3 Questions With ‘United Skates’ Composer Jongnic Bontemps

By Sameer Rao Apr 27, 2018

"United Skates," a documentary that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last Thursday (April 19), tours the country to explore how roller skating—complete with wood-floored rinks and choreographed moves—flourishes as a passionate subculture in Black communities. The film, which highlights the ongoing struggle to protect rinks from financial woes or arbitrary police crackdowns, receives an extra push from its heavy hip hop score.

That music comes from Jongnic Bontemps, a composer whose signature mix of hip hop and classical themes emphasizes the historical links that "United Skates" draws between this long-standing subculture and hip hop. The former Sundance Lab fellow, who grew up in Brooklyn and Long Island before studying music at Yale University and the University of Southern California, brought a similar combination of rap and orchestral themes to a previous high-profile project: the score for the 2016 skateboarding-focused drama, "The Land." 

Colorlines spoke to Bontemps about his entry into film composition, the inspiration behind the "United Skates" score and his hopes for racial equity in his part of the industry. 

How did you get into film scoring?

I studied music as an undergrad at Yale, and couldn’t figure out how to monetize my degree. I had a job at Epic Records in New York City and worked at a few recording studios as an engineer, but nothing really took. I ended up getting into computers and taught myself programming. I spent the next 16 years doing software development in New York City and Silicon Valley. I was involved with a company that HP bought, and I looked around and thought, "What do I want to do?" Music came back into my life through playing in church and writing music at home, and I asked myself, “I’m really passionate about music, but how can I do it and support a wife and two kids? How do I make a living doing this?” That’s when I came across [the possibility of composing] music for media.

It started with a desire to make music for video games, and it morphed into wanting to do music for film. So I enrolled at the University of Southern California’s film scoring program in 2011, did the year-long program and launched my career. That really gave me the tools for specifically writing music for film, as well as a community of filmmakers that I work with to this day.

Roller skating culture shares a long popular association with disco, but your score for “United Skates” uses a lot of contemporary hip hop and trap beats. What did you draw on to develop this score?

“United Skates” shows that this culture is alive, relevant and plugged into today. The score had to sound current and like what you might hear in rinks now. So that’s why we went with this hip hop-trap-sounding score. I love doing that, and it’s become, for lack of a better term, my signature: pulling into what I’d call “urban” music or influences, and using it as a bedrock, but making sure it bends and weaves with the story—without lyrics. So much of hip hop music is there to support the lyrics, and when you put an instrumental hip hop track under the score, it can sound like a loop after two or three minutes. So I have to bring that energy without lyrics, which means allowing the music to move to the emotional beats of the picture.

The other thing “United Skates” shows is that skate culture involves a wide diaspora of different styles of music that people listen to in the rinks. For example, in Chicago, a lot of the rink music is based off of James Brown remixes. ["United Skates" co-director] Dyana Winkler, in her wisdom, paired me up with the Chicago skate music producer, Keezo Kane, and we spent two days workshopping and arranging all of that music in my studio in L.A. Then I had to do different styles for L.A., for Virginia and other areas of the country, but all tied into an “urban” sound. One of the greatest compliments I received during the premiere [from the subjects] was, “You captured our sound.”

White men traditionally receive most major film scoring opportunities. Has this dynamic, as well as the groundswell of attention to equity issues in Hollywood, impacted your career?

Oh boy, you touched a nerve right there! [Laughs] I am excited that diversity in Hollywood, in all aspects of the filmmaking process, is a conversation now. But, in general, when you look at history, I think music lags behind other art forms. That’s still true: music is behind some of the diversity we see touted in other parts of the industry. The biggest change I’ve seen for film scorers is the Women in Film initiative, which does amazing things to promote and support women who write film music. We don’t have the same thing for people of color yet, and it’s something I now think about a lot. How can we draw more attention to all of the amazing voices, working outside of the White man’s gaze, that really add to film scores in general?

I was always afraid that, because I’m African American, people would think that I can’t do orchestral music or can only do scores with R&B or hip hop. I spent a long time studying and writing music that was not that because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed in that genre. And I also realize that the niche I created, which combines both the urban and classical/orchestral, is a place of strength for me. I find a lot of joy in mashing those two things up. But, I’ve been up for a lot of projects that I was super excited about and that [involved stories from people of color], and I was still passed up for a more established White male composer. It’s really frustrating because I know that I would care immensely about those stories, and yet I’m still not given the opportunity—even for a meeting. We need to do more work to bring attention to composers of color. We’re out here.

Listen to a track from the “United Skates” score, “Skate Celebration.”