No one has to tell Cheo Hodari Coker about the ties between comic books and hip-hop. He's seen the connection for years.
Before Coker was producing and writing on Showtime's "Ray Donovan" or TNT's "Southland," and certainly before he became the show runner of Netflix's new superhero series "Luke Cage," he was a music journalist exploring the world of hip-hop for Vibe, Rolling Stone and, for three years in the 1990s, the Los Angeles Times.
"When I interviewed the Notorious B.I.G., about a month before he died," Coker said earlier this year at the Television Critics Assn. press tour, "he told me a story about how his mother didn't know anything about his life on the street. At home he was Christopher Wallace, his mother's son. He was 'Chrissy Pooh.' On the street he was Big Chris and eventually Biggie. His mother, who was a devout Jehovah's Witness, would leave home while he was wearing one thing, but then he would go to the roof and he would change clothes.
"That's when he would pull out the gold rope and all the flashy stuff that his mother couldn't afford that he got from drug dealing. He put that on and would go [to school] as a different person. I likened it to the relationship between Aunt May and Peter Parker. Any time Spider-Man stuff affects Aunt May he's horrified. Much the same way Christopher Wallace never wanted his Biggie persona to affect his mother. …Even as a rapper it's about him reconciling the Peter Parker and the Spider-Man parts of his life, much how Christopher Wallace had to still be the Notorious B.I.G. and was eventually able to reconcile Christopher Wallace. Unfortunately, right as he was figuring it out, he was killed."
Coker's instinctive ability to trace narrative links between superheroes and super performers should serve him well as he blends hip-hop, Harlem, literature and history into "Luke Cage," which began streaming Friday.
"I can't turn hip-hop off just like I can't turn comic books off," he said. "It blends into everything for me."
Adapted from the Marvel character created in 1972 by Archie Goodwin, John Romita Sr., and George Tuska, the new "Luke Cage," has ditched the open yellow shirt, matching boots and bracelets from his comic book past. The "tiara," however, does make a cameo. Mandatory comic geek Easter eggs aside, the look is pretty simple; this hero, whose powers include super strength and bulletproof skin, wears a hoodie. And yes, it's intentional.
Cage made his first Marvel Cinematic Universe appearance in Netflix's "Jessica Jones" series as Jones' romantic counterpart. It was a role that delivered a lot of steamy, T-shirt-ripping scenes with a gender flip (it was predominantly Jones doing the ripping), but was fairly light on his back story. Now Cage is center stage in his own title series, which moved him uptown, from Hell's Kitchen to Harlem.
"He needed a place to go and clear his head, literally," explained star Mike Colter, in reference to the blast he experienced in the finale of "Jessica Jones'" first season, while sitting for an interview with Coker at Comic-Con International this summer.
Cage takes up odd jobs — at barber shops sweeping hair, lifting washing machines one-handed with his superhero strength and doing dishes at the nightclub Harlem's Paradise. No longer the flirty bartender we met in "Jessica Jones," he's gone even deeper into hiding, avoiding all chances of a superhero showdown.
"And then, of course, as dramas do unfold," Colter noted, "there's trouble in Harlem."
The Harlem locale allowed Coker to further blend the worlds of music, comics and history.
"Harlem has always been the nexus of music, politics, culture, criminal figures," Coker said. "I mean because if you look at [drug dealers] Frank Lucas and Nikki Barnes, at the same time you also have Clayton Powell and Malcolm X, you have the Cotton Club, you have Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Muhammad Ali. Every place that you walk on the streets, there's this history. … You feel that culture and that vibe. We were able to use Harlem for Harlem."
Perhaps in hopes of building a bit of their own history, Coker had an elaborate set constructed of a gorgeous club called Harlem's Paradise. It's meant to evoke the feel of the Cotton Club and Lenox Lounge, and coincidentally works as the perfect bad guy headquarters for "Luke Cage" villain Cornell Stokes, played by Mahershala Ali.
It's also a club fully booked with heaps of musical talent. Singer Raphael Saadiq appears in the pilot crooning "Good Man." Faith Evans, Charles Bradley, the Delfonics, Method Man and Jidenna are also supposed to stop by and stir up a musical moment or two. What's more, Ali Shaheed Muhammad from A Tribe Called Quest and composer Adrian Younge worked with a 30-piece orchestra on the score of "Luke Cage."
"I would almost call it bespoke music," Coker said. "It is directly tailored to our story, it's directly tailored to 'Luke Cage' the same way that 'Shaft' has the Isaac Hayes sound, the same way that Curtis Mayfield is all over 'Superfly.'" And oh yes, there will be a vinyl record released, just one more way "Luke Cage" will connect the dots between comics and hip hop.
"It wasn't as much about bringing the world together, as it was pointing out what was already there," Coker said about hip-hop mixing with comic superheroes. After all, Ghostface Killah's solo debut album was titled "Ironman" and he sometimes refers to himself as "Tony Starks." MF Doom dons a shiny Doctor Doom-looking mask when on stage; rapper and record producer Jean Grae took her stage name from the X-Men character. The Wu-Tang Clan has their own comic series, "Nine Rings of Wu-Tang," and Marvel has been rolling out hip hop variant covers n including tributes to Biggie's "Ready to Die" and Spider-Man hanging out on the remade cover of A Tribe Called Quest's "Midnight Marauders."
Beyond the music, "Luke Cage" has already made history. This Netflix series will be Marvel's first African American lead in a TV show or movie since the comic book company rebooted its Hollywood franchise in 2008. Both Colter and Coker are acutely aware what that means for an audience tuning in amid the current political climate.
"He's a bulletproof character in a world that seems to have focused on black people in a way that people were not aware of before," Colter said. "So how does that play to the people when they're watching it?"
"In light of what's happening today we didn't mean to necessarily be topical, but we didn't run away from it," Coker said. "Because these things that are happening have been happening for a long time. The only difference now is that people have a camera crew in their pocket and they can capture these things. So we're not shying away from the politics, we're not shying away from the culture. But at the same time we also have a hero who is born for these times."
And Coker is ready to defend his creation from those who would attempt to pigeonhole it as just another comic book offering.
"People underestimate the complexity of comic books," he said at TCA. "Yes, we're a hardcore genre comic book show, but at the same time what makes Marvel characters different than other characters is that Marvel characters live in the real world. It's an alternative universe, but Luke Cage [can] also be a fan of Richard Price, George Feliciano and Walter Mosley."
Back at Comic-con, Colter pushes the idea that the series will be uplifting. "I think there's an optimism about this very conscientious, thoughtful character that we're creating," Colter said. "It makes you feel like there is a light at the end of the tunnel — there's some place that we're going as a society and a culture, and it's not just about Harlem. It's about people and how they respond. And Luke is trying to influence a community. He wants people to be their own heroes because ultimately, everything that we do is not about picking up a car and throwing it through a building, or helping someone."
Finding the right balance between comic books and real life, though, isn't easy.
Coker recalled a discussion over a scene in which Cage would get shot a number of times. "Jeph [Loeb, executive vice president of Marvel television] said, 'I don't want it to come off like one of those George Reeves Superman things, like what happened when I was a kid where the guy pulls the pop gun and because the audience knows that this isn't going to affect them, there's no drama.' And I said, 'Jeph, I will never get tired of seeing a bulletproof black man.''