LISTEN: "Marvel's Luke Cage" and "Westworld" composers break down their shows' signature sounds

Salon talks music with "Marvel's Luke Cage"'s Adrian Younge & Ali Shaheed Muhammad and "Westworld"'s Ramin Djawadi

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published December 28, 2016 5:00PM (EST)


2016 yielded a bumper crop of high quality TV series, many of which have catchy, infectious soundtracks. But only a handful yielded scores so integral to their show’s dramatic execution that they rose above the level of simple auditory accessory. Salon spoke with the composers of two such notable scores for two great TV shows: HBO’s "Westworld" and Netflix’s "Marvel's Luke Cage."

This audio feature is part of a larger story about the reasons we loved TV in 2016. Read the full story and watch the best moments on video.

"Marvel’s Luke Cage" focuses on one of the first black superheroes to be featured in mainstream comics. Luke Cage is a creation of the 1970s, but the fact that he’s bulletproof gives the character special currency in this day and age. Series creator and executive producer Cheo Hodari Coker drew enormous influence from the drama’s Harlem setting, as well as 1990s hip-hop to script the plot. And to capture the essence of his hero, Coker called upon two heavyweights in the music world.

Adrian Younge: My name is Adrian Younge and I am the co-composer with Ali Shaheed Muhammad of Marvel’s Luke Cage.

Muhammad, a member of legendary hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, happened to be working on a project with Younge, whose previous work includes the soundtrack for the Adult Swim animated series "Black Dynamite."

Younge: Ali and myself, who were both individually contacted by the show’s creator, Cheo Coker, and he contacted us because he was already a fan of our music and unbeknownst to him, we were already working together. So he wanted to kind of combine our sounds to do something and we already had our relationships working.

Ali Shaheed Muhammad: Well, when we first were approached to do this, I started making music instantly based off of just some of the descriptions that Cheo was feeding to Adrian and I. And Adrian, having already scored and having experience with this, he felt that I shouldn’t really do that until we received visuals and could start cutting to the visuals, and I said to him, I said, “You know, the thing is, I feel I need to get a head start," because I have a very slower way of working than he does. And I also felt that it usually takes me 18 months to make one hour [of music] and we only had nine months to make 13 hours. And so knowing that that was the pace, you really wanted to then look at each episode as an album.

Younge: Also because of what’s been happening in the last 20, 30 years, not much is really expected from a television score. So we wanted to approach this in a way where we want to be an extra character, if music can even be that. And we wanted this extra character to shed light on the world of Luke Cage so that when you hear the music outside of watching it with picture, you feel like you’re in the world. So that’s why it’s something that is evocative. It makes a statement.

To immerse the audience in the swagger of Luke Cage’s Harlem, Younge and Muhammad incorporated a blend of funk, jazz, hip-hop, R&B and strains of classical music as rendered by a 30-piece orchestra.

Adrian: I always tell people that old records that I have not heard before is new music to me because I really don’t listen much to modern music. So, my influences are all from 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago. So as an avid record collector and producer, I look at the people that are timeless to me and are classic like the Ennio Morricones, like the Curtis Mayfields, like the Isaac Hayes, like the John Carpenters, all these people, the Bernard Herrmanns, the people that have made statements with their music. So that’s one of the reasons why people may feel that the music sound's called “retro.” But a lot of people also say it reminds them of blaxploitation. And it’s interesting because there’s always going to be those moments, but you just don’t see many modern black composers play live instruments that have access to a 30-piece orchestra. So like a lot of people just hear the blackness of the music and then automatically associating it with, “Oh, this is period blaxploitation.” But also it’s just black people making music for today using organic instruments recorded to tape with an orchestra.

Muhammad: But in addition to the foundation of hip-hop, we merged it with songs inspired by James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Ennio Morricone, Bernard Herrmann, Maurice Ravel. And not necessarily copying those things but just the feeling, the sounds with the techniques that some of those artists, the composers, use to record in their music to give us our foundation. But one of the things that seem really clear entails writing, and his description of the music was that it was the character and so we had to be careful not to make it be so much of a lead, but just really to be there to support.

But in some scenes the melody speaks directly to the action.

Muhammad: The scene where Shameek is in Cottonmouth’s office — I think this might be episode one or two — and he’s standing in front of the Notorious B.I.G. photo and there’s that little monologue. He asks a question, “You like my Biggie photo?” And it’s just like what comes off at that point is it’s fiercely violent. How do I say this — the music is also violent but there’s something that’s seductive in that. And the blood, he’s like being intoxicated by him physically beating this other human being to death. So the music is also equally intoxicating in that. It’s seductive, it’s alluring. But it’s also dark and just evil.

Very different music guides viewers through the dusty street scene in HBO’s "Westworld," a theme park where wealthy visitors interact with android hosts who look, act and bleed just like their human counterparts. To bring this strange emotions and perils of this world to life, "Westworld" executive producer Jonathan Nolan called upon one of the most sought-after composers in the business.

