‘Luke Cage’ Composer and Super-Producer Adrian Younge Has a New Album and Message for Composers of Color

By Sameer Rao Sep 21, 2016

Multi-instrumentalist and composer Adrian Younge did not read Solange Knowles’ searing essay about the racism of White fans at a Kraftwerk concert she recently attended with her son and husband.

But Younge, who describes his new record, “The Electronique Void: Black Noise,” as “the type of album that Kraftwerk would have made if they were Black,” does understand exclusion from the electronic music genre.

“Most Black musicians and artists make electronic music. But Black artists aren’t known for quote-“electronic music,” they’re known for quote-“hip-hop,” he says over a crackling phone line. Younge is in Los Angeles where he lives and records in a studio featuring only vintage analog equipment. “You would never expect a Black musician to come out with an album like this right now. I wanted to take a stand and say, ‘Yo, Black dudes can make electronic albums like the forefathers did.’”

“Like this” refers to “The Electronique Void’s” throwback aesthetic. Younge is quick to make a distinction between his “electronic music” and the ecstatic chart toppers that define contemporary “electronic dance music.” He relied on vintage synthesizers to create an unsettling atmosphere and punctuated most songs with heavy beats reminiscent of J. Dilla.

“The Electronique Void" is a significant departure from Younge’s previous work, which reimagines old R&B, funk and Western film scores with a hazy hip-hop flavor. He wove this signature into the soundtrack to 2009’s Blaxploitation satire “Black Dynamite” and parts one and two of “Something About April.” That sound also endeared him to prominent collaborators including Ghostface KillahThe Delfonics and Kendrick Lamar

It also brought him together with A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad to make an album, “The Midnight Hour.” The duo took a break from recording their project to create the score for Marvel’s “Luke Cage,” the music-centering Netflix series. 

Younge spoke to us about the new album, scoring “Luke Cage,” and progress for Black film and television composers. Interview has been condensed for length and clarity. 


You’ve been very busy this year, with “Something About April II” coming out in January and “Luke Cage” about to debut on September 30. What, in the midst of this, compelled you to make not only a new album, but something so sonically different from what you made before?

I’ve always wanted to make an electronic album. What’s very interesting is that the [definition] of electronic music has changed. A while ago, if you heard somebody was making electronic music, you wouldn’t think EDM. Now, when people talk about it, they automatically think about EDM. I wanted to make something that harkens back to the pioneers—Kraftwerk, Wendy Carlos, the list goes on and on. I wanted to make something that felt like early, experimental electronica, but from an academic and soulful perspective. So that’s why I said it’s time to do it. I’m not into a lot of electronic music that’s made today.

What draws you to that earlier sound?

New music, for me, are old records I haven’t heard before, especially from the period of ’68 to ’73, the golden era of recording. Anytime I hear anything from that era, it just sounds so good. That’s why my studio’s modeled after a vintage studio; from the synthesizers to the tape machines, everything’s old. Anytime I hear stuff from that era, it makes me want to do more stuff from that era that, to me, has not been properly executed now. I wanted to go back and make the type of album that Kraftwerk would have made if they were Black.

Describe the concept of The Electronique Void.

It focuses on a Black woman who just cannot feel love. We’ve all been in those relationships where you’re like, “What’s wrong with you? I’m doing all this and you keep questioning whether I love you or not.” I wanted to create a romantic album that ended dark. The last song, “Suicidal Love,” ends on the man realizing that this girl can’t feel love and saying, “I’m gonna leave her.” 

It’s interesting that the album’s concept is so fleshed out, given how little your voice actually comes through on record—your use of a vocoder renders your voice almost completely indistinguishable throughout the album.

I purposefully used the vocoder in a way that makes listeners wonder if I’m talking or not. That’s why I want people to listen with the liner notes. It’s like a decoder ring, and that was purposeful.

This isn’t your first album that concerned a relationship from cover to cover. “Something About April” embodied perspectives within a relationship between a Black man and White woman during the Civil Rights era. Why do you explore these connections in your music? 

I always liked making albums that deal with relationships. I think relationships are very intriguing because it’s hard to create a formula that places a very compelling explanation of why people do things within relationships. Why do some people fall in love easily? Why are some people compatible while others are not? Why is it that some people can feel love and others just cannot, no matter what? That whole word is something that every single person deals with on a daily basis. I love to write about the notion of love, because music exemplifies the feeling so well. 

Tell me more about the “Luke Cage” score. How did you get involved with this project?

Cheo Hodari Coker, the show’s creator and showrunner, wanted to bring Ali and [me] into this because he understood our musical perspective. That’s what he wanted to see Luke Cage as, what we represent. And what we represent is hip-hop, and not just in hip-hop music but also encompassing the source material that it samples. He wanted funk, jazz, all of that Black music to put into the character of Luke Cage. There are 13 episodes from that perspective, and we had a 30-piece orchestra too, orchestrated by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. It was so special, man. 

Were you both channelling your earlier material and sounds to create this score?

Yeah, we definitely pulled from those places because that’s who Luke Cage is. We deem this show as being “unapolagetically Black,” which means that it’s unadulterated. A show with a Black person, where a part might be taken out because White people wouldn’t understand, that would not be unapologetically Black. This show, and the music, has to be that way. 

“Luke Cage” sits right in a bigger public conversation on programs that challenge Hollywood’s marginalization of people of color. A new crop of shows, this one included, have the creative autonomy rarely granted to Black artists. Did that draw you to this project? 

Absolutely. We knew that this was an opportunity that we must act on. First of all, this is Marvel’s first Black television series, and it has to be done right. Kudos to Marvel for understanding the importance of a show like this and letting us do what was right and natural. 

This show about a bulletproof Black man comes right at a time of massive public debate about police brutality, structural racism and the ways Black communities have been silenced across cultural spheres. Does any of that filter into your work?

Here’s the thing: Throughout time, Black composers had to do so much to even get a chance. When Duke Ellington was allowed to have music in some films and do live performances they would have to cut his parts out in  some places. Some parts of America couldn’t see a Black person on stage or screen with White people. This sentiment is analogous to music because Blacks were never really given a chance to score big films. It’s seldom. In this world, the concepts of film and television being blurred because of on-demand television—I consider “Luke Cage” to be a film, 13 episodes on a film level, way above regular television. Ali and I know this doesn’t come along all the time, but we hope that this opens doors for other minorities to score films. 

What advice would you give to those composers of color who want to follow your footsteps?

Just follow your dreams, get better at what you’re doing, and enhance your ability to understand the market. It’s not as easy for us to get into these positions, and that means that when we do get them, we’re ready to execute and exceed people’s expectations. 

"The Electronique Void: Black Noise" drops online today via Linear Labs. Check out “Luke Cage”​ when it premieres September 30 on Netflix.