is different, novel and interesting. So with breaks, It’s not the huge hits, it’s mostly the records you haven’t heard before. One of the reasons why is because a lot of them were recorded on small budgets in small studios. So If you’ve got a small budget and a small studio, there’s a lot more experimentation. It’s not standardized. A lot of those records were recorded in what was then thought about as a wack studio, but the equipment had vibe. They weren’t doing the things that were ‘right.’ Those great sounds is all that wrong stuff they were doing back then. I was listening to some old Turkish breaks, or some Afro-beat sh*t, and it wasn’t recorded with the best equipment, but it sounds so ill. It’s tapping in to being different. One of the things that I do, as well as Ali, is use certain amplifiers in a way that they weren’t necessarily intended to be used. My favorite amp is a Twin Reverb. For my first Something About April alum and the Black Dynamite album, all my bass was recorded through a Twin Reverb. I know the Beach Boys did a lot of that. That Carol Kaye sh*t. What’s really great about the Twin is it records great. You’re not getting too much bottom, but you get enough bottom to really let it sit in the track. A lot of people look at a bass guitar like it’s just supposed to provide a sub, but it’s actually a guitar. You want to hear the guitar, and the Twin will allow that. Conversely, using bass amps to record guitar, because you can get a different kind of crunch. Using ribbon mics on drums, that’s unorthodox. But it’s all of those perspectives that help us get those sound we deem to be right. Hip hop created this theory behind music which is, “We need to be different. We need to find something different so when you hear it, you’re head is snapping back.” It’s learning how to make things right by going every way they tell you not to go in the book.

Ali: The novice person would think it’s amazing to see someone doing all these acrobatics on the guitar and shredding, but really that’s just something a third grader could do. It’s all mechanical. You just learn those basic mechanics and then practice every day and then you can do it. But you can’t practice compositions and making songs. Us being on both sides, we identify with the producers and the people who have never even touched a sampler. What’s interesting about us coming together is there’s not that many people on the hip hop side that understood playing as much as we do. Obviously, people have been doing it in that world from way back, but it’s interesting to have both of those perspectives. Especially right now, when people are going away from live instruments and staying in the box. It’s an interesting time because of that. Hip hop gave the black and urban youth a way to make music without buying an instrument. But at the same time, it shows that youth the power of instrumentation and instruments. We want black and urban youth to want to recreate that music using instruments. Now, computers are doing it in their own way. Anybody can play an instrument, but not anybody can learn how to compose and create a song.

Ali, what do you love about the bass?

Ali: The curves. [laughs] Really, I love the low end. Bass and cello are my favorite instruments. The two are very similar, but the frequency is obviously much lower in the bass. There’s something in that frequency, when you bow, that just brings out a different emotion in the sound. Even though I play electric bass, because I’m a punk and have not stood up to play that big-bodied bass [laughs], I still appreciate it when it’s bowed. Also, my love affair with hip hop comes from the low-end frequencies, the kick. You marry that with the bass, and that’s the melody that moves. Then you can even take it up to the highs of the strings. I don’t know, it just resonates with my spirit.

Adrian, how do you know when an instrument is right for you?

Adrian: One thing about picking up an instrument is that it should always speak to you. When you pick up an instrument, it should tell you where to go. So if you’re searching for a new bass or guitar, regardless of whether you know how to play it or not, it should emit a story to you. It should tell you there’s music here for you. If it doesn’t, that’s not the instrument you should be playing. I know that people have difficulty when it comes to picking up an instrument because they might not have guidance or don’t know anyone who plays instruments. Nine out of 10 people don’t play. I always say, in looking for that instrument, for me, I identify with the instruments that reflect who I am, something unique. My favorite bass is a Fender P Bass, but the reason why I like it so much is it spoke to me on so many records, from Pink Floyd to Motown. I identify with that sound and how it cuts. When I looked for my first real bass, I was looking for that P Bass and I played a couple before I found one.

I’m a big vintage dude. I love quality, well-made gear. Fender has a long-standing heritage of making great instruments. Before Ali and I hooked up, I was a little weary of playing the new stuff because the vintage stuff was so great. When I got some of the Road Worn stuff, I couldn’t believe it. One of the reasons why they are so good is because guitars are organic instruments. I love the Road Worn stuff because they’re very simple and there’s not a lot of electronics getting in the way. For somebody who is a hard core vintage dude, to pick up an instrument that’s brand new and want to play it live, it was a big deal because I’ve made a career of making music that sounds like it was made between ’68 and ’73. It just makes me happy to see Fender … even some of the amplifiers, getting a new one I was really happy with it. The new Princeton, I was like, ‘Wow.’ It really puts a smile on my face to be aligned with a company that still gives a sh*t.

My favorite guitar in here before my Tele was a ’68 Silvertone, and it’s new. When you can find a new manufacturer that’s creating new items, it makes me feel good. I’m happy that Fender is still making great amps and guitars.

Ali, what is your favorite bass?

Ali: It’s so funny. I guess this happens with musicians, but I was just thinking a few days ago that I’ve had my bass 23 years. Some people have had drum machines for that long, strictly in hip hop. I don’t think many people can say they have an instrument for that long. That bass has been my friend. The only other thing that has been with me longer is my record collection. I’ve always used technology in my recordings, and I’ve never stuck to one particular platform because I want to be open-minded. But that P Bass has been the most consistent part of my writing and producing.

Do you have any advice for those looking to get into playing music and using more instrumentation?

Ali: Those out there who are messing around with programming and thinking about jumping outside of the box like me, and I learned so much about myself when I did.

[Jazz guitar great] Wes Montgomery started playing guitar at 20, and he is almost unmatched in terms of tone of our time. When I heard that, it made me feel at 22 that I stood a chance. Knowing that – Low End Theory was already out – I thought I had a lot to catch up to, but that encouraged me. Don’t be intimidated by it and you’d be surprised how much that will open up your creativity. You don’t have to come out of the womb being a virtuoso. Just go for it.

Adrian: I didn’t start learning scales until the last few months, and I’ve done albums and scores. I knew scales in my head because I know what sounds right, so I could do a lot of complicated stuff without picking up a book on scales. The reason I wanted to do that because I wanted to understand who I was inside. To get to the point where Ali and I are scoring a big Marvel thing, it goes to show you don’t have to know the technical things backwards and forward. A lot of people are afraid of getting an instrument, but you don’t have to be. We didn’t know everything and are still learning, but we’re making music and traveling the world doing it.

Follow Adrian Younge here and Ali Shaheed Muhammad here