Roots & Branches: Kerwin Young

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Since much of his work is about celebrating the shared values of different worlds, it is no surprise that Kerwin Young would be a good fit for Next Level. From musical strategies to technological platforms to entire cultural traditions, Young’s music finds the threads that connect diverse experiences to each other.

Young is perhaps best known to hip-hop audiences for his work as a producer on Eric B. & Rakim's classic Don't Sweat the Technique album. For that and work he did as a member of the legendary Bomb Squad production collective, he was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.  Contrary to what some might expect, these early experiences of music industry success led Young back to school, namely the University of Missouri - Kansas City, where he earned both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in classical composition.

While it might seem surprising that his work with Public Enemy and other acclaimed hip-hop artists including Ice Cube and Mobb Deep would provoke an interest in classical composition, Young sees these experiences as simply being different paths to the same artistic goals.

“It’s the same thing to me,” he explains. “It’s always been the same thing. In one aspect you’re using a sequencer and a drum machine. And the other, instead of using digital means to do it, I may be writing it out. But the final product, to me, is sound. So they’re both composition. It’s just that the process is different. It’s just a different way of carrying out the task.”

“If I were going to write a piece for an orchestra,” he continues, “I’m writing out a drumbeat. But it’s the same drumbeat I would program. I’m just writing it out so a percussionist could read it. It’s just different tools for the same job.”

This approach served him well on the Egypt residency in 2017, where his students and collaborators often included people with very different professional backgrounds and goals. “A lot of the guys who attended the workshop, they split their creative process, both as a musician and a programmer. So three of them played guitar and keyboards. And about four others, they were just strictly programmers. So for me, having the experience as a musician and a programmer, I was able to relate to both. I could see both sides of it, and kind of let everyone see it all, respect it all, and see how it all works.”

It was also important to Young that the workshops should go beyond specific musical techniques in order to address the practical realities that make it possible to have a career as an artist in the first place. “I did focus a lot on business. On publishing, and that kind of thing. Coupled with the production. A lot of the guys already had experience, so I didn’t really have to teach anything, just share. Just share my experience. And pretty much listen to whatever questions they had.”

 

In many ways, Young says, he learned as much from these conversations as he taught. On the most basic level, he and his Egyptian counterparts had an opportunity to share musical ideas, techniques, and tools. “They even introduced me to different sound libraries and different ways that they may program. Because they use a lot of local instruments – sampled instruments – in their sound palette.  The same way we would use guitar or certain percussion instruments, they incorporate their indigenous instruments. But it’s still hip-hop. They just have their own sound.”

But the main insight that Young gained, he says, was simply the power of hip-hop as a foundation for cultural interaction. “The Next Level experience just showed me how strong the worldwide hip-hop culture is,” he says. “Because over there, it felt like New York. The vibe, both in Alexandria and in Cairo, just working with the rappers and the producers, it had the energy like if I was in New York. Although I was in Egypt. And just their knowledge of the music and the culture. It kind of blew me away.”

“In terms of the music, there wasn’t any kind of disconnect and it just showed me how strong the music culture is globally. And that it’s easy to have a conversation because the respect is there, and the enthusiasm is there. And that’s a good thing.”

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Learn more about Kerwin Young’s work at http://www.kerwinyoung.com

Joe Schloss