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On The Corner

After Three Seasons Shaping The Wire's Background Music, Blake Leyh Mines Homegrown Sounds For Season Four

Daniel Krall

By Jess Harvell | Posted 8/30/2006

It's easy to think of The Wire as a show with a strong musical identity. Over the course of its three seasons, it's become a hip-hop touchstone. Wire cast members have appeared in videos for Boyz in Da Hood, Cam'ron, Jay-Z, Common, Fat Joe, Obie Trice, Fabolous, and dozens of other rappers and singers. The massively popular local hip-hop mixtape Hamsterdam--named for season three's open-air drug market--features plenty of gangsta koans from Wire characters like the imposing Slim Charles.

But The Wire's musical fingerprint, like much else about the show, is more subtle. There's no Wire soundtrack album. It has spawned no hit singles. Its section on the HBO web site doesn't feature a rigorous breakdown of the songs from each episode--unlike the one for, say, The Sopranos, a show well-known for its Scorsese-esque use of popular music. Ask the average person--outside of Baltimore, anyway--and they probably couldn't hum two bars of "Way Down in the Hole," the show's opening theme. Shockingly large chunks of the show feature "dead air"--dialogue and environmental sounds with no music at all.

"With most TV shows and movies, music is used to manipulate emotion," says Wire music director Blake Leyh over the phone from his studio in New York. "In The Wire, the music is just part of the sound landscape. It's used to increase the verisimilitude. We're telling the story with the music, sometimes, but not very much. It's mostly about creating the environment, and making that environment more believable and more real."

Realness--now there's a word that hip-hop fans love, right? Leyh is in charge of The Wire's musical punctuation, the sounds that spill off corners, out of Escalade windows, and float through City Hall fundraisers. And to make the show even realer, this season he's enlisted local musicians to provide original music for the first time in the series' history. And that's the musical paradox at the center of the fourth season of The Wire: Baltimore musicians finally get to appear on Baltimore's biggest TV show, even if they're only heard on a muffled radio outside a drug stash house.

 

Leyh was born in New York but raised in England, and despite leaving Britain as a teenager, he decided to hang onto the accent. Now in his 40s, his musical career began in elementary school, moving from youth choirs to the music program at the University of California at Santa Cruz. He's done stints in punk bands but describes his background as "originally in electronic music, classical electronic music like John Cage."

Movies are one of the few places the creaks, squeaks, and squeals of avant-garde electronic music have impacted mass culture, and many electronic composers like Tod Dockstader spent their days recording sproings and boings for cartoons and TV shows. After putting in his time at school taking razor blades to magnetic tape and fiddling with creaky synthesizers, Leyh moved into sound design for films.

"People use that term in different ways," he says. "I use it to refer to specifically using sound in a more musical way, manipulating sounds to have more of a storytelling role. If you're watching a movie and you see a door close and you hear a door close, that's one level of sound design. But I've had to create sounds like ‘planetary orgasm.' That's much more aesthetic, much closer to composing music."

In Hollywood and New York, Leyh's sound design and scores were featured in everything from Z-grade straight-to-video stuff (American Cyborg) to Independent Film Channel documentary faves to big-budget flicks (The Abyss). He's used his ears alongside directors like John Waters, Jonathan Demme, and the two Lee's, Spike and Ang. But it wasn't until David Simon came calling in 2001 that he moved into music supervising.

Music supervision requires a record geek's deep crates and the skills of a film editor, finding the right music for a project and working with the director to fit the music to what's happening on-screen. (There's also a lot of boring technical stuff and legalese and licensing.) Leyh certainly had the film experience for the job and possesses an obsessive love for music. If anything, he's a real hipster. Check out his impassioned MP3 blog, www.tenthousand.org, and you'll find George Gershwin, Young Jeezy, and Iraqi folk from the Sublime Frequencies label on the same virtual mixtape.

But, as per usual, standard Hollywood operating procedure was not how The Wire was going to work. The Wire has no score, and no sound mnemonic like Mike Post's instantly recognizable Law and Order music. It features no sly pop-culture references, no ironic song/scene pairings--well, maybe a couple, like Herc playing the theme from Shaft during a drug bust, or a dogfighting ring being built to the sound of "Atomic Dog," or Maj. Rawls blasting the "Ride of the Valkyries" as Hamsterdam is bulldozed--and no swelling orchestras at climactic moments or sappy singer-songwriter cues to tug at your heartstrings.

