Top 5... - September 11, 2015

Empire (and five record labels that deserve their own show)
by James
James
by James hmv London, Bio "Like the legend of the Phoenix, I've just eaten a whole packet of chocolate HobNobs..." Editor, hmv.com

Empire (and five record labels that deserve their own show)

Beginning its first season in January this year on the Fox network in the U.S., Empire is the latest creation from director and producer Lee Daniels, the man behind films like 2009's Precious and 2013's The Butler. For anyone who hasn't seen the show, Empire stars Terence Howard as Lucious Lyon, a former drug dealer turned music mogul and CEO of a fictional record label and management company named Empire Entertainment.

The premise goes like this: Lucious is about to float his company on the stock market when he is diagnosed with ALS, a degenerative disorder which causes muscle breakdown that is, ultimately, fatal. Lucious is given three years to live, but he decides to keep the diagnosis secret and must choose one of his three sons to take control of the company after he dies and protect the legacy of his company.

The drama in Empire all stems from the members of the Lyon family vying for control of the company, none more so than Lucious' estranged ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), who shows up just as the company is about to float and reasons that since it was her drug money that helped fund the launch of the business in the first place, she should be entitled to half of the company's shares.

Alongside the show's regular cast, there are a number of guest appearances throughout the first series, with Snoop Dogg, Rita Ora, Patti Labelle and Gladys Knight all among the list of celebrity guests who appear as themselves, but there are also recurring roles for Jennifer Hudson, Judd Nelson and Courtney Love, among many others. The team behind the scenes is also impressive, with the script being handled by Daniel Strong, the former Buffy The Vampire Slayer actor with a long list of screenwriting credits to his name, including the last two instalments of The Hunger Games.

The show has been a huge success for Fox, raking in something like 17 million viewers for its first series - which arrives in stores on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday (September 14th, you can pre-order it on the right-hand side of the page) – and with a second series already underway there looks to be plenty of mileage in this feud-filled family drama, which also offers an insight into the inner workings of record labels in the U.S.

That got us thinking; there are plenty of colourful characters in the real-life music business, but would any of their stories work on the screen?

Below you can find a trailer for Empire's first season, beneath that we've picked five legendary record labels that could easily have an entertaining show made about their exploits.

 

(You can pick up the soundtrack to Empire from our online store, or download it here)

 

Motown

Undoubtedly one of the most famous record labels in the world, Motown Records - founded by Berry Gordy in 1960 - not only launched the careers of some of popular music's biggest names, including Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5, it has had a wide-ranging cultural impact whose effects include nothing less than helping to break down the barriers of racial segregation in America. Its cultural influence alone is enough to make Motown a worthy subject for a TV show, but there's drama behind the scenes too and endless stories, such as the time Gordy relocated the entire operation to Los Angeles, only notifying some of its regular session musicians and producers via a notice pinned to the studio door. With more than 100 Top 10 hits in its first 10 years, the Motown story is one that's well worth telling from start to finish.

 

Creation

Creation Records will always be synonymous with the Britpop era in the 1990s, but the label's story goes back to 1983 when its founder, a British Rail employee by the name of Alan McGee, signed the label's first act, The Jesus & Mary Chain, whom he also managed. Growing the roster of artists to include acts like Primal Scream, My Bloody Valentine and Teenage Fanclub, Creation released many era-defining albums but by 1992 it had run up huge debts and was on the verge of collapse until McGee signed a little-known band named Oasis. Aside from being one of the most successful indie labels of the 90s, McGee is a colourful character whose antics have included funding Malcolm McLaren's attempt to become Mayor of London and getting into a series of punch-ups, one of which with former NME and Loaded editor James Brown. Mcgee eventually dissolved Creation in 1999, but as rags-to-riches stories go this is one of the best the music industry has to offer.

 

Stiff

For almost a decade between 1976 and 1985, Stiff Records was home to a host of punk and new wave acts like The Damned, Elvis Costello and Ian Dury, but the label will always be best remembered for its DIY ethos and the antics of its maverick founders, Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson. Reportedly founded with £400 borrowed from Dr. Feelgood frontman Lee Brilleaux (who Robinson was managing at the time), Stiff enjoyed instant success with its first release, The Damned's 'New Rose', but as well as releasing hugely successful records by the likes of Madness and The Pogues they also released a series of obscure and downright weird records, such as one called The Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Reagan, an LP that was silent on both sides (it still sold 30,000 copies). Add to that a label manager with a reputation for keeping a baseball bat beside his desk in case contract negotiations didn't go his way - plus a series of provocative slogans like “If it ain't Stiff, it ain't worth a f***” - and you've got a rock and roll story that's just begging to be given a screen adaptation.

 

Def Jam

Founded in 1983 by legendary producer Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons – brother of Run DMC's Joseph 'Run' Simmons' – Def Jam was one of the key factors in the success of the New York hip-hop scene that included acts like Beastie Boys, Run DMC and EPMD before going on to merge with Island Records and bought by Universal. Rubin and Simmons would both make excellent protagonists for a TV show, but Simmons' story is one of an entrepreneur dragging himself from his Queens neighbourhood to the top of the music industry, also founding clothing lines Phat Farm and American Classics. That's without even mentioning Def Comedy Jam, which offered a national platform for up-and-coming black comedians and helped launch the careers of Chris Rock, Bernie Mac and Chris Tucker among others.

 


Death Row

Of all the hip-hop labels founded in America during the 80s and 90s, none have been surrounded by controversy quite like Death Row. Founded in 1991 by Dr. Dre and Suge Knight, a former concert promoter, and bodyguard to the likes of Bobby Brown. Knight became one of the most feared figures in the West Coast rap scene, reportedly using violence to get N.W.A. rapper Eazy-E to release Dre and others from their contracts with Ruthless Records before going on to sign Snoop Dogg and Tupac, as well as releasing Dre's solo debut The Chronic. Stories about Knight's antics include him allegedly threatening to throw Vanilla Ice off a 15th floor balcony unless he signed the publishing rights to 'Ice Ice Baby' over to Death Row, as well as various unproven theories about his involvement in the deaths of rappers Tupac and Biggie Smalls, but whatever the truth behind these rumours, there's no denying the potential for entertainment value when it comes to the story of Death Row.

 

Empire: Season 1 is out now on DVD. 

Empire: The Complete First Season
Empire: The Complete First Season Terrence Howard

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