When attempting to recreate and introduce their larger than life characters, Marvel Studios’ Television division has had an exceptional record in the past two years. Besides reconnecting Daredevil with his pulpy, violent roots, and introducing viewers to a damaged yet nuanced character like Jessica Jones—the real magic has been watching the introduction of these characters in a no holds barred platform such as Netflix. With the release of Luke Cage, there is a lot riding on authenticity in this modern re-introduction of the character. Created in the 1970s, Luke (or Power Man) has evolved with the times—from jive talkin’ hero for hire to the stoic member of the Avengers. With such rich history laid before him, creator Cheo Hodari Coker has decided to make the street level superhero REALLY from the streets. Enlisting the help of composer Adrian Younge and A Tribe Called Quest alum Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Coker is looking to give Luke Cage much more than a reimagining—he’s creating his identity with the power and soul of hip-hop. We spoke to Adrian and Ali about keeping Luke Cage’s mysteries a secret, creating the score, and how they introduced an unfamiliar character through the power of music.
How did you two get involved in doing the music for Luke Cage?
Adrian Younge: Cheo [Hodari] Coker’s an old friend of Ali’s but I had never met him before. What’s funny is Ali and I were working together on our project called The Midnight Hour when Cheo asked if we would be interested in scoring Luke Cage. I remember when I first received his correspondence I just didn’t think it was true because it was just one of those opportunities that was just too perfect. Ali and I were at the point where we said okay, let’s stop The Midnight Hour project, let’s just dedicate our lives for the next nine months to make Luke Cage what it needs to be. That’s how that went.
Were you guys familiar with Luke Cage before you signed on with Cheo?
Younge: I heard of it, but I was not familiar with it. We just went in deep and just really researched it.
This is a show that is so largely different from all the other Marvel Studios TV shows. How important do you feel it is to have a representation of primarily black characters on this type of format?
Younge: It’s important to the world to see superheroes that are spread across our demographic. The easy answer is to say that it’s a part for black people to see black heroes, but to me it’s important to young Mexican kids to see a black hero. It’s important for a young black kid to see a Mexican hero, just to know that we’re all equal. That’s the thing here. Also, it’s not just Marvel using or having a black superhero on a television series, it’s having a black superhero that is not a stereotypical black fighting lead that you would see in a proverbial series of this kind. It’s pleasing to see that Marvel allows this series to be unadulterated. Marvel’s says, “Yo, let’s make Luke Cage that person” instead of trying to manipulate this characteristic or that characteristic to appease this audience or that audience.
Adrian, you scored Black Dynamite, but Ali, this is your first time scoring a whole series. Since both of you are relatively new to this format, what are some of the challenges that you found working on Luke Cage?
Younge: As independent artists, Ali and I had the freedom to do whatever we wanted musically. When it’s finished, it’s finished, right? But when you’re composing for somebody, that means you have a boss. You have to do what it takes to, at the end of the day, appease them. They gave us basically two pages of notes praising us for what we did—that propelled us to get even deeper, trying to make a new vanguard out of this score.
Ali Shaheed Muhammad: Adrian and I dedicated our entire life to the time that we were working on this. We didn’t sleep a lot. It was like boot camp. But I have to say, because Cheo really knew what he wanted and because he and one of the executives at Marvel, really trusted Adrian and I, we didn’t come up against too many challenges.
You guys got an opportunity to redefine who Luke Cage was. Back in the day, he was kind of a blaxploitation character. He had weird goggles and stuff like that. Now he’s more subdued. Were you guys trying to reflect that new attitude?
Muhammad: When Luke Cage was created, I think the black experience was way different, and the sort of lifestyle that was promoted in blaxploitation films was very narrow. In 2016, the conversation of the black experience is so broad, and it’s very raw. I mean, c’mon, we have a black president. That’s a major thing, and there are so many other significant occurrences that have come from the ‘60s and ‘70s up to now—the character reflects all of that.
Younge: We wanted to make sure he represented the people of today. But this was Cheo. He’s a mastermind. Luke Cage is seen in Jessica Jones, but he doesn’t really come into his own until the Luke Cage series. That’s when you really see who he is.
So let’s say Marvel asks you to score Avengers: Infinity War. What’s the first song you’re thinking of using for the trailer?
Younge: [Laughs.] That’s assuming that Ali and I have the authority to choose?
[Laughs.] They’re giving you full control.
Younge: You mean a song that we would create?
Or a song that you would license…
Muhammad: We wouldn’t even use a licensed song because we’re not the music supervisors and I think that’s something our music supervisor would make that decision. But if that came along, I mean, we’d make a score that could be a statement song.
I mean, Luke Cage is definitely the stepping stone for that that would get you guys there.
Muhammad: I hope so.
Younge: This has already changed our lives already.