Interview with ADRIAN YOUNGE, score composer for the film Black Dynamite - Jan 3, 2011
“The blaxploitation films had great soundtracks and so we were very meticulous in trying to get everything just right”
One of the best comedy movies of recent times is the spoof blaxploitation flick Black Dynamite and as with the original 70s classics, like ‘Shaft’ and ‘Super Fly’, what really made the film stand out was its ultra authentic, brilliantly memorable score, which was crafted with exquisite care and chops by one man band and composer Adrian Younge.
The Wax Poetics artist and analogue disciple recounts the extraordinary story of how the film and score were created, how he took it to the stage with the Black Dynamite Sound Orchestra and how to get involved with scoring films ...
How did you come to create the music for the Black Dynamite film and then form the Black Dynamite Sound Orchestra band?
I was friends with the director [Scott Sanders] and Mike Jai White, who plays Black Dynamite, and Scott called me in to help him and Mike edit the trailer for a movie that Mike wanted to make called Super Bad. Scott submitted it to a friend, who’s a financier, and he loved the trailer and we got financing. And one of the contingencies was that if I help with the trailer they allow me to edit and score the film.
The movie Super Bad turned into Black Dynamite, and after doing the score I just put a bunch of my musician friends together to make the band.
What is your musical background and how did that set you up for creating the score?
I was always making hip-hop and it got to a point where I realised that in order to really satisfy my artistic desires I had to learn how to play instruments. So I started buying instruments and teaching myself how to play.
I then made a faux vintage Italian soundtrack called ‘Venice Dawn’ (2000) and put it out as if it was a soundtrack from a late 60s film and that’s how I started to get some notoriety for making vintage/retro music. And that’s also what helped me to get the chance to compose for Black Dynamite.
There was a lot of time between the ‘Venice Dawn’ and ‘Black Dynamite’ albums. What were you up?
I took off the time because I went to law school. I’m now a law professor and teach [entertainment] law at my old law school. As an artist I feel that it’s good to have a firm education as well as your artistic side.
And also I did a couple of documentaries (In 2004 Younge edited and produced the hip-hop dance documentary ‘Respond to Sound’, followed by ‘Respond to Sound II’ in 2007, a documentary depicting the evolution of black American street dance from 1760s to the 1960s -ed). That’s how I learned to edit.
Just like with the original blaxploitation films, your soundtrack really defines the ‘Black Dynamite’ film. So it was decided straight away that for the film to work, it had to have a very distinctive and authentic-sounding soundtrack?
Absolutely. Because most of the blaxploitation films back then had great soundtracks and great music, we were very meticulous in trying to get everything just right.
And were you a big fan of the original films and scores?
I’ve always loved old movies, but especially blaxploitation movies - Super Fly, The Mack, Black Caesar … Plus I have a great affinity for that kind of music and already had a lot of background in collecting that kind of vinyl and researching the artists.
What research and preparation did you do in order to capture the authentic sound and feeling?
Well, all I do is listen to old music. I don’t listen to anything new. I mean, I love new music but for years and years I’ve just collected music from about ’68 to ’73. I’ve been studying that music for quite some time, and creating that music.
So when the opportunity arose I had to really become even more a proficient in the writing technique and the style, composition, soundscaping …
I watched the movies to see exactly how they scored certain moments. And there were distinctions between television scoring versus film scoring. Mike and Scott talked about a lot of these distinctions, and we would go back and forth until we got it right.
So you were discussing ideas with the director and writer?
Yes, the director actually wrote the lyrics for a song called ‘Cleaning Up The Streets’ while we were editing. He said, “We need a little montage song, a funny montage.” So he started doing the lyrics and I started doing a bass line and thereafter this song was created.
Did you have any prior scoring experience?
No. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do and I’ve done stuff here and there, but nothing that’s made a serious mark.
How have you found all the appropriate analogue recording equipment? Is it difficult and expensive to find old mics and tape machines?
