Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix show, Master of None, debuted last week to critical acclaim, and though it’s ripe with commentary on dating and race, many binge-watchers were smitten with something else: the music.
Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang tapped Zach Cowie, primarily a DJ and freelance record producer who says he’s “watched The Wire, and that’s it,” to be the show’s music supervisor, and the show blends the modern tastes of Ansari’s character, Dev, with an astounding array of vintage tunes to illustrate his cultural heritage.
“What I love about supervision is how right the right idea is versus how wrong everything else is, once you see it,” Cowie says. “You know in a f–king second if it moves or not.”
Cowie gives Ansari plenty of credit for Master of None‘s soundtrack, saying the two went “song for song” on the show. “He was really involved and we talked every day for months,” Cowie says. But EW caught up with Cowie to get the scoop on how to they scored the show’s most important moments. Below, Cowie talks abandoning genre barriers, discovering new music, and the coolest professional conversation he’s ever had.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: One thing that struck me, even a few episodes in, is kind of the genre diversity in the show’s music. It goes from from current indie-folk stuff to country to more vintage international acts like William Onyeabor and Max Romeo. Was creating such a varied soundtrack always a goal from the beginning?
ZACH COWIE: That whole thing may have come from my philosophy about how there are no genres. I’m a lover of music and I think the only two types of music there are are good and bad. If you are a lover of music you really limit the experience by putting a genre tag on everything, because the more you dig, the more you find out that everything informs everything. I’d like to think that we just used good music that served whatever scene we were working on. Something that was important with us with this entire show was to make something that represents right now but will also look alright in a couple years. Staying away from the genre stuff gives you another card to play if you’re going for something that’s sort of timeless.
Could you tell me a little bit about all the country music in the Nashville episode?
I was like, “Ah, hell yeah!” [when I got the script] because I love country music. I’ve actually produced a couple compilations of country music called Country Funk for a label called Light in the Attic. It was a happy coincidence that that script showed up and I was like, “Oh, I know what to do with this one.” In the weirdest way, I hope those songs can sit next to the other ones in this way that it all still works.
In the beginning of that episode, Dev is in a bar with his friends and Madvillain’s “Accordion” is playing in the background — and it totally coexists with the country music. What’s it like burying these cool songs in the background? Is that painful for you to do when you really love those songs?
No. Hip-hop is hugely influential to me and Aziz. I have a J Dilla tattoo on my wrist. I think the production styles of Dilla and Madlib were really big for me in erasing genre. Dilla is the best hip-hop producer of all time because he looked at the entire record store when he was making beats. He didn’t just go to soul and jazz, you know? Burying those songs, that’s our way to nod at the stuff that we really love that doesn’t necessarily have to support the scene. I’m a DJ too, so I always just kind of imagine “If I was DJing at that place, what would I be playing?” I was so happy to have the opportunity to hide stuff so much stuff in this show, because there’s a lot of newer dance producers that I love. I got to stick a Jack J song in the show which made me feel happy. All those little things that are hidden are nods of respect.
I assume that because of the “Jack of all trades” figure of speech, the show would have been called “Master of None” even if you hadn’t gotten Beach House’s song of the same name. Can you walk me through getting permission to use that song?
I actually don’t know if that’s the chicken or the egg in that scenario. It was something that Aziz was saying right out of the gate, that he wanted to call this show Master of None. Using that Beach House song was totally his idea.
One of my favorite moments is the opening credits in episode 4, with Ananda Shankar’s sitar-based cover of “Jumping Jack Flash.” It’s so fun and also captures many of the themes about race and culture that are in the show and in that episode. Can you tell me about choosing that song?
I love Indian music. I actually went to India after we finished the show to do more research. I love Indian film scores and traditional Indian music. It was another thing, just like Nashville, where I was just like “Hell yeah, I know what to do here!” All [of Ananda’s] records are so sweet.
Three episodes later — for the episode that focuses on feminism — you use another fascinating cover, The Slits’ version of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” Could you tell me about choosing that song? And why use covers?
Covers are a great gateway. They’re very inviting for people to get into another world. The reason we picked The Slits and the X-Ray Spex is it’s an episode about feminism. Which was amazing because we got to go down the most gigantic list that Aziz and I made [of similar artists]. I never thought I’d have a professional conversation about something so cool. We love that music. It just fit.
How did the episode with Father John Misty come together? I can’t imagine another indie-rock artist filling that role.
He’s a f–king character, for sure. It did fit well. He was in town and we all kind of know him. I used to work at Subpop, I even toured with Fleet Foxes [as a DJ] when [Father John Misty’s Josh Tillman] was in the band.
The juxtaposition of the Halloween theme and “Don’t Worry Be Happy” in the beginning of episode 7 goes beyond being a cool thing for music nerds to enjoy and adds a valuable dimension to that scene. How did you determine that you wanted to switch between those songs?
This is so good and it makes me want to take credit for it — but that was Aziz’s idea. It was totally his idea. I can take credit for figuring out how to license the Halloween stuff, though. It’s so good. I should just take credit for it.
I know Toto was skeptical that you weren’t just using “Africa” ironically. Master of None strikes me as so earnest, but with as much irony as we have in TV these days, particularly in comedies, did you run into that with other songs? Were any other artists suspicious?
No. It didn’t really come up. People just f–king love Aziz, so that’s usually all it took to get some of these songs in the show. This week is nuts though, because we did this show with no pitches, which is backwards for a lot of music supervision. This is the week where everyone on earth is sending me their weird songs.
Do you have a favorite musical moment in season 1?
The title cards were so fun to play with. They’re a supervisor’s dream come true, because you get to do like 10 opening credits, basically. Beyond doing all the title cards… I enjoy this job because it’s a voice. It’s a way to let a lot of people know about stuff that they might not know about, in a very inviting way. There’s so much next level s–t out there that just needs a little push. We want to inspire everybody to go find your favorite s–t.
Do you have any songs you were itching to include that you couldn’t fit in? Anything you might want to include in season 2?
I hope we get season 2! There are hundreds and hundreds of things that we went through before we got to where we got. I don’t have a folder of s–t we didn’t use. If we get season 2, I’m going to look at the new scenes and see what we think of. You’ve got to find the perfect match, and there are like, infinity songs in the world.