The Midnight Hour: Looking Back to Move Forward

Evoking the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance while exploring modern musical territory, The Midnight Hour combines jazz arrangements with a decidedly hip hop aesthetic. Led by two leading lights of American music, the group makes carefully orchestrated yet beat-centric music.

Both Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad got their start in music making use of loops and samples as opposed to “real” instruments. “But it got to the point where we wanted to move beyond that,” says Younge. “So we learned how to play instruments, learned how to compose and produce in a way that inspired us.”

The music they make on the band’s self-titled 2018 debut – as well as on their latest, Live at Linear Labs – is in turns sweeping, emotionally resonant, and just plain sexy. Younge says that the project draws some of its inspiration from the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. “That was a time in America when blacks were prominently seen,” he says. “It gave a new sense of being for black America.” He says that The Midnight Hour is a means to “continue those old conversations in a new way.”

The Midnight Hour’s music may be rooted in the past, but it’s aimed at present-day listeners. “It wasn’t like we set out to specifically target younger people,” says Muhammad. “But we do believe that when you give people something that’s honest and true and pure, the younger generation will have the attention span for it.”

Muhammad concedes that in the music industry – and, he suggests, especially with regard to black artists – there’s a lot of pressure to follow trends. “But in his entire career, Adrian hasn’t made music with that concept,” he says. “And neither have I, even when I was making music when I was 18, 19, 20.”

Both of the group’s leaders have thriving careers of their own outside the project. Ali Shaheed Muhammad was a founding member of pioneering hip hop collective a Tribe Called Quest. From 2013 to 2016 he co-hosted Microphone Check, a music podcast for National Public Radio. More recently, he took part in a reunion of A Tribe Called Quest that yielded a tour and the group’s farewell set, We Got it From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service.

Younge, a multi-instrumentalist, scored his first film soundtrack, Black Dynamite, in 2009. Working with an array of artists including Ghostface Killah, Jay-Z, Wu-Tang Clan and Talib Kweli, he has released dozens of records. He’s acclaimed for his atmospheric and evocative albums, often released in versions with and without vocals. With Muhammad, he created the soundtrack for the web television series Luke Cage.

Like the best hip hop, The Midnight Hour’s music proudly showcases musical variety. On the studio album, “Redneph in B Minor” is equal parts Stevie Wonder-styled funk, cool jazz fusion and sweeping string arrangements that recall the early days of disco. On the live album, fuzztone guitar, a heavier beat and a cacophonous string section add a psychedelic rock vibe to the piece.

The group tours with vocalists Loren Oden and sixteen-year-old rising star Angela Muñoz. But most of the music is instrumental. And Muhammad admits that “the challenge with instrumental music is to have people understand what the mood is.” But he says that the group’s overall goal is “to take people on a journey. And in that journey, there’s the feeling of freedom, of being exceptional, of being in an environment that’s classy … one of intellect, one where you definitely have fun.”

And there’s no telling what direction the songs will take onstage. The size and character of the band varies from night to night, depending on the venue. “There are some places where we’ll have a full string section,” Younge says. “Some places, we’ll just have our rhythm section, vocalists, and horns.”

As to what will happen on the tour, Younge demurs. “We don’t know yet, to be honest. Because right now all we’re focusing on is trying to finish up as much of the [next album, due in 2020] as possible.” He categorizes discussions about the band’s configuration on any given night as “next week thinking.”

Young refers to the band’s music as “sophisticated hip hop,” drawing on the sounds and textures of ’70s jazz and soul records that were sampled by hip hop artists. “We’re looking back at that time of black excellence and giving it a new light for today with our music and our brand,” he says. “We’re looking back to move forward.”

Muhammad agrees. He recalls the thinking when he and Younge put the group together. “Let’s just go in and make the most honest, best music we can make. And with that, there’s hope that it will affect and touch upon people’s hearts and souls.”