It is difficult but I’ve been doing it for years. I mean, if you find an antique collector of vintage China dolls, for instance, and they’ve been doing it for 12/13 years they’ll be able to find a whole bunch of vintage China dolls [laughs].
Most of my instruments come from a place called Future Music. It’s a well renowned vintage instrument store here in Los Angeles, and it just so happens that the drummer of my band [Jack Waterson] is the owner of that store and a really close friend. So, I would get a lot of my stuff from him.
I’ve always had a studio full of old vintage equipment from the 50s through the 70s, and Scott was always trying to make fun of me, “Why the hell do you have all this archaic equipment? When you ever gonna use this stuff?” And then this opportunity came along and they say, “Okay, this will help.”
Can you explain the benefits to the listener of using solely analogue rather than digital?
Analogue captures all of your sound. When you record digitally there’s holes in the music. Listening to a record that is recorded well versus a CD, the record is going to sound better because it’s more organic, it catches better frequencies, it’s warmer, it’s more full …
You can still record digitally and get good sounds but it will never be what analogue is. It’s just like filming, you know, when you’re shooting film it’s always different than shooting digital. It can get close but it can never be analogue. That’s why I still use analogue to this day.
What are the challenges of recording the score from an artistic perspective? For instance, how do you decide on themes and moods?
I think about what they would have done back then and try to be as close as possible to their composition, their style, their technique … So, if I felt a moment needed to be heightened, I couldn’t use synthesizers as they would today, I had to use organic instruments. I would have to use strings or guitar with fuzz and big drums and horns, just as they would. So, I had to put myself in the position of a composer from 1973 and know my parameters.
You’ve said that you can’t really write music but have your own way in making it visual like a graphic. How does that work exactly?
I look at it as a rollercoaster ride where there’s ups and downs, and I allow the chord structure of the music to provide a ride for the listener. I like to have a starting point and an end point.
So, for example, if I’m making a dark song where I want there to be some kind of relief at the end, we’ll travel together, do some dark chords, but then it’ll be brighter and brighter as if the sun is coming out and there will be some kind of relief at the end for this type of song, but I do that with chords - like chords move up chords move down.
When you play as though you’re playing with a full band and the whole orchestra, you have to think about yourself being ten different people playing ten different instruments. So if I’m recording drums and bass, I‘ve got to think about what the harpsichord player may be doing or what the string player may be doing at this moment.
I have to create pockets for everybody so that everybody doesn’t trip over everyone, and in order to create this rollercoaster ride.
How did the scoring process work in relation to the actual film production – were you working in tandem with it or did it follow the completion of the film shoot?
Basically I was editing in the mornings and then I would be recording at night. So while they’re filming I’m editing and then in the evening I would go to my studio and I would bring footage home from the editing base and score to that footage.
And what were the challenges from a technical standpoint – For instance, why did you do everything on your own?
Because that’s how I’m used to working. I mean, some of the members of my band played on certain songs, but I predominantly did the whole soundtrack.
But as far as recording and producing, I’m just the type of person I don’t like to rely on other people to get jobs done, because I like to just sit there and focus and get things done. I like to be in control.
In what ways did you move away from simply rehashing a 70s funk soundtrack but try to add your own slant on it?
I never wanted to be the person that just made 70s music. I want to be the person that tried to make music that was for a lack for a better word: better. And it’s not to say that my music is better than their music, but I would take inspiration from what they did back then and try to take it forward, try to make it a little more prolific, try to incorporate what I learned from listening to hip-hop and what they didn’t have a chance to listen to back when they were making this in the 70s.
Also I would try to incorporate some of the audibly pleasing sounds that the hip-hop generation created, for example. A perfect example is focusing on the break and the drums and the sound of the drums and the thickness and bottom end of the bass. That is something that came from hip-hop; they didn’t do that that much in the 70s.
