Music

How Gang Starr Helped Make ‘Luke Cage’ A Reflection Of Hip-Hop’s Golden Age

Luke Cage crushed all of the buildings the first few days of October. In fact, Power Man was so…well…powerful, he crashed Netflix for a few hours. Not bad for a guy whose show was set to be fourth in line until he blew up thanks to his role in Jessica Jones. Being dope has its rewards.

There are at least a million things in the show worthy of analyzing, but perhaps the most important aspect of the show is the music. It defines the world, it’s the spine that every single limb is attached to, and isn’t just there to sound good. When Ghostface Killah’s “Enemies All Around Me” is cued up during a shootout, it’s an obvious and fitting choice. No doubt, the strongest musical element to the Luke Cage is Gang Starr. The legendary dynamic duo’s music framed the series before a single punch was even thrown with each episode named after one of their songs. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker is open about taking the idea from Shonda Rhimes’ Grey’s Anatomy but like any good writer, it’s more than just a cute trick.

These episodes aren’t just randomly titled. Each expresses a theme, an idea, or an important plot point. If you’re wondering how, allow me to explain.

1. “Moment of Truth”

This one’s pretty simple. Luke Cage realizes he can’t hide from Harlem anymore because Harlem damn sure isn’t hiding from him. He doesn’t want to be a hero — for hire or otherwise — but he’s finding his “truth.” The episode is filled with different truths from many people: Luke, Cottonmouth, Misty Knight, Mariah Dillard, Pop and even the truth of Harlem itself. Each of the main players on the chessboard have their own way of seeing the world; “Moment Of Truth” is what happens when those viewpoints intersect and each character has to deal with their own “come to Jesus” moments. Whether it’s understanding there’s no hiding from destiny, realizing the people around you aren’t trustworthy, accepting that you can’t save everyone, or how dangerous a seemingly harmless cup of “coffee” can be.

2. “Code of the Streets”

If you’ve seen the episode, this one is obvious. Omar — along with every other person ever in a mob movie — tells us a man must have a code. The Harlem of Luke Cage is no different. There’s some sh*t you just don’t do and if you do, the consequences can be grave. While the first episode started Luke on his journey of official reluctant super-heroism, this episode firmly sets Luke and Cottonmouth on a collision course while juxtaposing the different codes Harlem can live by. Cage advocates for a more peaceful approach that emphasizes the people, and Cottonmouth says he’s all about peace, but you can tell he means the other thing. He wants Harlem to serve as his own personal piggybank, firmly believing that his rising tide will lift all other boats. Even if said boats are riddled with bullet holes from his gun.

3. “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight”

“Knowledge is power” echoes when this track starts. For Cage, those words couldn’t be truer. The third episode finds him in a position of obtaining a lot of knowledge on Cottonmouth’s organization and it’s up him to use it as he sees fit. He realizes the best way to get the attention of a big bad guy is to mess with his money. The episode title has a double meaning, as all of Cottonmouth’s money will tip any scale on earth, but there’s plenty of weight on Luke’s shoulders as well with a void left in Harlem. With Pop dead, someone has to step up and be the new beacon for the people. Those shoes are tough to fill for even a guy as big as Luke, especially with him carrying his own “weight” on his shoulders. He blames himself for Pop’s death because he waited too long to act, determined to bury his light under a bushel. Safe to say after the events of Episode 3, he finally understands it’s time to shine.

4. “Step in the Arena”

Good writing works on multiple levels so once again, this title takes on different forms. That rocket launcher — yes that happened — signified Luke has officially stepped into it, and Cottonmouth has his sights set firmly on him. We also get an origin story to explain how Carl Lucas became Luke Cage and where he got his indestructible skin from. Also, there’s a lot of illegal prison boxing with our protagonist at the center of it so he literally steps in the arena. Of course said arena is dingy, dank, wrapped in racism, and all in the name of lining the pockets of prison guards and finding candidates for a science experiment, but it’s still an arena nonetheless. These events set Luke on his current path, while illustrating just why he’s so determined. It’s also the episode where he finally emerges and lets the entire town know his name and what his powers are. Harlem is officially on notice that a super-powered being is in their midst and Cottonmouth realizes not even a rocket nor a collapsed building can take him out.

