From ‘25th Hour’ to ‘BlacKkKlansman’: The Man Behind Spike Lee's Music

Troubled by racism, the NFL and police brutality, Terence Blanchard plays on.

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May 28 2018, 3:59pm

Assets via Terence Blanchard / Wikipedia Commons | Art by Noel Ransome

I went through a phase in my early teens when a film required a particular language for me to take notice: an image of my blackness, a sound of my urban, a feel for my poverty. As far as Spike Lee joints were concerned, Clockers spoke all that good hood shit. The story played out simply; a petty drug dealing kid (Mekhi Phifer) going from being accused of murder to potentially being the victim of a murder.

So naturally, I had my expectation; a serving of shit talking, Boyz in the Hood-having tales to a hip-hop beat. What I got instead was a dark brooding trumpet with orchestrative backgrounds. It wasn’t what I expected, and it changed how I view film. From that day forward, I fell in love with Spike Lee’s bold music of choice, hardly ever knowing that it was a New Orleans musician Terence Blanchard who was behind a good deal of that soulful touch.

Despite having been involved in every film I hold dear (Malcolm X, Love & Basketball, Mo’Betta Blues, 25th Hour) while holding onto five Grammy Awards, Blanchard is still out here working. He's rocking with a new band (the E-Collective), writing music for Spike’s latest, BlacKkKlansman, and still finds the time between his 20-plus discography of work to talk to me like an uncle would talk to a nephew.

From police brutality to Clockers, we went at it all.

Spike Lee and Terence Blanchard at the 'Red Tails' movie premiere. via Getty.

VICE: A lot of our audience will know Spike Lee, but not you, which is kinda criminal. Tell me about your journey towards the movie music business.
Terence Blanchard: It was a journey that I wasn’t even aware I was on dude (laughs). I studied composition since I was 16 years old in New Orleans with a man named Roger Dickerson who was my piano and composition teacher. The meet with Spike Lee himself happened when he heard a piece of my music for an album I was working on and loved it. He tells me, “look man, can I use it?” So I said “sure man.” The next thing you know, he’s asking me to write an arrangement. He hears it and says, “man, you’ve got a future in this business.” Didn’t even think anything of it. But then Jungle Fever comes around, and man, we’ve been working together ever since.

It’s been a huge learning curve obviously. Not only in writing for film, but for writing for Spike Lee himself. He isn’t into background tunes played during dialogue and all that. He’s instead very melody driven. If you look at all his films, his scenes, they have strong melodic content. It’s his style.

Tell me about that collaboration process in finding that right sound. You and Spike Lee come from different mediums, liable to be perfectionists. What’s that back and forth like?
The whole thing on his part was like, hey man, “I don’t want to hear any music changes when a door slams, I don’t like that.” He instead likes orchestra. Those were the initial conversations. We’d get into it, I’d bring the melody, some of it he’d love, some of it he wouldn’t like electronic instruments. Hell, I’ll tell you a funny story no one knows.

When we did Inside Man, I felt strongly about this one theme as dealing with the topic of love. You were going to hear it at one time at the end of the movie when Denzel returns home to his wife. So I put in a flute just so Spike could hear it. As soon as it passes his ear, he tells me that he wants it as the main theme. So I had to find a way to make this theme of love sound menacing and threatening. That first theme you hear, it’s originally a sound of romance.

Clockers (1995).

I've always viewed your music as this separate character to a story, like the ‘Striker Packs Up’ theme from Clockers . I’m curious about how you view your own music from a filmic aspect.
This goes back to my Art Blakey days who was a jazz drummer. He used to say, music washes away the dust of everyday life. For me, music should be that thing that breaks down the barriers. It should be that master key to unlocking the door to the soul. That’s what I try to create. It has to be universal that deals in an aspect of humanity. No matter who you are or where you are, it can help you relate to a film, relate to the stories and characters involved.

But you’re not actually speaking feelings with traditional words. So when you do a collection of songs like say from your album Breathless , what helps you in expressing the proper feeling?
Thinking about outrage, the hurt and the loss most of us feel. I’m thinking about the people of color who keep pleading with the general public about what’s going on, the same people who are least heard. When you look at what happened in the NFL with the owners trying to make a rule about standing for the flag. Where they made no effort to deal with the initial issue, it speaks directly to the bigotry and intolerance most people of color feel. They have yet to even acknowledge the problem with law enforcement and the people of color being shot or the gun control problem. My music speaks to anyone with a conscience for what’s going on.

