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'Atlanta's' Music Supervisors Aren't Breaking Records, They're Educating The Youth

Series music supervisor Jen Malone and music consultant Fam Udeorji are teaching young creatives the power of their music. 

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.

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(L-R) Flex Alexander and Shanice attend the Soul Train Weekend Kick-Off Party on November 5, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
(Photo by Earl Gibson/BET/Getty Images for BET

Interview: Flex and Shanice Talk 'Virtual House Party,' Staying Together And That Call From Aretha Franklin

Shanice and Flex Alexander are ‘90s Black pop culture in the form of husband and wife. Shanice was an R&B ingenue with a hypnotic smile and powerful voice beyond her years when her sophomore album Inner Child propelled her to pop status thanks to the 1991 hit “I Love Your Smile.” Flex was a background dancer for acts like Sal-N-Pepa, before becoming a comedic actor and a mainstay on our TV sets during the golden era of Black TV in the ‘90s through early ‘00s.

After years of pulling in approximately $25K per week (according to Alexander) and not knowing how to properly manage the income, the couple lost their home, liquidated their assets, and filed for bankruptcy in 2010. They chronicled part of their journey with their reality show Flex and Shanice on OWN from 2014 to 2016 and are now positioning themselves for their respective next career chapters.

A big part of Flex’s next chapter was announced in July, when Netflix revealed they were bringing a slate of UPN shows from the early ‘00s arriving to the app this Fall. The line up includes Girlfriends, on which Flex originated the role of Darnell Wilkes; and One on One, which features Alexander as a single dad to teenage Kyla Pratt (and also features Shanice singing the theme song). Following the eagerly met premieres of classics Moesha, Girlfriends, and The Parkers, One on One and Half & Half (Essence Atkins and Rachel True) premiered on Thursday on the video streaming platform.

The couple, who celebrated their 20th anniversary this year, talked to VIBE recently about adjusting during the COVID-19 pandemic, growth as a married couple, and that time Aretha Franklin asked her to play a role in the upcoming Respect biopic.

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VIBE: How have you all been doing with everything that's going on?

Shanice: We're hanging in there. (Flex) doesn't like it when I say, "We're hanging in there."

Flex: We are doing exceptionally well. We are alive, we are healthy. Just dealing with it like everybody else, taking it one day at a time because you can't really plan too far ahead.

Did you ever think that we would be going through something like this?

Shanice: No, never. Flex said he kind of...Didn't you say over the years you thought...No. You said you read a lot of books and stuff.

Flex: Yeah. I do a lot of reading and stuff from my college days. Just stuff that talk about this stuff that's going on I like to get into. Everybody thinks it's conspiracy or whatever, but I just didn't think it would be in my lifetime. It is an adjustment for everyone. Like she said, we try to find the positive in it. We sit at the table, we eat dinner at the table, we can sit down. I say, "Baby, do you want to watch a movie?" We sit there and just hang out. Before, we were just crossing [paths where] everybody's hustling and grinding, hustling.

With the senseless police killings, racism seems to be at an all-time high. What type of conversations are you guys now having with (teenage children) Elijah and Imani now that they're older and this could happen to them or any other young adult? What are you telling them?

Flex: This is something I know I've been talking to Elijah about not just since this. When he was younger, just explaining him as a young Black kid, being a Black teenager turning into a young Black man, just the crosshairs that's on their back. You talk to them about if you're pulled over what to do, what not to do. We don't like to let him ride. He has friends that have cars and I'm like, "No, four or five of you all in the car? No. That's an open invitation." It hurts us because their regular daily livelihood has just changed. They would just walk down the street to the store. Now, we're like, "No."

Shanice: He [Elijah] has one friend that we allow him to be around. One of them wanted to play basketball and wanted me to drop them off at the park and I said no. There was a noose in our area.

Flex: Less than a mile from our house.

Shanice: Less than a mile from our house, there was a noose at the park. I sat in the car and I just watched him play. Normally, I would just drop him off and come back and pick him up, but I don't feel safe anymore.

Flex: And we have to have the conversation with Imani as well because it's not just relegated to just men and boys, women, too. We get ahead of the conversation, but they are very keen. Listen, information is traveling fast. They got these phones, they see stuff as well. A lot of the time, they tell us stuff and we're like, "What?" We just try to instill in them the best that we can and just pray over them.

