Past and present, soul music and spaghetti Westerns meet in Adrian Younge Presents The Delfonics. Younge’s album takes listeners back to the 1960s to listen to Philly soul music. But this version of soul is inspired by classic film scores and filtered through the rhythms of modern hip-hop. Released in March by Wax Poetics, this album challenges the expectations of genre. It delivers a new and interesting sound that artfully respects the past.
Adrian Younge is a young producer, composer, arranger, and performer. He is best known for his soundtrack to the Blaxploitation sendup Black Dynamite and for his concept album Something About April. Younge loves to tell a story, as you can hear in Ghostface Killah’s Twelve Reasons to Die (Soul Temple, 2012), which Younge produced. This album demonstrates Younge’s interest in combining what seem to be incongruous musical genres to create something new and relevant. It mixes opera-inspired storytelling and thug rap with a psychedelic soul and hip-hop twist.
Younge likes to say that he’s “hip-hop forever.” He was raised on hip-hop and credits hip-hop with introducing him to the music that he listens to today. As Terry Gross noted in her March 12, 2013 Fresh Air interview with him, Adrian Young is the kind of person who listens to hip-hop and then wants to know more about the music that was sampled. When he was about eighteen, Younge’s parents gave him an MPC (music production controller) for Christmas. As he created samples and beats, he discovered the artistry behind the sampled music. He also realized that sampling others’ work could not always give him the sounds that he wanted. That spurred him to learn how to play various instruments to create these sounds himself.
One of the groups whose music Younge frequently heard sampled was The Delfonics, the Philadelphia soul act that began recording in 1966. William Hart was the lead singer for the vocal trio, and his plaintive falsetto is a highlight of their sound. Produced by Thom Bell, the Delfonics helped solidify the Philadelphia soul sound characterized by nuanced backbeats, lush strings, and smooth vocals.
“La-la (Means I Love You)” is the most popular of The Delfonics’ songs. It sold over one million copies and reached number four on the Billboard charts in 1968. It features the smooth high strings and easy-going drum backbeat that exemplify the Philly Soul sound. Hart’s silky falsetto is featured during the verse which is kept fresh and innovative through quarter-note triplet hits in the drums. The chorus starts in unison with a series of descending “las” and blossoms into harmony on “I love you.” If “La-la (Means I Love You)” is the quintessential Delfonics love song, then “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” is their perfect breakup song. Hart’s pinning falsetto on this track, which won a Grammy for best R&B Performance, laments everything that he has given to his girl. The unexpected hits in the drums add to the anguish, while the strings and piano heighten the sense of romance gone wrong.
Not only did the Delfonics inspire other soul groups, they also became the source of samples for many hip-hop artists. A quick survey on www.whosampled.com returns ninety-six different tracks that used samples from The Delfonics and thirty-eight different cover versions of their songs. “Ready or Not Here I Come (Can’t Hide From Love)” is one of the most frequently sampled. The original starts with a string ostinato and powerful low brass riff that provide a strong beat and appeals to hip-hop artists. Younge became interested in The Delfonics through samples he heard in recordings by the Wu-Tang Clan and others.
As Younge further explored the music of the 1960s, he became acquainted with the music of Ennio Morricone, the great Italian composer. Morricone became famous in the United States for his spaghetti Western soundtracks on such notable films as A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. He is also well-known for his soundtracks to The Untouchables and Cinema Paradiso. Quentin Tarantino has reused Morricone’s music extensively in his films. Younge is fascinated with Morricone’s use of bells, whistles, fuzz guitar, and percussion effects. In the Fresh Air interview, Younge explains that “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… You don’t usually hear those types of sounds in today’s music, but when you hear those sounds, it takes you back to the music I like the best: organic music that is composed by real composers at a time when recording was at its height, which I believe was around like ‘68 to ‘73.”
Intrigued by the storytelling in Morricone’s film scores, Younge wanted to create an album that travels “back in time to about ‘69 to compete with the other soul groups that are out there.” Through Twitter, Younge connected with The Delfonics’ singer William Hart, and the two collaborated to create Adrian Younge Presents The Delfonics. Younge composed and performed the background music on the album, while Hart wrote the lyrics and sang lead vocals. Recorded in Younge’s fully analog studio, the album was made on the same type of equipment used in the original Delfonics’ recordings. The result is a neo-soul record with a hip-hop and spaghetti Western twist.
The first track, “Stop and Look (And You Have Found Love),” makes the album’s premise clear. It opens with an electric bass and drum lick whose dotted rhythms and syncopation are hallmarks of hip-hop grooves. Hart enters with his haunting falsetto; the Morricone cymbals and bell tree entreat you to “stop and look” to find love. Gone are the lush strings and horns of the Thom Bell era. They are replaced instead by Hart’s lone solo, a fast shuffle in the drums, and an echo in the piano part. Hart’s falsetto is still strong forty years later, although he sometimes struggles to hit his highest notes. But that slight vocal strain only adds to the tension in the song. Hart continually asks the listener to stop and look and realize that love hasn’t gone anywhere. He is reminding us that he and his music haven’t gone away either; they’ve been here with us the whole time.
“Just Love” is another track that embodies Younge’s Morricone-soul sound. The chimes and fuzz guitar bring the drama of movie Westerns, while the background vocals, baritone sax, and Hammond organ recall the smooth sound of the original 1960s Delfonics trio. The rhythm of the lyrics brings the song up to date. Hart and female vocalist Saudia Mills almost sound like they are spinning freestyle rhymes with the syncopation of the lyrics. The combination of timbres and rhythms convince the listener that this album is soul music updated to today’s hip-hop standards.
The Delfonics have had a long and rich history. Their Billboard-topping songs propelled the Philly soul sound to the national stage. Their catchy riffs and smooth singing continue to captivate hip-hop producers. Adrian Younge takes The Delfonics’ signature sounds and re-imagines them for today’s listeners. Fans of the original Delfonics will cheer to hear William Hart’s sensuous falsetto again in modern, updated tracks. Hip-hop artists and producers will continue to find catchy beats and sounds to reuse and remix in their own music. And a new generation of listeners will become fans of the Delfonics through Adrian Younge.
Jennifer Forness is a choir director at Fisher Middle School and Ewing High School in Ewing, New Jersey. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey with her husband and baby girl.