For us to constantly have to scream at the top of our lungs to be heard, only to be told that we’re disrespecting our country and our shoulders, that’s a damn travesty and sense of frustration that I constantly hear on my travels. It fuels me, it fuels the music because something has to be done.

Does it ever get to be too much? Just with the nature of music when it comes to the mind, it can bring back a flurry of memories from a single note. I gotta imagine that you have to head into some dark places.
Well listen. We all get tired, but I grew up in the church and one thing I was told is that the good lord never puts anything on you that you can’t handle. We don’t have time to be overwhelmed. There’s too much stuff to do because evil is relentless and we have to give that same energy. And no matter how bad I feel, I’ve dealt with nothing compared to the shoulders I’m standing on in terms of our history. For me, no, I don’t get weary, tired frustrated, obviously, but that isn’t any kind of reason to give up.

Mos Def, Terence Blanchard and Spike Lee | Image via Wikipedia Commons.

I can see why Spike Lee has a great relationship with you. You don’t seem to ignore the world as it ties into your artistry.
It goes back to what we were talking about. I just felt like, everytime you turn on a TV...I’ve never see this much coverage for one president and it’s crazy. Certain people are going to try to maintain power and make money off of that. I can’t just move onto the subject of Breathless and move away from the subject while young people are getting shot. In Sacramento Stephon Clark was shot 20 times for no good reason while a guy who actually killed people in Canada, who was trying to get shot couldn’t manage the same thing. One of the things that hit me was that I would never get the chance that Canadian dude did. That’s the reality of my country. My music is meant to heal and absorb their frustrations.

So you and your band-mates always have a history of social commentary in mind?
Well we actually go to these places man. We went to Dallas where those cops were shot along with Minneapolis and Cleveland. When you experience these places and the people affected by these events, it becomes extremely real and painful. To see the school that Philando Castile worked at, and to do a presentation to those elementary kids...it was amazing because looking at those kids was like looking at a Jackson Pollock painting. The colours and hues of all different types and religions. One of the workers walked up to us and he said, man, you know Phil was always a sweet kid. The way it was told was embarrassment, but it was a personalized statement in how very clear it was about what we had lost. A human being who did the right things.

All this stuff becomes real to you, and you feel the level of intolerance that exists for people who ignore other people’s pain. Musically, I can’t ignore that. I can’t add to that intolerance. Instead I have to help people heal from it.

When we shift gears to your Spike Lee film work, give our readers some insight about your thought process when you were creating music.

Crooklyn
Starting with Crooklyn, there’s a couple of things going on. Zelda Harris, who plays Troy, played a key role here. A lot of the story is told through a little girl’s eyes, so to me there had to be a playfulness throughout the score of Crooklyn that’s somewhat different from other films.

25th Hour
Oh man, the challenge there for the 25th Hour as me and Spike Lee talked was to never let the audience forget that this was a post 9/11 New York. That’s why you have the Arabic sounds, the bagpipes and the Irish instruments throughout the score. Certain areas had certain sounds that painted the backdrop of this post 9/11 city. Spike of course did it cinematically by including fire trucks with people still cleaning up debris around the Twin Towers. A great deal music served as a painting of a picture in time.

Clockers
Clockers was another New York story. What I remember distinctly is that Spike had a lot of hip hop source material for that film. That’s one of those things that we spoke about, an urban story that dealt with urban topics, but done in a very profound manner. My idea was to elevate it all through the score, to see it through the eyes of what it would feel like to have an orchestra colour very urbanized scenes as opposed to a hip-hop soundtrack being a musical backdrop.

BlacKkKlansman
This was unique. We had an orchestra of course because that was always the idea. It's about character elevations, but also what I tried to use my band the E-Collective to create an R&B backdrop of that period. In the beginning and near the end of the movie you hear these phrases of these rif-like grooves that actually help propel certain themes, but done in the tradition of the films in the 70s. At least that's what I tried to mimic.

I always appreciated that about Clockers in 95. This was an era of hood films like Menace II Society and Boyz in the Hood , you wouldn’t expect a legitimate orchestra.
Exactly. We really talked about that. All too often, people make assumptions that, oh it’s black characters, we don’t need to orchestrate, let’s just put some hip hop in there. People still associate orchestra with a European tradition, and I get that, but it’s not just European. That may be its origin, but there’s been so many other great people who have influenced that arena of music creativity for generations.

Follow Noel Ransome on Twitter.

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