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Ali Shaheed Muhammad talks about A Tribe Called Quest, scoring for TV, and his new project the Midnight Hour

Artwork from the self-titled debut album of the Midnight Hour, the new collaborative project of Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge.

For a group that recently released their debut album, the Midnight Hour are no novices to writing, recording, or producing music. The Midnight Hour is the collaboration of composer/ arranger/ producer Adrian Younge and rapper/ DJ/ producer/ A Tribe Called Quest member Ali Shaheed Muhammad. After collaborating on various projects for years, the duo released their self-titled debut album as the Midnight Hour in June.

Ali Shaheed Muhammad talked with Sean McPherson ahead of the Midnight Hour’s performance this Sunday at the Cedar Cultural Center. They talked about writing and recording music with the Midnight Hour, as well as scoring for TV series and working with A Tribe Called Quest.

Full interview

Muhammad and Younge began working together in 2013. Younge was producing the album There Is Only Now by the Oakland hip-hop group Souls of Mischief, and Muhammad was also working on the album as a DJ. While working together on the album, Muhammad and Younge became friends and realized that Younge’s detail-oriented approach to recording was a good match for Muhammad’s musical curiosity.

“Adrian is a phenomenal multi-producer, multi-instrumentalist; he plays pretty much every instrument, and that’s not an exaggeration,” said Muhammad. “His process in his recording style is very detail-oriented to a specific period. The way I study bass players, he studies sound, and sound as it was recorded in certain periods in history, filled with all sorts of vintage analog gear — a microphone that Nat King Cole would have sang on, something like that, that attitude of sound.”

Muhammad and Younge also bonded over their shared background as DJs and self-taught instrumentalists. “Just in terms of our chemistry working together, thing just kind of came out quickly,” said Muhammad. “We both began as DJs and pushed ourselves to learn how to play instruments without any classes, just self-taught.

“When it came to the actual music of the Midnight Hour, it wasn’t like we sat and said ok, we want to go for this particular style. It was just— we were free in our writing process,” he continued. “Because we both work quickly and we are both multi-instrumentalists, he would jump on the keys and I would jump on drums; or he would jump on drums, I jump on keys. We just flowed. The one thing that we did speak about though was just the attention to the detail of the sound. One of the things that really became clear and apparent was that we had to work with an orchestra. This happened after our work on the Marvel Netflix show Luke Cage. Scoring the music for Luke Cage, we felt in order to make that world real, we had to have an orchestra.”

In 2016, Younge and Muhammad were working together to score Luke Cage, based on the comic-book character from the ’70s. Scoring for the series was Muhammad’s first time working with a full orchestra, and the experience inspired him to incorporate a similarly large orchestration on the Midnight Hour’s first album.

Going back to the periods of the 1950s, 1940s, 1920s, you had these big bands, and even though there may have been a couple of microphones, there was just something to those compositions and the spirit that the musicians played with,” said Muhammad. “We wanted to make sure that our music embodied that — and that means having people in the room, and not trying to just do the entire record yourself.” In addition to an orchestra, The Midnight Hour also includes contributions from collaborators like Raphael Saadiq, CeeLo Green, and Bilal.

We try to make the Midnight Hour capturing the spirit of great humans being in the room, but also knowing that specifically for blacks in America at that time, there wasn’t a great amount of freedom, and so it had to be expressed in the music, and that was really important for us; to make sure that we were free enough. Even though as I explained, we worked quickly, it just had to have that adversity, overcoming, having hope, and showing how brilliant of a human being you are with forces looking at you as less than a human.”

The idea of freedom can also be seen in Muhammad’s approach to writing with A Tribe Called Quest. While using samples is a fundamental building block of much hip-hop music, Muhammad says A Tribe Called Quest strove to break past the potential rigid structure and limitations of building from samples.

Muhammad on ATCQ

“I’ve always been working with keyboards and different drum machines in addition to working with samples and sampled records. I always felt that there was just a limitation into sampling. As great of a building block as it can be, just finding a dope groove or a dope break or just a line or something, a noise — at some point, there’s a limitation.”

