The Midnight Hour: jazz, hip-hop and black excellence

The Midnight Hour uses music to honor the past, in hopes to change the future.
(Mike Miller)

Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the long-running DJ/producer for A Tribe Called Quest, and Adrian Younge, producer of tracks by Jay-Z, Wu-Tang Clan, Common, Fat Joe and others, are about as hip-hop as you can get.

And while their individual resumes more than stand alone, Muhammad and Younge have joined forces on a song from 2016’s Untitled Unmastered by Kendrick Lamar, as well as a pair of hip-hop-infused soundtrack albums from the first two seasons of Marvel’s Luke Cage on Netflix.

Yet it’s jazz that is at the center of their latest collaborative project, The Midnight Hour.

Both a 20-track album released last year and a 9-piece ensemble currently winding up the final leg of a 50-city tour, The Midnight Hour is ambitious in every way.

But for its co-bandleaders, their latest project together aims to do far more than distill a multitude of influences into a visceral sonic experience.

The Midnight Hour is Black Excellence: an ode to the cultural sophistication that the Harlem Renaissance established for its people read the announcements for both the album and live show.

More than just an overarching theme for the project, however, Muhammad and Younge hope that by using their music to honor the past, it will ultimately help to change the future.

“Still to this day,” said Muhammad from a northern California tour date, “people of African descent living in America have to overcome a lot of obstacles. No matter how level the modern playing field should be, it’s still not. So we wanted to take these ideas and put them into instrumental music. And to me, the music sounds like struggle and hope.”

The genesis of the project came from the producers’ time together on the Luke Cage albums. Having an ensemble of jazz and orchestral musicians at their disposal for the score led to the idea for The Midnight Hour album.

And despite knowing that they’d never be able to bring the guest vocalists from their self-titled debut – Raphael Saadiq, Ceelo Green, Luther Vandross, etc. – on the road with them, Muhammad still wanted to bring the music’s message beyond just a pair of headphones and into an arena where people could truly interact with it.

“Music is our tool,” he said. “It’s our way of life. And we want people to feel it when they listen. This is not just a normal jazz set. Listening to it only gets you get one aspect of it. Coming to see it live is something different. We want people to go deeper in their listening.”

And if that all sounds stuffy or inflated, it’s not.

Both Muhammad and Younge understand the difficulty of getting people to look for something more in any kind of music these days, let alone expansive, instrumental jazz. They just don’t know how to do it any other way.

“As a producer,” said Muhammad, “and even more so as a musician, I always try to attach some sort of message or air of consciousness to the music. But balance is important and I believe in complete freedom of expression. I tend to love things that have consciousness and depth to them, but I also just love a good jam.”

It’s that same duality in the Midnight Hour’s music that gives it the chance to continue reaching people in a different way.

But perhaps most important: this is not a one-off for Muhammad and Younge.

The pair is close to finishing the follow-up to their self-titled debut, and released a new single from it, Harmony, in October. The way they see it, there’s still a lot of music yet to be made, and a lot people out there that can still benefit from hearing it.

“It’s a shame that the mainstream only pushes certain types of artistic expression,” said Muhammad. “But that doesn’t mean everyone needs to make those types and styles of music. And it doesn’t matter if you’re an artist or not. Finding passion and purpose, living life looking inside and realizing you can do more, that’s what we put into the music. But it’s deeper than that. It’s about all of us finding that vibration of oneness.”

The Midnight Hour: 8:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 17. Soda Bar, 3615 El Cajon Blvd., Normal Heights. $20;