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SXSW’s ‘Run This Town’ Gets Tense With Score From Two Celebrated Hip-Hop Producers

Ali Shaheed Muhammad, of A Tribe Called Quest, and Adrian Younge came up with music that may sound closer to a 1970s suspense score than their own hip-hop roots.

Writer-director Ricky Tollma’s “Run This Town” — about a young Toronto journalist’s quest to break the infamous Rob Ford crack-smoking story — premiered at SXSW over the weekend, and the movie’s score plays a subtle but pivotal role in stringing viewers along for the tense ride .

The team behind the score is Ali Shaheed Muhammad, famous as the longtime DJ/co-producer for A Tribe Called Quest, and Adrian Younge, who’s produced Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, Wu-Tang Clan and Common, among many others. The pair previously scored Netflix/Marvel’s “Luke Cage,” and released their first album together, “The Midnight Hour,” last year.

Variety caught up with the pair to talk about their work on “Run This Town,” which stretches well past any hip-hop preconceptions with a variety of sounds — sometimes all bold and organic percussion, other times quieter and French horn-inflected, often reaching back for a feel that recalls the suspense dramas of the 1970s.

How did you two first start working together doing film scores?

Younge: Ali and I started working together about six years ago now on a project that I was producing for Souls of Mischief. And as soon as we started working together, I realized that it’s the kind of kinship that I’ve really never shared with anyone else. We’re very like-minded from a production standpoint, and it’s interesting, because I’m a very controlling producer and Ali’s a very controlling producer, but we trust each other so much that we make each other better.

How did this project come to you guys?

Muhammad: Our agent spoke on our behalf and set up a meeting for us. Ricky [the director/writer] was a huge fan of our music and he described a sort of very basic sound that he wanted, and it was right in line with what Adrian and I do. We watched the whole film before (committing). Ricky wanted to make sure that we were into it, and we instantly loved it. What we loved about it was the great attention to detail, which inspired us creatively. Ricky told us that he loved electronic sounds as well as orchestral movement, and that is exactly the mindset that Ali and I were in when we watched the film. When you’re scoring, you’re part of the team, and you want to be sure that you’re evoking the feeling of the team. You can’t just be selfish from your perspective of what you think should be there. But we really wanted to deliver a score that was different.

The score has a lot of tension and foreboding.

Muhammad: There’s a lot of quiet moments in the film, you know? So it was our responsibility to bring out that silent tension, you know? Which is great, but challenging. If you watch film without the music, there’s a lot of space… there’s a lot of contemplation. So we wanted to make sure that the silence was there when it’s supposed to be, but sometimes you have to rev up a silent moment.

The opening credits theme also closes the film over the credits. And it’s almost entirely percussion. Is that the de facto “theme song” of “Run This Town”? 

Muhammad: Ricky had a particular idea of what he wanted for the opening. So he asked us to really look at it and get more in depth there than the other parts [of the film] and we did. With that opening, what I love about it is that I don’t think it’s something that people would expect us to do.

There’s a distinct 1970s influence in some of your score. 

Younge: You’ll always hear influences from the past in anything that we do, because when we create music we try to create music that’s classic. You don’t hear a lot of real orchestra anymore, you know. That’s something from the past that we update for now. There’s certain compositional perspectives that we love’ we both love Bernard Hermann. We love Ennio Morricone. These greats inspire our sound sonically and compositionally. So you’ll always hear moments of the past with us, but we always try and push things forward into the future.

Muhammad: Adrian and I are for-real composers. It’s not a play thing that we fool around with. With some of our past work, I think people compartmentalize our abilities. But we pay attention to the details and the asks of a producer or director. The great thing about working for Ricky was that he trusts our vision and he was willing to trust in us, just as we trusted in his vision as well. Mad credit to Ricky.

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