EXCLUSIVE: Music Composers Jacob Yoffee and Roahn Hylton Talk Creating the Score for ‘Free Meek’
Recently, Meek Mill was granted a new trial in his decade-old case that has been a thorn in his side and resulting in a return trip to prison. Many have followed Meek’s case, heading the details of a potentially corrupt judge continuing to prolong the Dreamchasers leader’s probationary period and how the arresting officer in the case is plagued with many questionable arrests.
Now the full story is available in Free Meek, a five-part docuseries that details the rise of the Philly rapper to become one of the prominent examples for necessary change that is powering the current criminal justice reform movement. The JAY-Z executive produced series brings re-enactments and comments from the rapper himself along with people that are close to him and investigators and legal professionals.
Throughout the series, you will hear the work of musicians Jacob Yoffee and Roahn Hylton, who were brought into the series by showrunner Michael John Warren to craft a score for the provocative series. In an exclusive conversation with The Source, Jacob and Roahn discuss the challenges to craft pieces for Free Meek and how they landed the heavy job to create the show’s score.
Video directed & edited by Zev Lerner.
What led both of you to the Free Meek project?
Roahn Hylton: Last year we had got the opportunity to work on docu-series produced by LeBron James and our director was Michael John Warren. He said literally after the project released and at the premier party he called us over and he’s like, look, I’m working on another project. You guys would be perfect for it. It was Free meek.
Jacob Yoffee: And so we, we kind of like got on the phone with him after it and said, I got this thing cooking and I got some ideas. We didn’t have any footage to look at. We had Meek’s music and news stories sort of to go off of what he had. A lot of specific ideas you want to do, explore the concept of trauma, blending strings and brass and all these kinds of different approaches. He wanted to try some off the wall experimentation. So we came up with like 30 or 40 pieces of music, sent that to the production company. Once they heard that they were all in and we got the Gig.
When you’re getting that aspect of matching trauma in sound, but also how did you feel about scoring a piece that is both so important to hip hop and heavy in content?
Roahn: To be honest with you, I felt as a musician, it’s one of your dreams to be able to work on art that matters. Oftentimes in a business, you do products cause obviously you want to pay the bills and you want to keep on working. But it definitely is an honor, a privilege to work on something, one that matters for hip-hop and that is such an important topic in our country.
Jacob: Yeah, it was definitely kind of a big responsibility and we kept trying to do music that we thought was high level and kind of deserving of meek and hip hop and just bringing to it everything we could. We didn’t want to cut any corners which I think is one reason why we just wrote so much music. We wanted to just give them everything they could possibly use and try to blend and experiment and just do everything we could to like help tell the story. Roehn had, has a good phrase that Meek’s music is utilized throughout the series and it was our job to fill in the gaps because there’s a lot of more intimate moments.
Roahn: If you know Meek’s music, you know, he’s going to come with lots of energy. And there was a lot of parts where early on in his career where he’s battle rapping and showing how he ascended to his place in Hip-Hop. The story of his family and how his family responded to literally this 10 years in the criminal justice system and dealing with probation. It’s a very interesting story and it was a challenge to incorporate multiple emotions.
How hard is it to maintain or to match the sounds of like Meek or someone else’s music when you have to contribute to your own?
Jacob: I would say that there are no musical gigs that I’ve ever had in my life that are easy. Even if the deal is like from the get-go, it’s going to be easy. If you really, if you really take it seriously every time we start a new job, every time I started a new one, I’m just like, you have this moment of panic. Like can I do this? Like am I, am I good enough? And you really have to dig deep and just have faith that you know, the universe is going to send you inspiration and help you figure it out. And quite frankly, they’ll let you know if you’re not hitting that mark. So this one just had that added layer of, man, this is some of our heroes. If they watched the series and they say, man, I really liked the music in this, you know, that would just be the dream response from Meek or JAY-Z. I wouldn’t say that it’s any different from any other gig. It just had that added level of man, our heroes are involved with this one.
Roehn: Yeah, I would definitely say there’s that sense of responsibility one honor the subject matter, like the depth of literally what we’re talking about. But then also just musically making sure it’s on the same level and it’s on par with the quality that my Jacob said our heroes are making. So, you know, I think it’s fun when you have a challenge, you always want to rise to it.
You mentioned the challenges beyond that actual creating in alliance with other creators. Did you have any additional challenges that went into this one?
Jacob: So this is an incredibly layered story. It’s not cut and dry. It’s not like, it’s not even one simple day that they’re talking about. It’s spread across years and years. And it keeps unfolding and you find, you know, there are dirty cops not only have a seemingly a corrupt judge. It turns out a Rolling Stone reporter had to be the one to kind of blow up in the case and it takes a long time to sort of reveal all that information to the audience. With any court case, it’s just, you can get bogged down with the details. So when we first started, everyone was approaching it with much more of like a heavy, slower-paced, giving each person more time on-screen kind of diving into really detailed timelines. And after maybe four months, they said, you know what, we’re going to have to like, just start over again. It just wasn’t, it wasn’t as awesome and exciting as it needed to be. So I think we worked from like, August through December, and then right before Christmas we got the call, “Hey we’re going to go dark for a couple of weeks and then we’re going to hit it hard in January and start over.”
Speaking of the heavy subject matter, when you’re working on something this heavy does it evoke feelings and change the direction of how you’re creating?
Jacob: Yes, absolutely. And one of the requests that we’ve gotten, and I’ve gotten from my time working in L.A., is a lot of times the visual footage that they have for a show is really heavy and they rely on music to not necessarily lighten it up but pace it up. Because at the end of the day, people are going to, they want to be entertained. And even if they’re being educated, they, it needs to flow and movement and energy. And if you let it be too weighed down and the awfulness of it all and people are just going to turn it off.
What would you want for the viewers to take away both from your musical compositions but also from the overall story or out?
Roahn: I think this is one of the most important stories in Hip-Hop because we know there’s an incredible amount of people who are incarcerated in this country. What I was most impressed with about Meek is his ability to take any negative energy that’s been associated with and use it to not only to affect positive energy in his career but positive energy in the world. He’s working with politicians and other sports owners to create change in policy. I want the audience to feel that and also see how inspiring you can be. No matter what happens in your life.
Jacob: And regarding the music we live in a really exciting time. You know, a lot of directors and producers that were kids did the eighties and nineties. They, they are now running these shows themselves. They’re telling stories from that time period. They’re telling stories that demand a new type of film, music that truly uses hip hop, pop, rock, jazz elements with, with film music. And that is one of the most exciting things that’s been happening for the project Rowan and avenue in together is that from the very beginning of writing it is a true like synergy of all these different types of music there. There are literally no rules and nothing is off-limits. And that’s one of the coolest things about free meek is that we were able to bring in all types of music that on other shows like even three, four years ago they would have been kicked back by the network. Like, are you guys crazy? You can’t do this kind of music. You’re, that’s wrong with you. So that is one thing that we’re most excited about is that it literally a new sound that’s kind of unfolding because the content is demanding it.