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Swizz Beatz Talks Executive Producing The 'Godfather Of Harlem' Soundtrack: "It's Like Meeting Heritage With Today"

Photo courtesy of Epix

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Swizz Beatz Talks Executive Producing The 'Godfather Of Harlem' Soundtrack: "It's Like Meeting Heritage With Today"

Executive produced by Swizz Beatz and featuring music from Dave East, A$AP Ferg, Wale and more, the 'Godfather Of Harlem' soundtrack joins the past with the present, aligning history with an emotional undercurrent that resonates in the new millennium

GRAMMYs/Sep 17, 2019 - 11:59 pm

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."

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

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Rolling Loud Festival Los Angeles Reveals 2019 Lineup

Doja Cat

Photo: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

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Rolling Loud Festival Los Angeles Reveals 2019 Lineup

Find out who's bringing the heat to the hip-hop fest returning to L.A. this December

GRAMMYs/Oct 2, 2019 - 12:11 am

Today, Rolling Loud revealed the massive lineup for their final music festival of 2019, Rolling Loud Los Angeles, which is set to take over the Banc of California Stadium and adjacent Exposition Park on Dec. 14–15.

This iteration of "the Woodstock of Hip-Hop," as the all-knowing Diddy has called it, will feature Chance the RapperLil Uzi VertJuice WRLDYoung Thug and Lil Baby as Saturday's heavy-hitting headliners. Sunday's headliners are none other than Future, A$AP Rocky, Meek Mill, YG and Playboi Carti.

L.A.'s own Blueface, Tyga and Doja Cat, are slated to perform, as well as representatives from the diverse rap scenes across the country, including Wale, Juicy J, Lil Yachty, Megan Thee Stallion, Gunna, Tyla Yaweh, Machine Gun Kelly and Yung Gravy.

The lineup announcement follows the successful wrap of Rolling Loud Bay Area in Oakland this past weekend. The event's flagship Miami event took place in May this year, and the New York and Hong Kong debut editions will both take place later this month.

Tickets for Rolling Loud L.A. go on sale this Friday, Oct. 4 at 11 a.m. PST. The complete lineup and more info on this event and their other fests can be found here.

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DJ Khaled, Nipsey Hussle And John Legend Win Best Rap/Sung Performance For "Higher" | 2020 GRAMMYs

DJ Khaled, Samantha Smith and John Legend

Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

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DJ Khaled, Nipsey Hussle And John Legend Win Best Rap/Sung Performance For "Higher" | 2020 GRAMMYs

DJ Khaled, Nipsey Hussle and John Legend take home Best Rap/Sung Performance at the 62nd GRAMMY Awards

GRAMMYs/Jan 27, 2020 - 09:05 am

DJ Khaled, featuring Nipsey Hussle and John Legend, has won Best Rap/Sung Performance for "Higher" at the 62nd GRAMMY Awards. The single was featured on DJ Khaled's 2019 album Father of Asahd and featured Hussle's vocals and Legend on the piano. DJ Khaled predicted the track would win a GRAMMY.

"I even told him, 'We're going to win a GRAMMY.' Because that's how I feel about my album," DJ Khaled told Billboard. "I really feel like not only is this my biggest, this is very special."

After the release of the song and music video -- which was filmed before Hussle's death in March -- DJ Khaled announced all proceeds from "Higher" will go to Hussle's children.

DJ Khaled and co. beat out fellow category nominees Lil Baby & Gunna ("Drip Too Hard"), Lil Nas X ("Panini"), Mustard featuring Roddy Ricch ("Ballin") and Young Thug featuring J. Cole & Travis Scott ("The London"). Hussle earned a second posthumous award at the 62nd GRAMMYs for Best Rap Performance for "Racks In The Middle." 

Along with Legend and DJ Khaled, Meek Mill, Kirk Franklin, Roddy Ricch and YG paid tribute to Hussle during the telecast, which concluded with "Higher."

Check out the complete 62nd GRAMMY Awards nominees and winners list here.

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Jackson Tops Dead Earners List

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 04:22 am

Jackson Tops Dead Earners List
GRAMMY winner and Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Michael Jackson topped Forbes' annual list of top-earning dead celebrities with $275 million, earning more than the combined total of the other 12 celebrities on the list. Elvis Presley ranked second with $60 million, John Lennon placed fifth with $17 million and Jimi Hendrix tied for 11th place with $6 million. Forbes compiled the list based on gross earnings between October 2009 and October 2010. (10/26)

UK Arts Council Announces Budget Cut Plans
Following a previous report, Arts Council England has revealed plans to implement the 30 percent cut to the UK's arts funding budget. The cuts will include a 7 percent cash cut for UK arts organizations in 2011–2012, a 15 percent cut for the regular funding of arts organizations by 2014–2015 and a 50 percent reduction to the council's operating costs. (10/26)

GRAMMY Winners To Perform At World Series
GRAMMY winners Kelly Clarkson, Lady Antebellum and John Legend are scheduled to perform "The Star-Spangled Banner" during Major League Baseball's 2010 World Series between the San Francisco Giants and Texas Rangers. Legend and Lady Antebellum will perform at games one and two in San Francisco on Oct. 27 and Oct. 28, respectively, and Clarkson will perform at game three on Oct. 30 in Arlington, Texas. (10/26)