If you missed last night’s season two premiere of Empire, you’re probably alone. Variety reports that Fox’s blockbuster drama notched an incredible 6.7 rating/20 share in the 18 to 49-age bracket, which equates to roughly 16 million television viewers overall. The opening episode tackled african-american incarceration rates from a human, if inconsistent position. Empire Enterprises holds a gaudy #FreeLucious concert addressing the mistreatment of black males in the US correctional system. (Does it matter that Lucious Lyons committed the crime in which he’s sentenced? Absolutely not.) Swizz Beatz, Sean Cross, Jussie Smollet and Yazz unveil the stirring anthem, “Born To Lose.” Multi-platinum award winning producer Mark Batson was instrumental in the track’s.
“Collectively me, Swizz and Cross devised the strategy for the music having a soulful and heartfelt pulse,” Batson tells HipHopDX exclusively before continuing, “and then Harold Lilly came in and worked on perfecting the lyrics with us… I’ve been committed to working on things that are important and artwork that addresses social injustice and although there was the dichotomy of Luscious’ character actually being guilty, the actual audience was full of people whose lives have been forever marred by the racial imbalances of the criminal justice system.
Batson co-produced “Born To Lose” with Swizz Beatz and also played all of the instruments included on the track. In this conversation, the former pianist for the Smithsonian Institute’s African American Culture Department and frequent Dr. Dre collaborator details all the nuances behind Empire’s powerful season 2 debut.
How “Born To Lose” Was Created
HipHopDX: Please detail your specific contributions to Empire’s season 2 premiere.
Mark Batson: A few months back while working on Alicia Keys’ album, Swizz Beatz came to me with Sean Cross and asked me to help come up with a sound that could fit the politically charged opening of Empire’s second season. Lee Daniels’ plan was to not just come with stars and flash in his season opener but to come with content that augmented the originality of the first season of the show. I’m a huge fan of Sean Cross. He auditioned for Lee and blew him away with his strength of character, directness and rawness. Collectively me, Swizz and Cross devised the strategy for the music having a soulful and heartfelt pulse and then Harold Lilly came in and worked on perfecting the lyrics with us.
I’ve been committed to working on things that are important and artwork that addresses social injustice and although there was the dichotomy of Luscious’ character actually being guilty, the actual audience was full of people whose lives have been forever marred by the racial imbalances of the criminal justice system. The show opens at a political rally with Swizz informing the crowd of the millions of people who are currently incarcerated in American prisons at the highest incarceration rate in the history of the world.
DX: In comparison to previous work you’ve done on American Hustle, what were the challenges and differences experienced with Empire?
Mark Batson: Both works had the challenge of crafting the perfect sound to connect to the scene. With American Hustle, the images came first and the scene with Robert Deniro suddenly speaking Arabic was open to interpretation of how the music would be presented. In Empire there were no images to see when crafting the sound. However, conversations with Lee Daniels who is extremely imaginative and creative is more than enough to create the most dynamic and vivid images in your mind to work from.
DX: Season 2 of Empire begins with Luscious in prison. It’s a flip on how season 1 began with Cookie incarcerated. What major social, familial trends are most prominent in Empire as a result of that juxtaposition?
Mark Batson: The trend of African-Americans being railroaded into the criminal justice system is probably most defined by that juxtaposition. When Empire begins Cookie, is being released from prison after serving 17 years for a non-violent drug offense. It is an acknowledgment of the consistent trend where men and women are often stripped from their families in the process of the attempt to feed their families. People of color are often given much longer and harder sentences for drug crimes than their white counterparts.
In 2013 the U.N. Human Rights Committee argued that racial disparity pervades “every stage of the United States criminal justice system, from arrest to trial to sentencing and the racial minorities are more likely to be arrested, convicted and serve more time than white Americans. One-in-three African American males are probably going to spend time in prison and possibly that number will may even increase in the near future.
The unique portrayal of some unaddressed realities of what goes in black culture is one of the things that draws people to Empire. What many people loved the most about the first season of Empire was the originality of the characters and the dynamic performances of two thespians in Taraji P. Henson and Terrance Howard. Seeing a powerful African-American man leading a company to public trade and an African-American woman in a leadership role in that company along with his sons was a first and was very exciting to the American public of all races. Also, witnessing Luscious Lyons first learn to accept and then even grow to admire and uplift his gay son was also a legendary first for the black community on major network television. Lee Daniels who is the executive producer of Empire is a confidently gay man so expect to see gay people of every race and gender excelling in personal, business and artistic endeavors on his show.
50 Cent, Timbaland & Lee Daniels
DX: Yazz’s “Drip Drop” crossed from an on-screen hit record to a real world success. Fans seemed to appreciate the original music from Season 1, which is part of why 50 Cent compared the show to Glee. Is that an apt comparison in your opinion?
Mark Batson: Empire is like Glee in that both of the shows have a direct music component that is connected to the show but in that regard that is probably about it. The subject matter and situations of Empire are classic American soap opera with an urban twist in comparison to Glee’s familiar American classroom drama. In that regard Empire is more like Dynasty or Dallas than Glee. As far as 50 Cent is concerned, the competiveness between Power and Empire has been well documented. In some point in the near future, I think everyone is going to realize that 50 Cent on the sneak tip is one of the funniest comedians we have witnessed in our generation. His Instagram is hilarious. I want Fif to bring back Pimping Curly for his own TV show.
DX: How would you describe Timbaland’s approach to crafting music for Empire?
Mark Batson: I did not work with Timbaland on this episode so I couldn’t answer that. The team for the opening scene was Swizz and myself on production, myself on all of the instruments, Cross on the rap and Harold Lilly and Swizz perfecting the lyrics that were sung by Jussie. Lee Daniels personally oversaw the entire process and was in the studio with us a few times sharing his dynamic vision.
In choosing Sean Cross to be the opening performer of the new season Mr. Daniels also presented someone to the audience who from personal struggle had first hand knowledge of the inner workings of the criminal justice system. If there is one thing I can add about King Cross it’s that he is a Harlem legend and a true and actual G. The brilliance of Lee Daniels having Cross on the stage performing at a prison injustice rally moved Empire almost into reality TV. I think it was pretty awesome that although the aspirations of Cookie and Hakeem where “fake” so to say, the performers, audience and political voices that were on the show like Al Sharpton and even Don Lemon were as real as it gets.
DX: What is Lee Daniels’ vision for the music in season 2?
Mark Batson: From what I have witnessed Lee’s vision and hope is to not get bogged down on typical stereotypes and expectations. He’s going to keep throwing those curve balls at the audience that make them raise their eyebrows and also keep challenging them to revolutionize social norms. Some of the images we are witnessing on Empire are firsts in American television history.
DX: Anything else you would like fans to know about Empire season 2?
Mark Batson: I would just like to express my gratitude to Lee Daniels and Swizz Beatz for inviting me to be a part of such a historic event. Empire is pulling in around 26 million viewers per episode (over multiple platforms), which is the largest viewership by far in history of any show of its kind. With the success of Empire, Straight Outta Compton, Power and even Hamilton on Broadway, I’m enjoying seeing the power of Hip Hop music delving into the popular visual culture. I’m currently attached musically to quite a few shows and upcoming movies as well as in the middle of the development of my own cable show based on my graphic novel called LOADED with one of the top companies in Hollywood. I’ve been involved in Hip Hop music for almost my entire life and have witnessed its growth from block parties and jams to television sitcoms, movie screens, Broadway plays and Fortune 500 companies.
Long live the power of Hip Hop.