Showrunner and exec producer of the series, Cheo Hodari Coker, has repeatedly emphasized that music would be instrumental in setting the tone for “Marvel’s Luke Cage,” describing what he had in mind as “a ’90s hip-hop vibe” with “a lot of different musical appearances.” And if you’ve started binge-watching the series, which premiered on Friday, you’d already have a good sense of this.
Star of the series, Mike Colter, added that the “musicality” of the series would distinguish it from past Marvel Netflix series, saying, “It defines itself through sound that you can feel when you’re watching the scenes, whether it’s something that’s actually a song that they’re playing or actually just the pulse of the music that they choose thematically.” He also shared that the audience would hear familiar songs in the series which, along with the “unique” original score, would create an “urban” and “soulful” feel throughout: “We are in Harlem, so you want to feel like you are around that kind of culture. Harlem has a long, rich culture of music and we want to pay homage to that. We want to make sure that the artists that we use and the artists that we are emulating, the sound that we are using bring you into the feel that you’re uptown.”
Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad composed music for the series, reportedly utilizing a full orchestra for the score, which was conducted by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. Also the series features onscreen performances by Faith Evans, Raphael Saadiq, Charles Bradley, The Delfonics, Method Man, and others. Additionally, there are older songs from the likes of Mahalia Jackson and Nina Simone, and some early Wu-Tang Clan tracks.
Coker said that there are plans for a special vinyl soundtrack album for the series, which will be produced by Younge and Muhammad.
In summary, expect to be bobbing your heads as you watch “Marvel’s Luke Cage” which is now available to stream in full on Netflix! And you might even discover some new music in the process, starting especially with the work of Gang Starr, the East Coast hip hop duo that consisted of the late MC Guru and the DJ/producer DJ Premier. Hip hop heads who were around in the early 1990s will certainly be familiar. For those who aren’t, maybe it’s time for you to get more acquainted.
I single out Gang Starr because, one significant aspect of the show’s nod to hip hop music is the fact that every single episode (all 13 of them) is named after a song by Gang Starr. Showrunner/exec producer Coker explained why he decided to do this, in an interview with Hip Hop DX: “Well, Gang Starr for me, it wasn’t about the content of music as much as it was about the song titles. One of the old tricks we used to use back in the day in music journalism is we used to pick a song for cover line. No matter what group you’re talking about. If there’s a cool cover line you can do that and then simultaneously as a huge fan of Shonda Rhimes, she also names a lot of her shows. Original episodes of Grey’s Anatomy after different songs. So it was really just a combination of just like finding songs titles that resonate and then seeing how you can build cinematic resonance with your story and your characters. What I noticed in going through my iTunes is that Gang Starr songs always had that kind of presence and so it just worked basically picking those song titles and making it into something. The first episode is really about that “moment of truth,” that Genghis Khan, is when Luke Cage decides to become a hero. And then “Code of the Streets” is about the ramifications of stepping up and finding out that there is a code that they just violated. The third one in “Who’s Going to Take the Weight?” is really about Luke now stepping up and doing something that from which there is no going back, so he’s going to take the weight of taking down Cottonmouth and put it on his shoulders. All the different titles reflect on the character in an interesting way. But then at the same time on top of everything else, it’s a great playlist. So it’s funny a lot of people actually listened to all those songs, thinking ‘Hey, maybe I’ll get some insights into the show’ but there wasn’t a real invest in the show from the songs, but what they did get was an education on real Hip Hop so I think it served a double purpose.”
Real hip hop indeed.
Coker relied on Gang Starr’s first 5 studio albums for his titles: “No More Mr. Nice Guy” (1989), “Step in the Arena” (1991), “Daily Operation” (1992), “Hard to Earn” (1994), and “Moment of Truth” (1998). The duo’s last full-length album (“The Ownerz”) was released in 2003, though they have released several compilations since.
Sadly, 7 years after “The Ownerz,” one-half of the duo, Keith “Guru” Elam, passed away in 2010, after suffering a heart attack, and falling into a coma.
Below, you’ll find videos for the 13 Gang Starr tracks whose titles are used for each episode of “Luke Cage.” Accompanying each is the name of the album they are from, some noteworthy details about each, as well as samples used, if you want to dig a little deeper. Also, wherever available, I include videos for the artists who perform in some of the episodes.
Episode 1: “Moment of Truth”
It comes from Gang Starr’s “Moment of Truth” – their fifth album (1998). It is the group’s most commercially successful album, debuting at #1 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. The lead single, “You Know My Steez” (also one of the titles selected for “Luke Cage”), became the duo’s second Billboard Hot 100 appearance in 1997. The album features more guest artists than previous Gang Starr releases. Collaborations include songs with Inspectah Deck, Scarface, G-Dep, Freddie Foxxx, K-Ci & JoJo, M.O.P. and more.
The title track, “Moment of Truth,” samples “Let’s Fall in Love All Over” by Billy Paul.
The episode features musical performances by Raphael Saadiq (“Good Man”, “Angel”).
