Timbaland x Vanity Fair Interview
By Lisa Robinson. The executive producer of Fox’s newest television sensation Timbaland talks about his creative process and his upcoming album, Opera Noir. Justin Timberlake’s “Sexy Back,” Kanye West’s “Stronger,” and Jay Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” are just three of the many—many—hits worked on, or produced, by Timbaland. Now he’s bringing his authoritative beats and hitmaking touch to the music for the smash Fox TV drama Empire—set in the world of hip-hop and the music business—starring Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson.
It’s a world that Timbaland (born Timothy Z. Mosley) knows well. He’s had hits with his own albums, as well as producing and writing songs for a massive number of artists that include Aaliyah, Missy Elliott, Usher, Nas, Rihanna, Björk, and the aforementioned Timberlake, West, and Jay Z. Here, Timbaland talks with Lisa Robinson about music, re-invention, and Empire.
How did you get involved with Empire?
Timbaland: I was looking for Lee Daniels [the movie director and Empire’s co-creator] to write something for my album, and he was like, “Oh wow, I need you for the music for my show.” As we went along, I put my thing on the back burner, and I thought that this show could really be something. There’s nothing out there like this, and it came out at the perfect time.
You’re the executive producer of the music for Empire—how does that differ from the work you’ve done with the artists you’ve produced?
Well, I don’t look at what I’ve done in the past, I look at what I’m setting up for the future. I feel like every six years the greats kind of revamp themselves—and for me, Empire is like a first step of my re-invention.
Do you create the music starting with beats, or do you work music into the script?
There’s no form or method to how it works. Sometimes things are written to beats, or we go over the script. I’ve got a great relationship with (Empire producer) Brian Grazer, and Lee is letting me be free—letting me interpret the words into music and emotion. Also, I have a team of great people, like Jim Beanz—he writes most of the work, and I tell him the concept of what I want; I oversee it, I listen to it, I change a word here, or add something to a beat, switch that over there … like that.
What do you think of the show?
If they keep the culture correct, it’s just real. You see where [the characters] started from. You can be living fabulous, but your past culture is going to come up. At the end of the day, a lot of us come from poverty, from having nothing to building something and keeping our dream. What a lot of us have in common is we come from never giving up—non-quitters, no matter what the circumstances.
Does anyone connected with the show ask you to try to get some of your famous friends to guest-star?
Nah, this is Fox. This is a network that’s been around, and they’re very professional. It would be kind of unprofessional to ask me. This is not their first rodeo.
What else are you working on these days?
I’ve got a label partnership now with (Epic Records chairman and C.E.O.) L. A. Reid. I’m producing a 19-year-old girl named Tink, who’s going to change things back to the days of Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott—girls who gave you substance the way Biggie Smalls and Tupac did. And a singer named V. Bozeman—and while I don’t like comparing people to other people, she’s going to give you that feeling that Whitney Houston gave you. They’re also on my [forthcoming] album, Opera Noir, which is like nothing you’ve heard before. What I’m trying to find are these young people who have the same hunger and passion I once had and still have, and pass it on to the future. I feel I can be a mentor and help make new music that will break through some of the garbage. When music starts to fall off the path, with dumbness and flashiness, well, it’s my job to set a tone, a foundation. If you want quality music, come up on the Timbaland side of the street.