 

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Throwback photo of @flexaforeal and I ♥️ We look like kids Flex lol

A post shared by shanice (@shaniceonline) on Sep 21, 2020 at 7:22pm PDT

Shanice, nobody sounds like you. You were a young pop icon, not just as an R&B artist, but also in pop - and paved the way (for other young crossover singers). How does that feel today?

I just feel blessed to have longevity in this industry. I've had my ups and downs. You know how crazy this industry is and sometimes you get frustrated and it's like, "Why am I doing this? I want out. I don't want to do this anymore." But then, when I get online and I talk to the fans directly on Instagram and Facebook and Twitter, it keeps me going. I get emotional because I've had some great moments in the industry, but then I've had some very low moments and it gets frustrating sometimes. I love music. I love singing. It's in my blood. I've been singing since I was seven months. I do it because I love to sing and I love my fans. I have the best supporters out there.

You both are such a likable couple and people gravitate to you from all walks of life, from all nationalities. What is it about you two that they can identify with Flex and Shanice?

Flex: Just being us.

Shanice: I think we're just being ourselves.

Flex: We're just being ourselves. I'm on here deejaying on Instagram and she's here dropping it like it's hot. (Shanice laughs) That's what she does. We just try to be ourselves and we show a little bit of that doing the reality show and sharing what we went through because we wanted people to know what we went through and that you can come out of it. We just don't, I'm going to say a real old school word, we don't put on airs-

Shanice: Airs. (Laughs) That is real old school.

Flex: ... for anyone. We're in here every day. I want to throw it back to her real quick. I see the pain and stuff that she goes through the ups and downs and disappointments. Even through all this, you're still like, "Man, is it a place you want to reach?" She feels like, "I didn't get there." I said, "Listen, you've had more success than a lot of people and it may not have been here, but people love you." Whether they like to hear it or not, she's paved the way. There's no dig against anybody because a lot of them have said it. You paved the way for the Monicas, the Brandys. Beyonce even spoke to her and told her Solange sang your song (“I Love Your Smile”) at a talent show. I try to tell her just, "Hold on to that and just keep doing what you're doing," because you see where everything is going in the business, in the industry. And to have a good name and people that love you, I think, is a great thing. That brings longevity.

You guys have been staying creative. I see you’ve been doing virtual house parties. Who came up with that concept?

Flex: It came from me starting deejaying back in 2016. I was doing it once a week. Every Thursday I was doing, and she would be in the bed. When we got here, I started doing it again. It was right at the beginning of the pandemic. I just jumped on, and then she came over and then just started—

Shanice: I was like, I said, "Let me be your hype girl." (Laughs)

Flex: It worked. It's at a point now where if I get on it by myself, people are like, "Where's Shanice?"

Shanice: I like to drop it like it's hot. (Laughs) It’s fun.

Flex: It helps our mind because we didn't know what ...I'm talking about when it was like March when it was cold and rainy out there and all of this gloom and doom...we didn't know what was happening. The people that came in and people that were on our page, people said, "Yo, this helped me so much get through the night or helped me get through the week. Man, that meant more than anything." I didn't care if there were 10 people on there or 10 thousand. We just go on there. We shout everybody out.

 

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Thank you EVERYONE for rocking last night!!! We appreciate your undying support, to our day one #LockdownwithFlex family you already know!!! And my fellow New York brother @lilcease thanks for hanging last night we hope you enjoyed the trip down memory lane✊🏾✊🏾

A post shared by flexaforeal (@flexaforeal) on Jul 24, 2020 at 11:39am PDT

Flex, you’ve written and produced your own TV show, you’re a comedian....Are you working on any other current TV projects? Will we see you on a screen again soon?

Flex: Before I mention that, I'm excited about Netflix releasing One on One. It was through the Strong Black Lead who really pushed for us to be in more places and to have another life. This is crazy because two years ago, I wrote the reboot. I had it ready to go, and then that happened and I'm like, "Man, This is perfect."

Shanice: It's perfect timing.

