Interview With Black Dynamite Composer/Editor Adrian Younge
November 17, 2009
by Christopher Boyle
(Long Island, N.Y.) On October 16th of this year, a movie called Black Dynamite burst upon the scene. Directed by Scott Sanders and starring Michael Jai White in the title role, Black Dynamite is an awesome spoof of 1970’s Blaxploitation flicks. Funny, original, and completely bad to the bone, well-deserved success has nonetheless eluded this great film thus far. Why? Well, it’s mainly because of an unfair lack of support and marketing on the part of its distributor, making finding a theater actually playing Black Dynamite difficult…but I can’t think of a movie released in the last few years that’s worth the effort in doing so more.
One of the many things that make Black Dynamite such a great film is its near obsessive-compulsive attention to detail when it comes to recreating the vintage 1970’s experience, and one of the individuals most responsible for that is Adrian Younge. Based in Los Angeles, California, Adrian pulls double-duty behind the scenes of this movie- he’s solely responsible for crafting the authentic 70’s soul and funk-based score (soundtrack available through publisher Wax Poetics, www.waxpoetics.com) that drives Black Dynamite, as well as editing the film itself. An intelligent, funny, and creatively gifted (putting it mildly) guy, Adrian was kind enough to talk with me on the phone about his experiences in making one of the best independent action/comedies I’ve seen in years.
Christopher Boyle: Hi, Adrian, how are you?
Adrian Younge: Good, and you?
Chris: Good, thanks. So, when I first heard about Black Dynamite I was pretty excited because I’m a big fan of 70’s action movies and guys like Rudy Ray Moore, so I was really looking forward to checking it out. I actually saw it at a test screening in Manhattan 4-5 months before it was out in theaters and again when it was finally officially released, and I really loved it. Now, aside from scoring and…you did the film editing too, right?
Chris: Aside from scoring and editing Black Dynamite, what else do you do for a living?
Adrian: I teach entertainment law out here [in California] at my old law school, and my wife and I own a salon.
Chris: So Black Dynamite is just something you did on the side?
Adrian: I can’t really say “on the side,” because it consumed so much of me. It was something where I put that as a priority over everything else I was doing. I DJ and throw parties and stuff out here in LA, and when the Black Dynamite thing came along I pretty much put that in the forefront and gave that top priority over everything that I did. Pretty much everything else I did was on the side- Black Dynamite was number one.
Chris: So how did you end up getting the Black Dynamite gig? Were you initially approached regarding the score, the editing, or both?
Adrian: Well, Scott [Sanders, the director] and I have been DJing together for the past 8 years, and he always knew I did music, and always knew I liked to edit and stuff. You know, there was always this running joke between him and I because he’d come into my studio and say, “What the hell do you have all these weird instruments and stuff for? What are you ever gonna use this stuff for?” [laughs] I don’t know- I just love making this kind of music. So, what happened was that [actor] Mike Jai White, who is Black Dynamite, approached Scott because they had been friends- they did a movie together 10 years prior- and asked Scott if he’d be interested in directing a Blaxploitation movie that he had an idea for, and Scott said “Yeah, definitely.” Scott thereafter contacted me and asked me if I’d be interested in editing and potentially doing the music for this film, and I said, “Hell yeah!.” So, basically we all got together and we made a trailer for the movie before the script was written, and based on that trailer, we got financing for the film. Then they wrote the script and everything came to fruition. That’s pretty much how everything started.
Chris: Wait, I think I saw that trailer on YouTube…does it use a lot of stock footage from other Blaxploitation movies?
Chris: Okay, yeah, I did see it then. I was watching it and I was like, “Wait, some of these are scenes from other movies, what’s going on?”
Adrian: Exactly. [laughs]
Chris: Okay, you cleared that up for me. [laughs] Anyway, I was watching the Black Dynamite Score Documentary on YouTube, and I noticed a part where Jack Waterson [musician and owner of Future Music of LA] mentioned that you walked into a store one day, bought a flute, and basically taught yourself to play it for a part on the soundtrack. Are you entirely self-taught musically?
Adrian: Yeah. My background is doing hip hop, sample-based music, and it got to the point where I would look for a sample, and…I don’t know if you have any experience sampling, but…
Chris: A little. I don’t really do music, but I do some film editing and sound work, so I’m familiar with it.
Adrian: Okay. Well, what would happen is I’d have an idea for a certain song in my head, and I’d look for certain kinds of samples, and I’d get something that could almost fit, but the end of it wouldn’t be right, or the top of the sample wouldn’t be right, and I’d be like, “Yo, I wish I could just play instruments and just make these samples myself.” So, that idea spawned me learning how to play instruments. I’m the type of person that I really don’t like to rely on people to do things unless they’re reliable, and my expectations are fairly high, so…because of that, it just got to the point where I realized that I just HAD to learn how to play all these instruments in order to really do what I wanted to do in music.
