Spotlight On: Adrian Younge

Adrian Younge - The Artform Studio

Adrian Younge isn’t the first musician to create sounds so faithful to early 70s psychedelic soul. But he may be the quirkiest. Each project finds him using a variety of instruments, from the familiar (drums and guitar) to the exotic (sitar and glockenspiel) and wholly unique (a Selene, a keyboard sampler he built himself). Performing alongside a shifting series of collaborators that include backing vocalists Loren Oden and Saudia Mills, and well-traveled trumpeter Todd Simon (of Breakestra, Antibalas and many others), he creates a sound that seemingly creaks and pops like scratchy old vinyl. And when he performs with one of his bands, Venice Dawn, they appear on stage with phantom of the opera masks and funereal black suits as they strum instrumental breaks, often to the bewilderment of their audience.

After several years spent toiling anonymously in the L.A. underground, the crate-digger magazine and record label Wax Poetics recruited Younge for Black Dynamite, a parody of black action films. If you haven’t seen the movie, which premiered to positive reviews in 2009 and spawned an Adult Swim cartoon spinoff, it’s much better and funnier than you’d expect. After that auspicious debut, Younge codified his aesthetic on subsequent projects. It’s a cross-section of black power dreams, B-movie soundtracks like Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly and Ennio Morricone’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and workmanlike funk curios like the Whatnauts and Sir Charles Hughes (whose “Dynomite” was used on the Black Dynamite soundtrack). In fact, each Younge album seems to be a soundtrack for an imaginary film, whether it’s the voiceless illustrations of Venice Dawn’s Something About April, or Twelve Reasons to Die, where Ghostface Killah and other rappers lay out the plot machinations in rich detail.

Thanks to a rising profile, Younge formed the record label and recording studio Linear Labs in 2014, and made it a home for his retro fantasia. This year has already brought the compilation Los Angeles, Bilal’s In Another Life, and Twelve Reasons to Die II. Coming soon is The Midnight Hour, a collaboration with Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest, and Something About April II, which will feature Laetitia Sadier from Stereolab.

Adrian Younge, Black Dynamite (2009)

Few if any had heard of L.A. multi-instrumentalist Adrian Younge when he released his soundtrack for the Blaxploitation parody Black Dynamite. The album is a calling card for his uniquely demented take on early ’70s soul, from overheated vocals from singers like Loren Oden (“Shot Me in the Heart”) and Toni Scruggs (“Gloria”) to ironic sonic cues lifted from Shaft and other funky chestnuts. It ends with a remix of Sir Charles Hughes’ “Dynomite,” a raw soul gem that, believe it or not, was actually recorded in 1975, and adds authenticity to this lovingly crafted retro exercise.

The Delfonics, Adrian Younge Presents The Delfonics (2013)

This release is essentially a solo collaboration between L.A. producer Adrian Younge and Delfonics lead singer/songwriter William Hart. It doesn’t have the rich harmonies the rest of his group once provided, nor does it have the lush melodies of early ’70s classics like “La-La (Means I Love You).” Instead, Hart is bolstered by Younge’s scratchy psychedelic soul, and the duo reimagines Philly soul into a strikingly vibrant and less graceful sound. Among their sparks are “So in Love With You,” “True Love” and “Silently.”

Adrian Younge Presents Twelve Reasons To Die (2013)

This album tells the story of Tony Starks, a New York drug lord waging a losing war against the Lo Duca family. It’s a weird concept made spookier by Adrian Younge’s rusty ’70s soul arrangements. A musician best known for his work on the Black Dynamite soundtrack, he complements Ghostface and the rest of the Wu, and if the entire conceit seems a bit rickety and the performances uneven, at least the men fully inhabit their characters. Highlights include Ghostface screaming out his name in an homage to Ol’ Dirty Bastard on “Rise of the Ghostface Killah,” and “The Sure Shot.”

Adrian Younge Presents Souls of Mischief, There Is Only Now (2014)

Set in 1994 and inspired by a true story, There Is Only Now finds Souls of Mischief at their most freewheeling and creative. The story involves a thug named Womack (voiced by Busta Rhymes on “Womack’s Lament”), who kidnaps Tajai at the 930 Club in Washington D.C., and the rest of the group vows revenge. But this tale is just a platform for dazzling group rhyming, especially on “Ghetto Superhero,” “Panic Struck” and “Meeting of the Minds.” Adrian Younge supplements their performance with jazzy arrangements like “All You Got Is Your Word,” which sounds like vintage golden age rap.

Adrian Younge Presents Twelve Reasons To Die II (2015)

On his third album in less than a year, Ghostface Killah dives back into Adrian Younge’s Blaxploitation soul. Younge has improved as an arranger since the 2013 installment, from employing odd time signatures on “Let the Record Spin” to embedding a droll-voiced RZA as this sequel’s narrator. As for Ghost, he’s a slave to the story’s machinations about Lester Kane, a gangster that summons the GFK demon to exact revenge on the Lo Duca family. If that plot yields shrugs, at least there’s a nice Vince Staples verse on “Get the Money,” and a Ghost and Raekwon reunion on “Return of the Savage.”

(July 19, 2015 – Rhapsody)

Photo credit: The Artform Studio

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