The Musicians Behind Luke Cage on Creating a ‘Timeless’ Sound and the Lack of Opportunities for Black Composers

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Mahershala Ali as Cottonmouth in Luke Cage. Photo: Myles Aronowitz/Netflix

When Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad first signed on to score Netflix’s Luke Cage, they didn’t consider how the show would consume their day-to-day lives. The two are legendary — Muhammad was a founding member of A Tribe Called Quest, and the prolific Younge has an output that defies categorization.

They quickly realized all future plans needed to be shelved. It wasn’t solely that the score was overly consuming — though Younge concedes, “We had to give up our lives as artists to dedicate ourselves wholly to this score” — but more that Younge and Muhammad realized they had a chance to create a score that could define the TV series.

“We raised the bar and created something that is timeless,” professes Muhammad. Over coffee at the Cut restaurant in the recently opened Four Seasons Downtown in New York City, Vulture spoke with the two musicians about creating the score, the lack of opportunities for black composers, and setting a tone that bridges a many musical genres.

You both had worked together before Luke Cage, right?
Ali Shaheed Muhammad: Since about 2013, when he was working on the Souls of Mischief record, and he asked me to be a part of it. That formed our friendship and production partnership, but we had never spoken about scoring together, so when [showrunner] Cheo [Hodari Coker] reached out to us individually, it was easy to fall into.

For something like this, are you both in the same room working together? Are you emailing? And then how do you get the orchestra involved?
Adrian Younge: There are 13 episodes, and on each of the episodes, we have a spotting session, where we meet with the directors and the music supervisors, and we all watch the episode. Then we write notes and we leave. Ali takes these amount of cues, I take these amount of cues, we do a certain amount of cues together, and when we are done, we submit it for approval to everybody, and assuming there are no changes — there are never much changes at all — we give it Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, who is our conductor-orchestrator, and he orchestrates it for a 30-piece orchestra that we record in Raphael Saadiq’s studio. Then we record that and mix it.

There is a sense that you both realized this score would be studied by future musicians, and the idea that you had to go above and beyond expectations. Am I right in that? And did that sense come while scoring or after the fact?
AY: It was in the present. As freelance artists, you do what the hell you want to. When you are a composer for a multi-billion-dollar company like Marvel, you are an employee and you have responsibilities. When we accepted these jobs, I just thought it’d be a couple of months. We realized this is a big deal for many reasons, at that point.

One reason, we enjoyed it, and we wanted to do a good job for Cheo, who has our back. Secondly, it is something that is great for our careers. As composers, it brings us to another side where cats have done hip-hop, R&B, and now we’re getting into a big television series with a film perspective on composition, not just a regular television.

And lastly, we needed to execute because it was something that was bigger than us. We are two black composers, and black composers don’t really get the opportunities to support things of this magnitude. It is a cyclical process. If you look back to Duke Ellington, to Quincy Jones, to Isaac Hayes, these opportunities are seldom, and when black composers have been awarded these opportunities, it is something where you must make a statement. The statement we sought to make is that people of our culture should aspire to do more than just sampling or producing for someone else. Don’t just stop there. You can score film, you can have an orchestra, you can go as far as you want to.

When I say our culture, I am talking about urban culture. And that includes people that are in hip-hop. You don’t see hip-hop producers composing. We can count on one hand how many we know. It is unfortunate. But it is something that ties into the fact that you don’t see many black composers having these opportunities. We knew we wanted to set a bar, and we wanted to make something pivotal, unique, and novel for people to watch and feel.

The second episode is where the viewer really feels the impact of the score. It starts and ends the episode. Was that a pivotal episode for the both of you?
ASM: The funny thing about that is that the second episode was the first episode we scored. That was the one where we knew — everything has to go into this moment.

AY: And when we did that episode, it helped convince Marvel and Netflix that these guys should have an extra budget now to have an orchestra. They love what we were doing so much. Dawn Soler at ABC pushed hard for us to get an orchestra. That song that starts and ends episode two is the song where they were like, “This is it. This is the sound of the show.” They always believed in us, but what we said to them is you don’t have to have any needle drops here, you don’t have to license as much music, let us create more score. Let us create more source material for you guys so that the music all comes together to create a world of Luke Cage. Instead of songs just being pulled from everywhere. That helped us have this orchestra for 13 episodes, which is very expensive.

Did you consciously create different tones for each character?
AY: Absolutely. For Diamondback, we have a voice for him, it is opera singing — Brooke deRosa, whom I have worked with for years. For Luke Cage, we use Loren Oden. Whenever Luke Cage is having one of those dramatic or emotional moments, his superhero-type tone is Loren’s voice, kind of like his inner voice. And Cottonmouth, he is a pianist, and he plays the Fender Rhodes. We pretty much exclusively use Fender Rhodes keyboards for him. That is who he is.

