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How Hit-Boy Helped Capture the Spirit of ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’

The Grammy-winning producer talks about taking inspiration from Fred Hampton and how he gained focus in the pandemic.

Chris Parsons*

The new film Judas and the Black Messiah tells the story of the FBI’s infiltration of the Black Panther movement in the United States. Directed by Shaka King, the movie is set to the backdrop of what is now acknowledged to be the 1969 assassination of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, who is played by a tremendous Daniel Kaluuya. LaKeith Stanfield plays William O’Neal, the petty criminal turned FBI informant responsible for Hampton’s downfall. While it’s not necessarily a complete history of the movement, Judas and the Black Messiah succeeds in capturing something undeniably rhythmic. Kaluuya’s rendering of Hampton speaks in a hypnotizing cadence that feels musical. It’s only fitting that, in addition to the film’s original score, the film inspired an official album, Judas and the Black Messiah: The Inspired Album, with artists from Jay-Z to Lil Durk delivering their own interpretations of the movie’s themes.

“It’s wild how everything just came full circle,” Hit-Boy, who served as one of the executive producers on the record, says of this generation’s admiration for Hampton. Speaking from L.A., Hit-Boy, who also has a few tracks on the record, discussed making an album inspired by one of the year’s more radical films.

How did you first get involved with the Judas and the Black Messiah soundtrack?

I first got involved through Archie Davis, who is another executive producer on the soundtrack. He played me some clips from the movie a while ago and told me they were looking for music. They didn’t quite have the direction fully for the soundtrack yet, but I got brought back in by my boy Dash, who was another executive producer on the soundtrack. That’s my guy. He came through, saw what I was doing, and was just like, “Man, the energy that you on right now works for the project.”

What did you think of the movie once you saw it?

I thought it was crazy, man. I love it. Obviously the story is messed up and it’s sad, but to see how young Fred was, and just how much power he had, and he knew it… He also was a person who kind of knew that they were going to try to take him out. It was just crazy to see how everything played out.

As an artist, how do you approach a project that’s trying to catch the same energy as something that’s not music?

It’s our energy. You can hear some of the sounds I use, and to me, when you listen to the soundtrack, you want to watch the movie. When you watch the movie, you want to listen to the soundtrack. They really go hand in hand, and because of the sonics, they match the feeling and the vibe as it was in the ’60s. It’s real retro, but it also feels new. It feels like a fresh take on our history. 

Something that everybody was talking about from the soundtrack was the Jay-Z collaboration with Nipsey Hussle. For you, how did you feel knowing that was going to be on this project, and just hearing that for the first time?

That was killer. Obviously, me and Nip won a Grammy together [Best Rap Performance for 2019’s “Racks in the Middle”]. We had a bunch of music over the years that we collaborated on, and especially after what happened to him, just to hear him still out in the world, and still affecting the people, and his music’s still touching people on a different level than ever….It’s always fulfilling. With Hov, he’s one of my favorite artists ever, so just to be on the same soundtrack with him, and not just producing, but rapping — my song comes on directly after — it’s just crazy how that lined up.

Thinking of the themes that are in the movie, how did you feel channeling that energy in your own music?

If you listen to my lyrics and my song, you know I’m talking about my life from my perspective, being a producer specifically, but I’m also touching on real life and the stuff that we go through. When I wrote “Broad Day,” which is my song on the soundtrack, it was right around when everything was happening with George Floyd, and with riots everywhere, and it was stuff going on blocks from where I work on music every day. So, just seeing that, and buildings on fire, you’re smelling the smoke, and you’re seeing windows bust down, and stuff boarded up, it’s like wow, this is stuff that was happening back then, and it’s still happening now. It’s just nuts.

Throughout the record, I thought of how rappers now speaking on the conditions they live through is a lot like what Fred Hampton was doing.

Oh yeah, for sure. The culture just progresses. Everybody is able to record their own music now for the most part. The people that got something to say, as always, they’re going to cut through in a different type of way.

What do you think it says about where we are as a culture, that someone like Fred Hampton is finally getting celebrated?

It was just time. We had different movies, we had Malcolm X, and stuff like that. But with everything that’s going on, for this story to be told right now, it couldn’t have been a better time. As far as we have come, we still pretty much in the same position, man. Somebody could kill you on camera, a cop could kill you on camera. Back then, they didn’t have no cameras, but they was doing the same thing.

In the past year, you’ve produced on Nas’ record, Benny the Butcher’s, Big Sean’s — all while we’ve been locked down. How have you managed to maintain productivity?

I just felt locked in, focused. There are not as many distractions right now. I’m just focused on music and raising my son. That was a blessing, that right when the pandemic was happening, last March, and things was getting shut down in L.A., my son was born. It’s just been giving me time to be with him and focus on my career, which has been a beautiful thing.

Is there anything you’re working on that people should look out for?

It’s a lot, but I don’t want to get too deep into it. But just know that if y’all enjoy what I did in 2020, this year I’m going even crazier.

From Rolling Stone US