Songs for Screens: ‘P-Valley’ Composer Matthew Head on Crafting His ‘Trap Noir’ Score

By Andrew Hampp

Starz’s “P-Valley,” which premiered Sunday night (July 12) to rave reviews, has earned early praise for its authentic, stylized take on the gritty world of strip clubs in the Mississippi Delta.

And in the coming weeks, the series’ music will enhance what showrunner Katori Hall has described as a “trap noir” vibe, courtesy of Emmy-winning composer Matthew Head. The Atlanta-based Head produced and composed music for the last four episodes of “P-Valley’s” first season, and credits a highly collaborative relationship with Hall for his creative process.

“[Katori] asked me to combine this cinematic noir vibe with the background of trap music, so we have a lot of different 808s and hi-hats and just different elements behind this acoustic score, an ambient kind of vibe with horns and saxophones,” says Head from his home studio. “The story of ‘P-Valley’ is so unique that the music had to reflect that. Katori was very hands on with the cues. We were doing a lot of back and forth and she stretched me so much and pushed me even further than I even knew I could go.”

“P-Valley” is the latest in a series of high-profile gigs for Head, who received an NAACP Image Award and several Grammy nods for his compositions on OWN’s “Greenleaf” in 2017 and 2018, scored the first season of BET’s “Boomerang” and serves as a music producer for YouTube Red’s “Step Up” series. A musician for over 30 years, the 38-year-old Head turned early collaborations with the Atlanta filmmaking community in the 2000s into a full-fledged career that now spans over 75 credits.

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Here are five tips to Head’s scoring success in his own words, edited for length and clarity.

Let your passion for music guide you, and the work will follow. I started playing piano at the age of 5 in kindergarten. I’m born and raised in the South, so football is king down here, and my mom allowed me to do that but made sure I played piano every day for an hour. But what ended up happening every day during that hour is I started to listen to songs on the radio and developed an ear for playing things. That’s when I started making my own music in high school and playing for friends here and there, but it was a hobby. It was something I did on my own, it was very easy to do, it was therapeutic, I made instrumentals, then moved on in life.

Then I went to college on a football scholarship and got in touch with a couple local independent rappers and songwriters. I had some mild success of working with them in the studio, but it was still a hobby. I was going to school to be a teacher, so music was nothing that I was trying to pursue. It was like playing the lottery — like, “Hey if I hit it, I hit it,” but I had a plan B.

Then 9/11 happened and it scared the mess out of me, and I moved home from Savannah, Georgia back to Atlanta. I was continuing to go to school and just working on what I wanted to do. I met a local production company here in Atlanta that took all these instrumentals I created on a CD and put them in their movie. And all of a sudden that movie blew up and it won a couple awards, including the best film score award. The movie was called “The Kissing Bandit,” which was an independent comedy directed by the Horne Brothers. It was my first time so I did it for free, did it for the love, for the passion of it.

And then I got in touch with the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and I started making music and little jingles for AJC.com. That led me to meeting Roger Bobb, who was a producer with Tyler Perry which opened up the door where I made the score of his first film called “Raising Izzie,” which premiered on TV One and BET, and that was my first major television placement as far as my job. I worked on four of his films, which opened up doors for me to meet Tri Destined Studios. Once I did that, it opened up the doors to “Greenleaf,” which allowed me to walk in those doors. I ended up being the music producer for season 2 and season 3, which opened up the door to “Step Up,” which led me to be their music producer for season 2 and upcoming season 3 — which opened up “P-Valley.” So I’ve just walked my own path, I’ve stayed in my own lane, and all of a sudden little windows of opportunity open up and I just jump through them.

The most personal aspects of your story can be the most relatable elements of a score. I worked with a lot of local producers here in Atlanta to get that trap sound for “P-Valley,” some great songwriters. It was an Atlanta sound, and a Southern sound. Those are my trap elements. I’m 38 years old and still have that beatmaking vibe to me as well, so it triggered some of those nostalgic elements. My favorite group is Outkast, so it’s very easy to go back and get that vibe in. But from there I used some of my own elements of music — a lot of piano was involved in the score, for example. It was a small string section because we wanted the score to be intimate and within the moment. I didn’t want this big orchestra out of control; I wanted something intimate and relatable. Once you see the series, you’ll see what we’re dealing with. And I wanted the trap music to stay alive; I didn’t want it to get lost in the score behind the huge cinematic players. I wanted it to feel like a score you’d never heard before in a series.

Composer Matthew Head Bubba Carrr

Blending analog and digital is a key ingredient to my special sauce. I love to use live instruments layered on top of electronic, especially my drums. You might hear a beat from me on a score, and you’ll have an 808 drum but an actual live hi-hat. So it’s one of those certain things where you may have a synth pad accompanied by a live string player. I like to mirror them and go in and out with each other. I also want you to think, “Where did that sound come from?” I want to have my own unique sound — I like smaller ensembles; I like to keep things intimate. That’s my own wheelhouse. I’m very big on that kind of vibe.

Learn from the greats. My favorite composers right now include, of course, Quincy Jones, and I love Kris Bowers. Michael Abels is new on the scene and I’m a huge fan of his work. What he did with music in “Us” is amazing to me. Right now there’s another composer named Jermaine Stegall whose work I admire. I have colleagues I look up to like Amanda Jones; she gave me my first major opportunity on “Greenleaf.” There are so many. Terrence Blanchard. I love how Bowers uses jazz elements in his scores. My goal is to do the same thing but add my hip-hop/trap vibe to the score. And of course Quincy’s the GOAT.

Stay true to your roots. To be honest, I’m just grateful to have people like what I do and want to work with me. “P-Valley” was a dream job, just because it allowed me to make the music I love to make as far as hip-hop and trap and to add the composing side of me as well. I would love to work with directors like an Ava Duvernay, or Matthew Cherry who just won his Oscar for “Hair Love.” “P-Valley” and “Step Up” allowed me to to actually make music that reflects my culture, where I’m from and who I am, so I’d love to continue to do that. I love to say I’m from Atlanta. I represent that and I tell people that every day.

 

Songs For Screens is a Variety column sponsored by Anzie Blue, a wellness company and café based in Nashville. It is written by Andrew Hampp, founder of music marketing consultancy 1803 LLC and former correspondent for Billboard. Each week, the column highlights noteworthy use of music in advertising and marketing campaigns, as well as film and TV. Follow Andrew on Twitter at @ahampp.