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How a Call From Forest Whitaker Led to Swizz Beatz Being A Part of 'Godfather of Harlem'
With Godfather of Harlem season 3 recently dropping, Swizz Beatz spoke with us about why hip-hop is so integral to the series.
Having dropped last month, Godfather of Harlem season 3 continues to showcase the historical connection of Harlem and Black people that’s been central to the show since its beginning. Throughout the series it has brought countless Black real-life figures to life on the small screen: Mary Wells, Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke, Malcolm X and, of course, Bumpy Johnson (brilliantly played by Forest Whitaker).
Heading into season three, the end is nearing for one of Harlem’s most dangerous residents. Opening with the 1964 Harlem Riots, the season has the Italian mob heavy on Johnson’s heels after his heroin shipment was set on fire. Johnson’s frustration is at an all-time high as he seeks help to keep Harlem in his hands — even if it means taking from his own community.
In Whitaker’s hands, Johnson isn’t only a notorious crime boss. He’s a man who’s also trying to do right by his family and neighborhood, whether that be affectionately confronting his relationship with his daughter/granddaughter Margaret (Demi Singleton), or combating police brutality and participating in Black activism. And accompanying all these sides of Johnson is Swizz Beatz, the show’s music producer and creative director who’s responsible for the sounds that help make the series what it is.
Beatz is no stranger to producing the music behind some of TV’s popular shows. Prior to Godfather of Harlem, he also contributed to ABC’s Queens and FOX’s Empire. To reflect the gritty streets of New York, Beatz recruited high-level hip-hop artists for Godfather of Harlem, assembling a team of MCs including Busta Rhymes, Dave East, and Jadakiss to help him create a modern soundtrack on a dark past.
Speaking with Okayplayer, Beatz detailed how he carefully chose music that reflects the power of hip-hop, Whitaker’s musical involvement, and why he said yes to composing one of the most challenging eras in Black history.
Okayplayer: Tell me why it was important for you to say “Yes” to musically document this specific time period that reflected a difficult time for Black people?
Swizz Beatz: When I got the phone call directly from Forrest to do a heavy educational piece, I immediately said “Yes.” What I love most about this show is that it reveals relationships I never knew, such as Malcolm X and Bumpy Johnson dealing with the Italians and Cubans on the streets I grew up in, in Harlem and the Bronx. To see the other side of the story you never know about through Godfather of Harlem has been amazing, to the point where I don't even watch the show until it comes in on TV. Even when I'm making the music for it.
Forest Whitaker (as Bumpy Johnson) in Godfather of Harlem Season 3, Episode 301: The Negro In White America. Photo by: Liz Isenberg
What was it like to work alongside Forest Whitaker in the studio?
He's a big fan of music. When we started the first season, everybody was getting to know each other and getting used to being around each other for weeks. We had studio parties with artists, along with Forest Whitaker and show creators Chris Brancato and Paul Eckstein. They all just came to the studio to hang out. Artists floated around and it was like one big family. There wasn't any fear just because the executives were present in the process. We were under one roof, allowing everyone to have a say. It started as one night, and it morphed into a whole season of studio session parties.
How did you select the artists for Godfather of Harlem?
The process of it has been great because it was basically having the freedom to do what I feel, and not having pressure to only have hit songs on it. Creatively, I didn’t want to only put songs from that time period because it would've put me in a box, which in turn puts the show in a box. I was allowed to use new artists, old school energy, news, and community. That freedom has been amazing. Once I started making the music, becoming the voice inside Forest's head allowed the music to be part of the character. It became more interesting for me because I'm basing the music off of Forrest now. A song like “Hustle, Repeat” is the perfect example, because [Bumpy] just lost everything. So, now you have to get money, hustle, and repeat.
There are many genres that could have been included in this program. Why was it important for hip-hop to be in the forefront?
I think the simple answer is because hip-hop reflects what Bumpy is going through in the streets, and that's what hip-hop represents — the streets. It’s a rebellious expression that wasn't accepted in the beginning, and yet here we are celebrating it 50 years later. We made it. It's not a long time, but longer than what people thought we would be.
What about the inclusion of other styles of music?
When you listen to the show the foundation is hip-hop, but I go everywhere musically. I listen to so much music but if you take my phone, the emphasis will always be hip-hop. I always return to it because my exploration sharpens me up. I can step away and come back and have the freedom to create new ideas and not imitate what's already out from listening to it too much. Sometimes, you have to get away from it.
Speaking of celebrating hip-hop, it's the 50th anniversary and the celebration began at the Grammys. What was it like to be on that stage waving the Ruff Ryders flag, representing one of the most important labels in hip-hop history?
Being on stage holding a Ruff Ryder flag in the air along with the Lox after so many years of them being allowed on that stage — without it being a feature — was the best part for me. They were on stage doing their own songs. They're used to being with Mariah or an artist that made them look safe. But that night they did what they do best, and that's hip-hop. I raised the flag for everybody — [DMX] and everyone on our team that should've been on that stage with us.