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Adrian Younge: New Soul Legend 

The composer and producer reimagines old-school hip-hop

Thursday, Apr 18 2013
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"How would you feel?" Adrian Younge keeps asking this question. He's referencing last night, March 28, when the multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer headlined the Mayan Theater alongside his most recent collaborator, Wu-Tang Clan's Ghostface Killah.

There was a full band, velvet tuxedos, women in scarlet cloaks and a cameo from Wu spiritual leader RZA, who surprised both Younge and Ghostface by popping out to perform "4th Chamber." It induced crowd fervor usually depicted only in Mesoamerican ritual sacrifices. This wasn't a bucket-list moment; it was a turn-the-bucket-over-and-douse-the-coach-with-celebratory-Gatorade moment.

"When you get older, you try to get what you wanted as a kid. Maybe you wanted an arcade in your house, or Q-Tip rapping on your beats," Younge, 34, says between sips of coffee before tonight's rehearsal in North Hollywood. He, his band Venice Dawn and Ghostface are about to embark on a nearly 40-show tour in support of their late-'60s Italian horror film–inspired 12 Reasons to Die, released this month on RZA's Soul Temple Music.

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"I grew up and I'm getting the chance to make music with the people I idolized," Younge says, slightly toned down from the corsage and vintage tux that he'd rocked the previous evening. He's wearing a brown military vest over a red flannel shirt, a tan leather cap, brown aviator lenses and a beard. There's a slight resemblance to a young Curtis Mayfield, if the soul legend sported dreads.

Growing up in Fontana, Younge never could have imagined that Ghostface and RZA would one day turn to him for sonic cues. During their heyday, the Wu-Tang Clan were like rapping Marvel superheroes crossed with stick-up kid mystics, Shaolin monks and Italian mafiosi. They didn't just create their own aesthetic, they created their own cosmology.

When Younge speaks of his project with Ghostface, it's with the solemn reverence of a fanboy who transformed himself into a singular force. Within an underground music scene always eager to find the rare, unpillaged sample or break, Younge's music is anachronistic but fresh and ready to be looped. It's as though he figured out the formula to create new fossil fuels.

"His beats reminded me of the old Wu beats except played live with no samples," Ghostface says, returning Younge's compliments. "Hip-hop is in another zone right now, and for someone to bring back the essence with a new twist on it, you can't ask for anything more."

Nor could Younge have envisioned that he'd eventually defibrillate the creative vitality of William Hart of The Delfonics, with whom he recently collaborated on a full-length of life-scarred and seraphic soul in the vein of the early '70s.

Don't confuse him for some dilettante with a passing fascination for old music. Younge's sound is influenced by but not beholden to previous minor-chord messiahs like Ennio Morricone, RZA and Portishead.

Yet his crate digging goes much deeper. In 2005, he and a partner opened their own vinyl Valhalla, the Artform Studio downtown. Part hair salon, part nostalgia shop, the walls are lined with old experimental, psych, soul and hip-hop records. It's organized with diggers in mind; the goal is to offer only gems for sale.

Mention abstruse Italian film sound­tracks, Philadelphia soul or '90s boom-bap and Younge can wax philosophical with scholarly detail. That's no surprise, considering that, until recently, the J.D. taught entertainment law at his alma mater, American College of Law in Orange County. He's also a film editor who edited and scored Black Dynamite, a 2009 blaxploitation homage that later became an Adult Swim show. Younge also directed Respond to Sound 2, a 2007 documentary that traced the roots and evolution of African-American freestyle dance. But his first obsession was rap music — at least until 1997.

"I like golden-era hip-hop because they were recording on a 2-inch tape. There was dirty, raw sampling. It's nasty. It has a vibe to it," says Younge, who lives in a house in Mount Washington. "A lot of contemporary music doesn't stimulate me the same way as the older stuff."

Hip-hop ruptured in 1997. Not only did Puff Daddy and Master P's domination cement rap's status as a permanent fixture of mainstream pop, but it also found producers and engineers shifting from analog equipment to computers and Pro Tools. Most fittingly, the era saw RZA, formerly the master of the SP-1200, abandon his first weapons to rechristen himself Bobby Digital.

During this time, a teenage Younge started making beats in the style of the old masters (RZA, Pete Rock, DJ Premier) but soon realized that he loved live music more than the hip-hop he made in his tiny studio.

"I started buying ill, obscure records and then I saw Portishead and Air live, and my mouth was on the ground," Younge remembers. "But you realize those old crazy psychedelic soul records are our core. That's what RZA was sampling. When I got to the core, I was in heaven."

Younge formed a band with the idea of incorporating live music into sample-based hip-hop. The problem was that his band was lazy. If the members showed up at all, it was usually late and only after they'd procured weed. So Younge bought drums, a violin, a bass and a guitar and spent a year teaching himself to play.

"I said 'fuck you' to everybody; I'm doing my own shit. People were, like, 'Dude, you can't play instruments. What are you doing?' Blah blah blah," Younge laughs. "But I learned because I didn't want to deal with people anymore. That taught me how to really be a composer."

The finished product was the original soundtrack to Venice Dawn, a film that existed only in Younge's imagination. But upon listening to it, you could visualize the story in sepia, haunted by palace intrigue and cult ceremonies, sudden deaths, and lingering dreams. Only a thousand copies were self-pressed; they have become collectibles.

The process of scoring and editing Black Dynamite reignited Younge's passion for composition. Shortly after its completion, he began work on 2011's Something for April (Wax Poetics Records), a psychedelic soul masterpiece, which discovered the vanishing point between Morricone and Motown.

Younge's cult soon spread to include Odd Future's Earl Sweatshirt, his sometime collaborator The Gaslamp Killer and the similarly psychedelic super-producer Alchemist. The latter tweeted after the Mayan show that "[Younge] is fast becoming a living legend."

If you ask Younge how he's been able to resurrect a vintage sound with astonishing fidelity and a kaleidoscopic approach, he'll tell you that it comes down to dedication. "I don't cut corners. Everything I do is 100 percent," he says. "No computers in the studio. We don't save part of the tape; everything is linear. It doesn't mean I'm better; it just means that my process is more in tune with how they did it back then."

But it's more than replication. Younge's success hinges on his imagination. He doesn't record songs, he invents worlds for his sounds to inhabit. Spaghetti Western scores, lysergic soul and boom-bap all crack skulls.

It's natural that one of Younge's goals is to score a Quentin Tarantino film. His aesthetic and ability to artfully repurpose the past seem like they sprang from a Tarantino dream circa the Jackie Brown era.

"I've always wanted to work with The Delfonics and Wu-Tang, and now I've got the chance to push the old sound forward. This is the trajectory I always wanted," Young says. "It's validating but still surreal. It shows that if you study and work hard at what you believe in, you can be in that caliber. But I don't try to be as good as — I try to surpass. I'm trying to be better than my last album."

Then he finishes his coffee and politely excuses himself. It's time for rehearsal.

Reach the writer at passionweiss@gmail.com

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