5. “Just to Get a Rep”

Cottonmouth is out to tax. This episode is all about reputation. There’s something profound in having three of our main players struggle with the idea of reputation in their own ways. As I said a sentence ago, Cottonmouth is heated. The man just got thoroughly embarrassed because when the streets talk, it’s rarely at a whisper. Everyone knows he got jacked and everyone knows it was Luke Cage who did the jacking. In order to rebuild his standing in the community, he aims to tear down Luke’s position. Misty Knight finds herself dealing with the revelation that her partner and friend might be on the take, which is never a good thing. As someone who was close to Pop — just like Luke and Cottonmouth — she too is dealing with his death on the eve of his funeral and what his rep and legacy means for her and for Harlem. As a father figure for all three, each tries in their own way to live up to the man and the myth. For Luke and Cottonmouth, that manifests itself as a pissing contest to see who can give the best eulogy, with Misty expressing to Luke the true way to honor the man would be to zip up, quit the whole vigilante thing, and help the police rather than increase the collateral damage. Obviously he declines. The man does have a rep to think about.

6. “Suckas Need Bodyguards”

The tables turn when shoes get put on other feet, and the world gets turned upside down when Misty’s crooked partner needs Luke’s protection. Seriously, who’s a better bodyguard than a walking, talking bulletproof vest? This brings forth the idea that Luke — unlike Cottonmouth and his cousin Mariah — doesn’t have protection. Mariah is insulated by the world of politics and the process of spin. Cottonmouth has goons all around him willing to take a bullet or mark one return to sender at the drop of a crown. Luke, much like Daredevil or Spider-Man, suffers from the savior complex. He’s unwilling to ask for help because he doesn’t want anyone else to “take the weight.” It’s an admirable quality but it can lead to trouble which is probably why this episode gives Luke his own bodyguard. Kinda. Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple becomes his support system and the one person to protect him from himself. Guru may have disagreed, but even the hardest rocks need someone to have their backs.

7. “Manifest”

Make no mistake, this episode is all about Cottonmouth and Mariah’s past. As Cottonmouth reflects on his own origin story, all of that history and pent up frustration building between he and his cousin manifests itself in a very shocking way. Cottonmouth saw himself as the Notorious B.I.G., the king of New York. Much like Biggie, his reign was cut down way too soon. As the fallen king lied bloody on the floor of his own castle, it was all due to the manifestation of Mariah’s rage. With her political career on the rocks thanks to Luke, her cousin’s sloppiness, and her own arrogance, Madam Councilwoman reaches her breaking point. The seeds sowed in their childhood bloomed into a heated argument then devolved into a pool of blood. With their grandmother forcing Cotton into the “family business” while giving Mariah every opportunity to go the straight and narrow, it’s easy to see why he resented her and why she she was a ball of rage ready to erupt at any given moment. Let this be a message to all you parents out there: Encourage your kids and keep the line of dialogue open. The last thing you want is for one of them to become a drug kingpin when all he wanted to do was be a musician, only for him to wind up dead on a stage at the hands of his “legitimate” cousin.

8. “Blowin’ up the Spot”

With Cottonmouth out of the picture — seriously, his Biggie picture gets replaced — it’s time for a new king in town. Nature abhors a vacuum so out goes one snake and another enters. Diamondback steps on the scene and uses his Judas bullets to effectively blow up the show. Diamondback quickly establishes himself as someone not to be f*cked with as he’s the only snake to penetrate Luke’s skin. He puts the rest of Harlem’s criminal underworld on notice that he’s here to reign forever, while upping the show’s biblical allusions by 1000%. When you blow up the spot, you change the game. Diamondback shook the show by its legs, emptied its pockets, and fundamentally changed things we understood about the show. Oh and he just so happens to be Luke’s half brother. It is small world after all.

