Before he began his Hollywood career, Cheo Hodari Coker was a gifted music journalist, with work for Rolling Stone that included reviews of D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar and Biggie’s Ready to Die. But he originally dreamed of “making records” as an A&R rep, a goal he never quite reached – unless you count his role as showrunner on Netflix’s Luke Cage, which has its second season out now. Well before Black Panther, the first season brought hip-hop into the Marvel universe, building key moments around ’90s boom-bap classics and newer discoveries like Jidenna’s “Hail to the Chief,” not to mention Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammed’s brilliant analog-funk score, and cleverly incorporated live performances at Harlem’s Paradise, the nightclub deeply embedded into the show’s stories. This season, Younge, Muhammed and the rap touchstones return, along with blues, reggae (thanks to the Jamaican villain Bushmaster, who clashes with the fearsome Mariah Dillard from Season 1), and some other twists. “Everything begins with the music,” says Coker. “My private joke about Luke Cage is that it’s basically a bulletproof version of Lemonade. It’s one big concept album.” [Some mild spoilers may follow.]
How did the musical concept for this season start to come together?
Well, Season 1 is about what I call the Wu-Tang-ification of the Marvel universe. And Season 2 was about the origins of hip-hop. And if you dig deep into the origins of hip-hop, it’s really the blues experience and reggae. Reggae is the unsung hero of hip-hop in terms of its origins. Because when you start looking into Kool Herc, when you start looking into the tradition of being able to use records and a DJ and a sound system the way that people used to use a band, that’s entirely Jamaican in origin. And we had a character in Bushmaster who we made Jamaican because of just the depth and beauty of that culture and the pride of the culture. That contrasted that with Mariah’s and the Stokes family experience of coming from down south. So basically, it’s a musical journey of two immigrant histories.
One of the most striking musical moments this season comes when Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, this incredibly talented teenage blues guitarist, is performing on stage and the performance gets incorporated into the argument between Mariah and Bushmaster. How did that come about?
I’d seen Kingfish on YouTube and I was like, “Holy shit, let me find him.” And he was gracious enough to agree to come on the show. He recorded two songs with Adrian and Ali, and we decided to build a moment around those long solos. So basically Bushmaster and Mariah are going to throw shade at each other, and each of them has their own perspective on history. Because when you talk about the blues, you are talking about slavery, from the standpoint that the blues comes from a stolen African legacy. Amiri Baraka in Blues People says the blues is the moment when the African became an African American – the “African” is the rhythm, but the “American” is the interpretation of that experience. If you talk about the diaspora of black music, the reason that salsa and reggae sound different than American blues is that the slaves in those areas got to keep their drums. Because of the number of slave revolts that happened with talking drums and people being able to communicate messages from plantation to plantation through drums, they realized if you took the drums away you could quash those rebellions. But the rhythms survived and got reinterpreted through guitars and fiddles.
It’s pretty cool, obviously, to be able to get some of this across in a Marvel TV show.
It’s really like the ultimate Trojan horse. You can really just talk about so many different things inside of one thing.
You’ve kept flying the flag for ’90s hip-hop – besides the fact that the music is timeless and amazing, what’s that about for you?
That influence for me comes from Martin Scorsese. Because, you know, I want to be a hip-hop showrunner. Martin Scorsese is a rock & roll filmmaker through and through. And I’m sure that he could use more modern music in his films, but he comes from classic rock. That was his Timberland boot [laughs]. And he embraces that, ’cause he doesn’t have time to learn new slang. And I realize I’m old, you know what I’m saying? It’s like everything for me is “dope” and “fresh,” it ain’t “lit,” right [laughs]? But I realized that as as a father and as an old man, it’s OK, because if I was saying stuff was lit, you’d be looking at me like I’m crazy. So I’m OK with being a little bit out of touch, because I really want the show to resonate with an authenticity of an era.
Did the success of the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack have any impact on your approach?
Every Marvel project or every Marvel creator, whether it’s on the film side of the TV side, gives the next creator a little more leeway to do what they want to do. So when James Gunn stuck to his guns and said, “Look, we’re going to play Seventies AM rock, and that is going to be the aesthetic of this science fiction movie,” that gave me the courage to stick to my guns. And then ultimately, I’m hoping that because of the success of Luke Cage, that no one gave Ryan Coogler any grief when he said, “You know what? I’m going to put a Public Enemy poster in Black Panther and the opening music is going to be Two $hort’s ‘In The Trunk.'”
In the finale, you have Rakim himself performing a brand-new song. How did you pull that one off?
Oh, it was insane. It was the biggest risk trying to get him to record. He’s the Terrence Malick of hip-hop. He makes his own rules – “Fuck a release date, fuck time” – and you’re trying to put him on a television timetable. I’m in the studio waiting for him to get there and I’m just kicking and screaming, and it’s like, “We need the track!” And everyone’s saying, “You’re crazy. Irresponsible. This is Armageddon. The whole thing will be dead.” And I’m like, “Trust me, it’s going to happen and it’s going to work.” But then also it really taught me a lesson because I’ve realized finally why sometimes I freak people out on the other side – “Where is the scripts? What the fuck?” And I’m like, “It’s all good. Relax.” “What page are you on?” “I’m on page 35.” And I’m actually on page seven [laughs].
In the first season, the swear jar was inspired by Prince, right? And you had hoped to get him onto the show before he died?
Yeah. After I
profiled Prince for Essence, he and I got tight and he
was going to do a television show called Paisley Park. And I was going to run it. And it was gonna kind of be like a
half-docuseries, half-scripted. And my Jedi mind trick was that I was trying to convince him to be in the show, because he wanted it to be about a new generation of artists. I was gonna show him the first two episodes of Luke Cage before we
finished and try to convince him to perform in the finale.
And unfortunately, he passed away before I could do that. I loved him. He was such a mellow guy. He would love what Dave Chappelle’s still doing, he would love Donald Glover.