Flex: This could lead right to it. I'm thankful for that. I just wanted to throw that out there. We have an animated series that we're working on now. We just got a showrunner attached and we're working on that. I have a drama that I've developed right before the COVID hit. We also worked with a Black-owned company called Ceek, where we do the Flex and Shanice Virtual House Party. They have great programs and they do live concerts. They've had Elton John, they've had Lady Gaga.

Shanice: Jennifer Lopez.

Flex: They have DL Hughley on there with Chris Spencer, [and] we're on there now. What they're trying to do is create this virtual experience [where] I come in, I deejay, [you] put your (VR headset) on and you're in the party. It’s great to partner with them and just continue to stay active and creative. It just keeps you going.

Shanice: And I've been doing live concerts in my living room.

Flex: Yeah. It's crazy because we've worked a lot.

Shanice: We've been doing so much in this living room. (Laughs) Like Flex said, we were working before the pandemic, we're working our butts off more now.

Tell us how you balance being in the entertainment business, being stars, having a family and being married. You're probably going to tell me love, but there has to be something else besides love that has kept you together. What do you think it is?

Flex: Honestly, praying is the first.

Shanice: Praying. Yes.

Flex: And communication. We can agree to be disagreeable.

Shanice: We've had our ups and downs. It's not like it's been all great, but we do love each other and we don't go to bed angry. We're mad at each other and we try to talk it out, and I just feel like you’ve got to try to make it exciting and you can't get too comfortable. People, after a while, they get bored in their relationship.

Flex: There are times that she ain't checking for me; she doesn't like me right now, so I'll come downstairs and she'll be up here. There's time's out like that. We go to different parts of the house and we figure it out.

Shanice: And we try to give each other a little space to breathe. We may come back to the situation and talk about it.

Flex: Every day you figure it out, you grow. I think I'm understanding who I am more now at 50 than I did at 30 or 35. I just love being here, being with my family, us having fun together, the kids. It's a beautiful thing, man. It's a beautiful thing.

Flex, what’s one thing that Shanice has taught you about being married? What have you learned from her?

Flex: Growth. I would say growth because if there's anybody that I've seen grow is her. If there's anybody I've seen with perseverance, it’s her. Her patience, her kindness, her. It has really taught me to listen more because as the man you're like, "I got it." She says, "Something ain't right," and I'm like, "I got it." Learning how to cut that off in my brain and go, "You know what? I need to listen. I need to listen to her. I need to hear her." I think that was probably one of my biggest hurdles is not that I didn't listen, but listen and go out, really listen and apply it. I've just seen so much from her in 20 years that I'm just like, "Wow, man. We've got 100 more to go." I just want to grow some more, and we’ve got more fun to have and love to have. We're done with the babies, though.

Shanice: Right. No more babies.

Flex: We're done with the babies.

Shanice: No more babies.

Flex: No more babies.

Shanice, what one thing Flex has taught you, or that you’ve learned by being married and connected to him for so long?

Shanice: I've learned that people over the years grow and they change, and sometimes you have to learn how to go with the change. I've learned to try to adjust to the change because we're not the same people we were 20 years ago.

Flex: Not in a bad way, though.

Shanice: Not in a bad way.

Shanice, you’re an international pop star. You started in pop and then crossed back to R&B, and can travel the world with just “I Love Your Smile.” That's big in itself, but can you share some of your greatest accomplishments? 

I think when I got nominated for a Grammy, that was like a big highlight for me because when I was a little kid I used to always look in the mirror and I used to practice my speech. I used to always dream about getting awards. I have several moments: the Grammys, (Aretha) Franklin, rest in peace—when she turned 50 the Queen of Soul reached out to me and flew me and my band and my dancers down to her house. I did a whole concert in her living room with a band and dancers and everything. That was so big for me.

Meeting Michael Jackson, singing on three of his records. I sang in the background for like three songs, and that was big for me. Just being able to travel all over the world. “I Love Your Smile” was No. 1 in..I believe it was 22 countries. I've traveled all over the world and I'm still traveling the world because of that song. “Saving Forever For You” was a big record for me as well with Diane Warren and David Foster. That went to No. 5. It didn't go No. 1, but it was almost number one. That was another big pop record for me. So you're right. I came out pop and then I crossed over to R&B.