9. “DWYCK”

Ordinarily if someone uttered the line, “lemonade was a popular drink and it still is,” I’d do a thousand eye rolls in succession. When Simone Missick’s Misty Knight does it though, it works. This episode — and the reference — is all about giving us insight into Knight’s character. Her partner is dead and turned out to be crooked, the psychotic Diamondback held her at gunpoint with her own gun, and she spazzed on Claire Temple while interrogating her. In comes a psych evaluator and we learn why the young basketball player from Harlem became a cop after graduating from Temple University and why she played point guard: control.

Misty recounts the murder of her cousin and how that one event in ’95 put her where she is today. She saw a police force that didn’t care about justice because to them, her cousin was just another “poor, worthless b*tch from the Polo Grounds.” She figured the best way to change the system was to become a part of it and ensure no one else had to go through what her family went through on that hot summer day. But the reason she and her cousin were out — against her mother’s wishes — was because she was hot and wanted some lemonade. She made a decision and the consequences were beyond anything she could foresee or control. When God moves the earth beneath our feet, it can be humbling and frustrating to realize how little control we do have. Losing a loved one way before you think its their time to go changes you. Misty decided right then and there to never again be in a situation she couldn’t control. Everything going on around her illustrates just how little control she has and she’s beyond frustrated.

10. “Take It Personal”

Finding out someone you loved wasn’t who you thought they were sucks. It sucks even more when that person is no longer around so you can at least have the satisfaction of a conversation. This episode lives up to its title by getting very personal with its main character and revealing that his ex-wife, Reva Connors, knew a lot more about the experiment that turned him into walking kevlar. In fact, she bold-faced lied to the man about what she knew, how much she knew, and how big her role was. That’s extremely heartbreaking but its worse when he realizes he married and loved the idea of Reva, not the woman herself. Luckily he still has his bodyguard around him to soften the blow, but that doesn’t mean the fall doesn’t hurt.

11. “Now You’re Mine”

Guru and DJ Premier got into a fight before they recorded this song. They’ve both said Guru penned this song with his DJ in mind. Two brothers going blow for blow in an extremely personal way which resulted in a lot of blood being spilled. It’s fitting that this episode pits its two brothers, Diamondback and Luke, against each other with Luke now having a clear understanding of just why Diamondback is so mad at him. Sticking with the Gang Starr analogy, Diamondback is Guru in this situation. He truly believes his fight with his half-brother is righteous. After years of plotting and planning, he can look at Luke and finally say, “now you’re mine.”

12. “Soliloquy of Chaos”

Penultimate episodes are notorious for all hell breaking lose. This one is no different as everything symbolizes chaos. Gangsters get in a shootout, our hero is on the run, buildings blow up, alliances are broken and new ones are forged in blood. Also, Method Man shows up — as Method Man — and eloquently raps the themes of the show while the entire neighborhood rallies around the bulletproof black man. As its said in the show, a lot of times actually, bullets may bounce off Luke but they don’t bounce off Harlem.

13. “You Know My Steez”

For the uninitiated, “steez” means style. By this point, we know how Luke gets down, we know what he’s about, Harlem knows what he’s about, but more importantly, he knows. Whether he’s fighting Diamondback in the streets, going peacefully into police HQ and eloquently stating his case, or just being corny as hell. This is a man who knows what his purpose is and is finally comfortable in his own… skin. Everyone gets that moment though. Mariah finally embraces being the lady kingpin of Harlem, Misty finally learns to trust others and rely on people not named “Misty Knight,” and seeds are sown for the next season. We know the steez of Luke Cage. We know how the show moves and how it breathes.

Sweet Christmas, what an introduction.

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