When most people think of hip-hop producers or film and television composers, they’re likely thinking of two very different types of professionals on two different spectrums: a beatmaker banging out bops for a rapper, or someone crafting a serious-sounding orchestral arrangement. Matthew Head, the GRAMMY-nominated musician who’s won Emmy, NAACP Image, and Peabody awards for his work, resides comfortably in the middle of both worlds. Marrying the tough texture of hip-hop and the soaring emotion of traditional scoring, Head creates unique accompaniments for some of the hottest TV shows and movies out today.
With over 75 credits, the film composer, music producer, and arranger uses his upbringing in Atlanta, a hotbed of legendary hip-hop, to inform his pieces. That’s made him a highly in-demand artist for shows including OWN’s Greenleaf, BET’s Boomerang, and the critically acclaimed new series P-Valley on Starz to name a few. A former elementary school teacher, Head began playing piano at five and starting writing songs by the time he was 12; after his big break scoring the documentary film The Start of Dreams for the revered theater director Kenny Leon, Head quickly made a name for himself, scoring everything from film (Wilmington on Fire); theater (an Our Town revival with Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey Jr., and Mark Ruffalo) and TV (Step Up: High Water). BMI caught up with Head to talk about what he’s learned along the way, the importance of being yourself, and what he hopes to do next.
You created the score for Starz’s new breakout hit, P-Valley, which takes viewers inside an adult club through the lens of the dancers’ perspectives. How did you create a score that balanced the need to be “clubby” as well as emotional?
Katori Hall [creator] was very hands-on with the music. By being based in the South and from the South—I’m in Atlanta, born and raised in Atlanta—the whole trap, strip club movement I know all about it. So my goal was to include those sounds that you would hear in the strip club, or what you hear in our neighborhood, because a lot of the score doesn’t really come in until episodes four, five, six and up—the latter half of the series. I wanted to make sure that I represented the community musically, so you have those trap elements, you have those 808s, those high hats, and certain sounds, but you could beautify it with a little bit more of a jazz noir kind of vibe. And the one thing Katori wanted to create, she called it like ‘trap noir.’ And she wanted to make sure that we understand that this was a trap vibe and also, it’s a more eclectic and more creative vibe as well. So I had to kind of take a step back and from the traditional background I think I know about composing and literally marry the sounds of trap and, and jazz, a little bit of ambiance to put those moments together. We have so much in there to express what she was feeling and what the characters were actually saying.
You got your big break scoring The Start of Dreams, a moving documentary about Kenny Leon’s August Wilson Monologue Competition. What would you say are some of the biggest things you’ve learned and incorporated into your work since you created that beautiful score?
One thing I’ve learned, and it was fun working with Kenny Leon, as a composer, but the most important relationships are with the director and creator of what we’re working on. And Kenny Leon always wanted me to use what I know, musically. He wanted Matthew Head, the guy from Atlanta, Georgia, the guy that grew up listening to hip-hop music. I have a non-traditional composer’s background. I’m kind of self-taught, so to speak. And so I’ve learned to trust my instincts a little bit more and not try to overcompensate with what I think should happen musically copying or mimicking other composers. I know from working with directors or producers, they hear things that they want to hear just because of what they think cinematic music should feel like. I learned to bring myself into the conversation a bit more. Working with Dime Davis on Boomerang, she allowed me to do that and also Katori on P-Valley. My favorite group is OutKast, so that whole “Southernplayalistic,” Organized Noize sound—to be able to use that whole Southern, gospel, hip-hop, trap vibe to make a cinematic score, or underscore for a film or television show is what I’ve learned to do now. And just trust my instincts and trust my gut and don’t get intimidated by the word “composer” and just do it.
Would you say that you have signature flourishes, or a signature style imprint, that you leave on every project, or is every project entirely a blank slate?
Now, yes. Well, I think so. [Laughs.] Every project is different. And it allows me to do I try to embellish what I think first. A lot of times I express myself, first go-round, and hopefully, the director and producers like what I’m doing. But I am hip-hop. I mean, I’m 38 years old. So I grew up in the era when trap music was hitting. I love that it never went away. Three 6 Mafia. T.I. OutKast. Killer Mike. All that Southern vibe I grew up listening to, so I try to throw those in my score a lot. Sometimes I can’t, sometimes things have to change due to what we’re working on, but I’m trying to attach myself to projects that allow me to do that and shine that way. P-Valley was one of them. Step Up is another one. So that’s what I’m looking at, and hopefully, I can continue to do that.
What compels you to take on a project? How do you know you want to work on a film or show?
At first it was take everything I can get type vibe, I’m not gonna lie, just looking for opportunities. Now that my career has started to evolve a little bit more, I want to work on projects that I can identify with and I can attach myself to. I always say, I was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, so P-Valley, I identify with. I knew exactly what they were going through. I saw my family members in P-Valley, my friends, my cousins. And so that allows me to express that stuff more freely musically because I can identify with the characters, the stories. Same with Boomerang, I can identify with the millennial vibe and growing up in Atlanta. So I am [gravitating] towards projects I can identify with, where I can identify with what’s being said on screen and what’s being said off the screen. I’m really starting to narrow down and learn how to say I don’t think I’m the guy for certain projects.
