'Empire' Takes Fans Behind the Music At The Grammy Museum

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Cast members from Empire during a discussion at the Grammy Museum on May 12, 2016 in Los Angeles.

Ne-Yo, cast members Bryshere 'Yazz' Gray, Serayah and more talk about the Fox series, renewed for a third season.

Empire character Jamal Lyon (Jussie Smollett) was shot this week as the wind-up to the second season finale (May 18) begins. And the popular Fox series has already been renewed for a third season.

Revealing more juicy details of what’s in store wasn’t part of the agenda last evening (May 11) at Los Angeles’ Grammy Museum. But Empire cast members and executives did provide insightful conversation during Empire: An Inside Look at the Making of the Music Phenomenon. The panel discussion brought together cast members Bryshere “Yazz” Gray (rapper Hakeem), Serayah (singer Tiana Brown), series executive producer Sanaa Hamri, staff songwriter-producers Ne-Yo and Jim Beanz and Columbia Records senior VP of A&R Shawn Holiday.

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Moderator and Los Angeles Times writer Gerrick Kennedy opened the chat fest by asking if the scripts lead the songs or vice versa. “We really try for the scripts to lead the song,” explained Hamri, referencing the song “Chasing the Sky,” featuring Terrence Howard, Jussie Smollett and Yazz. Co-produced by Beanz, the second season track was originally supposed to air in Empire’s first episode.

“Coming in, I thought it was the other way around: that the song leads the script,” added Beanz of writing songs for the series. “But I could be writing a track about a church and Sanaa will say we’ve changed it from a church to a hospital. It’s not as easy as you think.”

Joining Empire’s songwriting team at the start of the second season, Ne-Yo said the one thing he didn’t want to do was “make music made for television. I wanted it to be real, to feel natural. That’s what draws people into the show: the music feels genuine.”

Hamri and Gray, the latter of whom has been cast as New Edition member Michael Bivins in BET’s forthcoming biopic about the R&B boy band, both said talks about taking the Empire artists on tour have occurred. Serayah, in the studio recording music for her own project, said her character was originally slated to be a rapper.

Columbia’s Holiday noted that the “hard part for the label was taking 30 seconds of a [song] snippet in an episode and growing it outside of that.” But he credited the strength of the show’s songs, like “Conqueror,” “Drip Drop” and “What Is Love” for setting the show’s tone and spurring impulse buying by fans. Columbia released the series’ newest soundtrack, Empire: Original Soundtrack, Season 2 Volume 2 on April 29.

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Underscoring Holiday’s comments, former music video director Hamri declared to applause, “The singers and rappers on Empire are not manufactured or concocted. We’re pushing real music by real artists.”