Luke Cage’s showrunner treats every season like a hip-hop concept album

Cheo Hodari Coker
Creator of Luke Cage, Cheo Hodari Coker Kevin Winter/Getty Images

For Cheo Hodari Coker, creator of Marvel’s Luke Cage on Netflix, the acclaimed series is more than just a TV show. It’s a visual concept album similar to Beyonce’s Lemonade. The show’s carefully curated music selection is its soul, and much like Beyonce’s opus, the first season of Luke Cage captured so much attention, it temporarily broke Netflix.

In Luke Cage season 1, the ex-con is given superhuman abilities as part of a prison experiment, but he initially resists the obligation to use his powers to be a superhero. By season 2, his actions in the first season have made him “Harlem’s hero,” and he must deal with the stresses of his newfound fame.

Coker spoke with Digital Trends ahead of the show’s season 2 premiere about his battles with Netflix and Marvel, the idea of Luke Cage’s blackness as a superpower, and how Luke would fare in a fight against Avengers: Infinity War villain Thanos.

(Warning: Spoilers for season 1 abound below, so read on at your own risk.)

Digital Trends: In season 1, Luke struggled with coming out of the shadows, while season 2 sees him struggle with the celebrity of being a superhero. What was your plan for developing Luke’s character in this new season?

Cheo Hodari Coker: When season 1 came out, we were extremely happy with the reception. Everybody really dug the show … until we killed off Cottonmouth. [Laughs]

netflix luke cage season 2 cheo coker interview cottonmouth

Trust me, I read every tweet. I read every single comment and article. I’m here for all of it. So the only thing you can do is to make the best record you possibly can make. I say “record” because I treat Luke Cage as if it’s a concept album. Luke Cage is a bulletproof version of [Beyonce’s] Lemonade. It’s a visual concept album with dialogue. That’s the way I make all musical decisions. [The show] is about how it feels in addition to the themes and the visuals. It’s all one package.

If [Donald Glover] was bulletproof and saving Harlem, that’s what I think it would be like for Luke Cage in the real world.

With Luke, he doesn’t have a mask. Everybody knows where to find him. So, how does that affect his life? How does that affect his livelihood? He’s a hero for hire. He could get paid, so let’s deal with that realistically, but then let’s also go for deeper things.

All the time now you see celebrities doing what they do and then get criticized for it. Perfect example is Donald Glover. He’s a genius. Literally, everything he puts out is genius. Both seasons of Atlanta are fire. Childish Gambino records are fire. He puts out This is America and essentially shuts down the internet. Then all of a sudden people are mad at him, and what is he going to do? He can’t stop being who he is. So you just keep being who you are. If the brother was bulletproof and saving Harlem, that’s what I think it would be like for Luke Cage in the real world.

That’s a fascinating analogy, because the music really is the identity of this show. One of the most memorable scenes from season 1 has Luke listening to Wu-Tang Clan’s Bring The Ruckus while beating up bad guys. Early in season 2, there’s a similar scene set to Mobb Deep’s Shook Ones II. Was that second scene a product of the reception to the first one? How much of season 2 is inspired by the reception to season 1?

Here’s the thing: I’m just being me. … I lean into what I know. What I know are Timberland boots, Carhartt jackets, the ’90s era, Das EFX. Lords of the Underground’s Chief Rocka. That was my era. The show is going to reflect that sensibility. Basically, I lean into ’90s hip-hop the way that [Martin] Scorsese leans into ’70s rock and roll.

netflix luke cage season 2 cheo coker interview barber shop
Netflix

Even though [Scorsese] is in his 60s or 70s, he’s always going to go back to that because that’s where his swagger comes from. He’s trying to do what he does. As a hip-hop showrunner, hip-hop is always going to be a part of the sensibility of Luke Cage. It’s always going to be a reflection. The thing is, [series composers] Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, we’re all geeks. At the same time, Season Kent and Gabe Hilfer, our music supervisors, make everything possible in terms of helping us stay on budget [and] making decisions, helping us get the orchestra, and then negotiating with Marvel so that they actually pay for all of it.

Basically, I lean into ’90s hip-hop the way that [Martin] Scorsese leans into ’70s rock and roll.

The secret weapon for me is our music editor, Michael Brake. My favorite part of the whole process is when we do the final mix. Each episode is essentially mixed like a record. … As a musician, I get to make 13 records. Michael Brake is the person that — if Adrian and Ali have a song that fits for a scene but needs to be stripped down a bit — can make that happen right there.

