Scoring Outside the Cage

By Etan Rosenbloom, Director & Deputy Editor, Marketing & Communications  •  September 30, 2016

Luke Cage doesn’t fit the mold of your average onscreen superhero. He’s African-American. He prefers jeans and hoodies to spandex. And when we first meet him, he's reluctant to use his superhuman strength and invulnerable skin to fight crime.

When Cheo Coker decided to bring Marvel’s Luke Cage to the small screen, he knew he needed a score that matched the uniqueness of his main character, and the Harlem neighborhood he lived in. And sweet Christmas, did he knock that one out of the park. Coker brought in ASCAP members Ali Shaheed Muhammad (DJ/producer of ASCAP Golden Note Award winners A Tribe Called Quest) and Adrian Younge, known for the uncategorizable funk-jazz-soul-spaghetti-western soundtracks he crafts for film and with collaborators Ghostface Killah, the Delfonics’ William Hart and more. Their score blends into all the action, drama and on-screen musical performances for a sonic backdrop like no other show on TV. 

A few days before the September 30th release of Marvel’s Luke Cage: Season 1 on Netflix, and a week before Luke Cage: The Live Score sets fire to LA’s Theatre at the Ace Hotel, we caught up with Muhammad and Younge to ask about their journey into Luke Cage’s musical world.

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Your music for Luke Cage is definitely not a conventional “string section with some electronic treatments” type of score. Did you know from the beginning how you wanted it to sound? 

Adrian Younge: Yeah. We wanted it to be something that was reminiscent of Ennio Morricone, David Axelrod, but also I wanted people to feel Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield. And Wu-Tang and A Tribe Called Quest. It’s an amalgamation of all these musical styles, utilized to accentuate the nucleus of Luke Cage. Luke Cage is somebody that’s up with hip-hop culture...hip-hop samples, and that’s who Luke Cage is. 

Is that something that you talked with the showrunner Cheo Coker about, or did you have to wait ‘til you saw the footage before you came on with this sonic palette? 

AY: It’s not something I had to suggest to him. It’s something that he called on us to do. He understands my music, he understands Ali’s music, and he knows that that is the foundation of the stuff we do. It was not even really a discussion. We did this score, and we had a 40-piece orchestra in addition to our own rhythm section, conducted and orchestrated by [ASCAP member] Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. So we were allowed to go as far as we wanted to. 

Ali, this was the first time you’ve had a major TV composing credit. The Luke Cage team must have brought you in for a reason. What part of your experience as a music creator were you most able to contribute to this project?

Ali Shaheed Muhammad: I can say the foundation of what led me to being a musician, and that is to look for what I found to be the best section of a song. The foundation of hip-hop is the breakbeat section of a song. That’s been my life’s relationship with music. I’ve always looked for that. So knowing that Cheo wanted to keep the Luke Cage series to have a hip-hop feel - and hip-hop not necessarily being “gimme that four-bar loop break section,” but really going to the source of what has inspired some of the classic songs that I’m attached to, and some of the other great hip-hop songs. I was able to bring my DJ-digging-in-the-crates mentality and use that to build off of. But again, being held as an obstacle: “By the way, we want the sample sound, but you can’t sample.” It was like, I don’t need to sample, because I understand you want something that may sound like a sample, but then there’s movement within the music on top of that.

How was your role here different from what you’ve done with A Tribe Called Quest or Lucy Pearl?

ASH: Normally, as a songwriter, the process of approaching the composition of a song comes from some sort of internal inspiration, some sort of direct internal experience. Or even just hearing sounds, or chords or a melody, if that inspires you to put a song together. For composing for film or television, the inspiration has already been established. You then have to connect with the idea, the feeling that’s already been established, and try to write something that will move that emotion, build off that emotion, or move the scene. It still takes a bit of an internal relationship with the experience, but it’s totally different. And in composing for people, it’s kind of like you have a boss. You have to try to create something that expresses that idea from a director, or a writer, a producer. Therein lies the difference. 

