Adrian Younge makes music for everything from orchestras to Netflix’s ‘Luke Cage’

How vintage mics and analog tape gave 'Luke Cage' its funk

“It’s not that hard for us to make music.”

So says Adrian Younge, a 40-year-old musician and producer with enough credits to his name on songs from the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, and Ghostface Killah to back up that proclamation. The “us” he’s referring to is himself and A Tribe Called Quest founding member Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the duo behind the revelatory score for the Netflix series Luke Cage.

In speaking with Younge, you begin to wonder if is DNA is actually coded in musical notes. He studied orchestra for a couple of years, which helped him compose his symphonically lush new album Voices of Gemma, in just three months, and he proudly eschews modern digital recording techniques in favor of the incredibly time-consuming analog world. “Everything that I do is analog,” Younge told Digital Trends. “So, I’m not going to record an orchestra to Pro Tools. I just won’t do it.”

Younge and Muhammad have been hard at work in Younge’s studio, Linear Lab, working on the music for season 2 of Luke Cage. Younge took time out from his music to talk with Digital Trends about everything from his latest 50-minute epic for just one episode of the Netflix series, to his passion for analog (and refusal to cut corners), and his aspirations to be the next Quincy Jones.

You and Ali are the musical identity for Luke Cage, one of my personal favorite shows. How is the music made for the series?

It’s analog, as well. That’s the reason why it sounds like that. When you hear Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, or you hear some Stevie Wonder shit, you don’t like it just because it’s composed well. You don’t like it just because they have great voices. You like it because of the way it makes you feel, sonically. Now, listen to Christina Aguilera from years ago. Completely different sound, sonically. Listen to a Britney Spears record, it’s a different sonic sound. It doesn’t have the deep, organic, soulful sound waves in it. It doesn’t have any of that stuff. Analog has it.

How did you come up with the Luke Cage theme song?

We wrote a theme song first, and they didn’t like it. So, we just wrote that one and we said, “Fuck it, let’s make it more funky, and kind of crazy but then on some classic theme song-type shit.” We did that and they were like, “Oh, this shit is dope.” And we’re like, “OK.” It’s not that hard for us to make music. We do it every day. We’re glad that people love it. Every single day, we make something new.

adrian younge luke cage season 2 interview  linear labs fullwide
Adrian Younge Linear Labs

I’ve been waiting to ask you this question. The ending credit song for every episode of Luke Cage season 1 makes you want to start rapping. I was talking with Crooked on Twitter about this. How was the ending theme made and what was the thought process behind it?

So basically that song was made for the actual theme. We made that for the theme song. But [Marvel] didn’t like it, because they thought it was too slow. We were like, “You’re fucking crazy.” So, Cheo Coker, the showrunner and one of our really good friends, was on our side, like, “Are you fucking crazy? This should be the theme.” But, Marvel felt it was too slow. So, we said, “Alright. Let’s just put it on the end.” Basically, what that is is funky-ass, classic library music. If you look up a guy named Alan Tew, he wrote a lot of British library music. That’s the kind of song we thought he would make for a show like this. It’s like funky detective shit.

Why put out everything in analog?

Well, you do hear a difference. Don’t you?

I definitely do, but it’s obviously a lot more difficult. Why eschew all digital recording techniques?

Because as an artist, you should be trying to be your best at all times. If I know my product is going to be better doing it in a handcrafted, artisan way, then that’s what I’m going to do. I don’t cut corners. This is what makes your pieces classic. And I just don’t like how the digital recording sounds, so I can never really do that to myself just because it’s easier.

“The kind of music I want to make is not the kind of music that is Top 40 music.”

For those who don’t understand the vast difference between analog and digital, can you explain something that you do through analog that might be easier to do through digital?

Everything. Every 15 minutes of recording for me on a reel costs me about $300, just for tape. Tape is just more expensive. But the thing is, tape is full resolution. It’s kind of like when you watch something shot on film. If you’re look at an old Western shot on film, 70mm film, the landscape is just so jaw-dropping and compelling. That’s because you’re watching something at full resolution. When you’re watching something digital, it’s not full resolution — there’s holes in it. There’s frequencies that you actually cannot record. So you’re hearing something that’s simulated. Analog is the real thing, actually. Digital is a simulation. That doesn’t mean you can’t make good music recording in digital.

When I listen to your album Sounds of Gemma, it sounds like a journey. Songs like Silhoutte Dreams, Strangers by the Sea, and Dreams of You sound so big and like an immersive session. Let’s get a little bit nerdy with the music knowledge. What is your setup when you’re recording and making music?

I have microphones from the 1930s all the way up to the early ’70s. Microphone preamps from the ’40s, ’60s, and ’70s. My whole studio, Linear Labs, was to represent the era of 1968 to 73. That’s my golden era of sound, and that’s what I love.

Did working on the music for Luke Cage influence the work you did on your album, and vice versa?

Well, I did this album right after Luke Cage [season 1], and during the time we were recording Luke Cage [season 2]. I’m in the same mindset, so you definitely hear influences from both of them.

Do you have any plans for touring your Voices of Gemma album or putting out any more new music this year?

Me and Ali have an album coming out called The Midnight Hour. So, I plan to tour Voices of Gemma with The Midnight Hour this summer.

What’s going on with The Midnight Hour? I don’t think I’ve heard about that.

That’s something we’re going to be releasing at the top of June. It’s probably one of the best albums I’ve ever been a part of. Me and Ali have been working on this for about five years. We started it before Luke Cage. Now, it’s going to be out. If you love Luke Cage shit, imagine that, but more of its own world.

It’s probably one of the best albums I’ve ever been a part of.

Are you going to have any vocal collaborations?

Yeah. We have Raphael Saadiq. I mean we have a bunch of people, dude. We have CeeLo [Green]. We have a bunch of people. It’s going to be the shit.

How do you see your eventual musical legacy? Is there anybody you want to model your legacy after?

I’ve always said I want to be a modern Quincy Jones. But, moreover, what I really want to be is somebody who inspires people. I don’t do this shit for props. I do this shit for people to say, “I love what I learned from that dude. He taught me I could be myself and do my thing.”

What’s the hardest thing about making music these days for somebody so diverse and a virtuoso?

The hardest thing these days is that the kind of music I want to make is not the kind of music that is Top 40 music necessarily. It makes it harder because most people are looking out for trap [music] and all that stuff. People aren’t looking for deeper jazz and deeper cinematic music. It makes my job harder because it is not as easy to redeem financial rewards when you’re doing something that is absolutely against the grain.

You’ve had collaborations with so many artists, including big names like Jay-Z to Kendrick Lamar. Who is on your bucket list to work with and what kind of music would you want to make with them?

Aretha Franklin. I would love to do some crazy-ass soul, hard-ass shit with Aretha Franklin. [long pause] I would also like to do some crazy-ass soul shit with Beyoncé. I love her brand, but I know I would like to do an album that’s a little more sonically mature.