Episode 2: “Code of the Streets”
It comes from “Hard to Earn” – the fourth album from Gang Starr (1994). It features the singles “Mass Appeal”, “DWYCK,” “Now You’re Mine” and “Code of the Streets” (the last 3 are also titles of other “Luke Cage” episodes). Guest appearances on the album include Group Home, Jeru the Damaja, Big Shug, and Nice & Smooth. “Hard to Earn” is also the duo’s first album to carry the “Parental Advisory” label.
“Code of the Streets” samples “Little Green Apples” by Monk Higgins; “Synthetic Substitution” by Melvin Bliss; and “Change the Beat (Female Version)” by Beside.
The episode features a musical performance by Faith Evans (“Mesmerized”) and and d-Nice (“They Call Me D-Nice”).
Episode 3: “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?”
It comes from “Step in the Arena” – the second studio album by Gang Starr, released on January 15, 1991. It’s considered one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time, and arguably helped cement the duo’s status as influencers.
“Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?” samples “Parrty” by Maceo & the Macks, and “To Da Break of Dawn” by LL Cool J.
The episode features a musical performance by Charles Bradley (“Ain’t It a Sin”).
Episode 4: “Step in the Arena”
Also from the “Step in the Arena” album – the title track.
The song samples “Never Let ‘Em Say” by Ballin’ Jack; “Bumpin’ Bus Stop” by Thunder and Lightning; “Four Play” by Fred Wesley & the Horny Horns; and “The Day You’re Mine” by Big Daddy Kane.
Episode 5: “Just to Get a Rep”
Also from the “Step in the Arena” album.
“Just to Get a Rep” samples “E.V.A.” by Jean-Jacques Perrey; “Funky for You” by Nice & Smooth; and “Rock the Message Rap” by Grand Master Chilly-T and Stevie G.
The episode features a musical performance by Jidenna (“Long Live the Chief”).
Episode 6: “Suckas Need Bodyguards”
It also comes from the “Hard to Earn” album.
The track samples “Put Your Love (In My Tender Care)” by The Fatback Band and “It Takes Two” by Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock.
Episode 7: “Manifest”
“Manifest” hails from “No More Mr. Nice Guy” – the debut album by Gang Starr. It was released on June 6, 1989; and it peaked at #83 on the Billboard R&B chart. The song “Positivity” peaked at #19 on the Billboard rap chart.
“Manifest” samples “A Night in Tunisia” by Charlie Parker & Miles Davis; “Bring It Up (Hipster’s Avenue)” and “Ain’t That a Groove (Part 1)” by James Brown; “Papa Was Too” by Joe Tex; and “Word to the Mother (Land)” by Big Daddy Kane.
Episode 8: “Blowin’ Up The Spot”
Another track from the “Hard to Earn” album.
It samples “All Night” and “I Didn’t Come Rhythm” by George Clinton.
Episode 9: “DWYCK”
Also from the “Hard to Earn” album. It features another hip hop duo, Nice & Smooth.
“DWYCK” samples “Hey Jude” by Clarence Wheeler & the Enforcers; “Synthetic Substitution” by Melvin Bliss; “Funky for You” and “No Bones in Ice Cream” by Nice & Smooth; “Bumpin’ Bus Stop” by Thunder and Lightning; and “Side One” by Redd Foxx.
The episode features a musical performance by The Delfonics (“Stop and Look (And You Have Found Love)”).
Episode 10: “Take it Personal”
It’s on the “Daily Operation” album – Gang Starr’s third. It was selected as one of The Source’s 100 Best Hip Hop Albums in 1998. One of the songs of the album, “B.Y.S.”, was featured in the video game “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” on the fictional radio station Playback FM.
Episode 11: “Now You’re Mine”
Another from the “Hard to Earn” album. “Now You’re Mine” originally appeared on the 1992 Soundtrack “White Men Can’t Rap” – a soundtrack to the 1992 comedy film, “White Men Can’t Jump,” starring Wesley Snipes, Woody Harrelson and Rosie Perez.
“Now You’re Mine” samples “Feel the Heartbeat” by Treacherous Three and “Rock Box” by Run-DMC.
Episode 12: “Soliloquy of Chaos”
Another track from the “Daily Operation” album, the duo’s third.
“Soliloquy of Chaos” samples “Misdemeanor” by Ahmad Jamal; and “Strictly Business” by EPMD.
The episode features a musical performance by Method Man (“Bulletproof Love”).
Episode 13: “You Know My Steez”
And finally, “You Know My Steez” also from the “Moment of Truth” album, Gang Starr’s 5th – perceived as a comeback, with a newer, updated style of the group’s already-established jazzy sound, as stated by Guru in the introduction.
“Steez” samples “Flash It to the Beat” by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five; “Real Hip Hop” by Das EFX’ “Opening/Crickets” by Chris Rock; “Drowning in the Sea of Love” by Joe Simon; “Shadowboxing” by GZA; “Usual Suspects” by Big Noyd; and “B Side Wins Again” by Public Enemy.
The episode features a musical performance Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings (“100 Days, 100 Nights”).
That’s it! No go pick up these albums. The superhero series just might lead to renewed interest in Gang Starr’s music, which would be a good thing!