What’s the breakdown between organic instrumentation you used vs. samples or electronics? 

AY: There are no samples in this score. I’m playing a plethora of instruments, Ali’s playing a plethora of instruments, and we also have a 40-piece orchestra. So everything is live. There’s some hip-hop stuff where Ali’s using a drum machine, just for the hip-hop cues, but the main thing here is doing something that is unconventional for modern times. Taking our iconoclastic perspectives, and looking back to when scores for television, film, were really, really great. We wanted to do something that was comparable to what they did back in the day.

How did the workload break down between the two of you? 

AY: Basically, we had a spotting session - where you sit with the creator and look at the episode, and you decide how much music is gonna be there, how many cues, and Ali and I would leave, and we would apportion the cues. We’d say “I’ll do these five, you do these five, and let’s do these five together.” And that’s how it was for all 13 of the episodes. 

How did you work together to make sure the sound was coherent between your cues? 

ASH: We have two different recording studios. Everything in his studio is all-analog. My studio is more of a hybrid. With regards to certain microphone setups, there’s similarity and consistency in sound for drums. But his approach and process to what he would do with the drum sound is a little bit different than mine. I tried to pay attention to certain little small details in micing, and EQing, compression, to keep it consistent. But even though there are cues that we did separately, we worked on things together. The stuff that we worked on together, the sound is the same, but the feel is slightly different, and it’s a trick to find out what did we do together, what didn’t we do.

I understand you treated each episode as a separate album. What did you try to do differently with each one? 

AY: On average, we did 25 to 30 minutes of music per episode. So in doing that, we had to have an approach that unilaterally captured the entire Luke Cage world, but still felt different on each episode. We wanted the music to continue to stay interesting. The sonic palette is what it is. Everything I do is analog, two-inch tape, all vintage hardware, and we record the orchestra to two-inch tape as well. So that’s the sound all through it. So the sound doesn’t necessarily change, it’s more that the compositional perspective varies and reflects different characters. 

Your score references so many styles of the past - ‘70s funk, ‘90s hip-hop, blues, jazz...is it tough making the score cohere, and feel modern, when you’re shifting through so many eras and genres?

AY: Old records are my entire repertoire. I don’t listen to much modern music. I moreso look at it as we’re making music that’s timeless. It doesn’t matter when it came out. It’s not something that’s in vogue right now. I like to make things that just sound great, regardless of what timeframe they came from.

ASH: The beautiful thing about having a partner like Adrian is that we both begin our process from the same place. We’re inspired by the same music. If he’s on drums and I’m on bass, it’s like he knows where I’m going, I know where he’s going. If I’m on piano and he’s on bass, he knows that if I play a G9 or something like that, the next section he’s gonna go here. I’ll be hearing a simple melody, then I’m like “I don’t know where to take this,” and he’s just “What are you doing?” and I’ll show him, and he finishes it, and I’m like “Oh, that’s crazy!” We have a separate approach, but it’s so like-minded, that it also is cohesive at the same time. 

Were there times where you were inspired by the rhythm of the editing? Even how a character is walking across the screen? 

AY: All the time. The actors are so great. The production value is so high. There’s never a moment where we don’t feel some sort of inspiration. And that could be tipped off from how somebody’s talking, it could be tipped off from somebody’s demeanor, it could be tipped off by a walk. This Luke Cage series is sprinkled with the freshest elements that never leave us dry. 

Were there moments where you would score your cues and realize that it wasn’t exactly what Cheo Coker was looking for? Maybe you were analyzing a scene differently than he would have? 

