Adrian Younge & Ali Shaheed Muhammad on Making 'Unapologetically Black' Music for Netflix's 'Luke Cage'

Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad
Courtesy of Netflix

Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad

Luke Cage, the latest Marvel sensation to rake in viewers on Netflix, is earning great acclaim with its reluctant hero cleaning up the streets of Harlem. And though its lead actors Mike Colter, Mahershala Ali and Alfre Woodard are garnering praise for their onscreen roles, it’s the pair of musicians behind the score who are stealing the show. From Luke Cage’s opening theme song and beyond, hints of classical music, funk, jazz and hip-hop were blended with a 30-piece orchestra to create the mood of the series.

The score was helmed by composers Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammed, one-third of iconic trio A Tribe Called Quest. A week removed from Luke Cage’s debut, the two also directed a 40-piece orchestra in Los Angeles to showcase select pieces from the score, which is now available for purchase and on all major streaming services.

Here, Muhammad and Younge talk about working to the point of delirium, making "unapologetically black" music for the series and the emotional track dedicated to deceased Tribe member Phife Dawg.

How big of a part were you told that music was going to play in Luke Cage?

Ali Shaheed Muhammad: I knew that it was a very important job. [Director] Cheo [Hodari Coker] wrote the series with music as a character in a sense, and he was very articulate. That was a big big part of it, trying to represent the culture of hip-hop, the level of struggle and creating your own path and break through barriers. There’s also an element of building off the break beat and isolating something simple and good, pulling from jazz records, soul records, psychedelic rock. We knew an orchestra was mandatory to achieve what Cheo wanted, to build on what Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones, Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield have done with the black perspective, but also people like Bernard Hermann.

As a creative used to full freedom, what was your experience working for a big house like Marvel? Was there any push and pull?

Adrian Younge: It was very unorthodox. Generally, as a composer, it’s perceived as an employer-employee relationship. As a freelance artist, you have to please somebody instead of just making music. But when the employer trusts and leans on you to determine what is right for a scene or feeling, that’s ideal. Marvel gave us that. It’s crazy because when this came out, Ali and I expected it to get acclaim. But I didn’t expect this much love. I have an album that I just put out three weeks ago called The Electronique Void. Every time I have a promotional piece of media to release for it, whether it’s a video or whatever, there’s a bunch of Luke Cage stuff I have to do and I push it to the next day -- and I’m OK with that! It’s good to be a part of this cultural whirlwind.

Muhammad: We’re very happy. When you’re brought on as a creative work-for-hire and you have a boss, you have the liberty of being able to put yourself in the work, but you have to know how. We really put ourselves into that. Cheo knew that we would understand the vision. Marvel loved what we did. They didn’t give us a lot of notes or changes. We were not limited. That was the joy of it. We could get comfortable in being ourselves, then ask, “OK, what does this character really need?” We wanted to make sure that when you heard this music on television that you felt like it was a film, like something you don’t hear often. The music speaks for itself.

Luke Cage’s musical voice is Loren Oden. What made you use him?

Muhammad: Luke’s a handsome, statuesque man. Firm and assertive, but also gentle. There are many dynamics to his character and there’s a richness to him as well. We wanted Luke’s voice to embody all of those elements. We were just thinking about the things that Marvin Gaye did. He was very smooth, sultry, confident, witty, flirty. Luke embodies all of that, and Loren’s voice captures that.

Cottonmouth’s voice comes through via Fender Rhodes piano. Why that instrument?

Muhammad: Cheo made Cottonmouth a musician. The Rhodes piano is something that’s classic. It’s different from a regular piano. A regular piano can take on several personas. We didn’t want it to be classical. We wanted to have a richness. He grew up listening to hip-hop. We wrote pieces for him knowing his persona is nothing to mess with but he truly loves and knows music. The Rhodes was perfect for his voice.

You two made a lot of music in a short period of time for this series. What was that process like?

