Tommy Brown, a producer who's worked with T.I., 2 Chainz, and Nas, recently traveled America with Ariana Grande for The Honeymoon Tour. He found out she'd never seen Empire and bartered a deal: He would watch Harry Potter in exchange for her catching up on Fox's newest hit. "She binge-watched the show in one day and was like, 'I want to be on it,'" Brown said.
It turns out that stars are just as obsessed with Empire as we are.
When Lyrics Born, a 20-year hip-hop industry vet who raps and produces, first watched the show, he "went on an on-demand crackhead binge. It's that right combination of super over-the-top, opulent, complicated, corny, complex story rooted in music business and urban folklore and myth. It reminds me of when my grandmother used to watch Falcon Crest and Dynasty."
Empire is the modern day equivalent of those 1980s nation-captivating, era-defining soap operas hits. Seventy-one percent of black women between 18 and 49 watching TV on Wednesday at 9 PM are watching Empire. The season finale clocked 17.6 million viewers, the season's highest after viewership rose every week the show aired. It's the highest rated TV show since Lost premiered over a decade ago.
But Empire is important for TV for reasons beyond it's big numbers. It's a TV show about hip-hop on a major broadcast network that is heavily associated with singing competitions and fiercely conservative viewpoints.
Rupert Murdoch's network now has a talking head like Lucius Lyon to justify and uplift hip-hop with what may be the most earnest speech on TV since Kanye called out Bush during the Katrina telethon: "My music expresses my world. You either sold drugs or watched your children go hungry, where half your family is locked off in prison. Our music is more a narration of an oppressed people. The Empire artists are telling the people that even though they live in a world where Trayvon Martin can get shot down like a dog, there's hope in the fact that these kids are expressing their anger with music and poetry and not with a 12-gage shotgun."
"It shows how viable our culture is," said Northern California rapper Iamsu.
Even Fab 5 Freddy, one of hip-hop's founding fathers, is down with it. "There's going to be things that we disagree with, but it's just good that they made an effort to put our culture on a world stage," wrote the legend to me in an email. "Empire affirms the power of this urban culture that grew out of the hood and extreme poverty here in New York."
With Empire, hip-hop's past and present, from Sugar Hill Gang to Frank Ocean, have made it to the mainstream not just through abstract stories, but with direct references. "They cleverly alluded to scenarios that have taken place in real life," Fab 5 Freddy wrote. Even if "at times it's more like where the business was in the late '90s and early 2000s, when record sales still dominated."
Still, there are clever tips to more current events: That elevator fight between Cookie and Kid FoFo is the Solange-Jay Z elevator drama. Jamal exits the closet through a song lyric, like Frank Ocean. Lucius collects Basquiats like today's rap moguls. It even rippled out into the real world when Page Six reported that Diddy might've banned his son from appearing on the show because of a battle over music rights.
"It's like… they just took stories from everyone," said Junglepussy, one of VICE's favorite up-and-coming New York rappers.
One example is Kareem "Biggs" Burke, who was the third person who founded Roc-A-Fella Records along with Jay Z and Damon Dash. According to Dan Charnas's The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop, Biggs was brought in because "he had some street money and a low profile" to financially back a record label with real capital and autonomy. His story sounds a lot like Lucius's.
In 1995, Suge Knight paid Tupac Shakur's $1.4 million bail bond in exchange for a record deal. A year later, journalist Kevin Powell wrote in a Vibe cover story about Death Row Records, "Damn near everyone—from fellow journalists to former and current Death Row employees all the way to a shoeshine man in West LA—warned me that Suge was 'the wrong nigga to fuck with.'" Just this January, Knight was arrested for a hit-and-run and slapped with a $25 million bail. Not far off from something the eldest Lyon might do.
And then there's Cookie.
"Cookie is the real boss of Empire, and America knows it," Fab 5 Freddy said.
"She kind of has a Foxy Brown-slash-Lil Kim swag, but her business is on a whole other level. We need to see more of that," said Tommy Brown. He compares her to Candece Campbell, the vice president and A&R of Jive, who has worked closely alongside L.A. Reid. He said Grace Gealey, the actress who plays Anika, "Actually went on an interview and spoke to Candece about the A&R role."
Cookie's character is standing in for all of the overshadowed and forgotten behind-the-scenes women of hip-hop, like Sylvia Robinson who was the mastermind behind the Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," the first official rap song.
So many shows were trying to hide the culture from us and water it down. This shit is bringing back the soul in TV and I'm with it.
"I love Cookie just being a strong black woman," said Junglepussy, a fellow strong black woman. "They shit on Cookie so much, but does Cookie really get shitted on? No. Cookie always rises from the ashes immediately. Not the next episode, not after the commercial break. Cookie comes right back at you with her rebuttal. She always comes out on top. She knows what she's worth and she knows what she puts in to the company. It's so inspirational. Sometimes I find myself thinking it's so hard being a smart black woman because our black men don't love us. They want us to be out here acting like Anika and being a scheming girl. It's so important for me to see Taraji play this role."
Empire is also the first time the outside world is privy to what it's like for artists dealing with labels, writers, producers, engineers, managers, and A&Rs, even if it's highly dramatized. "All the aspiring artists and CEOs want to know how the inside of a label works. It's a legitimate business and people don't necessarily understand that," said Iamsu, who released his debut record under a partnership between his own HBK Gang Records and Warner Music Group's Alternative Distribution Alliance about a year ago.
Chicago rapper Sir Michael Rocks agreed. "It helps fans understand what we go through and maybe it'll give people a little more compassion towards people who have to deal with the politics of the industry. Who you know and what you know gets you certain positions and certain opportunities."
But perhaps the most important question in light of the show's meteoric rise is whether Empire, with its mythologized, highly exaggerated, and revealing view of hip hop, is actually good for hip-hop?
In truth, only time will tell. But if you ask any young hip-hop star like Junglepussy, who's seen "so many other shows try to hide the culture and water it down," Empire is the real deal. In her words:"It's bringing back the soul in TV and I'm with it."
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