The musical power of Marvel’s ‘Luke Cage’ and Starz’s ‘Power’
As one of the premier architects of music journalism in the ’90s, one whose close bond with the late Notorious B.I.G. produced a critically acclaimed biography and the 2009 biopic Notorious, Cheo Hodari Coker can’t contain his excitement: He is the point man and showrunner for Marvel’s new Luke Cage series, set to debut on Netflix at the end of the month. But he’s not the only one excited — Vanity Fair said in June that it is, potentially, “the most important thing Marvel has ever done.”
For Coker, authenticity was the first and major requirement. If he was going to do this thing, bring a black superhero to life, the show — like hip-hop — had to be real. Luke Cage introduced himself to the world of Marvel Comics in the 1970s as a kind of response to the “blaxploitation” craze. The character’s home base was Harlem, New York, a mecca of the black experience. Cage — led masterfully by Mike Colter in the lead role of the Netflix series — is a street-smart, hardworking neighborhood guy. He’s an ex-convict, one wrongly convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, and the subject of a fumbled genetic experiment. Cage battles his own demons as much as he does villains, giving him an aura of vulnerability both intriguing and relatable. It’s easy to respect Cage’s hustle, too. He works different gigs to keep the lights on. And, yes, he’s bulletproof. Which, one might imagine, causes the folks of Harlem to talk. Coker knew the series would never become a force if he shot it anyplace but Uptown. But equally as important as location, or any other facet of Cage — the actors, the plot, the emotion — was the music.
Coker has long been inspired by the relationship between music and television. Think back to 1984, the Miami Vice pilot episode, and Phil Collins’ 1981 In The Air Tonight.
“I probably watch that thing on YouTube at least like once a month,” Coker said. “That was the first moment I really understood the power of music when it’s married to image.” The sound of Crockett loading a shotgun to Collins’ classic is as clear as it was to Coker when he was a wide-eyed 10-year-old in his living room in Storrs, Connecticut.
The music in Luke Cage excites Coker as much as the actual show — a series he’s compared to The Wire. And why wouldn’t he be? Composer/producers Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad are along for the 13 emotionally charged, roller coaster-ride episodes. Each one is named after a Gang Starr song, a subtle nod to Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder producer Shonda Rhimes. He doesn’t hold back on his admiration of her. “Shonda’s a huge influence on me just in terms of her dialogue,” Coker said. “If I wasn’t doing this, if I could write for any other show, it’d probably be writing for Scandal or Grey’s.” And Young and Muhammad tackled the project — soundtracking the episodes — with the mindset of producing 13 different albums.
The series has rhythm. It’s emboldened by the likes of Wu-Tang Clan and A Tribe Called Quest and legendary composer Ennio Morricone. Each episode of Luke Cage features its own musical fingerprint, each one different from the next. Within the first seven installments alone, Raphael Saadiq, Faith Evans, Charles Bradley and Jidenna all make appearances in the fictional Paradise nightclub, where organized crime deals equal the number of Ace of Spades bottles being ordered. Songs from The Stylistics and from Nina Simone lace the show, as well. Yet, the frontrunner for trillest moment of the entire series — in terms of the union of TV and music — comes in the fight scene in the third episode. It’s narrated in its way by Wu-Tang’s 1993 Bring Da Ruckus.
“The internet in terms of Luke Cage is going to melt down three times,” said Coker, the excitement in his voice enough to shake you by the shoulders. “The first is when the audience gets to that scene. [People] think, because of the Shimmy Shimmy Ya trailer we put out … but when they see it with Bring Da Ruckus, you’re not even going to remember Shimmy Shimmy Ya.” It’s a dream come true not only for Coker, but for those responsible for the inspiration.
“Brothers like me been waiting for this since I was 8 years old,” said rapper Method Man recently, “and now it’s here and I’m ecstatic.”
What’s most fascinating about Luke Cage’s commitment to black music with regard to advancing the storyline is that it isn’t groundbreaking.
Rhimes has made it a calling card. Her musical portfolio is — with drops from Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and more — nearly as impressive as her resume. “I’m envious of her music budget. That’s all I gotta say,” Coker said with a laugh. “If you know anything about the business, those are like half-million-dollar needle drops.”
And Courtney Kemp, the creator, showrunner and executive producer of the hit Starz series Power, is about utilizing music as character, as well. While she makes it a point of mentioning that executive producer and co-star 50 Cent has never demanded the show use only G-Unit records, the luxury of branching out into different musical territories and genres comes with its own set of roadblocks. Certain tracks can devour an entire music budget.
Kemp is stuck in traffic in Los Angeles on Interstate Highway 405 — her home away from home some days — as she breaks down the ins and outs of ensuring Power remains the cultural force it is. In the season two premiere, the show featured Lil Wayne and Drake’s Believe Me. “That song is not cheap!” she yells with a laugh. But it’s not just about budget: foresight and wisdom about music work in her favor also, as when she landed Major Lazer’s Lean On relatively inexpensively before it was released and became a worldwide smash.
Money doesn’t grow on trees. Not even the palm trees in Hollywood. “Most of my time with music,” Kemp said, “is spent like, ‘I know what song I want, but can I afford it.’ ”
Coker is on his way to Los Angeles International Airport when the topic of Donald Glover’s Atlanta comes up. He’s already one of the show’s biggest fans and is enamored with how the programming is further mainstreaming trap music and allowing actors such as Keith Stanfield (Snoop Dogg in Straight Outta Compton and Bug in Dope) the platform to flourish and become household names. “I’m watching the first three minutes of Atlanta like, ‘I cannot believe this! Did these cats just put a video camera on Peachtree [Avenue] and just run up on a scene?!’ ” Coker laughs and applauds hysterically. “That s— is crazy!”
Coker appreciates Atlanta’s courage. He appreciates shows such as Power, black-ish and Scandal, and is equally humbled and inspired by their success. It’s not a competition so much as it is being part of a select order of shows tasked with the responsibility of shaping television, particularly black television, in the digital age. Coker understands that for Luke Cage to be mentioned in such elite company, every facet of his show must connect with audiences — especially the music.
In a weird way, he said, Luke Cage is Marvel’s iteration of Beyoncé’s Lemonade. A music video, he said, “with a good a– plot.” What means more to Coker, though, is paying homage to one of his biggest influences, and close family friend, the late writer, poet, essayist and music critic Amiri Baraka. Blues People is the book that pushed Coker to become a music journalist. Baraka said the African became American once he ceased singing for his homeland and focused on the problems of his people in America. “When the blues is born, that’s when the African fully becomes American,” Coker said. “He creates something that is of both experiences. There’s not a single function of our lives that music isn’t a part of.”
Marvel and Netflix trusted Coker’s vision, an affirmation he said he will cherish for the rest of his life. “One of the things you’ll notice about this show … is whether it’s dialogue, whatever you see,” he said, “there’s always a sense of rhythm.” Every scene has a pulse.