I love it when the worlds of film score music and hip-hop collide. Producer and avid crate digger Adrian Younge first came to my attention as a film composer, when he–with the help of both another avid crate digger, music supervisor David Hollander, and the various sampleworthy ’70s library music cues Hollander unearthed–musically brought to life the world of Black Dynamite.
Ghostface Killah has been heavily into comics iconography, ever since he named an album after Iron Man and took the armored Marvel superhero’s secret identity of Tony Stark, added an extra “s” and adopted Tony Starks as one of his aliases, way before the Iron Man films boosted the character’s popularity outside of comic shops. Younge and Ghostface unite for the fantastic Twelve Reasons to Die multimedia project (in addition to being an album, it’ll also be a six-part comic). It’s the Wu-Tang veteran’s chance to create his own superhero, as well as one of many albums where Younge pays tribute to someone who’s like a musical superhero to him, Ennio Morricone.
“To me, the Ennio Morricone kind of sound is a derivative of soul music. A lot of Ennio Morricone’s music, it’s very soulful, very cinematic and very psychedelic,” said Younge in an insightful interview for NPR’s Fresh Air that was partly about Twelve Reasons to Die and was made even more entertaining by the sounds of Terry Gross, the whitest-sounding woman on Earth, repeatedly saying “Ghostface Killah” and asking Younge about Ghostface “laying his rhymes down.” (All kidding aside, Gross has enormous respect for hip-hop. In the past, she’s interviewed luminaries like Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc and Chuck D and even once devoted an entire week of Fresh Air to hip-hop.) In this album Younge produced for Ghostface, as well as Adrian Younge Presents the Delfonics, which he produced for original Delfonics member William Hart (who’s the featured vocalist on “Enemies All Around Me” during Twelve Reasons to Die), Younge crafts music that draws connections between either hip-hop or R&B and the film scores of Morricone and many other ’60s and ’70s Italian composers (including the recently deceased Armando Trovajoli, whose theme from the 1973 film Sessomatto is one of Grandmaster Flash’s favorite breaks).
In Twelve Reasons to Die, Younge has taken elements of Morricone’s sound–the fuzz guitar riffs that are highlights of Morricone’s Danger: Diabolik and Once Upon a Time in the West scores, the chimes and the wordless melodies–as well as some touches from other film composers (like the sitar towards the end of “The Sure Shot,” which is reminiscent of Manfred Hübler and Siegfried Schwab, or the piano licks that are all over the RZA’s projects, like his Ghost Dog score), and he’s brought his own stamp to them. Younge has provided Ghostface with the imaginary soundtrack for the superhero movie he must have always wanted to star in. (However, it’s a superhero horror movie. The album brings to mind Ernest Dickerson’s 2001 Snoop Lion horror flick Bones, while Younge likens it to a blaxploitation movie that was produced for Italy, much like the 1974 Italian/U.S. co-production Three Tough Guys. The character Ghostface embodies here, who’s also named Tony Starks, is far from a virtuous do-gooder a la Virgil Hawkins from Static or Miles Morales from Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man. Tony’s a vicious and intimidating Mafioso who’s “black on the outside and black within.”)
Twelve Reasons to Die is scored like a film and comes complete with motifs that are revisited and reshaped much like in a film score: “The Sure Shot” reprises the instrumental of “The Rise of the Ghostface Killah” but quickens the beat. There are no samples, and Younge’s preference for recording with analog, pre-MPC sampler equipment and live instruments (peep the incredible, raw-sounding drums on “The Catastrophe” and “The Sure Shot”) really makes Twelve Reasons to Die a Ghostface album that sounds like no other.
Younge conceived the album’s story, a racially charged revenge tale of a betrayed mobster, the only black member of the DeLuca crime family. Tony was murdered by his surrogate siblings in grim and dark-humored fashion: they burned his body in a barrel of acetate and pressed his remains into 12 vinyl records that are like trophies of their defeat of Tony, never realizing that when the records will be played, the music embedded in the grooves will summon Tony to return as the Ghostface Killah and wipe them all out. Are Younge and Ghostface fans of the Marvel heroes Cloak and Dagger, an inseparable interracial couple that gained their supernatural powers in similarly gritty fashion? Something About April, a slightly similar concept album by Younge and his band Venice Dawn, used interracial romance as symbolism for the change of seasons, and interracial romance is also the core of Twelve Reasons to Die‘s narrative. Tony’s relationship with the DeLuca don’s daughter leads to his doom, and in turn, the DeLucas’ doom.
“Murder Spree” is Ghostface in ultimate horrorcore mode. Inspectah Deck, Masta Killa, U-God and Killa Sin join Ghostface in spitting a barrage of descriptions of the elimination of the DeLucas in vivid, gristle-carving detail. Twelve Reasons to Die has no time for skits, a frequent element of past Ghostface albums. It’s as driven in its narrative as Tony is in his afterlife revenge against the DeLucas. The lack of skits makes Twelve Reasons to Die a more focused and taut album experience than even a great Ghostface album like Fishscale (although Fishscale‘s “Bad Mouth Kid” skit is priceless). I’ve never been a fan of skits on hip-hop albums because they’re such pointless filler–except when Prince Paul or De La Soul do them or when Ghostface channeled Walter Matthau and The Bad News Bears during “Bad Mouth Kid.”
A few weeks ago, Word Is Bond posted a list of the illest hip-hop concept albums. Thanks to the combined skills of a talented film composer–whose unique approach to making hip-hop sound more progressive is to use the tools of the past–and one of hip-hop’s most cinematic-sounding lyricists, Twelve Reasons to Die easily belongs on that list.