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

Elijah C. Watson Elijah Watson serves as Okayplayer's News & Culture Editor. When…
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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?

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