"Once or twice per season we'll have something that amounts to a montage," Leyh says. "Every other time there's music in the show it's being played as source music--they're driving in a car, or they're in a bar and music's playing on the jukebox, they're standing the street slinging and there's a boom box there. And it's always played very rigorously, as if it's coming from the source."

Leyh did compose The Wire's trip-hop-ish end-credits theme with its mournful strings, and he'll occasionally pen a bit of original incidental music here or there. "Like if they're in a funeral parlor and the organ's playing, I might write that," he says. "Something on the TV in the background, news show music or something." But being music director for The Wire forces Leyh to draw more on his sound design experience.

"I spent a lot of time, in the first season in particular, taking tracks into environments [in the city] and playing them over speakers," Leyh says. "We did a lot of recording in the first season where we got a car, and took the tracks we were using and would go drive around the warehouse district and record the car going by, so that the music really sounded like it would if it was part of an urban environment."

Like a production designer looking for the perfect faded denim shirt and dirty pair of Zubaz for Bubbles or a location scout chasing a uniquely run-down building, Leyh's job is to add the photorealist's wrinkles to The Wire's world. "But it wasn't really until this season, season four, that I did the thing that I should have done all along, which was to actually start using music from Baltimore," he says.

 

Leyh laughs when asked what took the show so long. "We weren't that smart," he says. "We just didn't think of it."

But when local hip-hop production team Darkroom Production's Hamsterdam mixtape ("Drug Free Zone," No Cover, April 26) landed in The Wire offices last year, the proverbial light bulb went off. "It's extremely difficult to license hip-hop," Leyh says. "Major label stuff is actually harder to license. The trouble with hip-hop is that there are a lot of samples, so you have to license those samples as well as licensing the track. Over the years we've obviously used a lot of hip-hop, but it's just a challenge to get enough music for the show."

Hamsterdam seemed like an ideal solution--gritty, street-level music without the major label price tag. And with tracks from the mixtape like Diablo's "Jail Flick" becoming huge local hits, Hamsterdam's music definitely seemed like what would be coming off Bodie's stoop or out of Marlo's SUV in 2006. But the miserly brass at HBO was still wary.

"That was another reason why we didn't do it earlier, because I knew the legal people, the suits who sit in an office and whose job is to worry about legal culpability, I knew they would be hesitant to do it," Leyh says. "So I kind of went out on a limb with HBO and said, ‘Look, we've got to do this.'" The end result was local artists like Darkroom, Mullyman, Aaron Lacrate, and DJ Technics making original--and more importantly, sample-free--music for the fourth season.

"I really don't want to give them any direction," Leyh says. "There's been a couple of times when people have tried to make stuff specifically for show, and we've never used it. It's not what we do. If they're standing on the corner listening to music and the music is saying ‘Wire-this, Wire-that,' it just immediately punctures the reality.

"Probably about half of the music is chosen by me, maybe a quarter of it is chosen by David [Simon], and a quarter of it is chosen by the editors," he continues. "And David is always the person who at the end of the day who says yes or no, this isn't working, let's try something else. And he also has a very deep knowledge of music, particularly R&B and blues--a lot of the bar music is stuff that he picks."

With all these new songs--songs that we're not even going to be able to hear in full--and such rabid music fans on staff, it begs the question: Where's The Wire's CD already? "We've been trying to do a soundtrack to The Wire since season one," Leyh says. "It may still happen this year. We all have very high aesthetic standards, and so the music, other than the local Baltimore stuff, which I would I love to see a lot of on the soundtrack, all the other music is very expensive to license. And even though The Wire has a very fierce and loyal following, it's not a big enough following that a major label feels like it's a slam dunk."

Despite being a fan of hip-hop, Leyh says he's still learning about Baltimore hip-hop in particular, and Baltimore in general. But his affection for the city, its musicians, and the show itself is incredibly genuine--the interview ends with a plea to get the word out about season four to ensure there can even be a season five. "This season I've been going to Baltimore a lot," Leyh says. "Every couple of weeks I'm in Baltimore for a day or two. I love it, and I've grown to feel like I know it from living in the show for four years."

"Parts of Baltimore remind me of [where I live in] Harlem--the physical layout, the rowhouses," he continues. "My block is some days too much like an episode of The Wire. Last week I saw the kids up on the corner selling weed, and the cops pulled them over. And the guy actually looked exactly like Herc, the plainclothes cop putting kids against the wall. And it's like, Damn, life imitates art imitates life." H

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