John Legend Lends A Musical Hand To 'Underground,' New WGN America Series

Underground 2016
Sony Pictures Television

Rebwick Scott, Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Aldis Hodge in episode 106 of Underground.

Underground, the new WGN America series debuting Wednesday (March 9) about the Underground Railroad, opens with an adrenalin jolt as Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” blares while an escaped slave runs through the woods.

Though the 10-part series about the secret passages slaves used to reach free states takes place in 1857, the show’s executive producers—including Grammy and Oscar-winner John Legend— decided early on to set no parameters on the music other than “be bold,” says co-creator/executive producer Misha Green. “[It's] the ideal world, how do we have a mixtape that is contemporary and period specific? We had no idea if we could do that.” 

It turns out they could -- and did. In a striking scene in the first episode that is emblematic of the musical choices throughout the drama, the music toggles between spirituals such as “All God’s Children Got Shoes” and Latin artist Jerina De Marco’s “Para Navigar.” In another episode, a children’s choir sings George Gershwin’s “Summertime” from Porgy & Bess.

“Using contemporary music takes it off the museum wall and makes it feel urgent and necessary,” says Legend, whose company, Get Lifted, oversaw the show’s musical elements. “It was a creative decision made from the beginning, we didn’t stumble into it.” The series stars Straight Outta Compton’s Aldis Hodge, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, and Christopher Meloni,

So vital was “‘Black Skinhead’ to the process that Green and co-creator/executive producer Joe Pokaski wrote the Underground script with West’s song in mind.“It had the immediacy we needed,” Green says. “It would have been so disappointing if we hadn’t been able to get it. Our partners at Sony [Pictures TV] and WGN went after it hardcore.”

The licensed music juxtaposes against the score, created by multiple Emmy Award-winning composer Laura Karpman and R&B artist/Grammy winner Raphael Saadiq, who “fell in musical love,” Karpman says after the pair worked on Kasi Lemmon’s Black Nativity together. The mandate to be contemporary extended to the score, which veers from classical to southern rock, R&B and West African.” 

The pair shared creation of the score “in every imaginable way,” she says, often with one of them starting a cue and the other then building on that. “Raphael did the distorted sound coming out of ‘Black Skinhead’ and then I took it back to my studio and did the string stuff,” she says. At one point, Saadiq suggested they come up with a J Dilla beat, “and I said, ‘give me a half hour’.” Saadiq adds, “I love working with her. I feel like I’m at Juilliard.”

Saadiq approached his scoring duties by “living with each character,” he says. “The characters were speaking to me and I wanted to uplift every character.” He bypassed digital technology, instead recording in analog for a warmer tone, including when he added the bass and drums to the show’s opening theme, “Heaven’s Door,” co-written by Legend.

The composers often had to strike a balancing act between the horror depicted on screen, such as when Smollett-Bell’s character is being whipped, and the music. “There’s no music that you can write that’s scary or dreadful enough for that scene,” Karpman says. Instead, the pair wrote the score based on the gazes of those looking on.  “There was a lot of back and forth,” she says. “Misha, John and Joe would say ‘let’s go further’ or ‘let’s not go that far,” Karpman says. 

The team met every week to discuss tone and to decide whether to rely on needle drops or score. “I got pretty in the weeds,” Legend says. 

Pokaski wouldn’t reveal the music budget, only adding “it was less than we needed,” which led to some creative choices. “John would say, ‘This would elevate the scene if we brought in the White Stripes or Arctic Monkeys’ and we couldn’t afford it,” Green says. Music supervisor Jonathan Christiansen would then take it from there. “It was really a collaborate process,” Christiansen says. “We had a lot of shared playlists. We weren’t able to always use the major artists in every single spot. A lot of the time it was using a reference [Green, Pokaski and Legend] liked and my presenting some up-and-coming artists with the same theme or energy.” Among the songs licensed for the series, in addition to “Black Skinhead,”  are The Weeknd’s “Wicked Games,”  X Ambassadors & Jamie N Common’s “Jungle,” Ki: Theory’s “I Wanna Run (Fink VIP Remix)” and Grace Potter & The Nocturnals’ “Nothing But The Water (1).” 

Discussions have taken place about releasing a soundtrack to the series with Sony as the logical partner, but there are no definitive plans yet. “It would be great if we could pull it off,” Pokaski says.

As Hollywood struggles to find more ways to be inclusive, those involved with Underground applaud the diversity of the cast and crew.  Green is a black female and Pokaski a white male and the first four episodes were helmed by a black director. Karpman and Saadiq are believed to be the first television composing team comprised of a white woman and black male. “When you have people from different parts of the world coming together, it just makes it so much richer,” Green says. 

Legend goes a step further saying that any film and TV enterprise Get Lifted tackles will be diverse. “It’s something we want in all the projects we do,” he says.” We want a variety of voices out there and something on the screen that reflects the diversity of the world. It’s the mission of our company to provide that.” 



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