How do you stay inspired? What do you do to keep your perspective fresh and your creative juices flowing?
Well, I am a dad. And l bought the house I grew up in. When my wife and I got married, and before we had kids, we bought my childhood home. My parents divorced, and my dad had an opportunity to sell the house and I said, ‘Hey, let me buy it.’ And he sold it to me. So walking through my house, and walking through the place I grew up in and raising my children, my old room is my son’s room, my brother’s room is my daughter’s room. In my neighborhood, my neighbors are in their late 70s and 80s, so to see my children grow up is inspiring to me. It keeps me grounded. That lets me never forget where I come from. That motivates me, to share those stories with my children. To have a show come on television and have my son say, ‘Daddy, did you make that music?’ or my little girl say, ‘Daddy is that your music?’ Those things keep me grounded and by being grounded, it allows me to keep the hunger and want to keep working and not worrying about the money, the accolades. I’m making music and having fun and staying in this house. I guess that’s kind of Hallmark but that’s really the truth.
How do you know when a score is complete?
The technical [answer] is if I can watch this without thinking. If I can turn myself into a consumer and understand what’s going on. But that’s my personal answer. But the score is never complete until the producer or director says it is. It’s never complete until the final deadline. I was getting emails and phone calls and text messages all the way up to mixing. I’m probably still not done. Also, to be quite frank, I actually ask my wife. I’ll bring her to the studio or show her a scene and ask her what she thinks and feels. We’ve been married for 14 years and she’ll definitely say [what she thinks]. So I kind of use her as my guinea pig on a lot of my scores. I know if it goes smoothly with her, I know I’m good.
Your scores have accompanied the acting of luminaries including Scarlett Johanssen (Our Town), Halle Berry (Boomerang), and Lynn Whitfield (Greenleaf). Do the specific nuances or talents of the actor play into your creative process at all? Do you tailor sounds to them and their individual sensibilities?
Yes and no. As a composer, we’re probably second-to-last to get everything. So we may know who’s on the show and all that kind of thing, but my job is to fall in love with the characters and not with the actor. So I try not to get caught up in the star [power] of it. Sometimes it’s hard, you know, you’re working on a project like a Greenleaf or Boomerang, and you’ve got these names attached to it. You automatically feel giddy about certain things but the goal is to service the score, what’s on screen, and service the storyline. So I try not to get caught up in the names or caught up in who’s in it. I love to develop things with a director and we kind of go back and forth with producers and the showrunner on what we feel works. And as we go through a couple of those moments, a lot of the star, fan stuff goes out of the window.
Can you name a time when you failed or learned something the hard way, and what you learned from it?
Yes. I’m not shy, but I’m a lane person. I like to stay in my lane. I never want to overstep. So when I first started working, with the first couple of opportunities, I was just so happy to have them and I would literally write music just to write music on top of music. I would never fight for the cue. Fighting for the cue means expressing myself verbally saying, ‘Hey, this is why I did this. And this is why I think it works.’ So I was taking no for an answer very quickly. And earlier in my career, it made me work ten times more. Which was a good thing sometimes, but sometimes I had to express my creativity and, and tell directors or producers, ‘This is why I think this works.’ And I noticed that in fighting for the music in certain aspects, it allowed them to see my side of the coin, and why I did it, and it made the work relationship better. So in a nutshell, learning how to communicate better with directors and producers instead of sitting back, being quiet. I’ve lost a couple of jobs doing that. I’ve been let go from a film or a project because I didn’t speak up. Because I’m so used to just creating and making music, I wasn’t saying, ‘This is why I played these chords.’ Now I’ve learned to let the director or showrunner know and a lot of times it’s helped me. With Katori (on P-Valley) we’d go back and forth for days—no debate, but a conversation, and then all of a sudden, it all comes to light. And that wouldn’t’ have happened if I didn’t speak up.
Are there types of projects or genres you haven’t done that you’d like to?
Yes! I want to do some animation. When I watched Hair Love, I fell in love with it. And I would love to be a part of something like that. I’ve done some small short films that were animated but I would love to dive into that realm just a little bit to see what I can come out of it, because composing for animation and films and television is completely different. I would love to see if I can bring the hip-hop vibe to animation.
What’s next for you?
I have a couple things going on. I have Step Up Season 3 coming out. I have a couple other projects that I can’t really talk about coming in at the top of the year. And I also have a production company here in Atlanta, called Studio Approach. It’s a bunch of African American guys, the four of us, and we all have our own little situation where we are producing short films and commercials and movies, all kinds of stuff. One guy is an editor, one guy is a composer, which is me, another person does design and another guy does production. And we all kind of came together to put out projects amongst our peers. I’m staying busy as much as I can.