Which of the characters was the most difficult to figure the tone for?
ASM: They all seemed to be seamless, but Shades came early on. He made such a large entrance in episode two, when he comes in the kitchen, and we played to that, and Marvel really liked it, but they wanted us to preserve what was structured for him for way later.

Cheo has mentioned that when he described what tone he wanted, he would use a specific song as an example. Did that help? Is that how you like to work?
ASM: It is very helpful — then you aren’t chasing the sound. It’s nice to have someone say they want Saturn and mean they want Saturn, and not Pluto. The music was a character of itself, and we all understand the same sort of source material that hip-hop is built on. We all speak the same language musically, and so he gave us a very clear, distinctive road map to work on.

Was there one episode that stood out as being more difficult to score than the others?
AY: Yes, episode four. You were going back in time, so we had to figure out what going back in time felt like. Everything else for those 13 episodes were in a certain time, so it was difficult to conceptualize. We are in a prison, and our job is to enhance the visual, and enhance the drama and emotions. How does it feel to be inside a prison? Do you go old slave-blues-type route to explain the feeling of being a black incarcerated person? Do you go Bernard Herrmann–Alfred Hitchcock-type scary vibe? Did you just keep it straight hip-hop, '90s stuff? There are so many courses that you can take, and you have to sit there and pick the right one because you want this to tie into the rest of the series. There was some intense thinking, but it wasn’t necessarily difficult to execute once we figured it out.

When we first saw the episode, the temp music was all over the place, and it didn’t feel cohesive. And after we scored it, it was a totally different episode. Do you remember that? It felt like it was supposed to feel, from my perspective.

ASM: I agree with that, but we were very vocally expressive to Cheo after we saw episode seven. By that point, you, the viewer, is all the way in, and your relationship with the characters is excellent.

AY: What Ali means is we are scoring every episode, but we are not seeing the later episodes. If there is something pivotal that happens, we’re like, What the fuck. Then we have to reprogram how we score from there. Not like you are messing up the show, but you are throwing us a curveball here, so we have to figure out how to hit it.

A Luke Cage concert with Miguel’s orchestra was recently announced for October 6 at the Ace Theater in Los Angeles. Was that always the plan?
AY: Before we even recorded one guitar, we were talking to Dawn Soler, Cheo Coker, and executives like Karim Zreik at Marvel about how when this is done, we want to perform this live. Everyone thought it was cool and a great idea, but I don’t think that people really understood how serious we were at the beginning. They hadn’t heard what we could do yet. And then after we finished, everybody understood.

You have both been involved with projects that, on their own, are timeless, so working together, was it easy to have these conversations of how you wanted to make this sound modern and timeless at the same time?
ASM: It is funny because I do not work with other people. Ali, No I.D., and one or two more people I can work with. The way they think matches how I think. They make me better, and I make them better. With Ali, I feel like I am working with myself, and I don’t have to question myself.

It wasn’t necessary, then, when making this to do much research on the different sounds we were trying to create. As DJs, we have sampled so many records years and years ago, and we have so much music in our head anyway, so we are ready to regurgitate it into the score.

AY: We have the same ideas, not just only in music but outside of it. Our thinking is linear, from the sense we both come from DJing and sampling, and I’ve felt there was a limitation in the music — as creative as you can be with sampling — but still it is somewhat else’s idea you are manipulating. Which caused me to learn how to play instruments, which is the same thing with him. It is the best of both worlds. You have the fundamental structure of sampling, or just capturing the break on turntables and bringing it back. But you can compose. You can really layer or build on top of it. Or not even start there — have your own understanding of how the textures of the break. What is it about the break that you love? That snare? The ring of metal from the high hat?

AY: Put it this way: The difference between us and other composers — we both started our musical careers sampling. When you are sampling, you are trying to find the most obscure records from around the world to find something that nobody else has even thought of sampling. We have listened to so many records. For example, you want to find the craziest violin sample. You might go to some Russian orchestra record, and find that little part. We have listened to so many records from around the world that we have a plethora of music in the back of our head.

In addition to that, we have DJ’d for years. And as a DJ, your job is play music for a crowd to enjoy. So we have a vantage point that a lot of people don’t have. With us, having this storage of all of these various sounds, and having this vantage point of pleasing people, when we approach making new music, we create new samples in our head, basically.

Anything that makes us feel a certain way, we can apply a whole bunch of melody and chord changes to it. We can create something new. You bring all of that to the table, and then have it orchestrated by a full orchestra, it is a whole different perspective of creating music. And the nucleus of that is the hip-hop in us. Hip-hop is the amalgamation of all of these records that could have been forgotten about, or never became what they were supposed to become, but with hip-hop sampling it gave you a new look into what the record was supposed to be, and in many times, made that original record better than it was on its own.

ASM: It is important to enjoy where we are right now, and feel great about the work we have done. Marvel and Netflix were supportive of our process, and we hope that we have encouraged them to come to the same pool that we’ve come from. We have raised the bar and created something that is timeless.

This interview has been edited and condensed.