Younge: It was very special and enamoring. For each episode, we had about four days to make all the music. That’s a lot of music to make. Then we’d have to go and record it with the orchestra. By the time you’re recording with the orchestra, you’re working on the next episode. You’re not sleeping because you don’t want to do the regular soundtrack with the keyboard drones and all that. We wanted this shit to be really dope, so we went all the way in. We’d ask each other, "Dude, did you sleep?" "Nah, did you sleep?" "Why are we even doing this?" Then the first cue would start and we’d be like, "Yup! This was all worth it." We did that for 13 episodes.

Muhammad: Adrian and I didn’t sleep. There were times when we looked at each other, like, “What are we doing? We’re not touring. We’re not recording our records.” We were enjoying the work but after doing nearly 25 minutes or more per episode in a short amount of time, we would be so exhausted and question what we were doing. Then we’d get to the orchestra and hear them connect with the music. It was just like, "Yeah, this is why we’re doing this. This is a sweet reminder." It would give us the energy to get to the next episode.

Harlem itself is a character in the show. How did you guys embody that neighborhood in your musical choices?

Younge: We wanted to make something that was unapologetically black -- something that’s black with no filters showing that we can be classical, soulful and jazzy, and embody the renaissance of Harlem. Harlem is one of America’s first black meccas. People told me at the concert that this is what classical music is missing -- it’s the soul. You get the slap. You can feel it. That’s what we wanted to bring with the score. We love high-end art, but when you’re looking at high-end art in music, a lot of the time, it’s appreciated academically, but you can’t feel it as much. When you can hit both sides, that’s when you’ve got something special.

Muhammad: There’s opulence. There’s power. There are distinguished people. There’s an edginess. There’s such a creative pool that’s come out of there throughout the decades. Harlem is where a lot of Blacks escaped Jim Crow. It’s a place that proved they could have a better quality of life. The point I’m making is that there was so much flavor established in Harlem. We wanted to bring that out. Sometimes there’s a disconnect as far as the importance of Harlem culturally to America. Cheo did a great job of using it as a backdrop. I think we did a great job without being so throwback on it. We tried to pull from the past while being modern, just showing the opulence and excellence that came from there.

You said that episode 4 was the hardest to score. Why is that?

Muhammad: It’s the flashback that gives you an idea of who Luke was and how he became who he is. There’s so much in that episode that’s a departure from everything else. As the dialog, the visuals and the scenery took you somewhere else, the music also had to go too. It was a challenge. Everything else kind of fell into place.

Ali, at the concert you spoke about and performed the track "Requiem for Phife," which is dedicated to Phife Dawg. What was your interaction with him during this Luke Cage process?

Muhammad: Phife was so happy that I was doing this. There were some interesting communication between him and I that we had in those last few weeks that he was here. I was working on a song for Episode 8 and he [called] me around two weeks before he passed. What we talked about helped me get deeper into that scene. Then Adrian and I wrapped it and went through the process of Marvel and Netflix approving it and recorded it with the orchestra. The day after Phife passed is the day that we recorded that. And I kind of had forgotten about the scene.

Like I said, the orchestra date was always a reminder of why we were working so hard. We did so much work that when we’d get to the orchestra date, we had forgotten the songs we wrote, what scene they was for. So the day after he passed, I was recording this. Our orchestra days are family days. People visit because they don’t get to experience that type of thing and everybody has an emotional walkaway from it. I had walked out of the room before they started that song. When I walked back in, they were in the middle of it and the entire room was in another place [emotionally]. I was taken as well. Then I remembered when I was writing it and communicating with him at that time, I was like, “Wow!” I had no idea when I was making that, that I wouldn’t talk to him again. It was made for a specific scene in Episode 8, but I named it "Requiem for Phife." He was in my head and when you watch the scene, you’ll get it.

So it’s safe to say that you guys are in if you get the call from Marvel to do another season?

Muhammad: My phone is always available for the call. We just scraped the surface. I’m really excited. This was my first time scoring, I’m looking forward to having the opportunity to bring other levels.

Younge: I’d be more than happy to be a part of season 2. We could start tomorrow. Our job is to do dope shit. Our job is to tell people what’s dope, not to do stuff and ask people if it’s good enough. We always should be getting better. This soundtrack is not something you’re supposed to hear on the radio. This is for people that feel the void in music. We wanted this to feel cavernous. We wanted this to resonate and from the response, I’m very happy. It’s an accomplishment.