Miguel Atwood-Ferguson To Compose 'Luke Cage' Score Live In LA w/ 40-Piece Orchestra
Miguel Atwood-Ferguson To Compose 'Luke Cage' Score Live In LA w/ 40-Piece Orchestra

Bulletproof Soul: Ali Shaheed Muhammad & Adrian Younge On Scoring Luke Cage

Luke Cage: Ali Shaheed Muhammad & Adrian Younge's Bulletproof Score [Interview]

Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Cheo Coker & Adrian Younge at a press event in Harlem (photo c/o Johnny Nunez / Oluwfaseye)

Tomorrow marks an important day in superhero history: the premiere of Luke Cage. As Marvel's first live action television series dedicated to a black superhero, Luke Cage (portrayed by Mike Colter) offers representation that is rarely seen in a time where he's needed most. Bulletproof (literally), cool and resilient, he's symbolic of the black American experience: a black man who undergoes so much on a day to day basis, but still finds the strength to keep pushing on.

What also makes Luke Cage different from its contemporaries (specifically fellow Marvel / Netflix shows Daredevil and Jessica Jones) is the use of music. As we wrote before Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge signed on as the show's composers, and we've gotten samples of their score through preview clips released up until the series' big debut.

So, ahead of Luke Cage's drop, we spoke with Muhammad and Younge about scoring the 13 episode show, its notable theme song, their favorite scenes to score and who they think Luke Cage's favorite Wu-Tang Clan member is.

OKP: How was it contributing to such a momentous project not only within the Marvel Cinematic Universe but superhero TV series and movies in general?

Ali Shaheed Muhammad: There's a lot to it. Knowing the importance of a character like Luke Cage and what he means to people in terms of a black superhero, especially during this time period where African Americans are struggling to a degree, it's good to have a hero. Adrian and I, we wanted to really make the music stand out to wholly support the dynamic aspect of Luke Cage and everybody else. We wanted to make a huge statement with the music and the score, and really wanted it to stand out as something that no one has ever heard for television. And we're fortunate to have the support of [showrunner] Cheo Hodari Coker, who was very clear in the types of sounds that he wanted. He would mention certain hip-hop songs or jazz songs or soul songs, and we understood the feeling that he described. Then we took that and interpreted that in our own way based on how the story was going, and how it was going to unfold. That's how it all came together.

Adrian Younge: So basically, Luke Cage is the first black series that Marvel has put together, and it's been an honor for Ali and I to be a part of this adventure. What we thought to do with the music was to capture the vibe and feeling Cheo wanted Luke Cage to feel like to the audience. On every episode we'd have something called a "spotting session," where we're sitting with Cheo and the music supervisor to determine how certain moments should feel. So for example, we needed more energy on a certain scene, or we needed a scene to feel darker or more sad, we would unilaterally decide what it should be. Then Cheo would also give us references like "Yo, we want this to be like Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man" or Wu-Tang Clan's 'The 4th Chamber.'" And we'd say "Ok, let's go."

They let us run wild on this thing, and let us act as if we were artists and not hired employees. This is something that's 13 episodes and we just went in and tried to make 13 albums really quickly. So the music is something that serves as the nucleus of hip-hop culture. Hip-hop came from the sampling of breaks and all that stuff, and we created the score from the perspective of vinyl culture which is the source material for hip-hop. So, all the kind of music that hip-hop was sampling was the kind of music we created, in addition to creating hip-hop stuff for the series. It's one of the best experiences I've ever had composing.

OKP: The live performances that take place with Faith Evans, Jidenna and Raphael Saadiq. How did that concept develop? Was that an idea Cheo already had within the script, or was that something that developed between the three of you?

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.Luke Cage photo provided by Myles Aronowitz for Netflix.

ASM: Most of the live performances were something that Cheo already had in mind. Raphael in particular was on his wish list, and fortunately Raphael and I are brothers and I record in his studio. So Adrian and I were happy that we could give the big brother a call, and help Cheo with his wish list on that part. The only other thing we had to do in regards to the live performances, was that we recreated the music for Faith's performance.

