Cheo Hodari Coker's had an ill journey. For many hip-hop heads, you'll remember him as one of the best journalists in music, putting in work for the L.A. Times as well as penning Vibe's cover story on The Notorious B.I.G.'s death. That led to an impressive biography on Biggie, which then turned into writing credits on the Biggie biopic, 2009's Notorious. He's since spent time on the television circuit, working as a producer on NCIS: Los Angeles, Ray Donovan, and Southland. Now, as the showrunner for Luke Cage, Marvel's next Netflix series about a bulletproof black man who is down to rid Harlem of it's crime element, it feels like Coker's taken all of his past work and poured it into the perfect project.
The show, which Coker's been quoted as saying is the beginning of the "Wu-Tang-ification" of the Marvel Universe, is the most hip-hop thing we've seen from a comic book superhero yet. It goes deeper than having A Tribe Called Quest's Ali Shaheed Muhammad working as a music supervisor (alongside Adrian Younge), naming each episode after Gang Starr songs, or having your debut trailer sountracked by vintage Ol' Dirty Bastard.
During a quick chat as he navigated through a hectic press run, Coker broke down wanting to be a "hip-hop showrunner" and what that meant in terms of Luke Cage, his love of comic books, and how he feels about Luke Cage being called the "Black Lives Matter" show.
Were you a big fan of Luke Cage growing up?
I was a huge fan of comics, not necessarily Luke Cage. I was more of an X-Men head. I was always more Chris Claremont, Frank Miller, John Byrne. Although, interestingly enough, Byrne and Claremont did a run on Luke Cage. I always respected Luke Cage and thought that he was interesting and I really liked what Brian Michael Bendis did in his update of the character in Alias, the comic. So that had an influence in terms of what a live action adaptation of Luke Cage could be.
You've brought up the "Wu-Tang-ification" of the Marvel universe before, but I didn't realize the show was going to be this hip-hop. Was that the intention from the jump?
Here's the thing: when you say hip-hop attitude, I think people all of a sudden start bobbing their shoulders and they have one assumption what that is. I take a broader view. For example, I consider Quentin Tarantino a rock 'n' roll filmmaker. Martin Scorsese, his movies are in particular driven by his music experience—there's a certain pulse with popular music that pushes his narrative forward. I wanted to be a hip-hop showrunner from the standpoint of having every single aspect of hip-hop influence a running undercurrent in terms of how we approach story and the feel of the series.
What was the motivation behind titling each episode after a Gang Starr track? Was there any particular mindset you had with the particular songs that you chose for each episode?
It's kind of stealing an old trick from hip-hop journalism, which is that when we would do stories on whatever group, for a cover line, you would just take the name of a popular song if it fit the theme of whatever story. When I was just trying to figure out how to fool myself into structuring the season, I basically just started looking through song titles and combined those tricks and the thing that I noticed is that Gang Starr songs, their titles resonate with meaning. Not the song themselves, but the titles, so if you arrange them, you can start extrapolating a story. [For example] in episode two, the "Code of the Streets" are the breaking of those codes that lead to tragic circumstances and Luke deciding that he has to step up. In episode three, "Who's Gonna Take The Weight?," the weight is Luke fully taking all the responsibility of being a hero and what goes on inside of Crispus Attucks (the building where Luke has that huge battle with Cottonmouth's thugs).
I'm glad you mentioned episode two, because did it feature an amazing action scene, but there was also that conversation Luke had about not wanting to use the N-word. It made me think about what's been going on in the world regarding the Black Lives Matter movement, and how young black kids might need a hero like Luke Cage. How important do you feel it is to have a hero like Luke in America in 2016 right now?
Whether it's Zora Neale Hurston, whether it's Richard Wright, whether it's James Baldwin, in terms of literature, or even in terms of just the continuum of our music, is always trying to prove our value and the fact that our lives are meant to be something and matter. That's kind of what it's always been about—I mean, even a touchdown celebration... people call it something, but anybody black watching a touchdown celebration knows that it's a brother from the neighborhood saying, "I made it." And that's really what it is, it's a celebration of joy, it's not about denigrating the other team as much as it is, I made it out the neighborhood, you can see, here's the proof. Even that story is "Black Lives Matter."
It was not as much about having a message as it was about having a character in a hoodie saying that since "thug" is the new N-word, somebody dressed like a "thug" can also be a hero. That, to me, was an important lesson. I've been rocking hoodies since my sophomore year at Stanford, but I know walking down the street in a hoodie—6'2, 245 [pounds]—people aren't necessarily gonna see Stanford or Hotchkiss. They're gonna see something else that they think they see. And so you could be anybody. That's the thing. You can even be a hero.
It's been interesting to see your trek going from journalism to doing more TV and film, but working with Marvel seems like it's a different animal entirely.
This is by far the most fun I've ever had on a job. The only thing that's different about doing a superhero show is that you can have your hero do things that a normal cop in a procedural can't do. But the structure of the storytelling is universal. The main thing that I wanted to do with this show is make a sophisticated hip-hop show that could prove that hip-hop is just as educated as anything else out there.
Early on there was a rumor that Iron Fist shows up at some point in Luke Cage season 1, can you confirm what we'll see from Iron Fist?
[Laughs.] That's my answer.
I had to shoot my shot. With everything leading up to The Defenders, where Luke, Jessica Jones, Daredevil and Iron Fist are all going to be in one group, how does everything work between the showrunners?
I can't give any insight into The Defenders or its process, the only thing I can say is that the Marvel showrunners are basically a fraternity and a sorority—we're friends, and we talk. My room was open to Marco [Ramirez] and Doug [Petrie] and vice versa, just to hang out, just to talk story. We're there for each other. That's the best way to put it.
Going back to Luke Cage, are there any particular episodes or scenes that you can't wait for people to check out?
Episode three, where Luke goes into Crispus Attucks. I think episode two is very poignant, and I think it galvanizes Mike Colter as Luke Cage [and] shows a sensitivity in addition to his brawn. I think episode seven, without revealing anything, has an interesting choice that we make and I can't wait to see how people react to that. Twitter is gonna explode.
Finally, are there any plans for season 2?
If you've heard anything, please tell me.