Saturday, October 15, 2016 The Musicians Behind Luke Cage on Creating a ‘Timeless’ Sound and the Lack of Opportunities for Black Composers

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


October 4, 2016

By Matthew Giles

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.

By Fluorescent Beige (@tlw83

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