How the Success of 'Empire' Spawned New Hip-Hop-Oriented Shows
Two forthcoming hip-hop-themed TV shows angle to capture the audience of Fox’s surprise hit.
Any big hit has a ripple effect, and two TV shows about the hip-hop business were moving full speed ahead less than a month after the season finale of Fox's surprise smash rap soap opera, Empire. Although the programs in question -- both from Viacom: VH1's scripted drama The Breaks and BET's documentary series The Label -- were already in development when Empire premiered on Jan. 7, there's little doubt about their target audience. As Breaks co-executive producer Maggie Malina puts it, "Empire encouraged us to believe there's a big audience for shows that take place in the music world, and its massive success" -- Empire's audience grew from 9.9 million to 16.7 million from the premiere to the season finale -- "has certainly put the pressure on."
The new shows offer grittier and more nuanced takes on the hip-hop business than Empire's entertaining if sensational portrayals. The Breaks, which begins shooting in June for an expected late-fall premiere, is a TV movie positioned as "a backdoor pilot for a potential series" -- based on Dan Charnas' 2010 book, The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop. Set in 1990, when New York City was still dangerous and hip-hop was at a tipping point, it's closer to the era of Empire's flashback scenes than its IPO-and-bling present. The Breaks uses that backdrop to follows three friends from different backgrounds attempting to break into the music business: Nikki, who abandons a scholarship to law school and disappoints her parents to pursue a career as a label exec; her boyfriend, David, the son of a notorious record-business shark who rejects his father's approach to the business; and aspiring producer DeeVee, who is seeking a rapper to work with -- and finds one in a drug dealer named Ahm.
"VH1 has had very good luck with the '90s recently," says Charnas, who worked up the story with Malina (his second cousin) and fellow executive producer Bill Flanagan; Seith Mann, who wrote episodes of The Wire and The Walking Dead), will write the script and direct. "And in this era, hip-hop was just starting to become a culture unto itself. 1990 was a pivotal year for the business of hip-hop because both MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice surfaced, and [serious fans and insiders] feared that hip-hop would be washed out as a fad. But of course we were wrong, because the whole nation was listening to Hammer: As a result, pop radio slowly began to open its doors, and by 1995 the top stations in New York and L.A. -- the top two markets in the U.S. -- were hip-hop stations. That's the story we want to tell: how hip-hop got to where it is today."
The Label is a more straightforward documentary series looking at the stories behind iconic urban companies like Motown, Def Jam, No Limit, Bad Boy, Grand Hustle and others,"kind of Behind the Music-meets-American Gangster," says industry veteran Chaka Zulu, who executive-produced with Ludacris (whom he manages) and his brother, Jeff Dixon. "Not in a dark way, but in a detailed and informative way, with the entertainment value that Empire has." Zulu says he got the inspiration for the series "from being around mentors like Quincy Jones, Clarence Avant, L.A. Reid, Kevin Liles, Russell Simmons, and hearing their stories. I'd think, ‘Imagine if I'd known all this when I was younger?' So it has a little bit of social responsibility in terms of teaching thru both the success and the mistakes of the people that went before us." While the series is still in the planning stages and has no confirmed launch date, a sizzle reel was aired during BET's upfront earlier this month and Zulu says episodes -- including one about Disturbing Tha Peace, the label he cofounded with Ludacris and Dixon -- are already underway.
While the shows' niche nature inevitably limits their potential audience, that's not necessarily a liability. "I think The Label will do very well," says Shante Bacon, founder of the 135th St. Agency and an eight-year veteran of Def Jam Records. "I saw the teaser reel and Ludacris is going in: He's giving a birds' eye view of what those labels were like: People screaming and threatening each other. And I think The Breaks will do well because when you look at a lot of the shows that are rainmakers, people want a really good story, and the rise of the music business is a really good story."
"Niche TV is where we're at right now, and I certainly don't think the market is oversaturated with hip-hop," says Mary McNamara, Pulitzer Prize-winning TV critic for the Los Angeles Times. "It's cool that we've opened up a whole new workplace for TV -- doctors and cops and lawyers occupy most of that space. Also, Empire is a specifically black story -- it's not so much about race or gender as it is about the stories, and we want more and better stories about the wide variety of human experience in America."
Of course, the shows are also on cable networks, so an Empire-sized impact isn't really expected. "Focusing on a particular area of the music business may limit those shows' audience, but I don't think that's too much of a detriment," says Brad Adgate, svp of research at Horizon Media. "They don't have to do the numbers that Empire does to be a success."
An edited version of this article first appeared in the May 16 issue of Billboard.