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Whether it’s Tony Stark’s love of AC/DC, or the epic mixtapes that reminded Peter Quill of better times in Guardian of the Galaxy, music has provided an emotional undercurrent to the Marvel Cinematic Universe that’s often been overlooked in the past. It was only with the release of Black Panther this year that a Marvel soundtrack fully captured the public’s imagination, thanks to both Kendrick Lamar’s involvement, and the film’s focus on African-American culture. However, this wasn’t the first time that music has played a vital role in the MCU.
Back in 2015, the Marvel Netflix show, Jessica Jones, introduced audiences to Luke Cage, the bulletproof "Hero For Hire" who would go on to star in his own standalone show the following year. More than any other hero before him, Luke Cage and his subsequent solo venture represented a beacon of hope to a community plagued by police brutality and frequent marginilization at the hands of the media.
Season 1 had the authentic credentials to back this up too, thanks in large part to show runner, Cheo Hodari Coker, who described Luke Cage as “inclusively black”. From the talent who worked behind the scenes on Luke Cage to the prominence of Harlem as a character in its own right, African-American culture became the beating heart of this show’s identity, making hip-hop its essential lifeblood. Now that Season 2 is heading our way, let’s take a closer look at why hip-hop is integral to Marvel’s Luke Cage - far beyond the cast’s streetwear and Cottonmouth’s iconic Biggie portrait which often framed the villain while he was plotting his own version of the Harlem Renaissance.
Step In The Arena
Composers Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad told Highsnobiety that Coker and the rest of the writing team working on Luke Cage “were keen on paying homage to hip-hop,” but in reality, this was a two-way process. With the legendary pedigree of Younge and Muhammad, Luke Cage was always going to be about more than the writing. After all, Younge is an extremely successful composer in his own right, and Muhammad was a founding member of A Tribe Called Quest. With these credentials under their belt, the iconic pair created a score that would come to define both Luke Cage’s solo debut on TV and the cast who populate his world, one that’s overwhelmingly defined by hip-hop.
Speaking to Vulture, Younge and Muhammad explained how they created different tones for each character in their score. While the soulful intonation of Loren Oden’s voice represented Cage’s “inner voice,” the work of opera singer, Brooke DeRosa, helped bring gravitas to Diamondback’s appearances onscreen and Fender Rhodes keyboards were used almost exclusively to embody Cottonmouth in the first half of Season 1. To cohere all of this into one distinctive vision, Younge and Muhammad bridged sampled music with live instrumentation, adhering to Coker’s hip-hop vision for the show that would come to define each episode.
As Younge and Muhammad note in the interview, black composers are rarely given the opportunity “to support things of this magnitude,”so it was important to them that they make a statement with their work on the show.
“We knew we wanted to set a bar, and we wanted to make something pivotal, unique, and novel for people to watch and feel,” they said.
This approach is perhaps most evident in the second episode of Season 1 where the impact of the choral score bookends the beginning and the end of the story with mournful, yet hard-hitting intent.
Code of the Streets
The music of Luke Cage isn’t formed solely by the score though. Muhammad describes the soundscape heard throughout the show as “a confluence of multiple genres, a bit of hip-hop, soul, psychedelic rock and classical,” reflecting the complexity of both the central characters and the social themes that they embody. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the use of recognizable songs that can be heard throughout each of the thirteen episodes in Season 1.
In an unusual move, Coker and his team didn’t just play these tracks over the background. Instead, real life artists such as Faith Evans and Raphael Saadiq show up as actual people in the nightclub Harlem’s Paradise, making this the closest that Marvel has ever come to creating an actual musical, albeit one with plenty of violence and superheroics.
Just like in a musical though, the hip-hop songs heard in Luke Cage were chosen carefully to reflect the inner turmoil of characters onscreen. Saadiq’s “Good Man” is introduced as Cage steps into the criminal hotspot early on and Jidenna’s performances of “Long Live The Chief” foreshadows a tragic event that completely changes the tone and direction of the show in Episode 7. This influence is even apparent in the episode titles themselves, which are each named after a different Gang Starr song in season 1, and continue the hip-hop homage by titling each episode in season 2 after songs from the catalog of Pete Rock & CL Smooth.
Moment of Truth
There’s something extremely powerful about seeing hip-hop icons physically appear on Luke Cage. But one performance in particular, Method Man'sm leaves an even stronger impression than the rest since he ends up playing an active role in the story.
During the penultimate episode of Season 1, "Soliloquy of Chaos," Cage is on the run after Mariah Dillard frames him for the murder of Cottonmouth. To avoid being seen, he walks into a gas station, but it turns out that the place is being robbed. Being Luke Cage, he ends up saving the day, so a grateful customer swaps his bullet-ridden hoodie for a new one. That customer turns out to be none other than Method Man, who later goes on a radio show and tells everyone that the cops are wrong about Luke Cage, proclaiming his innocence through rap live on air. By doing so, Method Man encourages the people of Harlem to wear similar hoodies to Cage and distract the police long enough for our hero to escape.
Much has been made of how important it is for minorities to see themselves reflected in their heroes onscreen, whether they have different sexual preferences or belong to different ethnic groups. However, it’s also inspiring for many to see their musical heroes represented onscreen in this way too, taking an active role for once in decidedly mainstream material. In some ways, this is arguably even more powerful given that rap stars like Method Man and the culture that they embody has often been misrepresented previously in the media or even sidelined completely.
While other Defenders like Daredevil and Jessica Jones don’t have much impact on their local community outside of their immediate heroics, Luke Cage’s relationship with the people of Harlem is integral to his character and this is exemplified best by their reaction to Method Man’s request. By working together, both Harlem’s superhero and their musical hero united the community in solidarity.
Coker once described his show as the "Wu-Tangification of the Marvel Universe," a revolutionary act that holds even more power in the light of how hip-hop plays such an integral role in Luke Cage’s story. African-American music will continue to be significant in future instalments of Black Panther and hopefully other Marvel adaptations too, but remember that it all started here with Luke Cage in the streets of Harlem.
For more Marvel content, check out the video that explains which superheroes will be back for 'Avengers 4.'