With Luke Cage moments away from being on Netflix, Jazmine Joyner spoke with Cheo Hodari Coker about how hip-hop influenced the show.
Luke Cage is one of my favorite Netflix Marvel shows, and this month we will be getting a new season to catch up with the unbreakable hero of Harlem, the ever-vigilant Claire, and see what happened with Misty Knight’s missing arm. Not only do we get to find out what our favorites have been up too, but we get to meet Luke Cage‘s new foe, Bushmaster. One of the things that stands out for me in the second season of this show is the music, the vibe, and the overall feeling that they all provoke.
Every episode’s title is the name of a classic hip-hop track from Pete Rock & CL Smooth.
These choices are entirely intentional; I talked to Cheo Hodari Coker the creator, showrunner, and writer for Luke Cage about how hip-hop music influenced the show. And what it was like to work with the god MC Rakim.
Coker didn’t take the conventional route when putting this show together. The music is what influences each season, being a massive hip-hop head and former hip-hop journalist, Coker makes it a point to make sure the score is just as important as the story it is punctuating. Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge are his left and right hands when it comes to creating the musical score that is Luke Cage. Coker says, “I am lucky enough that I have music supervisors for season two that can work out all the legalities and the crises for getting things done.”
He then goes on to his team of music supervisors and composers that helped him create the vision for Luke Cage, saying, “People like Michael Brake—the music editor—can help me master sensibilities in the editing room, and of course Adrian and Ali scoring. We just really tried to bring our A-game to the music as much as my writing staff collectively do our best in terms of writing and producing scripts.”
Last season Luke Cage had many celebrity guests gracing the stage at Harlem Paradise. From Jidenna to Raphael Saadiq and even Method Man. The Harlem Paradise stage is a cool showcase of amazing black musicians that grown to be a staple for the show.
I asked Coker if there were any artists he wanted to see grace Cottonmouth’s old stage.
“For me I knew that I wanted Rakim. I wrote Rakim, and then we got him. It’s the combination of my relationships from hip-hop journalism in addition to people that we’re able to book. So, last year, Raphael Saadiq, Method Man, Faith [Evans], those were all acts that came out of my personal rolodex. This season it was KRS-One, it was Rakim, it was Christone KingFish, you know those are the ones that were just personal preference.”
A lot of these musician’s Cheo has been friends with for years. Their relationships dating back to before his career in television, so it was natural for him to bring those friendships and his love of the music into the making of Luke Cage.
When I heard Rakim would be not only appearing in season two but creating an original song for the show, I was excited. Bringing in one of New York’s finest MC’s for this new season sets the tone that Coker has been striving for with the Luke Cage series. “Rakim was always somebody that like, I mean, he is the most elusive. He’s basically the Terrance Malik of Hip-Hop, you know? [He’s] the J. D. Salinger of Hip-Hop, so the fact that we were not only able to get him. But also get him to perform a song specifically for the show about Luke Cage, that was just amazing.”
I asked Coker what it was like working with the mysterious rapper Rakim, and how he convinced him to work on the Netflix show. “First we reached out to his manager, talking to Matt, then Matt put me on with Rakim, which is also, it’s like shit, I am talking to Rakim. And he’s like, ‘Yo, love the show, no doubt.’ And he wanted to do it, and after that, it was just chasing him down to drop the vocals.”
Coker told me “Rakim works on Rakim time.” He explained that the whole experience was very hip-hop, meaning nothing was fixed. Which made all the producers and Netflix people nervous, but when they needed those vocals Coker says, “His creative energy matched mine from the standpoint of everybody was freaking out when the script wasn’t finished yet. But it was in my head, and I got it out, and of course, when it landed it landed right on time, and it worked out perfectly. Rakim is the same way. He kind of gave me the same white-knuckle experience I gave everybody else. When all else fails, and people were like ‘you’re crazy,’ people were saying ‘you shouldn’t be waiting,’ or ‘you can’t do this,’ the song comes in. After the song came in, he showed up on time, early to perform it when we filmed it. And everyone freaked out and was so happy. So you know you just have to have the faith.”
Hip-hop is the lifeblood of this Netflix series. Listening to Coker describe how the two mediums intertwine you can tell his love for using music to understand not only Luke’s story but also the story of Harlem and even the new character—Bushmaster aka John McIver’s story—whose roots in the show are firmly planted in Jamaica. “In the comics, he comes from a fictional Caribbean island. When you talk about the Caribbean when it comes to music, to me, that’s Jamaica. I knew that if season one is about the Wu-Tangification of the Marvel Universe then season two is about the roots of hip-hop. Which are firmly entrenched in blues, funk, jazz and, of course, reggae.”
Coker talks about how DJ Kool Herc, who is Jamaican-American, helped to originate hip-hop in the early 1970s, and was his inspiration when it came to Bushmaster. “From him [Kool Herc] growing up in Kingston and then moving to the South Bronx, he basically brought the Jamaican concept of a sound system […] He was able to use, American funk and R&B records, but the whole template was Jamaican. So there has always been a very heavy Jamaican root in hip-hop. So that was the thing. It was the opportunity from a story standpoint to keep music as first with me for everything [and] to tell a Jamaican story. To talk about cultural pride and power of the islands in addition to telling a superhero story and a supervillain story.”
When Coker approached this season, he curated the music first, building an album that he then could create concept visuals to help interpret the feeling behind the songs. “For me, if the self-titled Beyoncé album is season one of Luke Cage, season two of is Lemonade. We’re using the same concept for the show. It’s more of a concept album than it is a show. It’s basically a bullet-proof version of Lemonade.”
Cheo Hodari Coker’s love for music and great storytelling is on full view in season two, but he wanted to make clear that all of this is a team effort. His work with Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge on the scoring and musical selections are what makes Luke Cage stand out from all of the other Netflix Marvel shows. Netflix’s Luke Cage premieres June 22 exclusively on the streaming app, and if you are a music lover like myself I suggest you tune in to watch Coker’s live-action love letter to hip-hop.
Jazmine Joyner is a Southern California based writer, whose work has appeared in /Film, Women Write About Comics, Wear Your Voice Magazine, and Ms En Scene. You can follow her great cinematic adventure on Twitter @Jazmine_Joyner.