Chris: “If you want it done right, do it yourself.”
Adrian: Exactly. So, basically, I started off with…I think my first instrument was an acoustic guitar…no, wait, it was a bass guitar. Then I got a piano, and it just kind of moved on from there. My thing is, people say to me, “Wow, that’s so genius, you can play all these instruments” and all that stuff, but to me, I don’t think it’s a talent where someone should be calling me a genius, because it’s just discipline. It’s just saying, Okay, here are the instruments, I’m just gonna sit here and learn how to play the instruments by just doing it. It’s something anybody can do. For example, with the flute: I bought the flute, went online and looked for different notes- how would I play an E note? How would I play an A note? And I’d write parts on the piano and convert the notes on flute and just sit there and play it until I could do it. Same thing with saxophone, and a lot of the other instruments I learned. That’s basically how I did it, and when you’re forced to do it in a professional setting, or for a soundtrack, you put yourself in a position where you HAVE to play it as a hired professional would play it. So, for a flute part or a saxophone part, sometimes it’ll take me 2 or 3 days to just keep doing it and keep doing it, until it’s recorded right. And when it’s recorded right, that’s a plateau you’ve reached, as far as your ability to play on a certain level for that type of instrument. So, when you continuously do that for years, it kinda makes you better at what you play. It enables you to understand the mechanics of how to learn how to play other instruments- once you learn how to play one instrument, you can play other instruments.
Chris: Did you also write the lyrics for the songs on the soundtrack, like “Jimmy’s Dead” or “Jimmy’s Apartment”? Those songs are hilarious.
Adrian: I wrote the lyrics for those, yeah. The only lyrics I did not write were- there’s three songs. The “Shine” song, that was from the club scene. “Cleaning Up The Streets,” ’cause Scott and I were editing together, and we needed to put together a montage and Scott just started freestyling this corny kinda song, and I was like, “Dude, just write that, just keep it up, man!” and I was just writing the music behind what he was sayin’. And then the third song is the song “Gloria,” the slow song. The person that sings that song, Toni Scruggs, wrote most of the lyrics, like the end part and stuff.
Chris: Which part of the movie was that in?
Adrian: That was the Zodiac Lovers scene.
Chris: Oh, that one! Okay.
Adrian: Yeah, everything else I wrote.
Chris: Do you have any more film gigs lined up? Black Dynamite got you a lot of attention.
Adrian: I’ve gotten a lot of attention, but as far as right now, I’m trying to use this to do the kind of things I really want to do in music, and that’s basically Black Dynamite-type of music. I mean, right now I’m putting together the next album for Wax Poetics, and this next album is going to be more of a dark soul, kind of along the lines of the songs “Chicago Wind” and “Shot Me In The Heart” [two tracks from the Black Dynamite OST], kind of elaborating on that dark soul kind of feeling. Plus, I’m signed to ICM [International Creative Management], so they’re looking for gigs for me also. But we’ll see what happens- we have a Black Dynamite cartoon that’s gonna start production hopefully in January, and I’ll be doing the music for that, and that’s going to be on Cartoon Network. There’s a lot of things going on.
Chris: The cartoon’s going to be toned down a lot, I bet. I mean, it’s not like Black Dynamite’s going to be having sex with 5 or 6 women at a time like in the movie, huh?
Adrian: Well, it’s a cartoon, so you can really do whatever you want. [laughs]
Chris: Oh, so it’s going to be airing at night [for Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim lineup]! [laughs]
Adrian: Yeah, so we’ll see. But I’m really looking forward to what’s going to happen in the future…I’m meeting a lot of nice people, and I’m really flattered by the response that my efforts have achieved.
Chris: Did director Scott Sanders give you a lot of leeway to do things on your own, or was he involved closely with the creation of the score?
Adrian: No, he gave me pretty much 100% leeway…just, you know, “Go do it.” He always knew the type of music I made; I’ve always made this type of music. So, he totally trusted me and everything. But the producers, and some of the other main figures in the movie, they didn’t really know my musical background- I also had to kind of prove myself to people. So I always have to really work as hard I can to really sound good. It was a challenge, but I’m happy with what I created.
Chris: You should be, it was great.
Adrian: Thank you.
Chris: I read in another interview that your influences range from Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, Ennio Morricone, and Wu-Tang Clan. While most of those would normally go along with scoring a 70’s-themed movie, Morricone kinda stands out from that bunch…what is it about his work that you like, and was there any score of his in particular that you referenced?
