Photo courtesy of Epix
Swizz Beatz Talks Executive Producing The 'Godfather Of Harlem' Soundtrack: "It's Like Meeting Heritage With Today"
Flashback: It's 1963. It's Harlem, New York. Gangster Bumpy Johnson, freshly released from Alcatraz, has just made a handshake alliance with activist Malcolm X: they're going to use X's manpower and Johnson's guns to clean up a drug-infested part of the hood.
It's a scene straight out of Epix's new drama series Godfather Of Harlem (premiering Sept. 29), and while it might surprise a few viewers, what comes next is even more startling: the soundtrack kicks in. Dave East and A$AP Ferg kick it with a beat straight outta the future, with "Business is Business," a track that unspools with slick modern production and street-smart, trap-influenced rap vocals that are perfectly in sync with 2019—and yet, also 1963. It's a neat musical trick that joins the past with the present, aligning history with an emotional undercurrent that resonates in the new millennium.
But that was always the intention.
East and Ferg's tune are just one of 19 original compositions created specifically for Godfather, curated by executive producer Swizz Beatz as part of a rare undertaking in television: composing modern tunes for a series that takes place entirely in the past, a soundtrack designed to both draw in younger viewers and provide perspective on how the issues of yesterday remain the issues of today.
"The whole concept was to make the music have the heritage of the time period, but also give it a 'today' handshake," Beatz tells the Recording Academy. "It's like meeting heritage with today."
In Godfather, Johnson's goal is to reclaim Harlem from the Italian gangsters who are flooding the streets with drugs. This sets him on a collision course with Vincent "The Chin" Gigante, but also ensures he crosses paths with the civil rights movement and historical figures like X and Rep. Adam Clayton Powell. The story may be based in the '60s (each season's time period is set to advance by one year) but the messages about racism and civil rights echo loudly today—something star Forest Whitaker (Johnson) and Beatz wanted reflected in the soundtrack.
Still, it's not just about creating new hip-hop tunes; the Godfather soundtrack dabbles in a number of genres and styles to make its point.
"The show allows us to look at today through the prism of the past," says the Academy Award-winning Whitaker, who is also executive producing the series. "The marriage of those two things is important, and it's important to do it in an organic way. Swizz has an openness to the whole tapestry of the universe, and you can't pigeonhole this music. It has so many different influences—from pop to reggae to hip-hop."
Bringing Beatz on to oversee the curation of the soundtrack made sense on a number of levels. The GRAMMY-winning producer born Kasseem Dean has worked as a producer on Empire and has been contributing songs to soundtracks for 20 years. But Godfather was a much bigger project, and required a new way of thinking about adding music to a TV series.
"Normally, for a first season TV show you don't do a ground-up new soundtrack," says music supervisor Stephanie Diaz-Matos, who worked alongside Beatz to make all the pieces fit together. "We finished editing several episodes and were able to look at it as a movie instead of an hour at a time and say holistically, 'This is what we need.'"
The result: a musically diverse set of tunes written specifically for particular scenes and montages that are meant to weave the sound as tightly into the story as the dialogue. Artists including Skip Marley and French Montana, Cruel Youth, Jidenna, Sean Cross, Samm Henshaw, Savage, Rick Ross and John Legend have all contributed original bespoke songs (Beatz contributes solo tunes while landing credit on several others) to the soundtrack, which will be released concurrent with the series. Two tunes, "Just In Case" by Swizz Beatz, Rick Ross and DMX and "Hallelujah" by Buddy, A$AP Ferg, and Wale dropped at digital retailers on Aug. 30. Further tunes will be released the Friday before each episode premieres, with a full soundtrack also planned.
"I'm bringing musical characters to actual visual characters," explains Beatz. "For me, the whole thing is to make you feel the characters and the music and be emotionally attached."
"You're going to hear Latin, Afrobeats—all styles of music," says Diaz-Matos. "We didn't rely just on trap, which is the sound that's the most streamed style of music at the moment—there's blends of all kinds of rhythms and textures and voices. We're speaking to being based in Harlem."
One additional unique element to the soundtrack is the way in which it was created. Epic Records EVP of A&R Zeke Lewis explains that he and Epic chair/CEO and industry veteran Sylvia Rhone coordinated an "elaborate writing trip" to Beatz' Jungle Studios in New York City, where over the course of two weeks writers worked simultaneously in different rooms to create the tracks that would go with the selected scenes.
"99 percent of the artists came in and worked in the studio with us," says Beatz. "Everybody was part of the energy. We had like five different rooms going, and I was bouncing in and out of the rooms. We were letting people do what they do and getting direction—and it really worked. You have to have everybody under the same roof to have that energy."
Whitaker, who regularly vetted the remixes and different score pieces, also showed up at Jungle from time to time, says Lewis. "He came to the studios with us, met every artist on the soundtrack and we were able to dig into the specificity of the show so the music would fit to a T. The music is such an important companion piece to the visual—I couldn't imagine one without the other."
The "writing camp," as showrunner Chris Brancato calls it, was a revelation. "I realized a music producer is a showrunner of the music," he says. "Swizz did a lot of the things a showrunner does to get great outputs from his talented collaborators—and this was a new experience for me, watching all these artists collaborating under Swizz' direction."
In addition to the bespoke songs, there's plenty of period-specific music in the series, plus a score from GRAMMY winner Mark Isham; episodes frequently feature of-the-era concert performances. But in many ways the original songs shine the brightest, and are perhaps ushering in a new era for hip-hop's role on soundtracks.
"This is 100 percent a new maturity level," says Lewis. "This is not just taking a hot rapper and trying to attach a song to a soundtrack. This is a surgically orchestrated hip-hop masterwork from Swizz Beatz and team. This is sophisticated hip-hop."
And of course it helps provide an entry point for younger viewers who might not immediately turn to a historical series—even if it does feature Whitaker and lots of snazzy gunplay and dialogue. "You want to open the tent to the widest possible audience," says Brancato. "A contemporary soundtrack can attract a younger audience—and an audience around the world."
Whether all these lofty ambitions lead to charting hits, bigger ratings—or a Season 2 sequel soundtrack—remains to be seen, though Beatz says he's on board if there is a second collection to be curated. "Every season we get to change the landscape because the year [in which the show takes place] changes," he says. "When the story changes, it gets more interesting every time."
"Music is an essential element of the African-American experience in this country," says Brancato. "Whether it's slave anthems or gospel music or church-inspired music—all of it plays a part in giving people hope, sustenance and aspiration to become part of the fabric that is America."