By the time he was 18, Adrian Younge had had enough of hip-hop.
It was 1997, and Younge, who will perform at the Blockley in West Philadelphia Sunday night with his band Venice Dawn backing Wu Tang Clan rapper Ghostface Killah, was already growing weary of modern music.
"There was a time when hip-hop was a little more novel, unique, and groundbreaking," remembers the 34-year-old producer and songwriter, who is the name-above-the-title force behind two of 2013's most compelling albums.
The full titles of the projects, which have more in common than one might expect, are: Adrian Younge Presents Twelve Reasons To Die Starring Ghostface Killah (***1/2), and Adrian Younge Presents the Delfonics (***1/2), a collaboration with William Hart of the veteran Philadelphia soul group. Both albums are released on the Wax Poetics label.
"Back then, hip-hop artists were sampling organic music," says the Los Angeles Renaissance man, who is also a professor of entertainment law and owns the L.A. record store/hair salon the Artform Studio. "Bass lines, weird organ loops. The music had a fat dynamic range. There was that live element mixed in, along with drum machines to give it a new twist."
To the ears of Younge, talking from a Ghostface tour stop in Cleveland last month, hip-hop was a victim of its own success. "The rawness got watered down," he says, as the music came to define the pop mainstream. Younge's favorite music was the lush, funky, orchestrated sound of late '60s-early '70s Italian spaghetti westerns and horror films and American blaxploitation soundtracks, as well as classic Philly soul.
Then a young, aspiring beat-maker, Younge decided that if he wanted to hear more music of that caliber, he'd better learn to make it himself. So he taught himself how to play, not just sample, music. A peek at the credits of "Enemies," a cut on the Delfonics album that is also recast on the Ghostface record as "Enemies All Around Me," shows just how much a multi-instrumentalist Younge has become. He's credited with "Vibraphone, flute, electric bass, drums, Selene, electric guitar, harpsichord, Hammond organ, bells, electric sitar, upright piano and drums."
Younge got his first big break scoring the acclaimed 2009 blaxploitation spoof, Black Dynamite. That led to an opportunity to work with Ghostface on Twelve Reasons to Die, whose Young-scripted libretto finds the rapper's Mafia-hit-man alter ego Tony Starks taking revenge on a mob family known as the 12 DeLucas. ("We made this record because we don't like you," Younge jokingly said at the start of our conversation.)
Before he began working on Twelve Reasons, which was executive-produced and narrated by Wu Tang's The RZA, Younge tweeted to his followers, asking which vocal group they liked more, the Dramatics or the Delfonics. That led to a meeting with Hart, the falsetto voice of the Philly soul act known for such silky classics as "Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)?" and "La-La (Means I Love You.") Hart has said he considers the project with Younge to be "as good as anything I've ever done musically."
For the Delfonics, the still-impressive falsetto of the 68-year-old Hart, who cowrote all 13 songs, is surrounded by soulful and spooky arrangements modeled after "what it would sound like if The RZA had produced the Delfonics in the late '60s," Younge says. He calls Hart "a genius. He wrote some of America's best soul music."
Twelve Reasons' Tarantino-esque story, which has a comic book tie-in of the same name published by Black Mask Studios, tells the tale of Starks dying in a vat of boiling vinyl in an Italian record plant, only to come back to life as the Ghostface Killah when the needle drops on the records made from that vinyl.
"I wanted to make a cinematic album because Ghostface is a cinematic artist, and I wanted to put a story together that was rooted in hip-hop culture, but was also tied into Italy," Younge says. A self-described "control freak," he plotted out the story and sent Ghostface, whom he didn't meet in person until after the project was done, the instrumental tracks to rap over.
The rapper represents as "a black Italiano, big pinky rings from Sicily" on "I Declare War," on which he rhymes, "I'm a boss, them DeLucas trying to front on my skin tone / I left the fam to start a fam of my own." In an interview with hip hop magazine XXL, the emcee described working on Twelve Reasons with an organized crime analogy: "I'm like a hit man when it comes to music. So it's like, you give it to me and tell me how you want the track murdered, and I murder it."
Now that they've been on tour together a month, Younge says Ghostface is "just a really humble person, man.
"He's the kind of guy who, when you go out to eat and he's not that hungry, he asks for leftovers so he can go and find a bum to give the leftovers to. He's a good dude."
The Delfonics album is especially dear to him, Younge says, because "I was able to bring somebody back and do something that's not supposed to really work out, and make it work. That's special."
But both projects fit into the overall Younge strategy of making music that comes alive in the present by drawing on the past, without settling for merely recreating it.
"I love studying art, and I love quality art," he says. "And right now, quality art is not as easy to come by as it once was. Because most quality art involves something organic, not something made on a computer. I'm not saying it can't be. I'm not saying it's never great when it comes out of a box. I'm just saying that when art is created by hand, generally speaking, the art is deeper and more captivating. And that's just the art I'm into."
Ghostface Killah with Adrian Younge's Venice Dawn
With Chill Moody, Voss and Grand Lux. 9 p.m. Sunday at the Blockley, 3801 Chestnut St. Tickets: $25-$30. 215-222-1234, www.blockley.com.