Ramin Djawadi: Hi, I’m Ramin Djawadi and I’m the composer on "Westworld."

Viewers who aren’t familiar with Djawadi’s name can probably hum a few bars of his best-known work. He’s the mastermind behind the music for "Game of Thrones." When Nolan tapped Djawadi to create the soundtrack for his modern sci-fi western, Djawadi was thrilled to have the opportunity to pay homage to the 1973 movie upon which the series is based.

Djawadi: I was a huge Yul Brynner fan and Michael Crichton fan and I just loved the original movie and I loved the tone of the movie, I thought it was so ahead of its time with sound and the story. And so I was really, really excited to be able to do something now with this new show. It’s just so totally different. I mean the instrumentation is very different. Obviously, there is some overlap because we do have strings and we do have violin and cello and things like that that I use in the "Game of Thrones" a lot too. But other than that, it was very, very different. There was only one piano piece in the entire sixth season of "Game of Thrones," whereas in "Westworld" the piano is used everywhere. It’s really the most dominant instrument.

The two big sides to the score are on the one hand is the Western-inspired music that we use when we are in the theme park that it has a lot of acoustic instruments, kind of reminiscent of the Western genre, the acoustic guitars, and so forth. And then on the other hand, we have the electronic side, the robots and the control room and when we’re inside where they repair the robots, et cetera, and that’s very electronic and synthetic, and so there’s really two different tonalities that I'm using in instrumentation and the piano was the perfect bridge between the two because it works in both worlds. It really works well on the Western side and it works well on the electronic side. So that was one great tool to kind of bridge the two parts of the score. And then the second great use for the piano was the player piano as we see it in the saloon and we use it as a tool of playing these contemporary songs where we did piano arrangements that were literally then be able to play as source music almost in the saloon.

And the songs suggestions really all came from Jonah. Unfortunately all the songs he suggested, we have the same music tastes it seems, because Soundgarden, "Paint It Black" by the Rolling Stones, all these songs I got really excited about when he said, “Hey, Ramin, can you do a piano version of the Soundgarden song and another piano version of the Radiohead song?" So I had a lot of fun doing these piano reductions of these pieces and the idea behind it was that I guess there’s multiple ways to interpret it. I mean, number one, it was a great way of planting contemporary songs in an old, cowboy, western town setting, because it also, it gives you the idea or it reminds you as a viewer that this is a theme park, it has robots and everything and something’s not quite right about it. So it seemed to be a subtle but perfect tool to remind the audience of where we are and you can also look at it as the people running the park, that are programming the host that set all these stories that they’re almost used as a jukebox where they say, “Oh, I want to hear this song, I’m a Soundgarden fan, and I’m a Radiohead fan, so why not have them play this song.” And it almost becomes secondary that these pieces are not from this time period.

The pop songs featured on "Westworld"’s soundtrack also serve as kind of a Greek chorus, adding subliminal narration on top of the action taking place on screen. And perhaps the best example of this was the cover of Radiohead’s "Exit Music (For a Film)" which was featured in the season one finale.

Djawadi: What was fun on that one was that it was piano but then because the piece was quite long and to build it I added in strings to it and then another little thing that I can point out is that I was actually able to infuse our own "Westworld" theme into the arrangement as well towards the second half of the piece. I actually merged our "Westworld" theme into the arrangement and I thought that was just a kind of fun thing to do.

Of course the calling card for any memorable series is its theme song. But where the swirling strings, prominent percussion, and swell of brass instruments collaborate to create a rich complex sound on "Game of Thrones." The "Westworld" theme is intentionally spare with individual organic instruments featured at the fore of the prominent synth line.

Djawadi: The idea always was rather than starting with a full arrangement of the piece, that there is a sense of assembly just like the visuals give away too, you see things being built and in the show, obviously, we’re dealing with the robots being built, the whole park being built, and so the idea with the score was also these instruments come in one after the other and have a very precise placement and, again, it represents an assembly.

When the show came out, I had a lot of people reached out and gave me positive feedback and shout-outs saying how much they enjoyed the score and how much they enjoyed every riff to listen and go, “Oh, wait, oh, there’s another piano song. What’s this song?” And people had fun doing the recognize game of "what’s this song?" I have to be honest, I was very pleasantly surprised because in the beginning, I didn’t even . . . I just tried to do my best work and I never think of how positive something will be received. Of course I hope that people will like my work but I was so excited when people started reaching out and giving me these shout-outs and saying that they were really excited about these song arrangements and so it was very very cool.

That was Ramin Djawadi, the composer for "Westworld," as well as Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, co-composers of the score from "Marvel’s Luke Cage." The soundtrack albums for "Westworld" and "Marvel’s Luke Cage" are available on Spotify and they can also be purchased on iTunes and at I’m Melanie McFarland. You can read more about the reasons we loved television in 2016 and watch the video at

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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