It’s the collaboration of all of us together that gives the show its feel, in terms of the music. We write the show, conceptually, from the music being the start of the concepts, and then we build backwards from it. It’s really more about sequencing an album as much as sequencing a TV show.

The Luke Cage comic books are source material for the show, but you’ve added modern elements. In the new season, there’s a “Harlem’s Hero” app that tracks where Luke is based on uploaded photos. What inspired that element?

Ronda Rousey talked about how she had changed some settings on Instagram or Twitter because people were geo-tracking her. I think her quote was, “I was being geo-tracked like I was a rhinoceros.” She would take a photo, or a fan would come up to her and take a photo, and people were literally tracking her movements. It really creeped her out.

harlem's heroes app
Netflix

I thought about this and what it would be like for Luke Cage. That’s where that line from episode 1 [of season 2] came from, when [Dave Griffith] says, “Yo, it’s like Waze, for you.” If Luke Cage existed, people would be taking photos, and then both criminals and people who need help would know where to find him.

We spoke with one of the show’s composers, Adrian Younge, about Luke Cage‘s music — particularly, the ending theme for each episode. 

I read that interview! I fought tooth and nail for that ending theme to be the theme song. We had two versions [of the title sequence]. We had the version that you currently see, set to the current theme song. We also had a version of the title sequence set to [the current end theme]. That end theme still is my favorite one.

My thing was, “Yo, I want that shit to be on from the start of Luke Cage, so as soon as it comes on, every motherfucker is like, ‘Yo, Luke Cage is on!'” But, I lost that battle.

netflix luke cage season 2 cheo coker interview group
Netflix

The thing that’s interesting is that the current theme song has grown on me. It really has. It’s become distinct in its own right. I’m going to blame [executive producer] Karim Zreik for that one. Karim is all about pacing. He wanted the faster theme song because he wants there to be a certain momentum going into each episode. The current theme song peps you up to a certain extent. … That’s one of the few arguments I lost that still kills me.

Speaking of that, are there things you fought with Marvel and Netflix about and won?

Oh, Method Man. Neither Marvel nor Netflix wanted the moment [from season 1] with Meth in the show until we did it. I’m a huge fan of Jimmy Cliff in The Harder They Come. [The 1972 Jamaican film] is about an outlaw that releases a record that becomes the hottest record on the island, but at the same time, he’s a fugitive. Episode 12 of season 1 was our chance to do that with Luke Cage.

At first, [Marvel and Netflix] were like, “There’s no way that Luke, on the run as a fugitive, would stop a bodega store robbery. There’s also no way anybody would make a record about it.” I explained to [head of Marvel Television] Jeph Loeb first, and then later to Netflix, that this is coming from the reality that we’ve set. New York is one of those places where you really can run into a famous rapper on the subway or run into them at the bodega. You just run into people. If they ran into a superhero and they were going to see [radio personality] Sway, or someone like that, and there was a freestyle moment, they would talk about it.

I said, “I know this feels stretched, but this is absolutely real to hip-hop, and real to the world, and I would not press for it if we, as a collective staff, felt that moment was going to be corny.” Luckily, Meth was available, because we would not have done it if Meth wasn’t available. He was great on The Wire. He’s still an MC, and he’s also a comic book geek. He asked me, “Yo, what do you want the song to be about?” I said, “I want something that that would reflect what Luke Cage is to the community.”

In one episode of the new season, Mariah Dillard says Black women have always been superheroes, turning pain into progress. In another episode, Luke says that being Black overshadows anything in the eyes of a court. Is blackness a superpower in Luke Cage?

Blackness is always a superpower. Period. Being Black gives you a confidence in the world that you will find your own way of reinterpreting something. James Brown [said], “You’ve got to use what you got to get what you want.” [In his song I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing, he says,] “I don’t want nobody to give me nothing, open up the door, I’ll get it myself.”

Blackness is always a superpower. Period.

Those are two of the Blackest statements ever. They embody the mentality of every generation that’s come before or is pushing forward. It’s that exact same thing. … It’s having the ability to turn pig guts into chitlins. You’ve got to be able to take whatever life throws to you and make it into something that you need, [and] take it to the next level. So, Blackness is always a superpower, and will never ever be a detriment. Unless you’re trying to catch a cab. [Laughs]

This season seems to deal with more serious issues like domestic violence, police brutality, and Black identity. Luke struggles with controlling his anger and reconciling with his father. What prompted this shift in tone?

