Timbaland Gives Lee Daniels’ ‘Empire’ Hip-Hop Cred

Timbaland Empire Fox

Lee Daniels, co-creator of Fox’s new series “Empire,” is the first to admit that musically he’s “stuck in the world of Diana Ross and Donna Summer,” so the director of “Precious” and “The Butler” may at first seem an odd choice to helm a weekly primetime soap opera devoted to hip-hop.

But with multiple Grammy-winning producer-rapper Timbaland signed on as executive music producer, Daniels is free to focus on the gasp-inducing storylines that propel this melodramatic cross among “King Lear,” “Glee,” “Nashville,” and his favorite show as a child: “I was obsessed with ‘Dynasty’ as a kid, and I wanted to bring that back to my TV world.”

“Empire,” which debuts Jan. 7 after “American Idol,” centers around hip-hop mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard). After discovering he has a terminal illness, the patriarch pits his three sons against each other as they compete to take over the New York-based company (though the show is filmed in Chicago). Add in his scheming ex-wife/ex-jailbird Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), who has designs on the business herself, and there’s plenty of sudsy drama to go around.

“Empire’s” co-creator, writer Danny Strong (Imagine’s Brian Grazer serves as executive producer), first presented the idea as a movie, but Daniels felt it was better suited for TV. “There was something about the longevity of the story that excited me and watching this (idea) grow that I wouldn’t have been able to do in film. In theater and film, the director is king,” says Daniels. “They really want me to be happy at Fox, but I have a lot of people to answer to and they have a lot of input and that’s a different thing to understand.”

Daniels says the conflicted, driven Lyon isn’t based on any particular music impresario; rather, he’s a composite of “my dad, me and several celebrities that I know. He’s based on several real estate moguls that I know of African-American descent. He’s the American dream.”

“Empire” also marks the first series for Timbaland, best known for his work with Jay Z, Justin Timberlake and Rihanna. Daniels called Timbaland out of the blue. “In three days, he gave me some music that was just astounding, and I said ‘Done’,” Daniels says.

Like ABC’s “Nashville,” “Empire” is filled with live performances, licensed needle drops and score, but, Daniels stresses, “The story drives the music, the music doesn’t drive the story. That was very important to me that we’re not just popping out musical numbers for the sake of popping out musical numbers.”

“Glee” helped teach Fox how to integrate music into a show while remaining true to the plot, says Geoff Bywater, Fox’s senior VP of TV Music, adding because “Empire” is a series about the music biz — and because of access to Timbaland’s star-studded Rolodex— expect real artists to drop by. “We want to make the world of ‘Empire’ almost feel like a real music-breathing entity,” he says.

Given the tremendous amount of music in the show — the pilot has more than 12 songs — Bywater says, “It’s all hands on deck” for each episode. As scripts are written, holes are left for original songs. “It takes a while to write a song according to the story notes or emotions that the song needs to help accomplish,” he says. “We have to have those songs ready to go before anyone can step in front of a camera.” Though the show will use outside writers, Timbaland’s team gets first crack at the tunes. Then after the episodes are shot, any licensed songs and composer Fil Eisler’s score are added.

Bywater declines to disclose the show’s music budget, but adds that since there is so much original music, “We don’t have to pay licensing fees for a lot of the ‘big moment’ music.” Fox owns the publishing on the songs written for the show, so it will benefit from additional exploitation of the material.

To that end, Fox has linked with Columbia Records for a music marketing plan that draws upon the tremendously successful template the two partners launched for “Glee.”

To build excitement for “Empire’s” debut, Columbia released on iTunes the series’ first original song, “No Apologies,” performed by Jussie Smollett and Bryshere Gray, who play Lyon’s two youngest sons. Smollett’s character, Jamal, is an R&B singer, while Gray plays Hakeem, a rapper. “We wanted to give people an idea of what’s coming,” says Shawn Holiday, Columbia Records senior VP of A&R.

Like “Glee” and “Nashville,” a handful of songs from “Empire” will be released on iTunes immediately following each episode. Additionally, compilation albums are on tap — the first is slated to drop in early May as the last show of the season airs — and there’s even the possibility of individual albums from Smollett and Bryshere’s characters, according to Holiday.

Daniels, who directed the pilot, has never been shy about expressing his opinion, or generating controversy. With refreshing candor, he says his stake in “Empire” is all about the Benjamins — to quote the Puff Daddy rap hit. “I get a nice little piece of money from movie to movie, but I have friends that do what I do in television and they’re gazillionaires. I was like, ‘Danny, what the hell, let’s try to make the money for once.’ That was the motivation, I’m embarrassed to say.”

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  1. Mr Boyd says:

    Empire soon as I started watching it real good two guys locked lips together i said wow I,m not feeling this so I hope next season they tone it done with the gay stuff or I will be watching and changing my T bow to another channel.there promoting and saying its alright to be confused and mentally disturbed or confused two men can,t reproduce or two women.I have a few buddy that watch it with there wifes and they said the same thing the got up and went to bed.

