'Atlanta's' Music Supervisors Aren't Breaking Records, They're Educating The Youth
Atlanta has once again provided us with unforgettable moments and music selections for your playlists with "Robbin Season." As one of the few series on cable led by young people of color, the decision to expose audiences to artists like Tay-K, Kelea and Yung Bans is a mix of feeling and perpetual design.
Jen Malone and Fam Udeorji may have the titles of music supervisor and consultant, but everyone has a hand in the pot. They include director Hiro Murai, editors Kyle Reiter and Isaac Hagy as well as creator Donald Glover. With their ears in tune with hip-hop and R&B’s past and future, the group has given artists a platform they normally wouldn’t be exposed to.
“I think it's about Atlanta being genuine to Atlanta,” Udeorji explains. “But it's also being genuine to our own kind of music sensibilities. There's a wide spectrum to pick from. From the writers to the editors, to Jen and myself, we all have contributions. A writer may be listening to a very specific kind of indie choice, and we might have our editors who are listening to Harry Belafonte. When you have so many different sensibilities, you get to go into a scene with the best feeling to translate into the scene. But there's always a broad spectrum to choose from.”
The job isn’t as easy as it sounds. The relationship between music and television dates back to the 1940s when music was the last thing on a network head’s mind. As more music-based shows reached networks like NBC in the 1950s, relationships between the music industry and television were molded due to the process of licensing and royalties for labels and the artist. It’s why the job of a music supervisor goes beyond being the perfect human aux cord. Malone and Udeorji have unknowingly become music senseis to younger artists who haven’t quite mastered the business aspect of their craft.
Malone learned this first hand when it came to getting Tay-K’s “The Race” on the series. “With Tay being in jail, who's taking care of his portion of stuff? We also can't make a check out to ‘Tay-K,’ Malone explains. "Teaching the younger artists is something that I've taken on because I want them to understand what they're signing. I want them to understand how the process works. I don't want them to think that we're trying to mess with them. And I'll tell them, ‘You call any of these lawyers. You talk to any of these people and they'll tell you I'm legit. I'm not trying to screw you over. There's no scamming going on here.’ From a clearance perspective, it's a lot easier for me this season and creatively as well, I'm definitely much more in it. I know what's going on.”
As the way we digest music continued to morph from radio to soundtracks to streaming playlists, music supervisors seemingly give the gift that keeps giving–placement. Paired with storytelling, it also makes the characters more relatable.
"Teaching the younger artists is something that I've taken on because I want them to understand what they're signing. I want them to understand how the process works." - Jen Malone
“You have these kids that are on their way to rob a Mrs. Winners and you think, ‘What do they listen to?’ And you go, ‘They probably listen to Tay-K, probably listen to Yung Bans, they're on SoundCloud a lot,’” Udeorji explains. “And then you mentioned UGK. If Paper Boi is in his house, what is he listening to? He's an older rapper so he probably has respect for older southern music. Last year one of my favorite moments in the show was when Lakeith Stanfield (Darius) was singing Cheryl Lynn’s "Encore."
“There's a lot of music we grow up listening to. Our parents may throw on some Al B. Sure when they’re cleaning the house. Willie's (played by Katt Williams) the kind of guy that would make his kid clean up to that music. You start with those characters, then you start trying to dig into their brains and think about what they would be listening to. Willie's playlist is soul, you know Paper Boi might listen to some soul but for the most part, we were like, ‘He’s playing music off his laptop, let's get him listening to UGK.’ And then you have what might be teenagers definitely on Soundcloud so let's get some Soundcloud rap in there.”
An artist whose music lives on Soundcloud includes Miguel Fresco. His track “Above Ground” was featured on the “Money Bag Shawty” episode where Earn leads the crew to the strip club in the name of the flex. Fresco says the track was inspired by his experiences with fraternity life and Atlanta nightlife. “I think Atlanta is one of the dopest shows on TV,” he says. “It's also one of the realest in terms of a true depiction of the Atlanta music scene. Music plays a huge role in the way messages are conveyed on the show. It sets the mood for a scene. There's so many emotions that can be expressed with music and Atlanta is one of the best at picking the right songs. It's crazy because I don't think I've heard a song on the show that I didn't like.” He refers to hearing his song on the series as a blessing. “It's a big win for the team because I've always known the song is special,” he says. “It's also the first one I've produced for myself that we've actually released.”
“I feel like we're really hitting our mark, but it's a real team process.” -Fam Udeorji
“There are just a lot of younger artists on the Atlanta scene and now I'm rooting for them,” Malone says. She realizes how others may see their position as a poignant one in their careers. “That's not our job, to break records, but when we have that desire for a song to play, we're not just going to use a library song,” she adds. “We're going to find that artist, the kid that's making beats in his bedroom and get his mixtape out. We'd much rather do that than have just any song in there. Every piece of music is chosen for a reason, so it's exciting to have that opportunity where an artist gets a placement and things start to change for them. It's a very cool part of our job.”
Fresco submitted his music through Empire Distribution, but Udeorji says with their second go around as music supervisors, clearing songs directly with artists and managers was a smoother ride. “It was just easier to have placements where you know the conversation with management and whoever was already set in place,” he explains. “So even when there was a newer artist, you would go through this process of seeing whether they had a publishing deal, if they were set up with a PR role and this time around, we were just ready. We weren't just picking a song just based off of watching it one time. We had options with that. We had good communication with the editors, with Kyle, and Isaac, and we kinda just knew what they wanted this time around.”
One trend that was seen this season was the strong R&B and soul selections. In “Teddy Perkins,” two tunes from Stevie Wonder mirrored the episode as Darius travels to meet the polarizing character. “Sweet Little Girl” welcomes Darius into Teddy’s bizarre world while “Evil” brings him out and highlights the levels of pain and suffering Teddy and his presumed brother Benny faced.
“I've always been into soul so to be able to dive even deeper with that on this show is just something that I haven't been able to do in some of the other projects that I've worked on,” Malone says. “All the people that are working on this show have amazing taste so I'm always being exposed to new stuff. We also ask ourselves, ‘What are the song(s) doing to enhance the scene and what is that piece of music contributing to when you're watching the show?’”
In part of having a very reactive position in the Atlanta universe, it’s also helping to bring more light to the role of music supervision on television. 2017 marked the first year the Emmys presented an Outstanding Music Supervision award, which went to Susan Jacobs of the HBO series, Big Little Lies. There’s a chance their team could be in that category in the near future. “It really does feel like a basketball team where you take some time to really understand everybody's skill set,” Udeorji says. “I feel like we're really hitting our mark, but it's a real team process.”
See all the songs featured on "Robbin Season" so far below.