Adrian: Ennio Morricone is my favorite composer, out of all. I’ve really been influenced a lot by Morricone, predominantly him more than anybody else. What I like about Morricone is that…European soundtracks at the time, so, let’s talk about ‘68 to about ‘74, they were heavily influenced by American black soul music, funk music. But these composers, many of them were classically-trained musicians. So you have a classical perspective, synthesized with funk. So, you’ll have harpsichords and oboes, instruments that the black funk musician would never really think about using, nor have access to get, being played on scores. Ennio Morricone did a lot of this. Plus, I just love his composition and style; it’s very classy, clever, and soulful. His influence on the soundtrack, it’s prevalent as far as the type of chord changes and moods I try to attain on songs like “Jimmy’s Dead.” And as far as the bass solo stuff, and the traveling through moods and stuff, like…creating feeling without lyrics. He’s the master of that.
As far as the Wu-Tang stuff, how that influenced me…I love how, like on old Wu-Tang stuff, how they use a sample, and how they isolated the best parts, or the breaks of a lot of vintage soul music, and made entire songs around these classic parts. I focused on their musical perspective and tried to create music that they would want to sample. So that’s how I’m influenced by artists like Wu-Tang Clan.
Chris: I read that Black Dynamite was actually filmed on old 16mm film stock, which is what gives it its vintage look.
Chris: So none of that 70’s-era picture quality- you know, the grain and such- none of that was digital?
Adrian: There’s one part that was a pick-up shot that’s about 50 seconds that was digital, and that’s because we just didn’t have time to use film. But outside of that, the entire movie’s all film, 16mm. It was a choice by Scott Sanders, the director, in order to really capture that look that we wanted. There’s some stuff filmed in 35mm, some pick-up shots, but the best stuff is definitely in 16mm.
Chris: Was Black Dynamite filmed and converted to digital for you to edit, or were you actually cutting film?
Adrian: Filmed, and then converted to digital.
Chris: What editing software do you use?
Adrian: I used Final Cut. Hey, you’re in New York, right?
Adrian: We [The Black Dynamite Sound Orchestra, Adrian’s band] will be out there December 18th, playing with Lee Fields in Brooklyn.
Chris: I would love to check that out. Can you email me the info?
Adrian: Definitely, we gotta stay in touch, I’d love to meet you out there.
Chris: Totally! So, as for my next question…you perfectly nailed the whole 70’s vibe with the soundtrack, but you really nailed the editing style of that era as well. There’s a scene early on where Black Dynamite goes to a club to meet Bullhorn and the singer is just finishing her set, and it had that sort of chunky, random, almost sloppy editing style that you really only saw in the 70’s…
Chris: I’m saying that in a GOOD way. [laughs] I mean, I’m no musician, but like I said, I do have some experience with film editing, and I know it’s hard to copy a certain style and not come off like…you’re copying a certain style. Every cut you made in Black Dynamite came off as legit. Did you watch any movies from that era for inspiration as to editing?
Adrian: I studied so much…I mean, everybody that worked on the film studied for their part. From the costume design, to set design, Scott’s direction…everybody really studied the parts, and we set a bar that we wanted to maintain. As far as editing, there are certain parts where I go outside of 70’s editing so I could make a movie for a contemporary audience. The film has a pretty good pace to it- generally, it’s not a slow film. 70’s films were pretty slow, so I wanted to make a film that was a 70’s film, but made for a sophisticated audience, so I had to edit that way. So I had to synthesize a style of 70’s editing, with the quickness of a contemporary short attention span. [laughs] But yeah, there were a lot of those quirky moments…
Chris: Like when the girl in the club was singing, and it’s cutting to random shots of the audience or the drummer…it reminded me of the beginning of The Human Tornado, when Dolemite’s doing the whole joke monologue and it’s just cutting to random, weird shots the whole time…
Adrian: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, that’s the kind of idea that was in my head when I put that scene together. Definitely, man. We were trying to hit all the nuances that we could hit to really accentuate that feeling of “I’m in the 70’s while I’m watching this film.”
Chris: What really impressed me about Black Dynamite is how much obvious love and attention when into pretty much every aspect of putting it together, and how vintage everything was…except the “eh” graphics when Fiendish Dr. Wu was on fire. That was a little…
Adrian: Well, that was supposed to be one of those “bad effects.” [laughs]
Chris: Okay, so that was on purpose.
Adrian: Oh yeah. Definitely.
Chris: But if I didn’t know better, if I was surfing the TV channels one night and it was on, I’d swear Black Dynamite was really made in the 70’s. So, taking into account all the hard work that went into making this movie, are you disappointed about how little support the studio seemed to give it? I mean, no commercials on TV, no trailers attached to any movie, and it’s barely playing anywhere. Why do you think this happened?