“The way to get around that limitation is to sample more records and add layers to it. That, I think was the magic and the spice of the music that came from A Tribe Called Quest. It was layered— and what we were doing wasn’t new. To give an example: Public Enemy and the Bomb Squad, they layered noises and noises and things just didn’t seem to go together, but the way that they put it together rhythmically, it worked and was a different kind of a landscape. But we weren’t making that kind of music; our layers were different. It was movement.”

“But I just felt that something else should be happening, especially because the music that I listen to, I’m just a fan of music, specifically jazz. When it gets to the improv part it’s just like freedom, true freedom. There are no limitations. Obviously I wanted my music to get to that point of having no limitations, but I just wanted my whole musicianship to be like that. The only way that was going to happen was if I picked up an instrument.”

The instrument that Muhammad picked up was the bass; he started playing in the early ’90s, after working with the R&B group Tony! Toni! Toné! Muhammad was fixated by the way that Raphael Saadiq picked up his bass and the band followed him, effortlessly cascading into the song, “I Couldn’t Keep it to Myself.” “That blew my mind,” said Muhammad. “I left the studio in Trinidad where we were recording, went right home to New York City and bought my bass.”

In addition to talking about his work with Adrian Younge as the Midnight Hour, Muhammad also opened up to McPherson about A Tribe Called Quest’s final album, We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service, and his absence on it.

The idea to produce another Tribe album arose after the trio on the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in November 2015. Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Jarobi White, and Phife Dawg reunited to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their debut album, People’s Instincite Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. It was the group’s first TV performance in 15 years, and also their last, due to Phife Dawg’s passing in 2016. After performing on The Tonight Show, Q-Tip reached out to Muhammad about recording another Tribe album.

“We had a conversation, to begin,” said Muhammad. “This was November, I don’t know, November 11, 2015.  [Q-Tip] was like,’Yo, let’s just go in quietly, you stick around, we knock out half an album, and we just put it up New Year’s, January, not saying a word.’ I was like, ‘That’s insane and dope at the same time, yet cool. Let’s do it.’ But it didn’t work out. Fast-forward to me being deep into [scoring the TV series] Luke Cage— I was available. I was available and Q-Tip wanted the record to be recorded in New Jersey period, point-blank. Everybody, all bodies in the room, in New Jersey. And I protested that; technology surpasses that, and we all have different obligations — we’re not 18 without real-life obligations. So it doesn’t have to be that way. He pushed to the point that they completed the record and I wasn’t a part of it.”

Despite not contributing to the final Tribe album, Muhammad recognizes that the group is about more than its individuals. “When it comes to Tribe, it’s not about the individuals — it should not be. I could have protested, but I didn’t and I went to support, and I played Saturday Night Live. I went out on tour last summer to support. Because I think that record is important but our legacy and what we’ve established prior to that record is equally important.”

Three decades since the inception of A Tribe Called Quest, with work as a record producer, studio musician, rapper, and TV scorer under his belt, what’s next for Ali Shaheed Muhammad? The musician is keeping busy, continuing to work in TV and film, scoring the upcoming film Run This Town and the Netflix science fiction series Raising Dion. Muhammad is also producing new material by artists Jonny P., Angela Muñoz, and Loren Oden.

Despite keeping busy with producing records and scoring for TV and film, Muhammad is excited to tour with the Midnight Hour and see how audiences react to the group’s sound. While crowds may know Muhammad from A Tribe Called Quest, he says that the band’s sound and stage energy is quite different from Tribe.

“This album is different for me,” said Muhammad. “Standing onstage with A Tribe Called Quest’s music — Tribe is thumping, it’s loud, it’s energetic, it’s upbeat. Q-Tip’s stage presence is stellar; he’s a superstar. When he’s on that stage he’s a star, he gives you every ounce of his being, and it’s just always up to the ceiling. So far we’ve performed the Midnight Hour, and the Midnight Hour is cool, it’s chill, it’s calm — and that’s different. We’re looking forward to just playing this material all over the U.S.”