Netflix Series 'Marvel's Luke Cage' Returns With Ghostface Killah, Rakim, Gary Clark Jr. & More For Season Two Cameos: Exclusive

BB13 2018 - DO NOT REUSE!!!
David Lee/Netflix
Simone Missick (far left) and Mike Colter (far right) in a still from season two of Luke Cage.

As the Netflix series gears up for its second season, its creator doubles down on the artists, songs and creators that make up its core.

When Cheo Hodari Coker, creator and showrunner for Netflix series Marvel's Luke Cage, began shooting the first season about the  superhero, he had the ambitious notion to feature well-known R&B artists performing live at the fictional Harlem's Paradise nightclub. But lining up the talent was far from easy for the series, which debuted in September 2016.

"The show wasn't a home run in terms of the music community," says Coker, who pulled in favors from his two decades as a music journalist to land such acts as Raphael Saadiq, Faith Evans, Method Man and Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings. "There were a lot of questions. No other Marvel show had featured [live] music."

What a difference one season makes. Luke Cage has now turned into a major showcase for urban artists.

For season two, which premieres June 22, Coker had his choice of acts. This year's lineup, exclusively revealed by Billboard, includes Evans, Joi & D-Nice, Gary Clark Jr., Esperanza Spalding, Christone "Kingfish" Ingram, Ghostface Killah, Stephen Marley, Jadakiss, KRS-One and Rakim.

"When you say, ‘We're going to shoot you like no one else has shot you on a show,' and you can show long tracking shots of Raphael Saadiq or you can show the intercut footage of Sharon Jones, they were like, ‘We have to do the show,'" Coker says.

Plus, Coker could point to immediate streaming bumps following exposure on Luke Cage: on-demand audio and video streams of Jidenna's "Long Live The Chief" leapt 2,134 percent the week following the artist's appearance, while Faith Evans' "Mesmerized" soared 516 percent, according to Nielsen Music.

"The people I would see out in the store who were not the typical Faith Evans fans would say, ‘Hey! I saw you on Luke Cage!'" Evans says. "Or the [person] who fixes my computer. He's a total techie geek and he's like, ‘Oh my God!' It was funny the different people who connected to me being on the show."

Though artists usually perform an existing track, Rakim wrote an original song for his appearance in the season two finale. "Not only do we have him on Luke Cage, we have him performing a song about Luke Cage," raves Coker. "It's manna from heaven."

Unlike DC comic book characters who live in made-up cities like Gotham, Marvel's superheroes inhabit real metropolises, like New York, where Luke Cage takes place. That made it easier to believe that real-life artists would drop by Harlem's Paradise club, run in season two by actress Alfre Woodard. "It allows you to play in the rich musical history not only of New York, but in general," Coker says. "Music is at the center of every decision I make for the show, probably to the point where it annoys most people." Coker and the music supervisors select a tantalizing array of needle drops as well, that range from cuts by Nina Simone to tracks by Mobb Deep.

Music even plays into the episode names. Season one's titles came from Gang Starr songs. For season two, Coker chose Pete Rock and CL Smooth tunes. "Pete is a huge Luke Cage fan. He's a comic book collector," Coker says. "He put out a mixtape that used snippets of the show, so it was a way of saying, ‘You love us, we love you too.'"

Adrian Younge and A Tribe Called Quest's Ali Shaheed Muhammad return to score the series, making the show one of the few to use African American composers. However, Coker says their race wasn't as important as the fact "that they're funky.

"Some of the funkiest records ever came out of Muscle Shoals and none of them were black, so that's not what that was about," he says. "It was about [composers] who not only understood hip-hop in the deepest sense of making the music, but at the same time could put on another hat when composing, they could use strings." Coker calls Younge and Muhammad the show's "secret ingredient. They are as important to the success of the show as anyone in the cast, anyone directing, anyone writing, producing, period. My partnership with the two of them is a non-negotiable."

Coker's decision to make the behind-the-scenes talent as diverse as possible was deliberate. Several women, including Lucy Liu, Kasi Lemmons and Millicent Shelton direct episodes for season two.

"I think it's important to have as much diversity in the writers' room and on set behind the camera," Coker says. "People have stereotypes [that] female directors can't do action, which [Wonder Woman director] Patty Jenkins proved is definitely not the truth. Action direction is dictated by taste, not gender."

Spotify, Netflix and Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center will host an advance screening of Luke Cage season two June 19, with an afterparty that will include special performances by KRS-One, Younge and Muhammad and surprise guests.

This article originally appeared in the May 19 issue of Billboard.