By his own admission, Empire co-creator Lee Daniels isn’t the first guy you’d think of when it comes to bringing a hip-hop soap opera to primetime. For one, the Oscar-nominated director of acclaimed dramas like The Butler and Precious had never worked in television before he and Danny Strong co-created Fox’s smash hit. (“I’m not Shonda Rhimes,” he says. “This is not my world.”) Second, his knowledge of hip-hop pretty much ended with N.W.A. “When I [produced] Monster’s Ball, Puffy came in to audition, and I didn’t know who he was,” admits Daniels, 55. “But I know good music. I know what makes the sensations go.” He’s also savvy enough to listen to his kids, who recommended reaching out to Timbaland when he was looking for a music supervisor for his show.
The rapper and groundbreaking producer responsible for hits such as “Big Pimpin'” and “Cry Me a River” quickly signed on for the series, which has proved to be the breakout hit of the season, seeing its ratings go up every week since its January 7th premiere — an unprecedented streak in primetime television. (Last week’s episode was viewed by 13.02 million people.) Aside from the over-the-top appeal of Empire — which centers on Terrence Howard’s music mogul Lucious Lyon and his family’s feud over control of Empire Entertainment — a key part of its success has been the original music, written in large part by longtime Timbaland protégé Jim Beanz. Columbia Records will release the Season One soundtrack March 10.
Timbaland selected Beanz, 34, for the project from the ranks of what he calls Team Timbo, a musical Justice League of sorts. “They’re like superheroes,” Timbaland says of his 10-person squad. “You got Flash Gordon, you got the Incredible Hulk, you’ve got Wolverine. Everybody has a special technique.” Beanz, he says, is well-suited to the gig because he’s “a multitasking superhero — he can do production, he can write, he can act tracks out; if I say, ‘Act like Missy [Elliott]’ on a track, he can act like Missy.” That last skill lends itself particularly well to Empire, where Beanz writes for a host of characters, both male and female. (The Philadelphia-based producer says he creates 90 percent of the series’ original tracks; the show’s current song of the moment, “Drip Drop,” is a collaboration between Beanz and fellow Philly producer Justin Bostwick.)
Given fast-paced television production schedules, turnaround time is tight: Beanz, usually has about a day — three days tops — to write music and lyrics, based on story information relayed by the show’s producers, and record the track. “Sometimes the information we send is really specific: ‘Jamal’s going to sing a song about such-and-such, and it’s going to cause this reaction,'” showrunner Ilene Chaiken says. “We don’t say what the song is, we don’t write lyrics. We don’t even necessarily speak about musical style — unless it’s very specific to the story.”
The goal is “to create something that goes against the grain, music that has its own identity,” Beanz says. “One of the things that Tim told me is, ‘If it sounds like something you’ve heard before, don’t do it.'” Upon completing a demo, he’ll sends the song to the Timbaland, based in Miami, who’ll suggest changes; once those are implemented, the track goes to Fox and the show’s creative braintrust.
After songs are approved, Beanz flies to Chicago, where the series is shot, to record cast members’ vocals for the final tracks. (Though he has no professional acting experience, Beanz himself appears on the series; he was drafted to play Empire‘s Titan — described on the show as “the most authentic artist since Tupac” — after the rapper hired for the role dropped out at the eleventh hour.)
From the network’s point of view, having original music on Empire is a tremendous boon in terms of marketing and promotion. “With [Fox’s] Glee, whenever we wanted to use a [cover] song in advertising, we had to go to a publisher for permission” and pay a licensing fee, says Geoff Bywater, senior vice president of music at 20th Century Fox TV. “The show, and the network, have the right to use these songs in all forms of advertising,” including music videos for the tracks “No Apologies” and “Good Enough,” he says.
“There’s a different kind of synergy with the music in Empire,” Bywater adds, “because we’ve got potential music careers that can pop out of it.” Next season may see the release of individual albums from the actor-musicians who play competing brothers Jamal and Hakeem (Jussie Smollett and Bryshere “Yazz” Gray, respectively), and Terrence Howard, who stars as Empire Entertainment head Lucious Lyons, according to Shawn Holiday, Senior Vice President at Sony Music Entertainment.
Daniels hints at major changes to come in Season Two: “To be an empire, the series has to be in a bigger world than just hip-hop. For it to really work, Lucious should have country singers, he should have rock singers.” (The show has already dabbled with the latter idea, with a guest arc by Courtney Love.) Lee figures they’ll have to hire songwriters outside of Timbaland’s stable for those genres, but don’t count Beanz out — he has some hidden super powers. “I do much more than just hip-hop and R&B,” he says. “I’ve done pop, I’ve done dancehall reggae, country, gospel. I’m absolutely capable and ready to do whatever is thrown my way.”
For his part, when Timbaland looks to the future, he sounds an awful lot like Empire Entertainment’s CEO. “Empire‘s just the start of what my team’s about to do,” he predicts. “We’re gonna monopolize music. Anything dealing with music, you’re gonna have to come see Team Timbo.”