I’ve got another Aretha story. I have to say this. I was having one of my moments when I was frustrated about the industry. I was home and I was crying and I said, "God, I don't want to do this anymore." I was feeling really low. I was like, "I'm done. I don't want to do this." And then, Flex came home and he was like, "Somebody reached out to me.” I think it was Aretha’s sister-in-law saw Flex and said Aretha wants to get in touch with Shanice. Here’s her cell number. So Flex comes home and says, "Miss Franklin wants to get in touch with you. This is her cell number." I'm like, "Me? Really?" I called her and we talked for like probably an hour. We talked for a long time, and she said, "I reached out to you because I want to tell you I know real talent when I hear it, and you got it." This is when I was feeling down. This was nothing but God telling me keep going.

So she said, "We had auditions. I'm doing a movie about my life, my life story." And she said, "Most likely Jennifer Hudson is going to play me, but I would love you to play my sister." I’m sitting on the phone like, "Yeah!" They'd been talking about this movie forever. Even when she was alive they were talking about the movie, and I said, "Anything you need. I would love to be a part [of it]." We talked several times over the years about the movie. Unfortunately, she passed. I think God wanted just to encourage me to keep going. I think that's why that happened. It was just to tell me to keep going. I just had to share that story.

Flex, what would you say to the younger Flex as he’s just starting out in the entertainment industry?

Take everything in more. Enjoy it. Don't fly through it so fast. Tell the people you love that you love them while you have them. I would have learned more about the business on the financial side to plan better. Those would probably be the things I would say, but I think overall, it would be to take it all in, sit back and take it in more. I think things happen so fast and it's like, I'm here, I'm there, I'm dancing, Salt-N-Pepa here, boom, traveling the world. And then, you think it's all going to keep going. You think it's all going to just last forever. And then, next thing you know, you look back and the time has passed and all you have is maybe a picture. I think that would be the thing I would tell myself.

Shanice, what would you tell up and coming talent that is trying to break into the entertainment business?

Shanice: I would tell them to definitely do it not for the money, do it for the love. The money and all that stuff will come. Believe in yourself. Back when I started, you had to get the approval of a huge record exec to put you out there. And now, because of the internet, you don't have to wait on somebody to tell you if you're good or not. You can put out your music on iTunes and get out there and create an audience online. I would say just don't give up on yourself, keep trying. It may not happen overnight. It might. There are people like Justin Bieber. He got on YouTube and he's one of the biggest stars in the world. Everybody's story is different, but you just have to keep trying and keep believing in yourself.

Flex: Yes.

Shanice: Just don't give up. You’ve got to keep going. Even when it seems like it's impossible, you just gotta keep going.

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Then & Now: Common Details How He And J Dilla Collaborated On The "Thelonious" Track With Slum Village

J Dilla and Common had a really tight creative bond and, at one point, lived together in L.A. So you know that Common got dibs on all of his hot beats first. They were hip-hop brethren just trying to work together and of all of their collaborations, living and posthumous, the track “Thelonius,” is the sharpest intersection of the two legendary artists' careers.

A singular song fit for two albums, the cut was placed on Common’s fourth studio album Like Water for Chocolate and Fantastic Vol. II, Slum Village's classic sophomore album. “Thelonius” as we know it was in a way an accident...a soulful snafu that we get to enjoy forever. In this excerpt of VIBE's Then & Now video franchise, Common shares how the song manifested unplanned, willed into existence by Dilla’s uncompromising creative compass.

The story is brought to life with artwork by visual artist supreme, Dan Lish (@DanLish1), the man behind Raekwon’s The Wild album artwork. The illustrations you see in this video are a small fraction of what you can find in his upcoming book: Egostrip Vol 1 – The Essential Hip Hop Art Book, a psychedelic visual history of hip-hop to be enjoyed by the genre’s oldest and youngest fans alike. 

Today is the last day to support Lish's Kickstarter for the incredible project. Click the following link for a copy of your own: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/dan-lish/egostrip-book-1 

“I picked up on what inspired me about the artists, whether it be a certain lyric from a classic song or my perception of what may be going through their mind at the moment of creation,” says Lish.

There is much more to be said about all of these artists. For more stories on Common’s catalog, including several more Dilla cuts, stay tuned for the upcoming episode of Then & Now, where we dig deeper into notable tracks in the career of one Lonnie Rashid "Common" Lynn, Jr.

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