ASH: Interestingly, for my first time out of the gate composing for a television series, I have been completely spoiled by having a showrunner where we speak the same language. I understand when he articulates “I want planet Earth,” he really means he wants planet Earth, vs. “I’m saying Earth, but I guess in the long run I meant Saturn.” You know? So I can say that wasn’t my experience. When Adrian and I would go in and write something and show it to them, Cheo, the executives at Marvel - Karim [Zreik, SVP of Original Programming at Marvel] - the executives at Netflix, came back with nothing but great notes. There were a couple of changes, but it wasn’t a change to the composition. I’m very fortunate to work with Cheo - he knows his characters, and the music was like a character to him. 

Between Empire, The Get Down and now Luke Cage, it seems like hip-hop is finally being recognized as a genre capable of carrying a TV show. Do you see it that way?

AY: I don’t see it that way. First of all, black composers don’t get the same opportunities that other composers do to compose films and television. The main reason why is because a lot of black composers are perceived as being limited by what it takes to create hip-hop songs. Which is usually a sampler. So a lot of executives don’t necessarily look at black composers - and not just hip-hop producers - as people that have the chops to create [score]. So yes, there are shows centered around hip-hop, like Empire and The Get Down, right?

But to be devil’s advocate, if you can make beats, it doesn’t mean you can score, know what I’m sayin’? You have to have both sides. It’s bringing more awareness to the world as it pertains to the importance of hip-hop from a cultural perspective. But I’m not sure it’s actually giving hip-hop producers, black and urban producers, more opportunities to score. I don’t know yet. Because all this stuff has really been happening in the last year or two. Let’s see what time tells us. 

Luke Cage

Your live concert on October 6th is such a massive undertaking! What inspired you to bring this music to a live setting, so early on in the life of the show?

AY: Before we even started production on the show, our dream was to be able to perform this thing live. So after we were done, we just manifested our dream. And we worked hard to get to this point, so now on October 6th at the Ace Theater, we’ll have it live, and we’ll be able to rejoice with our friends, peers and fans. That’s the pinnacle for us. One pinnacle is gonna be September 30th when it releases, the next one is gonna be doing it live.

ASH: The score is really important, in terms of having the hip-hop origin, and knowing what that means. For us, hip-hop is so broad and vast. We delivered that musically for the series, and when you watch it I think there will be a better understanding. It was also equally important to show this music in a live setting to show the dynamics of hip-hop. Having a 40-piece orchestra, it shows the human connection. There’s a lot of spirit to all these players, putting their spirit on top of this music and coming together. 

Also, we wanted to show those other hip-hop guys that are out there, that you can make music like this as well. Think outside your own position. We wanted to hopefully inspire other companies like Marvel to reach into this pool of the hip-hop community. So bringing it in a live setting, it’s to also show what is capable. To show people when you pick up an instrument, you can get your level of musicianship to this point. 

I can say that when we would finish our music, and give it to Miguel Atwood-Ferguson - who orchestrated the music for us - we would have guests in the studio, and they would hear the strings and the horns without the backing track. And everyone was just so moved. We just want to have that sort of a feeling. We want people to get that.

Ali, now that you’ve had your first taste of scoring, does Luke Cage present a new career path for you?

ASH: Absolutely. I left New York City a year and a half ago, and I drove across the country. It was kind of a quiet drive, just me. I put my Rhodes piano in the back of my car, my bass guitar, my guitars, my studio monitors, my laptop and my hard drives. In making this move, I wanted to establish a career in scoring. Having this first experience is the beginning of a journey. I’m looking forward to touching other people’s films and television shows, doing a whole lot more. 

If you had a superpower - what would it be?

ASH: I believe I already have a superpower. My superpower is patience, humility, loyalty, strength. And when I say strength, I mean “speaking up.” Sharing the information that’s been given to me.

AY: The ability to create money. ::laughs::

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Marvel’s Luke Cage: Season 1 is now available in its entirety on Netflix.

On October 6, Luke Cage: The Live Score comes to the Theatre at the ACE Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Get tickets here.

Follow Adrian Younge on Twitter and Facebook.

Visit Ali Shaheed Muhammad on his website, and listen to his NPR podcast Microphone Check.