Rap has been all about storytelling.
Whether you call it “rap” or “hip-hop,” whether it be the lyrical retelling of moments of triumph, the lighthearted recounting of good and carefree times, or the experience of tragedy and heroism real or imagined, rap hangs its hat on the oral tradition.
But musician and producer Adrian Younge feels that hip-hop has strayed from its roots.
“Me personally, I’m an avid record collector. I’m also a person that grew up listening to golden era hip-hop. But I’m also a person that loves old music,” explained Younge from Mississippi Studios’ green room after the first of two performances during a stop in Portland.
Younge’s release of 12 Reasons to Die, a collaboration with Ghostface Killah, one of the Wu-Tang clan’s most influential members, is the result of a love and appreciation for the age of hip-hop that relied on storytelling as the foundation of the art form.
“Just us coming together to make something new should stimulate some sort of movement that I feel music needs right now,” Younge explains.
The tracks on 12 Reasons to Die follow a story arc set against the stylish backdrop of ‘60s-era gangster films and the dark underworld of an Italian crime syndicate. The album explores a variety of themes, including love, betrayal and the human compulsion for revenge. The record is chock-full of spaghetti Western riffs that draw inspiration from Italian film composer Ennio Morricone, who composed the music for films like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, A Fistful of Dollars and a whole host of Italian films.
Younge’s last musical effort was a collaboration with The Delfonics, the legendary singing group whose music from the ‘60s and ‘70s provided golden age hip-hop with some of the most memorable foundational sounds. Various musical riffs, hooks and samples from their songs can be found scattered amongst some of the most notable hip-hop and R&B tracks.
Young’s approach to working with Eddie Hart of The Delfonics was similar to the way in which he approached working on 12 Reasons to Die with Ghostface Killah.
“I wanted this album [to have] everything. I wanted people to see the attention to detail. I wanted them to see the quality and time spent and feel it as an ‘album,’ not just a ‘hip-hop album,’ not just as a crossover album, or a cinematic album, but something that is in our hearts that has a lot of soul in it.”
“The script and everything that he [Ghostface] received was pretty blank,” Younge goes on to explain, “and it was like, fill in the blanks, and he just filled them in accordingly. There’s 12 songs on the album and I didn’t give him that much to go on, but from what he got, he expanded that and added a lot of color to the whole story.”
The result is a collaboration that seamlessly incorporates a classic Wu-Tang energy with new and dynamic rhythms. Fans who attended the shows in Portland were eager to hear how Ghostface’s gritty, signature sound would translate to a performance backed by Young’s live band Venice Dawn.
The collaboration was a musical experiment that Younge felt was just the tip of the iceberg. “I wanted to ensure that there was a reason for people to listen to this thing, outside of just the music. I wanted people to be interested in this, so I put together this story that was basically made to stimulate our fan base.”
“At the end of the day, this is what I do,” adds Ghostface of his desire to keep telling stories through his music.
“I just want it to be heard. I had people know me, but there’s some people that missed a few of my albums, so hopefully with the backing of this album from Sony, we can reach these people — from the old white guys who hate rap to [people] from the ‘hood, everybody — I’m out there for everybody. Hear it. This is music, this is good music and this is what we’re going to continue, by the grace of God, to do. Make good music.”
As for the future of music as it relates to storytelling, Ghostface seems to believe that the trajectory of hip-hop might be self-referential, but isn’t necessarily cyclical.
“Hip-hop, where we came from, that era is gone. And you’re never going to get that back. Music is graduating to other stages. Just like from Rakim, Snoop to B.I.G. — these are different generations. Then you had a time when Master P came along and he snuck in there and now we’re at a future with the Drakes and all that now. Me personally, I don’t think it will come back around. I just think it will be different genres of music.”