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Hip-hop drama Empire is Fox's latest hit, thanks in equal parts to the soapy storylines and the awesome cast of characters assembled by executive producers Lee Daniels and Danny Strong. But the true heart of the show is the foundation of Empire Entertainment's central focus: the music.
"It was very important to Lee and to Danny and to our producers and to Fox that we had music that could stand alone," says Jussie Smollett, who plays singer-songwriter Jamal Lyons, the middle son of Terrence Howard’s entertainment mogul Lucious Lyon. "That, if Empire never existed, this music was legit and it could stand alone."
"It's the air we breathe, it's the atmosphere," Howard agrees. "We have to make sure that the music remains as fluid as possible."
To make sure that Empire's music would be able to stand on its own, Daniels and Strong brought in iconic producer Timbaland to work with the show's stars.
"Timbaland is one of the greatest producers in the game right now," says Bryshere Gray, who plays youngest son Hakeem, Empire Entertainment’s brash rising star. "I'm playing with Michael Jordan, you know, that's how I feel right now. We’re making so much great music."
Gray, who also performs under the stage name Yazz The Greatest, was an up-and-coming rapper in Philadelphia when he got the role on Empire.
"I was performing all over the place, in Philadelphia doing showcases, I was even performing on the street, you know I was performing on subway trains," Gray told ET. "I got the audition to be Hakeem. I did a video tape. I sent it to Lee Daniels and he loved it. He flew me to LA and that's the first time I got to meet Terrence and Taraji [P. Henson]. And it was crazy and I'm here today."
Smollett comes from an acting background (you might remember him from The Mighty Ducks) and performs solo music on the side, but that doesn’t mean the producers took it easy on him while casting Jamal.
"My audition for Empire was brutal," Smollett recalls. "Lee Daniels knows he took me through the ringer but no, I auditioned seven different times."
Both Gray and Smollett have songs on Empire’s first season soundtrack, which drops March 10 and also features some of the show’s epic guest stars.
"You're gonna see everybody from Snoop Dogg to Patti LaBelle," gushes Smollett. "It is this constant greatness of musicians just coming in and out of the doors of Empire."
The soundtrack will also feature chart-topping favorites like Jennifer Hudson and Rita Ora, though Empire’s young stars and original songs have been doing pretty well on their own so far.
"The encouraging thing is people are actually buying these songs," says Billboard’s Jason Lipshutz. "[Smollett’s single] 'Good Enough,' 72,000 downloads, that's pretty impressive for a song based on a TV show."
Empire's success is old hat to Oscar nominees like Howard and Henson, who plays the quotable matriarch Cookie Lyon, but Smollett and Gray are still getting used to life in the spotlight.
"It still hasn't fully hit me, but people are coming up to me on the street," says Smollett. "I went to Whole Foods and a bus of old ladies in a bus, a church bus, were just like 'Jamal!' And then couldn't figure out how to use their camera phones."