You can’t just bake a cake and call it a day to celebrate the awaited return of an award-winning show like Empire. You’d need two slices for the show’s writers, Lee Daniels and Danny Strong. You’d need a whole tier to honor the likes of Taraji P. Henson, Terrence Howard and their fellow actors. You’d need another for the Grammy-nominated music, a slice to salute Timbaland, the show’s former music producer, extra fondant for anyone who only eats icing and a giant layer for all of the talents not named here who contribute to making the show and its music a success. In honor of its return, we reached out to Justin Bostwick — co-writer of “Drip Drop,” 2015’s pop-cultural phenomenon — to give us the oral history of how the catchiest song ever came to be. Below is his account, edited and condensed for length.
It was definitely an experience.
I had no idea what Empire was going to turn into. I found out about the show almost a year before it aired, in the spring of 2014, when I saw the unreleased pilot. At that point, I didn’t know I would be involved. At the time, I was working with Jim Beanz, Empire’s music producer. He did the music for the pilot and was the one who pulled me in. He’d been working with Timbaland and that whole camp of people for at least ten years.
It’s kind of funny, how the song “Drip Drop” came to be. I started working with Jim in 2012. We made that song almost four years ago. It was crazy. When I met Jim, I played him a bunch of songs I had written or produced. At the time, I didn’t know if I was making these songs for me as an artist or to shop them around. “Drip Drop” was the first song we ever did together with me as the artist. There’s a version of it with me rapping instead of Yaz. When I go back and listen to it now I’m like, “Oh my god, what was I doing?”
When we made that song we knew it was a smash, low key. We knew it had to be something. But I wasn’t sure it was the right direction for me as an artist, so it just sat there on a hard drive for two years.
There’s a team of people at Fox responsible for selecting the music on the show. They’d reach out — my management at the time was in touch with them — and they’d tell us what they wanted and then we’d go through to see if we already had something that could work, like “Drip Drop,” or if we had to make something new that sounded like the vibe they wanted. Usually they’d let us know which character the song was for. With “Look But Don’t Touch,” they told us they needed something for Serayah [McNeill, who plays Tiana Brown on the show], an up-tempo club song, but that’s about it.
When Fox first called us up, they told us they wanted something similar to that Lil Wayne song, “Lollipop.” Remember that song? I was a sophomore in college when it came out. I remember people drinking to that song. They wanted something like that, the overall vibe and feel. It’s hard to describe the translation of music, but it’s about a feeling.
Anyway, we had this song just sitting on a hard drive, “Drip Drop,” with my reference on it. I think that’s what sold it, hearing someone on the song. Normally, you send over music sheets and they have to imagine it in their heads, but we had this finished song. With “Drop Drop,” they liked how it sounded so much that they kept some of my vocals.
It started trending on Twitter. It happened so fast. Twitter has a trending songs list and it was up there. Then it started trending on Billboard, then worldwide. Then all the memes started popping up with Tina from Bob’s Burgers. We were like, “What the hell is this?” It was the #1 show, and then the #1 album in the country, and we did a majority of the tracks. It was nominated for a Grammy. I’m so grateful for the experience.
There were so many hoops to jump through in the whole process. People at Fox would ask us to make revisions to certain songs. “Nothing But a Number” was all the way finished and they hit us back like, “We love it, but we really wanted there to be a sample in a song. An older-feeling sample.” (A sample is where you include a part of one song in another.) You almost always start with the sample. We had to add the sample in after. It meant working completely backwards.
They didn’t give us a specific era to choose from; they just said they wanted it to have “an older feel.” We didn’t know if that meant 10 years old or 50 years old. I went into the studios by myself to find something. I’m going through song after song, hours go by, and then that song came into my head — “Tom’s Diner?” Do do do do, do do do do, do do do do do do do. It’s by Suzanne Vega. It popped into my head so I go online, try to find it, change the pitch, time-stretch it to fit the beat we had. Called Jim and was like, “Check this out!” We sent it in and they loved it.
When I found out about the show, almost a year before it came out, I thought it sounded cool. They had Timbaland working on it, Swizz Beatz. At this point, I had been working with Jim for few years. Jim’s the one with all of the credits to his name. When the show was starting, they didn’t have any other producers or songwriters and were asking for a crazy amount of music. The studio recordings took place in Chicago where they filmed the show. Our studio was outside of Philly. Jim was flying back and forth needed help, so he brought me on. I’d work on stuff in Philly, send him a session out, he’d send it back with notes like, “Can you add drums or base or synth?” He’d be in the studio with the artist in Chicago, I’d send it back to him, they’d love it and cut it right then and there.
At that point, it turned into an everyday thing. It was Empire nonstop, seven days a week. It would be 7 at night and they’d be like, “We need a song that sounds like this but it has to be like this, and it should sound like a remake of an older song, but not actually be a remake. Can you get it to us by midnight, too, because they have to film the scene first thing in the morning?” We managed to make it work.
It’s hard to explain the making of a song. You sit down, you have an idea in your head and you pretend you’re listening to the radio. You pretend what this person sounds like, and try to recreate that, what’s in your head. You follow the direction it takes you. It’s weird. Picture an artist painting, throwing paint at the easel. There’s a lot of experimenting, a lot of trial and error.
“Drip Drop” is kind of funny, lyrically. It has a dirtier plug. It’s not the kind of song I’d want to be like, “Hey mom, check this out!” But she still loves it. She was so funny. When they released the Season One soundtrack, my mom went out and bought the hard copy and brought the cover pamphlet around with her in her purse. She’d carry it everywhere and show it to people because I was listed as an album producer. It was so embarrassing. I was like, “Mom, you have to stop.”
Social media loves to hate. I mean, this was definitely the biggest thing I had ever worked on. I was hyped when it debuted at number one, and it was crazy to see the play counts on YouTube. The comments were critical, but more so because people were so invested in the show. They’d reference the characters, not the actors, like, “Jamal always sounds better thank Hakeem!”
I’ve been doing music my whole life. I learned to play the guitar at six, took piano lessons in middle school. I got into making beats when I was 16. I’m 28 now. I didn’t go to school for music, but it was always in my life. When I was a kid, it was an obsessive hobby more than anything else. My sophomore year in college, I got an email from an MTV music supervisor. I had a couple of acoustic tracks of me singing and playing guitar online and they wanted to license the tracks for a show. I don’t know if they ever used them, but it was enough to be considered. I thought, “If they think I’m good, maybe someone else will think I’m good, too.”
I’m not working on Empire anymore. I’m still in touch with Jim a bit, but I’m doing my own stuff now. All good things between us. I think he’s super-talented. I know he’s going to keep doing other cool things. I hope I will, too. I’ve worked on music for other people for so many years. I’m fortunate that it’s been successful. At the same time, the reason I got into it all of this is because I wanted to try out some stuff for myself, so I want to explore that and see where that road goes.