Adrian Younge Is Pushing Music Forward By Recreating its Past

The Los Angeles–based producer learned the value of his music after being sampled by JAY-Z, leading to collaborations with Ghostface Killah and Black Thought.

Adrian Younge started doing something he used to adamantly oppose. The revered producer—who only uses live instrumentation, who has been sampled by JAY-Z and DJ Premier, and who has released albums with The Delfonics, Ghostface Killah, and Souls of Mischief, among others—began releasing instrumentals of his work, a trend that continues on Produced By: Adrian Younge, a recently released collection exclusive to Amazon Music that features Younge collaborating with Estelle, Terrace Martin, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Gallant, and Black Thought.

“I was always against releasing my instrumentals until I got sampled for ‘Picasso Baby,’” Younge says of the popular 2013 JAY-Z track as he settles into his impressive Linear Labs Studio in Highland Park. “The parts that were sampled were the instrumental parts. Those samples changed my life because it put my music in front of many different people’s faces, a lot of people that would have never even discovered me. I started realizing at that time that, first of all, I’m losing money not releasing instrumentals. Secondly, it’s great for others to embrace the behind-the-scenes process. If Off the Wall had an instrumental album, would I buy it? Fuck yeah, I’d buy it.

“I learned throughout the years not to be so precious about the things I do,” continues Younge, who is dressed smartly in one of his signature three-piece suits. “And to be able to share it. I can’t complain about the modern state of music, but then not want to give back and not want to share. If you’re listening to the Off the Wall instrumentals—or Curtis Mayfield’s demos of Super Fly—before you hear the finished product, there’s things that you learn from a compositional and sonic perspective, so I want to be able to provide those tools to producers as well.”

Thus, each track on Produced By comes with a complementary instrumental track. The project kicks off with “February,” an emotional track featuring Georgia Anne Muldrow and inspired by Black History Month. As is the case with much of Younge’s music, the track flows freely, shunning traditional song structure and allowing Muldrow to explore pain and optimism.

“Jazz really emphasized the notion of blacks just being free to do what they feel through music. Moreover, it really represents people being themselves.”

“I love to call black music ‘freedom music,’ because that was one of the ways blacks expressed themselves in America,” Younge says. “We didn’t have the latitude to completely be ourselves. We were indoctrinated into Western culture that had a lot of strict guidelines. So, one of the idioms behind classical music is that this is the canonical way to do any music, and that’s what it is. Jazz slapped that in the face and went in a different direction. Jazz is an American-born music, a black American-born music. Jazz really emphasized the notion of blacks just being free to do what they feel through music. Moreover, it really represents people being themselves. That’s what it is at the end of the day. So, a song like ‘February’ celebrates this notion of freedom within the month of February.”

Adrian Younge’s distinctive production style features instruments and equipment from decades ago. It’s not surprising, then, that his music harkens back to what Younge calls the golden era of sound, from 1968 to 1973. His typically drum-driven tracks, accented by authentic orchestral compositions and live pianos, guitars, and other instruments, are devoid of many modern producers’ tool of choice: a laptop.

“When you walk into Linear Labs, you’re walking into a completely different world,” Younge says. “It’s all analog. There’s no computers. You’re seeing microphones from the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, and you’re essentially seeing the best recording equipment ever made—and it’s actually being used. A lot of studios have great vintage gear, but it’s more like Christmas decorations. You walk in here and every single thing works and it’s all being used at once. When people walk in, they have a reverence for the world and they look at it as if it’s their time to step up to the plate, because most of them have never even recorded to tape. They don’t even understand the concept of doing that. So it’s like a rite of passage for a lot of these people. If you mess up on a word, we don’t just press the spacebar and punch it in. I’m like, ‘Yo. Let’s do this shit all over,’ so the level of performance has to be raised. It is something that every single artist that I’ve worked with embraces. They know me and they know how passionate I am about the world.”

Younge’s production touch is evident throughout Produced By, which features him deviating from his form on “Strobe Lights.” Featuring vocalist Gallant, the song does not feature drums. Instead, it’s sonically driven by a live orchestra played by actual musicians.

“You can’t program an orchestra into a computer. You can’t program that voice. It’s real shit and I always say real shit is the future.”

“You can’t program an orchestra into a computer,” Younge points out. “You can’t program that voice. It’s real shit and I always say real shit is the future. There’s a reason why people listen to Christmas music every year. One, it’s nostalgia. The other is that it’s real, dude. It’s like real musicians, real orchestras, real vocalists, real performances captured and you don’t hear ‘White Christmas’ and think this song was recorded fifty, sixty years ago. You just think, ‘Oh. I love this song.’ It’s something that is timeless.”

As an artist whose throwback production tactics are a potentially ironic way of creating futuristic music, Younge remains resolute in the belief that his style of composition is valuable. After all, it has led him to working with or being sampled by Wu-Tang Clan, Common, PRhyme, and ScHoolboy Q, among others, and to working as a composer on the Marvel TV series Luke Cage with A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad. Younge’s archaic approach in the era of exploding technology has paid off, indeed.

“It showed me that believing in myself and doing what I feel is always the right thing to do,” Younge concludes. FL

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