The sampling generation commenced a movement where you could create songs by looping certain phrases, certain riffs, and focusing on the loop theory. They didn’t do that in the 70s but I could use this now in making music and still make something vintage.
What music influenced you outside of the obvious funk reference points?
Most definitely Italian soundtracks, like Ennio Morricone, Francis Lai, Pierre Bachelet. I love old European soundtrack music. I love old French music and European psychedelic soundtrack music. It’s more of a European take on what black America was doing with funk, but they added classical renditions to this type of music. And it’s beautiful. It’s my favourite type of music.
Old Westerns, James Bond … there’s many influences. I’ve always loved hip-hop from the golden era - listening to how Public Enemy used the SP-1200 to make drums and how they sampled, and trying to incorporate those perspectives in my creations.
The score incorporates some other background music – mainly by Alan Tew – can you explain how this music was chosen and how you integrated with your own?
Well, there’s a soundtrack and there’s a score. The score is my music, the original music, and the soundtrack is the stuff with Alan Tew and David Hollander and he found a lot of this music for us.
While editing the film, Scott, the director, and myself would go through a lot of the music that David Hollander would send to us, and we picked what we thought was either the best and/or fit certain scenes the best. And at the end of the film my record label www.waxpoetics.com Wax Poetics and David Hollander put the best of that music together on a soundtrack, and said, “We’ll put this library music on one soundtrack and then we’ll have your original stuff on one score.
The Black Dynamite soundtrack was clearly a huge artistic challenge. With that in mind what would be a fantasy project for you?
I would love to score a James Bond film, and I would also love to score a Quentin Tarantino film.
With regards to the live show performed as part of the Black Dynamite Sound Orchestra how did you want to expand on the score?
What I try to do with the live show is absolutely kill whatever is recorded. I want the audience to come and experience a show and not just playback.
The ensemble of musicians come from a very varied background. Isn’t it difficult to keep everybody them all going in the right direction?
We all come from different walks but we all like the same type of music. We all love classic rock, we all love great soul music … We all have the same kind of affinities for music, but based on our different backgrounds we can teach each other things. I never ever liked heavy metal but one of my band members used to love heavy metal and he would show me stuff and I’d say, “Oh that’s actually cool.”
What has been response like to the Black Dynamite project - has it led to other things?
Well, there’s going to be a Black Dynamite cartoon and I’ve started doing music for that. It’s being distributed by Cartoon Network and should start airing probably towards April or summertime.
I’ve received a lot of interest from various people to do work here and there, but personally what I like doing the most … I’m a album person. I just like to sit down and write albums and perform my albums.
So, as far as what this has done for me as far as putting me in a position of where I want to be, this album has given me the fanbase to create the type of music I like, and that’s what I’m trying to do right now.
What advice would you have for up and coming producers on how to get involved in soundtrack work? What skills are needed?
Do independent films for people. Don’t be afraid to do free work because every time you do free work it makes you better in what you do. Don’t be lazy. Be motivated and seek out as many opportunities as possible, because making it is networking, it’s who you know; it’s not necessarily based on the talent that you have.
Do you need to be as much a producer as a musician and composer?
Yeah, because everything goes hand in hand. If I wasn’t a film editor I couldn’t compose the way I compose, because I think about the edit that coincides with the music, and when I’m editing I think about how the music can coincide with the cuts that I’m making off screen, and when I’m producing I think about how the soundscaping can affect the viewer, how I can enhance the audiovisual just by certain recording techniques.
So what are you working on at the moment?
Right now I’m mixing my next album, and it’ll be completely finished by next month. It’ll be released in the spring on Wax Poetics Records. It’s way on another level than the Black Dynamite score.
What is it Wax Poetics are doing for you?
Believing in my vision. They want to help push my music, and what’s even better about it is that they don’t look at my music like it’s my music, they look at my music like it’s our music, us being a collective. So, we’re really looking forward to see what 2011 brings us, and they’re looking to push our album as much as they can.
interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman