Empire state of sound: how the original soundtrack took on a life of its own

The hip-hop drama has broken ratings records and turned heads with its guest appearances, but Melissa Locker argues the real star of the show is the music

There’s little doubt that Empire is the biggest hit of the television season. Created by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, the show has managed to find an audience and increase it each week (breaking records in the process), which is a trick that the vast majority of television shows – especially in their rookie year – don’t manage.

The hip-hop soap revolves around Empire Records, the fictional label headed by Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), a former Philadelphia drug dealer turned rapper turned music mogul. The label was founded with drug money scored by his ex-wife Cookie Lyon (Taraji P Henson) who gets sprung from jail at the beginning of the show. While one of their sons is an executive, two others sons are signed to the label – Jamal (Jussie Smollett), a singer-songwriter, and Hakeem (Bryshere Y Gray), a brash rapper. Many guest stars have come through the door of Empire, including Jennifer Hudson, Courtney Love, Mary J Blige, Cuba Gooding Jr and Naomi Campbell, but despite that head-turning cameo roster, the real star of the show is the music.

The show boasts producers-to-the-stars Timbaland and Jim Beanz as music supervisors, and they have helped imbue the show with near-photo realism. Their efforts are bolstered by a talented cast, including Gray, who when he is not playing Hakeem Lyon, performs as Yazz the Greatest.

“I had to go through the process of auditioning with Terrence and Taraji about eight or nine times before I got the role,” said Gray. “I had to kill each scene in front of Danny Strong, in front of Lee Daniels, and I did my thing.”

Now that he’s on the show, each week Gray has to learn not only his lines, but also the songs he needs to perform. “They give us a day to learn the songs,” said Gray. “Our hours are so crazy that I don’t get a chance to study the songs. I’m on set for 16 or 18 hours and then I’m in the studio for four. But I love every song we’ve done. We collaborate on the songs and there’s a great vibe. We have a ball.”

But the songs crafted by Timbaland and Jim Beanz, which have recently been released as The Original Soundtrack from Season 1 of Empire, are only half of Empire’s sound. The rest come thanks to composer Fil Eisler.

Eisler is best known for his work composing the scores for the television shows Revenge and Shameless, so even he was a little surprised to be asked to work on Empire. “All I knew was that it was sort of a soap set in the hip-hop world and I thought: ‘Why me?’” said Eisler. “It didn’t make an awful lot of sense. I’m certainly not known as a hip-hop composer. Then I found out it was Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, and then it became something I couldn’t turn down. They are both incredibly talented people.”

Despite having the support of the show’s creators and wanting to work with them, Eisler was still apprehensive about taking on the project for which he felt ill-suited. Luckily, Daniels wanted a score that was dramatically different from the viscous hip-hop and visceral R&B sounds of Empire Records.

“When I first spoke to Lee, he wanted the score to deliberately contrast all the hip-hop and to go in the complete opposite direction. He wanted it to be ‘bold and operatic’,” said Eisler. “He wanted a juxtaposition from what you would expect to hear. As the show has gone, the worlds have started to collide with the orchestra being layered over beats.”

Each week, Eisler works at a frantic pace, putting in 14-to-18-hour days composing and working with his orchestra to create a score that weaves around the show’s action. “All the songs that Timbaland and Jim Beanz write are done way ahead of time. They get the story ideas early, and they come up with these amazing songs for them,” said Eisler.

“My part is kind of the opposite of that. I get something like three or four days from the time I spot an episode until I’m standing on the scoring stage in front of an orchestra. It’s a really fast turnaround.”

To craft his score, Eisler watches a rough cut of the show with Daniels, Strong and showrunner Ilene Chaiken to figure out where the score is needed to help guide the story. He then builds a framework of musical cues and sends it to the producers for their thoughts. “Once we’re good, it goes to the orchestrators and the copyists, and then I’m standing in front of the orchestra conducting it,” said Eisler. He pauses for a minute and laughs. “I mean, that’s the plan. In reality what happens is that if the orchestra is meeting at 10am. I’m probably writing until 5am the same morning trying to finish in time. There have been instances where I’ve had notes while I’ve been recording the orchestra. So in the 10-minute breaks we have between hours of recording, I’ve been running to the piano, writing new parts and handing it to the copyist, and we record that in the next hour. It’s frenetic.”

For Eisler, though, it’s not the pace that pushes him, but the work of Timbaland and Jim Beanz. “The real challenge is that the songs are so bloody good. The level of artistry and production is so high that it keeps me very ambitious about the score. I want the score to be as good as the songs on the show,” said Eisler. “The quality of what I write just can’t afford to ever get stale just because it’s up against Timbaland and Jim Beanz who are really good at what they do.”

Despite the breakneck pace and the pressure, Eisler is glad that he signed on to the project. “It’s been a crazy ride,” he said. “Both Lee and Danny function at a very high level as filmmakers and they really push me. But that is the sort of collaboration that I always look for, because you always want someone to push you. As a composer the last thing you want to do is repeat yourself.”

“Lee’s motto is ‘jump off a cliff with me’, so you have to trust him that things are going to work,” said Eisler. “I did and it seems to have worked out all right.”

The Original Soundtrack from Season 1 of Empire is out now.


Melissa Locker

The GuardianTramp

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