Empire, Fox's upcoming hip-hop soap opera, is aiming to win over radio programmers and music fans when it premieres on Jan. 7. Unlike the network's Glee, Fox's last big scripted musical, Empire will feature almost all original songs instead of covers.
"That presents a whole lot of new challenges," says Geoff Bywater, senior vice president of music at 20th Century Fox TV, which produces the show. Unfamiliar tracks can be a tough sell for audiences, says Bywater, but "one thing we really did learn on Glee, as much as we tried, is that trying to get a cover single [on the radio] is difficult. Original music will lend a stronger, credible voice to Empire." (The covers from The Voice and American Idol contestants don't get radio play either.)
Veteran record producer Timbaland and his team (including Raphael Saadiq) are overseeing the music on the drama, which stars Terrence Howard as hip-hop artist-turned-label mogul Lucious Lyon. While Howard will sing and rap occasionally, most of the songs are performed by series regulars Jussie Smollett and Bryshere Gray, who play Jamal and Hakeem, two of Lyon's sons battling for control of their dad's business. "They were cast for their musical ability as well as their acting ability, and we tailored the music to their strengths," says executive producer Ilene Chaiken.
And unlike Glee's recordings, which are credited to the "Glee cast," Empire's songs will be cited from the "Empire cast, featuring [the actors' real names]." (Established artists will also perform on the show, including Courtney Love, who will not play herself.)
To add some authenticity, the actors will record two versions of most tracks: One clean to air on TV, the other with explicit lyrics.
Both versions will be made available via Columbia Records, which has signed on to distribute Empire's music. "It was the first time ever that I got a phone call from standards and practices before I even recorded a note," Bywater says. "They wanted to make sure they get a chance to see the lyrics. We're taking it right to the edge."
Timbaland's team recorded the show's tracks in Miami and Philadelphia, with vocals done in Chicago (where the cast filmed the show). Empire writers will send the music producers a scene description, with a producer usually getting on the phone with song writers to talk though what a sing needs to say or do to tell a story.
"Those notes taken and considered when the song is put together," Bywater says. "For a show yet to hit the air it's certainly creating a stir [in the music business]. We're screening the pilot for managers and publishers. If you're in a music department in film or TV, these are the projects you love the most."
Bywater says he compares the show to what it might be like if music mogul Dr. Dre "was looking to have that King Lear moment with his three boys. There's a big time story that flows through it too and the music has to fit the story."
Says Chaiken: "We want it to be realistic. The music is always part of the story and it moves the drama forward."