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The soul of hip hop: For The Midnight Hour, ‘There’s just no ceiling’

Bill DeYoung

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Adrian Younge (left) and Ali Shaheed Muhammed. Photos by Linear Labs.

With all respect to the late Barry White, there’s a new Love Unlimited Orchestra in town.

The 10-member musical aggregation known as The Midnight Hour will visit the Palladium Theatre Wednesday, performing a deeply satisfying cocktail of old-school soul music, pensive, ‘70s-style jazz and sensual R&B, all filtered through the ears, eyes and experience of two of the most celebrated artists in contemporary hip hop.

“We didn’t have a conscious conversation about the kind of music we want to make,” explains Ali Shaheed Muhammed, DJ, rapper, composer, producer, a founding member of A Tribe Called Quest. “It was just in our souls. And when we sat down to make music, this is what came out.”

Muhammed’s partner in The Midnight Hour is composer, arranger and producer Adrian Younge. “This was just a natural evolution for both Ali and I,” Younge says, “because we started off sampling, decades ago.

“We realized that in order to be our best we had to learn how to play live instruments. And you never think you’d learn how to play as many instruments as we play. Then you never think you’d be able to write for a write for an orchestra. And to record an orchestra, to analog tape.

“So this is an evolution, about us trying to get better and better. And there’s just no ceiling, really. This is us living our dreams.”

The Midnight Hour includes a small string section, a small horn section, a rhythm section that alternates between sinewy and funky (with an emphasis on the former) and a trio of vocalists, each with solo spots in the set.

Younge plays electric piano and directs the proceedings. Muhammed is on bass.

They both discourage the word “retro,” simply because they don’t believe it describes what they’re doing here.

“Both Adrian and I like to say it’s a continuation of the conversation that began many years ago,” Muhammed says. “But because we both come from the roots of hip hop, and our foundation is hip hop based, there are certain elements that we feel the music must have. And our approach sometimes is as if we’re digging in the best record store, trying to find the greatest grooves to sample, but we’re not sampling it. We’re actually playing it.

“We both began as DJs, but we both, on individual journeys, felt that we needed to learn how to play instruments, because sampling music just seemed limiting, you know? As great as sampling music is, there’s a limitation to it. And so, wanting to know what inspired a lot of the music that we loved as DJs, and what these musicians were thinking about when they composed the music, led us both to learn how to play instruments.”

The catalyst for the project was the Netflix/Marvel Comics series Luke Cage, for which Younge and Muhammed were hired to compose and produce original music.

“Working on Luke Cage, and working with an orchestra – and having the budget to work with an orchestra – gave us the reminder of what was missing in the music that we grew up on,” says Muhammed. “A lot of the Motown music, everything was orchestrated. A lot of the music that came out of the ‘60s and ‘70s was orchestrated music.

“So after working on Luke Cage we were like ‘Look, whatever we do we have to make sure that we put an orchestra on there.’ Because it takes the emotion of the music, and the experience, to another level.”

Adds Younge: “Once we had an orchestra for the Luke Cage thing, we were like ‘There’s no going back.’”

Their first collaboration was on the 2014 Souls of Mischief album There is Only Now. Muhammed had been a longtime admirer of Younge’s work, including his groundbreaking score for Black Diamond and his production of Wu-Tang Clan member Ghostface Killah’s solo recordings.

Muhammed, of course, was already a hip hop legend.

“When we got together, it was kind of a mutual admiration about things that we both loved,” Muhammed says. “He was working on the Souls of Michief album, and asked me if I would like to be a part of it. I flew out to Los Angeles. Actually, I was just supposed to be this tour guide/DJ host, and Adrian said ‘Hey, would you mind doing the music that you’re gonna speak on?’ It was funny, ‘cause I just thought I was coming out to read some lines.

“But we worked on music, and it happened so quickly. Our chemistry locked in, instantly. ‘We like a lot of the same things and we think a lot of the same things.’ And that pretty much is how The Midnight Hour was birthed.” The album The Midnight Hour appeared in 2018.

Rule Number One was everything recorded – and performed in concert – was live and real, and played by real people.

“So what we’re doing,” Younge explains, “is looking at this old music, taking this sonic palette, and taking these compositional perspectives, and turning them into something very brand new for a sophisticated hip hop generation.

“But beyond that, the demographic is even more widespread, because it’s really music that’s made for vinyl culture. Music that is made for people that love records. And what they love about those records is the standard of excellence that they had.

“Everything is done on the spot, where you can hear the human error in the performance. It’s just something very natural and organic like food. And that’s what we’re doing. Just doing something very real, in a time when most people create it on computers.”

Younge, who’s not only a writer, producer and musicians but a professor of entertainment law (he also owns a Los Angeles record store) has a mission statement, of sorts, for The Midnight Hour.

“A real artist,” he explains, “listens to themselves. They’re not trying to follow trends, or listen to their audience in their head. They’re trying to create music for themselves, and they hope other people like it.

“Now, when you do that, when you stay true to yourself, you open up new pathways and doors to continue to stimulate your internal interest. So when you’re doing that, you’ll never sell out. And in doing that, you’ll become better and better and better.”

The Midnight Hour tour continues through the end of November. “It’s not easy bringing out horns and strings, and a full rhythm section,” notes Muhammed. “It’s quite expensive. But when we released the album, we decided that we wanted to fully represent the experience, what comes off in the recording. We wanted to present that live.

“With regards to touring The Midnight Hour, it was really mandatory that we bring that to the stage. If we could afford to do it. And it’s not easy – let me just tell you!”

A second album, The Midnight Hour Live at Linear Labs, appeared in April.

Due in early 2020 are the debut albums from Midnight Hour singers Loren Oden and Angela Muñoz, both produced by Younge and Muhammed.

Younge’s latest creative ambition is to write symphonies, and tour them. These days, he’s all about the live experience. “When you’re hearing players that are showing you what they’ve learned for decades, in perfecting one instrument, and you have 30 of them onstage, man, it’s just incredible.”

Details and tickets here.

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