Read A Book: Timbaland Brings The 'Emperor Of Sound' To Harlem's Schomburg Center
Photos by Terrence Jennings, courtesy of The Schomburg Center
Who knew the power of crickets chirping on a beat? Timbaland, that's who. If you’re old-school, you'll personally remember getting your hands on a coveted copy of Aaliyah’s One in a Million CD (remember those shiny round music things pre-mp3?) back in the mid-90s. It was immediately apparent from the first play of the title track that urban music was taking a sharp departure from the norm into quirky, moody, futuristic and experimental terrain with double-time drum beats. Add to the mix Aaliyah’s sultry vocals, and those crickets of all things chirping in the background, and the idea in theory sounds like a nightmare or a comedy skit (or both). It miraculously worked here in an insanely cool way, and gave most of the general public their first exposure to the innovative music perspective of Grammy Award winning producer Timothy Z. Mosely, also known as Timbaland.
Now in his mid-40's and sitting on a near-endless string of hits that he’s produced over the years for artists including Jay Z, Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, Missy Elliott, Snoop Dogg, Janet Jackson, Madonna, Björk, Lenny Kravitz, MIA, and countless others — Timbaland decided to reveal his backstory and reflections on life and the music industry in his deeply candid memoir Timbaland: Emperor of Sound released earlier this month from Amistad/Harper Collins Book publishers.
While Timbaland is known for making specific and deliberate details within the layers of his beats, the same could be said of the title he chose for his book. Rather than refer to himself as the Emperor of “song,” or the Emperor of “beats,” or the Emperor of “production,” (which all would have been warranted), he instead chose the title of “Emperor of Sound,” and his memoir specifically hones in on his obsession with sound over the years, namely, sounds that aren’t considered "music" in the traditional sense.
From being a toddler and given the creative space from his family to bang beats on pots and pans, to enjoying the sound of fruits snapping off of his trees when he gardened as a child, to banging beats on desktops with his teenage friend, (a cat named Pharrell Williams who you might have heard of), to spending hours listening to the rain and letting it all influence his aesthetic, Timbaland’s genuine fascination and love of sound pours from the pages of this book giving a bird's eye view of how sound is his biggest inspiration in life.
"Each beat, each riff, each raindrop, each moan, each gurgle – is priceless," he states early on in the book. “A painter's palate of possibility, a fortune beyond measure.”
But while the general public might have first gotten to know Timbaland through his work with Aaliyah, Timbaland had spent years before his work with her honing his craft as a DJ and producer, and paying his dues in the humblest of ways before his career took off. He shares details in the book on the modest lifestyle he once had working at Red Lobster to support his music career, and having to resort to ramen noodles as a staple part of his diet when his music was being shelved and consistently overlooked by his first music industry mentor, DeVante Swing from Jodeci.
While it might seem from the outside that Timbaland was an overnight success, his book unquestionably shows that it took him years of practice, patience, and perseverance to eventually reach his big break, which came after years of hard work. At a recent press event for his book at the Schomburg Center in Harlem, NYC, Timbaland reflected positively on his experience with DeVante Swing, and gave perspective on how his lessons learned in the industry also influenced his decision to write the book, saying, “Now that I’m older it (speaking on the experience of having his music shelved by DeVante) was the best thing to ever happen. It was like boot camp. He made me who I am today... The music business is cutthroat and you gotta be a strong person. For me to do it for 25 years and be successful means it’s my calling on this Earth to give back.”
From getting the scoop on what it was like for Timbaland to hunker down for years with Missy Elliott in a cramped apartment with a ferret to nail their signature style and sound when they were unknowns waiting to blow up, to learning about his first time playing the "Big Pimpin’" demo for Jay Z, to getting charming tidbits of history including Timbaland’s conversations with Pharrell when they were in high school and Pharrell apparently rocked dreads, Timbaland: Emperor of Sound, is a solid read, an inspiring memoir for anyone trying to make it in the music business, and a great stocking-stuffer for the sonically curious at this time of year for the holidays.