Adrian: To me, this is a movie that I feel everybody needs to see.
Chris: Absolutely. I think that if this thing was marketed at all, it would have been huge.
Adrian: I know!
Chris: I think it would have been a big break-out role for Michael Jai White as well. I mean, I’ve been watching the guy for years, and I really think he deserves a big break. The guy’s legit.
Adrian: You know what, man, it’s just one of those films that, you know…the studio’s afraid of it. They felt that it was just too much of a niche film. So, I mean, there wasn’t much that we could do, you know? Because it’s a low-budget film, we don’t have that much money for marketing and all that stuff. It was just one of those things where we hoped that the public would just spread the word of mouth, you know? Our critical acclaim on this film is massive. The love that we’re getting for this film, I mean, we just couldn’t ask for anything more. But it just hasn’t really translated into box office figures.
Chris: But it never really had the chance. Like I told you, I first saw it at a test screening, but when it came out I wanted to see it again, and I really had to work hard to track down a theater anywhere around me to see it.
Adrian: I look at it, like, if a movie like Slumdog Millionaire could catch on, if people watch it, I just don’t see why this couldn’t catch on, and people just go watch it. I don’t know how much money they put into Slumdog Millionaire for marketing and all that stuff…I guess it just happens sometimes and sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t know. I hope that when the DVD comes out- the DVD’s coming out in February…
Chris: I’ll buy 10 copies. [laughs]
Adrian: …that people are gonna get it. I mean, I know that if I wasn’t part of this movie and I saw it, I would just be a fanatic. But that’s just because I love the 70’s. But besides that, even if I didn’t love the 70’s, I think that there were just so many levels to appreciate the movie on…and if you look at what’s making money in the box office today…
Adrian: Yeah. I just can’t see why this movie didn’t permeate.
Chris: Well, you might find this interesting…when I went to that test screening 4-5 months ago, it really provided some sad insight into how the studios do their research. Of course, the crowd loved every minute of Black Dynamite. After the movie was over, questionnaires were handed out and 25 people were cherry-picked to be interviewed. The marketing people asked every textbook question you could think of, 25 out 25 people loved the movie, and yet the suits couldn’t understand why. I walked out of there knowing that Black Dynamite SHOULD huge hit, but knowing deep down that it wouldn’t. I mean, one marketing guy actually asked if we thought the movie had “viral” appeal. It was amazing how out of touch they were. They expected the internet to do all the publicity for them.
Adrian: I know, I know, man…honestly, and I’m dead serious- it really hurts us. It really does. I can’t even go to the movies right now to see another movie because it hurts that we didn’t get the support that we expected. When you’re working this hard on a movie, and you accomplish something like this, this kind of thing…and I’m saying this in the humblest way, of course- this kind of movie doesn’t get made that much, with that much attention to detail…it doesn’t happen that much.
Chris: No, you could tell that you guys really went all-out on it. I mean, this wasn’t a parody of Blaxploitation movies, it was more of a homage. It was hilarious, yeah, but it didn’t make fun of the genre. It celebrated it.
Adrian: Exactly! All I can hope for now is that people enjoy the music and buy the soundtrack, and I hope that people check out the DVD, and when the cartoon comes out hopefully it blows up, and then there’s a chance people can watch a Black Dynamite 2. That’s what I’m hoping. But I think that if people knew about the movie, they would have gone to see it. That’s the thing.
Chris: I noticed that the Wax Poetics website (www.waxpoetics.com) sells your score. Is it just available there, or is it out in stores as well?
Adrian: Oh no, it’s out in stores. Wax Poetics, they’re so supportive of everything…those guys are really my right-hand men now, you know?
Chris: One last question- how was it working with Michael Jai White [in addition to Black Dynamite, Michael has starred in films such as The Dark Knight, Spawn, and Undisputed 2]? Did you have a lot of contact with him during this?
Adrian: Yeah, he’s more than just someone I work with; he’s actually a friend. We became pretty good friends. I mean, we’ve been working on Black Dynamite for over 3 years…if I have a party or something, he’ll come, or I’ll come to his house. We’re friends. And he’s a really good dude, a really funny dude, a really caring dude…a very smart guy, and I respect him a lot. We’ll be working a lot together.
Chris: Great! Well, that’s pretty much it for me, Adrian, but I really appreciate you making the time to talk with me.
Adrian: Thank you very much, man. I really appreciate it.
Adrian Younge’s Black Dynamite soundtrack is available in stores and on www.waxpoetics.com. And be sure to track down a theater in your area playing Black Dynamite!