I had a very difficult relationship with my own father, who I loved dearly. He passed away in 1997. That scene between Luke and his father [in season 2] when he runs into his dad in the park, I wrote that scene in about five minutes. It wasn’t until I wrote the scene that I realized, “Damn, as much as I think I was over my issues with my dad. I’m not.” [Laughs]

The scene just wrote itself. Both Reg E. Cathey and Mike Colter found the nuance in it, and Lucy Liu’s direction of that scene was spectacular. They were able to be human. They were able to basically express both sides of the argument in it. It was a complex look at black male masculinity that you rarely get the opportunity to see in television. 

When you watch episode 9, that is Reg’s last episode. That’s very poignant today because I’m actually in New York right now to go to his memorial service. [Editor’s Note: Cathey died February 9, 2018.] Reg was such a spectacular actor and such a spectacular human being that he inspired us in so many ways. … we would all come together to do a live reading of the script, and just hearing his laugh and seeing his reactions, it felt special. It was so great. It’s those moments that you live for as a creator.

Netflix doesn’t release ratings and that leads to fans not understanding why certain shows get canceled. As a showrunner, how do you know if your show is successful on Netflix?

You just go with what they tell you. They’re either like, “Yo, it’s great. Let’s do more.” Or they’re like, “It didn’t work out.” The thing is, Netflix has so much data. They know when you watch, what you watch, how long you watch, and where you watch. If you want to get a season 3 of Luke Cage, shut down Netflix the way everyone did for season 1.

Not saying I want to break Netflix, but yeah, I want to break Netflix.

We’re still famous for being the show that broke Netflix. Literally, so many people watched simultaneously that a simple glitch in the software caused the entire service to shut down. I’m hopeful that we do it again. Not saying I want to break Netflix, but yeah, I want to break Netflix. I want to do it again, because, unfortunately, it’s the only thing we’ll have to know whether or not season 2 is more successful than season 1.

In the series, Simone Missick plays Misty Knight. She loses her arm at the end of The Defenders season, and dons a bionic arm in the season 2 trailer. What went into shooting those scenes?

She wore a green sleeve for green screen, and we would have to figure out wardrobe in such a way that she could have her arm pinned behind her back. There’s all these different ways to do it. Since we all talk and collaborate, when [The Defenders co-creator] Marco Ramirez wanted to have her arm cut off, they asked me, “Are you okay with that?” I said, “Look, if you want to cut her arm off, that’s cool. I just want to make sure that we’re able to deal with the emotional impact of that. That emotional impact is a really important part of the first five episodes of Luke Cage season 2.

You mentioned before that there’s a Heroes For Hire series you want to do with Iron Fist and Luke Cage. What’s the word on that?

Well, there’s no word. [Laughs] I’m laughing because what happens is, you mention something, then all of a sudden it becomes reality in an article. That happened to Ryan Coogler. Someone said, “Wouldn’t it be great if you did a spinoff with all of the female characters in Black Panther?” He said, “Yeah, that would be dope.” And then, boom, it’s “Ryan Coogler plans Black Panther spinoff film with all female characters!”

Iron Fist
Iron Fist Netflix

When you get to episode 10, and you see the moment where [Iron Fist] and Luke are together, it feels cool. The way we do it in our season is different than what people think they’re going to get. … Iron Fist is not what you expect on our show, and it will make you fall in love with Iron Fist when you see him.

Do you feel like Luke Cage is a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with The Avengers?

Luke Cage isn’t yet a full member of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I say “yet” because I can’t predict the future. All I know is that the Marvel television universe and the Marvel cinematic universe exist in the same plane, but we don’t fully touch each other, to a certain extent. While we’ll mention what happened in The Avengers as “The Incident,” you don’t see Marvel’s Netflix characters join the MCU yet. Not that it won’t happen, but it has yet to happen. I’m being very political, and very cagey — no pun intended — in saying that. But really, time will tell.

If he might be a full member of the MCU someday, who would win in a fight? Thanos or Luke?

Thanos. If Thanos can kick the Hulk’s ass, then he would definitely smack up Luke. But, because Luke has cellular rejuvenation, Luke’s power is similar to Wolverine’s in that he can recover from any injury immediately. Luke might have an interesting strategy for that fight. So yes, Thanos, with his strength, would whoop Luke’s ass. If we’re talking about a boxing match, it would be like Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor.

But if Luke can stay in the ring, Luke can tire Thanos out, and eventually Luke would whoop his ass, because then it becomes a question of skill, and not really being crushed by Thanos’ brawn. Hopefully the geek army won’t kill me for saying that. [Laughs].

Season 2 of Luke Cage premieres exclusively on Netflix on June 22.