switched on pop

In Adrian Younge’s Ambitious New Project, James Baldwin Meets Marvin Gaye

“Music is a document. Music is timeless.” Illustration: Iris Gottlieb

Adrian Younge, co-owner of the Jazz is Dead and Linear Labs record labels, as well as the Linear Labs analog studio, has been a producer for music greats ranging from Jay-Z to Kendrick Lamar to Wu-Tang Clan and a composer for television shows such as Marvel’s Luke Cage (with A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Mohammad). This month, the Los Angeles music polymath returns with a new mixed-media project — including the album The American Negro, the short film T.A.N., and the podcast Invisible Blackness — that collectively breaks down the evolution of racism in America. It’s his “most important creative accomplishment.” In this week’s episode of Switched on Pop, co-host Nate Sloan sits down with Younge to discuss how both the artist’s experience as a law professor and his all-analog approach to recording resulted in a sound described by Younge as “James Baldwin hooked up with Marvin Gaye.” Listen here, on Apple Podcasts, or on Spotify, and read an excerpt from the conversation below.

Nate Sloan: What drew you to this multimedia approach?

Adrian Younge: I was a [entertainment] law professor for a few years [at the American College of Law in Orange County], and I love teaching. When you study law, you get to see who the law was actually made for. It leads you to slave codes and Black codes, Jim Crow laws. America is a country that was founded or established as a slave society, not a society that happened to have slaves. The vestige of this ceiling carries over even after it’s all done. And it’s one of the reasons why we see such a disparity today. So I wanted to make a multimedia project that really helped to educate people on why we are in this situation that we are now.

The nucleus of this new world I’m creating is the LP The American Negro, and it was created to give an unapologetic critique detailing the systemic and malevolent psychology that afflicts people of color — to show the evolution of our freedom.

Nate: There’s also a lot of spoken narration on this album. Why was that important to you to include?

Adrian: I wanted to make a What’s Going On type Marvin Gaye album, but I wanted to make it in a way as if a black scholar, like James Baldwin, hooked up with Marvin Gaye and [it was] produced by David Axelrod — so it has that soulfulness and psychedelia, but at the same time, it’s extremely academic. I’m talking for a few minutes and breaking things down and then going into a song that reflects what I just talked about. It’s really an educational tool, but at the same time, it happens to have some really, really, really deep music.

Nate: I definitely hear that when I’m listening to the album; there’s something about the sound of your voice that really pops.

Adrian: Everything I do is analog. There’s no computers in my recording system. So when you hear new music recorded in a way that seems arguably archaic to people, but it’s still fresh and brand-new, it makes people listen.

Nate: There’s a lot of rich musical references to great artists — you mentioned Marvin Gaye; I hear Gil Scott-Heron and Curtis Mayfield as well. Does analog recording help you connect with those influences?

Adrian: Absolutely. To me, there is no greater recording medium than analog tape. When we’re listening to these luminaries that created all this great music, let’s use the format that they did [to create it].

Most people don’t know I played all the instruments on this album with the exception of the orchestra, which I wrote for. So I’m playing drums, saxophone, flute, clarinet, vibes [vibraphone], to keys, all that stuff. And I’m kind of forcing myself to be the different kinds of musicians that would have been in the sessions with Marvin Gaye or Isaac Hayes or Curtis Mayfield. Playing vintage instruments recorded on tape takes you back to that time that I deem as being a golden era of music. So all these little elements transform into these different characters from back then. It does bring me closer to them; we were all saying the same kind of message.

Nate: That makes me think of a line from the album opener, “Revisionist History,” where you say, “The musician is the document, an oral transcription of experience and perception through the vantage point of self.” How does this project fit into that lineage that you’re describing?

Adrian: If you study Black history, the difference between traditional African history and Western history is that African history is more of an oral history, whereas Western history was more written. That’s why I say that the musician is the document because we document our history through sound and aural transcription.

I always say that soul is just you speaking with the help of your ancestors, and we’re just continuing these conversations. I look at this album as continuing what they were doing, because jazz is freedom music; this is soul and jazz, but it’s freedom music. It’s us not being trapped by what people tell us that we have to do.

Nate: What makes music so effective for communicating history?

Adrian: Music is a document. Music is timeless and people may not feel like listening to somebody talk, but they’re willing to listen to music. Similarly, people might not want to [listen to a] speech, but they’re willing to hear that speech [performed] in a movie; somebody may not want to go to class and hear a professor talk, but they’d be willing to listen to a podcast of a professor talking about something that they’re interested in. When you kind of trick people into listening to the message, you win. I love to use music as a message — even with this album, it was a real choice to have parts where I’m literally just talking about history. The safest thing for me to have done with this album would’ve been just to [only] have straight music, but to me, the message was more important than the music. I can make music whenever, but I don’t get chances to talk to people about this subject and bring them into my world.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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In Adrian Younge, James Baldwin Meets Marvin Gaye