Ali Shaheed Muhammad

Ali Shaheed Muhammad is a bonafide hip hop hero. Founding member of A Tribe Called Quest, DJ, producer, and multi-instrumentalist. He is a modern day renaissance man, an ever-evolving musical innovator, and a leader in social and political activism. In my brief discussion with Ali, I learned about how he and Adrian Younge crafted the anthemic score for Marvel's Luke Cage series on Netflix and came to understand the spiritual principles by which he lives his life. 

Pop Disciple Ali Shaheed Muhammad Interview

How did you first become involved with the Luke Cage project? You were saying that the showrunner of Luke Cage, Cheo Hodari Coker, was an old friend?

Yeah, Cheo had a friend who is an associate of mine. I guess Cheo had been talking to him about his ideas for the show, and the guy said, "You should talk to Ali." So, he reached out and explained to me what he was looking to do, and he also wanted to speak with Adrian Younge, because of Adrian's work on Black Dynamite. It just so happened that Adrian and I both are friends and we were working together. We had a meeting with him, and the executives at Marvel, and he explained stylistically what he wanted for the music. We all speak the same language and completely understood his vision. 

You are a member of the highly influential and world renowned hip-hop group, A Tribe Called Quest, as well as a DJ and producer. Your collaborator, Adrian Younge is also a successful composer, arranger and producer, who has worked with the likes of Jay-Z, Ghostface Killah, and Schoolboy Q.  How do your varied musical backgrounds serve you in the creation of the music for Luke Cage?

We're both multi-instrumentalists, and we both have the same sort of musical interests, from jazz to psychedelic. We have similarities, but there are differences as well and we complement each other. We understand where the other person is coming from, and it just makes it interesting. It's like we're band members, you know?

How do you and Adrian coordinate the process of making cues for Luke Cage? Do you prefer working together or separately? 

We would go to a spotting session, and get a whole bunch of notes from the executive producer, the music supervisor and even sometimes our music editor. We then go to our own studios and chop up what we think we'd want to work on. Sometimes we wouldn't know, and we just have to be like, "All right, time to go. The clock has begun, and we've got to get started. No time to think about it, and I'll just check off a few, you check off a few”. There's some that we would do separately, and some that we would do together. There was no real formula. We were basically given two episodes at one time, and not a lot of time to get it done. We stopped our planned album tour because we felt passionate about this project, and we wanted to give it our all. We also wanted to make a huge statement with this score, in terms of the sound of scored television pieces. There are times when we're not going to sleep and working 36 hours straight. We're proud of the work that we did, especially the time and sacrifice of not spending time with our families and our friends. It was worth it because of something really beautiful that we made.

The hard work and sacrifice is apparent. The music on Luke Cage is cutting edge, genre blending, and undeniably cinematic. Almost as if J Dilla, Ennio Morricone, and Head Hunters all came together. Could you share a bit about the opening title sequence of the show?

The version that they finally decided on was actually the third draft. They asked us to go back and come up with another version. We first came up with a version which everyone loved, but part of Marvel's executives wanted it to be a bit more upbeat sounding. And so, I think what we really wanted to do was give Luke sort of a hip-hop foundation, but not hip-hop in the obvious sense. We wanted it to be a fitting theme song for a black superhero. That was more what we felt at first. The second take was capturing that emotion. The third take that we did was trying to hone in on what Marvel wanted, which ultimately became the theme title. But Cheo really liked the second one as much, and so the second theme that we did actually became the closing title of every episode.

Though the soundtrack has elements that give it sampled-MPC vibe, it sounds like all live drums. Do you and Adrian play your own drums?

Yeah, it's all live. Adrian and I play drums, and then he has a drummer, Dave in his band who played drums also. We played everything. We didn't sample anything.

What inspired the guitar sounds? They have a dirty and distorted quality, as if they are running through a fuzz box. Some have a wah-wah effect and some feature vibrato.

Just knowing that Luke Cage was created during the Blaxploitation era, there were certain elements, texturally, that we wanted to factor in. We blended the centuries of music, but also we're trying to make it as modern as possible. There's always a throwback, but then we try to add something in there to give it new life.

Who is your favorite character in Luke Cage? Are there any that you personally identify with?

Wow, that's a tough question. Oh man. I can't say I have a favorite. They all step out. If you say three, now we have a conversation.

All right, three.

Let me think about this. I love Luke because he's obviously a big, strong guy who is smart and carries the community on his back. He actually has gone through something impactful, and definitely, it's unraveling truths for him. He got into a little bit of a mess and cleaned his life up. As a result, those people betrayed him, and that's how he was imprisoned. He doesn't blame the person who has framed him. He's like, "You know, there's maybe something, an element, a role that I played, and that's what landed me here." I just think when you're a mature person, you have that self-reflective outlook, and I respect that. Mahershala Ali plays such a hell of a role out of a bad guy. And, who doesn't love Cottonmouth? He's charming as well, but he also has the community on his back. He's a tough guy, but not a scary tough guy. He is a methodical one who thinks, and so I really loved that. And I love Detective Misty Knight's character, for having the determination to overcome the adversities of being a young black woman, who's an athlete. I mean, there's so much depth to the characters. 

I wanted to talk a little bit about A Tribe Called Quest's “We the People”. It is so topical and timely. The lyrics of the hook are "All you Black folks, you must go. All you Mexicans, you must go. And all you poor folks, you must go. Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways. So all you bad folks, you must go." This raw political message has been resonating with many. 

Yeah, it has been. I believe that's the message Trump has been basically saying since the beginning of this campaign. A lot of people didn't vote this year. The shitty thing is if you didn't vote, and you wonder how we got here, then maybe you can be motivated to become more of an active participant in the political process.

Can you share some insights you've gathered from your personal spiritual practice? 

I believe that there's a higher being and that we didn't get here accidentally. So, I believe that there needs to be a mutual respect for humanity, for your community, for this earth that we live on. It has to be real, regardless of what life has shown you and what adversity has befallen you. It is how you deal with yourself, in that adversity, which makes you unique. And so, my belief system is about trying to practice it externally with your immediate surroundings - your family, community, and friends. That's all you really need to do, and eventually, the ripple or a drop will expand out and turn into waves, making all of mankind harmonious. 

That's beautiful and profound. Everyone endures hardships, but it's how you deal with them that conditions your quality of life.

Yes, but not to dismiss or discount the catalyst, because it does matter. But finding that inner harmony is most important. And for me, Islam has taught me how to view the world that way, and I know that especially right now, people don't really understand Islam. There are people who are fanatical and extremists, and there's extremism in all religions. 

On a closing note, what upcoming projects of yours do we have to look forward to?

We're working on finishing The Midnight Hour. Then, there's another prominent project we're working on that I don't think I'm able to talk about publicly right now. But it's very dear to us. I will just go as far as to say that it's a legacy artist who is no longer alive, and we're doing everything we can to preserve this artist's legacy, and the music that this person made was so much about love. I don't have a release date, but my guess is it will be this year. 

Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research | Paul Goldowitz
Editing | Paul Goldowitz
Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg

Extending gratitude to Ali Shaheed Muhammad.