Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad are not new to the music business. Younge is a composer/producer/artist who creates works often influenced by classic psychedelic, soul, and sampled music. Muhammad is a founding member of A Tribe Called Quest, the acclaimed alternative hip-hop innovators. The two had worked together before, notably producing Kendrick Lamar‘s song untitled 06 that featured artist CeeLo Green. This working relationship made the decision to work together scoring Luke Cage an easy one when Cheo Hodari Coker brought it up to them.
Still, as they recently told Vulture, they were unaware when taking the gig how much it would take over their daily lives.
Younge and Muhammad believe the cost was worth it, however, and feel their hard work, the work they sacrificed so much of their normal lives for, ended up not only exceeding their expectations but “raised the bar and created something that is timeless” that may likely stand as a testament to definition-setting musical scores.
The conversation with Vulture dug deeper into their collaboration as well as touching on opportunities for black composers.
VULTURE: 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?
Adrian Younge: 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.
The artists also delved into the utilization of music to set the tone and establish the importance of what was going on on screen. This is notable early on, even in the score for the opening credits, or the powerful use of Jidenna’s song Long Live the Chief at the beginning of episode 5, but where it first hits the viewer hard is a few episodes before that:
VULTURE: The second episode is where the viewer really feels the impact of the score. It starts and ends the episode. Was that a pivotal episode for the both of you?
Ali Shaheed Muhammad: The funny thing about that is that the second episode was the first episode we scored. That was the one where we knew — everything has to go into this moment.
Adrian Younge: And when we did that episode, it helped convince Marvel and Netflix that these guys should have an extra budget now to have an orchestra. They love what we were doing so much. Dawn Soler at ABC pushed hard for us to get an orchestra. That song that starts and ends episode two is the song where they were like, “This is it. This is the sound of the show.” They always believed in us, but what we said to them is you don’t have to have any needle drops here, you don’t have to license as much music, let us create more score. Let us create more source material for you guys so that the music all comes together to create a world of Luke Cage. Instead of songs just being pulled from everywhere. That helped us have this orchestra for 13 episodes, which is very expensive.
They also described how the tone of music goes deeper than just the action on the screen but also the character involved with that action.
VULTURE: Did you consciously create different tones for each character?
Adrian Younge: Absolutely. For Diamondback, we have a voice for him, it is opera singing — Brooke deRosa, whom I have worked with for years. For Luke Cage, we use Loren Oden. Whenever Luke Cage is having one of those dramatic or emotional moments, his superhero-type tone is Loren’s voice, kind of like his inner voice. And Cottonmouth, he is a pianist, and he plays the Fender Rhodes. We pretty much exclusively use Fender Rhodes keyboards for him. That is who he is.
VULTURE: Which of the characters was the most difficult to figure the tone for?
Ali Shaheed Muhammad: They all seemed to be seamless, but Shades came early on. He made such a large entrance in episode two, when he comes in the kitchen, and we played to that, and Marvel really liked it, but they wanted us to preserve what was structured for him for way later.
The live performance (reported in this MCU Exchange piece) was a deeply personal and important issue as well.
VULTURE: A Luke Cage concert with Miguel’s orchestra was recently announced for October 6 at the Ace Theater in Los Angeles. Was that always the plan?
Adrian Younge: Before we even recorded one guitar, we were talking to Dawn Soler, Cheo Coker, and executives like Karim Zreik at Marvel about how when this is done, we want to perform this live. Everyone thought it was cool and a great idea, but I don’t think that people really understood how serious we were at the beginning. They hadn’t heard what we could do yet. And then after we finished, everybody understood.
This level of music–and its importance within the narrative of the episodes themselves–is something that is a bit different for the MCU. Music plays a part in all films, and in MCU films like Guardians of the Galaxy the music used was an important part of the story. But the use of such innovative, cross-genre, compositions infused into the storyline, establishing not only tone and mood but character and setting, is something else again. That the studio saw the value in taking a chance on this type of scoring, is to their credit.
All 13 episodes of Luke Cage are currently streaming on Netflix. Marvel’s Luke Cage: The Live Score performance is tomorrow night, October 6. Tickets are still available here.