Talking Hip Hop, Empire and Cookies With Legendary Producer Timabaland

Three-time Grammy-winning producer Timbaland has helped carve the landscape of popular music since the mid-’90s, racking up over 25 million in sales with genre-smashing productions that stay on the radio to this day. Tim was behind countless hit records, creating Missy Elliott’s and Aaliyah’s entire sounds, giving Justin Timberlake his "Sexy Back," providing  Jay Z’s bounce for "Big Pimpin", and getting Beyoncé all “Drunk In Love” (the latter earning him two Grammy nods this year).  Now the acclaimed producer takes on television, signing on to be Executive Music Producer for Fox’s hit hip-hop drama Empire. But someone should have yelled “Cut!” before he crossed paths with HITS’ Michelle Santosuosso.

How did you get involved in Empire?

Well, strangely, I was looking for [creator] Lee Daniels for a project I was trying to do and at the same time, he was trying to find me.

Tell us about your experience on Season One.  

It is like going to school. You’re learning new teachers, new things and new rules. And TV rules are completely different from movie or music rules. Everything is on a very set schedule—something I had to get used to that made the work a little different. But now, going into the second season, I’ll know how to better approach it.

How was collaborating with Lee Daniels?

It was great. We both learned a lot, so now we’re prepared for anything going forward. Lee tells me what he wants it to feel like, we discuss where to go with it, and then I figure out the music for that part. It was a wonderful experience, learning something new. Being in television was brand new to all of us.

What was the biggest challenge that you didn’t expect, scoring for TV? 

Not really having the time to spend on a song, because if they needed something it had to be made fast. Just putting in those little touches—I like to spend a lot of time finishing my music—and I didn’t have it. We were on a serious deadline.

Lead actor Terrence Howard was quoted as saying, “Music is the very soul of this show.” 

Yes, because music is dialed right into the story. What characters are arguing and talking about on the show, we base a song to explain what somebody’s emotions are at that moment in time. And emotions are high on Empire.

 I would like people to say when they hear my music, “Tim really put time and effort into his art."

This presents a unique opportunity with artist development for Mosley Music. One of your signed artists, V Bozeman, is part of the cast. 

When I presented V to Lee his first reaction was, “Oh my god, she’s amazing.” I didn’t really have to sell it because V sold herself.  And I thank Lee for allowing that, and to see what I saw in her.

What’s your take on the pop and black music today?

It’s in the redefining stages. The kids that love the “throw your hands in the air,” and “pop a bottle, throw this over here,” music are 25, 26 years old now. They have grown up and are looking for something real to gravitate to. I feel like every five years the world does a reboot.  And we’re at that mark there’s a new president about to get elected next yearits time for a shift. It takes a special person to shift the game. Drake came in and shifted it; now everybody’s trying to bite Drake’s flow because he made such a big impact. J. Cole’s new record, he told the truth; it’s real music. People want real. All the bubblegum stuff we’ve been hearing that was maybe not as crafty as it should have been—I think people are trying to put more effort into their art now. It does matter.

You’re consistently pushing music forward. What do you hear next?

It’s all about getting back to one word: feeling. We’ve disconnected ourselves. The world needs a reset.  Every time something happens in a person’s life, there’s a perfect song that could be played to capture the feeling. As we have gotten to the 2000s, we lost that.  Women are smarter than men and I feel like women are going to dictate how the world moves this year too. And it’s going to show that feeling matters.

This is part of why the 20/20 Experience album lasted so long. The music wasn’t necessarily what was going on three years ago when we recorded it. Now everybody wants to be soulful. What matters to me is that Timbaland as a brand is known for sound. I’m known for changing an era. 

What’s the most important thing on your to-do list?

Try to do special things and make an impact. I’m not trying to be the richest man. I just want to be part of the change. Like with cookies: you can never not talk about Oreo cookies. I don’t care what cookie comes out, I don’t care how great, you’ve got to go back to the original Oreo cookie. I want to be known for specialness. I would like people to say when they hear my music, “Tim really put time and effort into his art.”

You’ve seen the Chris Rock film Top Five. I’ve got to get your Top Five Producers. 

Me, PharrellSwizzKanye, and Dr. Dre. Dre is like my mentor—he’s at a different level right now, and he shaped the world of hip hop. That’s my five.  

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