OKP: What was the inspiration behind the Luke Cage theme song?

ASM: The actual theme song went through a couple of different renditions. Everything that we did we wanted to make a statement, so we looked to our heroes: Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye and Ennio Morricone. Just really make something that spoke to the character and the movement of the artwork. Luke Cage being a product of the blaxploitation period, there's certain elements in blaxploitation music that you want to make sure are there. So we kind of dipped into that paint a little bit.

AY: Alongside myself and Ali, we had a 30-piece orchestra that was led by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. We would record the music to analog tape, and we would also record the orchestra on two inch tape. This used to be something done on the greatest films, but people don't do it anymore. So Marvel and Netflix provided the budget for us to really get in, and try to make this the best score that Marvel has had. A lot of times when people score they use the compositional perspective of just having a keyboard, and doing drone sounds and bass notes and keyboard strings and all that stuff. And we really tried to be a David Axelrod, or a Quincy Jones or a Morricone. And going in that hard and really caring about it that much, puts us in a place where we're in line with the rest of the production, because everybody spent so much time paying attention to detail. The acting was great, the storyline was great — we didn't want to fall short on any of these moments. We wanted to enhance these moments and challenge our team. We just went hard.

OKP: How would you compare each other's scoring techniques?

AY: It's funny because I have a lot of respect for Ali. Besides being very close friends, before we even became friends I always looked up to him as an artist. He always wanted to score and he knew that he could do it. But when we were working together I would have to constantly remind him at the beginning how much he's inspired me, and how much of a luminary he is as far as music creation, composition and production. What was different between us is that I have done this before quite a few times, and he hadn't done this before. So he would be extra cautious on things and I would tell him "Yo dude, you are a master of what you do. I know this is different for you but you got this." And I would sit there in the studio with him and he'd say, "Well let me know what you think of this," and he would play something and it would blow my mind. There were some of those moments where I'm looking at him like "Yo dude, are you kidding me right now?" He's a perfectionist [laughs]. But that was the only real difference between our abilities on this thing. His talents far surpassed where he thought he was at the current time, and he proved it to himself over the course of the 13 episodes.

OKP: There have been previews in which Cottonmouth [Mahershala Ali] can be seen playing a Rhodes piano. Can he actually play?

ASM: I think he can play a little bit but he also had a piano coach. Myself and Adrian wrote all of those parts. I give it up to Mahershala, because there were a few of those that we did where he didn't have a lot of time to learn them. I don't remember which episode but we turned a piece in some time past midnight, maybe even 2 a.m. West Coast time, so he had to get it and learn it in order to shoot the scene. That was fun because it added another musical dynamic that we could contribute to.

OKP: What non-spoiler episode or scene would you say was your favorite to score?

ASM: Well the first thing that popped into my mind was episode two. This is my first time scoring anything. I left New York in November 2014 to move to Los Angeles. I drove across the country with my Rhodes piano, my bass guitar, a couple of electric guitars, my hard drive and one bag of clothes, with the prayer that I would get to score something, because that was one of the things I wanted to do with my move. Episode two was the first thing that Marvel had given us, and there's something that happens in that particular episode that set the pace for everything after that. That was the foundation. From there we went to episode one and then did the remaining episodes in order.

AY: My favorite is episode two. There's a particular scene in there that convinced Marvel and Netflix to award us an orchestra, because they believed in us but we had to really go in and try to let them know that we could create something very unique for this show. And the song that Ali and I created was the one that convinced them that we deserved an orchestra, because when we were hired on this job we weren't guaranteed an orchestra. We said we could do this on our own but it'd be great if we had an orchestra. That song gave us the orchestra.

OKP: So, one of the first preview clips for Luke Cage that came out showed him beating up a bunch of dudes while listening to Wu-Tang Clan. Who do you think his favorite Wu-Tang member is?

ASM: If I were to guess, I would say RZA.

Netflix's Luke Cage series, starring Mike Colter, Simone Missick, Alfre Woodard and Mahershala Ali, will be available to binge-watchers on September 30th.