  2. Keith says:

    Where do Timberland find his music motivation from, do he get it out of the air, or from the internet, like that joint drip drip drop, that dud rapped it on the show. I heard that intro a few years back by up coming rapper Day Reals, check it for your self and ask timberland what was the motivation for that song.

    Best Regards,

  3. When I take a look at the big picture, imo Empire’ Co-Creator Danny Strong has joined the ranks of modern day media slvve masters like Jimmy Iovine, Suge Knight, Kanye West, to name a few.

    All men who write or produce rap and hip hop performances glorifying violence, as well as demeaning females of all ages, as well as perpetuating negative racial stereotypes, and most importantly, promote performance lyrics that influence developing children to make poor choices often resulting in them harming their peaceful neighbors, being confined to a detention facility, or worse!

    In his 2015 Grammy award winning Rap Performance titled “I”, Kendrick Lamar writes, “I’ve been dealing with depression ever since an adolescent.”

    I spent nearly a dozen years providing police services to a NYC community overflowing with children experiencing depression. I witnessed why in many cases children become depressed.

    I witnessed peaceful people in the community experiencing depression and fear over matters concerning their Rap Hip Hop influenced neighbors who engaged in anti-social activities that made them have grave concerns for their family’s safety.

    I am not writing about isolated cases of peaceful people experiencing fear and depression over concerns about being physically harmed by their anti-social, emotionally/physically abused, poorly supervised children/teen and/or adult neighbors.

    I am writing about innocent people spending day after day fending off the influences of Rap Hip Hip embracing youngsters and adults, protecting their own children from being influenced by the angry, disrespectful lyrics written by the teens, men and women who embrace the Rap Hip Hop Culture…as well as protecting themselves and family’s from the anti-social acts described in many Rap HH lyrics.

    Danny Strong’s own leading lady recently shared a chat with Wendy Williams, both proclaiming their love for PitBull, a man who writes lyrics clearly disrespecting females, essentially characterizing them as less than human. My jaw dropped watching Ms. Henson’s cluelessness and lack of critical thinking skills throughout this interview.. I write about them on my blog.

    Mr. Danny Strong should consider requesting access to a juvenile detention or foster care facility and interview the residents to get a feel of how his “great idea for a movie turned TV show’ and the culture it glorifies impacts the lives of children in communities throughout our nation that embrace the Rap Hip Hop culture.

    If Danny Strong wants drama, he should write about the experiences of children like Kendrick Lamar who revealed to entire world, “I’ve been dealing with depression ever since an adolescent.”


  4. Evelyn Rowland says:

    The show is great. I would like to see R Kelly on an episode. He would really rock alone with the Lyons family.

  5. Darry Angelo Walker says:

    Love the show, it is a true asset to television. The actors are superb and I would love to sit in on a live taping.

  6. Taeshaun Brewer says:

    i really like this show i watch it every time it comes on

  7. Chambers says:

    I’m sick of people worrying about blacks image hello Sons of Anarchy , Breaking Bad & Mom they all have trashy moms & dads, bad people exist in every race

  8. tammy craig says:

    the only trashy racist person I see on here is the person calling the innocent person a racist

  9. Pawghunter says:

    All the stereotypes were hit on this one. Black guys only rap and/or sell drugs. Check. Black parent is a felon. Check. Successful black male marries a white woman. Double Check. Basketball Court in a corporate board room? Are you kidding me?
    The only thing left to make things perfect would have been in they’d have catered the corporate boardroom meetings with fried chicken and watermelon.

    • realitycheck says:

      just enjoy the show and yes stereotypes exist and thats what successful black men do they marry outside there race and yes there are drug dealers in our community , yes we have parents thats felons so how is this not true it is someones reality and if everyone was lawyers & Doctors you would still complain about how that isn’t reality I guess with Tv shows you can’t please everyone

  10. abc says:

    Lee Daniels has nothing to be ashamed of since the era of Barry Gordy’s Motown was the zenith of the urban black sound. Rap music, to put it mildly, is derivative, illiterate drivel, lacking any wonder or beauty. Profitable? Yes; so is the drug trade. Interestng how they travel in the same circles Very sad.

    • def says:

      you’re a racist moron. and rap is too complex for you to understand. Of course, if you check your arrogance at the door, you might find that hip hop has made some of the best songs in human history. Like any genre, there is brilliance and there is dreck. Find the brilliance or just be quiet because you look stupid to anyone with a brain.

    • Glenn rock says:

      “Timbaland best known for he’s work with rihanna” give me a break more like best known for he’s work with aaliyah, beyonce,missy Elliot,keri hilson, nelly furtado. Justin timbeRlake, jay z, nas, ludicrous

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