Midnight Hour
Midnight Hour

How Ali Shaheed Muhammad & Adrian Younge Crafted 'The Midnight Hour,' One of the Best Albums of 2018

Midnight Hour Photo Credit: Art Form Studio

When Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge join forces they are The Midnight Hour; this is the story of how they crafted their self-titled debut, which is a fierce argument for live instrumentalism

In order to enter Linear Labs Studio, you have to go through The Artform Studio, a swanky salon and boutique record store residing in the heart of Highland Park, a diverse neighborhood in the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles.

On the left side of The Artform Studio’s walls are dozens of classic records, spanning decades and touching on numerous genres. (The vinyl for Raekwon’s rap masterpiece Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... sits inches away from James Brown's 1973 cult classic Black Caesar album.)

On the right is a full-service salon. The Artform Studio is owned and operated by husband and wife duo Adrian and Sherry Younge. Sherry handles the hair; Adrian takes care of the music.

WATCH: Ali Shaheed Muhammad & Adrian Younge Bring their Midnight Hour Sounds to NPR's Tiny Desk

In fact, all the music you see and hear — sounds of jazz, soul, and hip-hop are constantly spilling trough through the speakers — is curated by Adrian, a self-taught musician who has become one of the most well-respected composers in hip-hop.

When I met with Adrian Younge, on a pleasant July day, he’s dapper: wearing a grey buttoned-up shirt, beige tie, dress pants, and loafers. (He said it’s been “his style for years.”)

READ: The Grand Opening of Adrian Younge's Artform Studio: A Salon, Record Store and Bookshop Curated by Creatives [Photos/Recap]

He greats me and proceeds to take me to Linear Labs Studio: the place where he put the finishing touches on one of the best albums of the year: The Midnight Hour, Adrian's collaborative album with Ali Shaheed Muhammad, one of the founding members of the legendary group A Tribe Called Quest.

The Midnight Hour Photo Credit: Shirley Ju

Entering the studio felt like stepping into a time machine. Every single piece of equipment is analog. It was Adrian’s idea to put a studio behind this shop. Once inside, it was immediately apparent the wide array of options that laid ahead — drums, keyboards, guitars. It’s a playground for any musician.

In an era where most music is digital, and songs can be crafted using machines and apps, The Midnight Hour is a fierce argument for live instrumentalism. The album, which was released back in June, is a 20 track tour de force that blends R&B, jazz, soul, and funk sounds.

The Midnight Hour Photo Credit: Shirley Ju

The genesis of The Midnight Hour began in 2013. Younge, fresh off of producing Ghostface Killah’sTwelve Reasons to Die LP, was working on Souls of Mischief's concept album There Is Only Now. Young brought in Muhammad to narrate the album, similar to how RZA narrated Twelve Reasons to Die.

During those sessions a friendship sparked. And then a working relationship sprouted. They started recording The Midnight Hour during those 2013 sessions. 

Speaking with Billboard, back in June, Ali Shaheed Muhammad said:

I think some time after that, we were just doing some songs together and realized we really liked working together. We had a couple of pieces and we said, "Let’s just keep doing something with this." It wasn’t specifically to do The Midnight Hour but we kept recording and then made the decision that we should make an album from this.

They eventually put the project on the back burner and started scoring Netflix' Luke Cage series. (Their first full-length project together.) But they never forget about The Midnight Hour project, an album which holds precision in its songs, instrumentation, features, message, style, and technique. Adrian described it to me as “the kind of music you listen to in a speakeasy around midnight.”

Speaking to Ali later on a phone call, the famed producer described it as the merging of everything, starting with hip-hop, but then going deeper to the foundation that hip-hop was built on, encompassing all the great soul records from the 1960s on up.

“The Midnight Hour is an album basically [of us] just being children of hip-hop, but bringing it back full circle to its beginning on turntables," Ali said. "The music that was discovered, and the breaks and samples that were there in those records discovered and back spun into making great songs, to us actually now unraveling it and taking it back to the instrumentation aspect of it and making a sound. Like something that you’d want to sample."

Midnight Hour Photo Credit: Art Form Studio

The album is mostly instrumental-based. But there are vocalists who are scattered about. Guest features on the project include Raphael Saadiq, Marsha Ambrosius, and Bilal. The Roots Drummer Questlove appears on the enthralling "Dans Un Moment D'errance" alongside Laetitia Sadier and Keyon Harrold. Speaking about how the track came about, Adrian said they recorded the song after a Grammys after-party in either 2013, 14, or 15. (Adrian's memory isn’t great here.)

“I told [Questlove] I had Laetitia Sadier in my studio and he’s a fan of her. She’s a part of the group called Stereolab, we love her to death,” Adrian said. “He came through and we recorded that song at 4:30 in the morning, so it was special. It was after a long day of work for him. He’s just a super dope workaholic.”

The Midnight Hour Photo Credit: Shirley Ju

Adrian also details working with Raphael Saadiq — who sings on the politically aware “’Black Beacon” — as “friends coming together and making music.” (Adrian wrote passionately about "Black Beacon" on his Instagram: "Like our jazz forefathers of the civil rights movement, we’re using our horns for unity.”)

Another album standout is “Questions,” which features CeeLo Green. It’s a song that might sound familiar; in 2015 Kendrick Lamar rapped over the beat on his track "Untitled 06 | 06.30.2014." off of his side project untitled unmastered.

“He actually took it when he was recording on To Pimp A Butterfly,” Ali said. “He thought that he would use it there, and when he didn't, it was kind of like a subtle disappointment. But that’s what happens sometimes when people get songs, it will get used or it doesn't. You kind of get used to the feeling. But when he hit us and said he was about to put it out for the untitled album, it was good. To have a connection with a younger artist that is making a huge impact on the culture right now and have something that moved him, it’s really special. It means a lot."

The Midnight Hour Photo Credit: Shirley Ju

Muhammad is someone who has been a force in music for nearly 30 years. And even to this day, he uses the same lens he used when he was crafting early A Tribe Called Quest records. 

“I stay digging into crates. I’m always looking for different music to inspire me, even before Tribe. That spirit was enhanced and sharpened with Tribe," Muhammad said. "For a song like ‘Ravens,’ I was thinking Tribe breakbeats — something that [has this] kind of crazy core, that has this weird time signature, and is kind of off but on at the same time.”

Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad released two major pieces of work this year. (They also scored Luke Cage season two.) The two have not stopped working; their next project will be with West Coast legend Snoop Dogg.

 “I have an album that we just recorded its orchestra like two days ago, and it was insane," Adrian said. "We’re gonna release an album before the end of the year. It’s going to be a straight '70s Blaxploitation type of album, so it’s really cool.”

This theme matched the decorations of the studio to the tee: an old-school mic centered in the center of the dusty orange-themed walls. A sunroof up top allowed sunlight to seep through, which accentuated the authenticity of the space.

Shirley Ju is a Los Angeles-based writer who grew up in the Bay Area. She lives, breathes, and sleeps hip-hop, and is literally on top of new music the moment it is released. If there’s a show in L.A., you can find her there. Follow the latest on her fomoblog.com and on Twitter @shirju.

The Midnight Hour Photo Credit: Shirley Ju