To the unenlightened, Timbaland is best known for his role as executive music producer of the popular FOX television series, Empire; however, most have long known him as one of the most innovative and successful producers in the game. With an impressive catalog of chart-toppers under his production belt—including hits by Jay-Z (“Big Pimpin’”), Missy Elliott (“The Rain [Supa Dupa Fly]”), Aaliyah (“If Your Girl Only Knew”) and numerous others—Timbaland has cemented his place in the world of entertainment.
In The Emperor of Sound, his recently-released memoir written with Veronica Chambers, Timbaland recounts his life and his humble Norfolk, Virginia upbringing, which led to his determination to navigate through the tough terrain of the music industry, ultimately leading to his rise as music royalty.
Born Timothy Mosley, Timbaland’s early interest in music came alive thanks to a Fisher-Price record player he received one Christmas when he was just three years old. Although he grew up in the church, as he got older, he became keenly aware and appreciative of elements like instrumentation and arrangement by immersing himself in the music of Prince and Rick James, whom he still names as influences to this day. As he got older, Timbaland embraced his love of music and eventually parlayed his burgeoning talent for DJing (he was originally known as “DJ Timmy Tim”) to get local gigs around town, with encouragement along the way by early childhood friend and fellow future music producer Pharrell Williams.
Given Timbaland’s vast discography and award-winning, decades-long career, the peaks and valleys of his musical journey are the heart and soul of the book. He recalls when he met Missy Elliott, whom he was immediately impressed by. While the two would later go on to establish a partnership that resulted in some of biggest hits of the late-‘90s and beyond, getting there was fraught with challenges and disappointments via producer and founding member of Jodeci, DeVante Swing.
It was their time spent with working with Swing where Timbaland really reveals himself in the book, as he carefully but honestly describes the unpleasant working conditions they endured as members of Swing’s “Da Bassment” crew; e.g., meager housing accommodations, living off a diet of Ramen Noodles and scraps from Swing’s leftovers, and most importantly, sporadic compensation and credit for their music and beats. The author flat out notes that Swing was far from the nicest person to work with; however, he does acknowledge the business lessons he learned from that experience that prepared him for the next phase of his career: Aaliyah.
As expected, Aaliyah, and ultimately her tragic death, are a major part of this memoir. Timbaland admirably talks about meeting and working with her, early on realizing that she would become his muse. (He briefly mentions the late singer’s marriage to R. Kelly; however, understandably so, that mention feels somewhat obligatory.) He took her death hard and endured subsequent personal and professional struggles that inevitably led to a downward spiral where he abused food and alcohol to help him cope. He eventually rose above the pain and, at the urging of LL Cool J (and after ballooning to 331 pounds), he got his physical health together.
Timbaland continues on with the origins of his career-changing collaboration with Justin Timberlake (“Michael Jackson” to his “Quincy Jones”), acknowledging that, just like with Aaliyah, the two shared an instant bond. While he was up front about entering different territory with the pop star, he acknowledges being called a “sellout,” but remained adamant about being progressive and not ever wanting to be boxed into the “urban” category. He also shares anecdotes about his first real experience with racism after becoming wealthy (he was dismissed and disrespected by staff at a major car dealership); about having worked with heavy-hitters like Madonna, Elton John, Nelly Furtado and Björk; President Obama’s historic nod to “Dirt Off Your Shoulder;” and of course, how being an integral part of Empire’s success has allowed him to re-invent himself.
The Emperor of Sound is a good glimpse of the man behind the beats; of course, while everything can’t or won’t be included in an artist’s story, parts of the memoir feel incomplete and rushed. Despite this, it is still a fantastically inspirational story about weathering the dynamics of the producer-artist relationship, the rigors of show business and one man’s insistence on constantly evolving, one beat at a time.
LaShawn Williams is a freelance writer and editor from Chicago, Illinois. She is an arts and entertainment enthusiast who has a serious thing for stand-up comedy, music and dance. Follow her on Twitter: @MsWilliamsWorld.