Are you thinking, how in the world is Empire going to top its over-the-top, dramatic, enticing, rollercoaster of a debut season?
Well, it all starts in the writing room and by hiring former The Source editor-in-chief-turned-TV-writer, Carlito Rodriguez, as a staffer, the Empire is in good, credible hands. After writing for the first season of HBO’s The Leftovers, the Cuban and Dominican writer brings authenticity, diversity, and hip-hop industry intel to TV’s mammoth hit. Here, he talks about arriving to the Empire, what he learned from his journalist days, and Latinos in hip-hop history.
How did you land the writing gig at Empire?
It’s a combination of a bunch of different avenues, which is indicative of writing for television. My point is that I had met with an executive at Fox 3 years ago, and we stayed in touch lightly off and on. When The Leftovers writing season 1 was ending, about June of 2014, was right around the time Empire season 1 writer’s room was starting. But because I was on Leftovers, the opportunity never came my way. A couple months later, Damon Lindelof from The Leftovers, didn’t ask me back on the show for season 2. It happens, this is the business. So I didn’t take it personal and wasn’t angry with him. Anyway I took on an indie project, wrote a feature for someone, and then after I went to Sundance.
While I was at Sundance, I was on a ski slope at the St. Regis Hotel with Bevy Smith (Fashion Queens) and [former Latina EIC] Mimi Valdes. I was having drinks with them and one of Bevy’s friends, Dennis Williams from HBO, came to join us. He was with this other young man, and we’re looking at each other like, yo I know you from somewhere. And, it turns out it was the Fox executive I had met with. So we’re all chopping it up, drinking, having a good time, Empire had just debuted. Empire had been on the air like three weeks or so, and all of a sudden Bevy and Mimi they start going in hard. I was like wait a minute wait a minute, firstly, congratulating them, Empire is dope, you guys are killing it, it’s crazy. I think it was Bevy or Mimi that said, “Wait a minute. How come you don’t have Carlito writing for that show? This dude ran The Source. He’s got the whole hip-hop pedigree.” And they just went hard on it man. It’s not really the norm you don’t really go on pitching executives all hard like that, at least I don’t do that. But, I took a selfie with him, because he was like, “oh I know your agent Lucinda.” So we took a selfie and I sent it to her. By the time I got back to L.A., my agent told me, “Hey we’re circling back and seeing what’s up over there at Empire, seizing the opportunities.” At the same time I knew one of the writers, Malcolm Spellman, that’s my man, I met him through another good friend of mine named Charles Murray who was working on Sons of Anarchy with Kurt Sutter. Anyway, Charles hits up and says there might be an opening at Empire, you all should rap. Malcolm basically went back to the showrunner Ilene Chaiken and just kept pitching me. Ilene read my stuff, and we met and then I had to go meet the studio and network, and I had to meet with Lee Daniels and Danny Strong. And, it all clicked they dug me, and so here I am.
Are you the only one on staff with experience in the hip-hop industry?
To me Hip-Hop is generational, so I would say that 99% of that staff has ties to hip-hop. Professional ties, nah, that’s not the case. I think it’s pretty much just me with Source, BET, etc. But Malcolm has an artist, who’s not hip-hop but he’s definitely kind of hip-hop generation influenced. He’s dope too, like soul-funk dope, Fantastic Negrito. So Malcolm has been doing his thing. Eric Haywood started out directing music videos. And Radha Blank is a spoken word MC. There’s a lot more women than men, we’ve got the twins JaNeika and JaSheika James. They’ve been in the game for a minute, despite how young they are. So I would say that generationally, the entire room down there is hip-hop. Even Robert Munich, he’s a white dude from Chicago, but he’s of my generation and I trade stories of some of the stuff that we used to listen to and rock out with back in the ‘90s and 2000s. So generally the "industry insider" résumé, it’s me, but everybody there is a hip-hop head to an extent. They’re all familiar with it, varying degrees of course, and obviously I would bring in the insider anecdotes and stories, but it’s not like anybody there is foreign to it.