The first episode of the second season of Black-ish sparked a provocative conversation regarding the use of the n-word with the help of a hip-hop track: "Gold Digger" by Kanye West. Songs are an important part of the show, mirroring the significant relationship that many African-American households have with music—using it not only as a placeholder to create memories but also as a way to express what it means to be black.
"It touches an emotional trigger with people when they are familiar with the song,” says Gabe Hilfer. He was hired on the spot as the music supervisor of ABC's Black-ish after one meeting with series creator Kenya Barris. (Full disclosure: Fusion is partly owned by ABC.) Hilfer started out DJing parties in college (“I was always a music guy”) and has been in the music supervising business for about 12 years; having worked on shows and movies like The Mindy Project, Black Swan, and Eastdown & Bound. He really understands the role music plays on screen: “I’m a fan of music, but I’m really a fan of story. What I do is just an additional layer." We spoke with Hilfer about Black-ish, Trick Daddy and his own personal music collection.
Usually music is used two ways in TV shows: In the background, or to help create a scene. Black-ish uses hip-hop to create memorable moments. Why did you decide to use music in that way?
We had a unique opportunity; ABC gave us a lot of leeway to use music in an influential way. The show tackles a lot of cultural issues—and music is a big part of the culture we’re representing. A lot of it is nostalgic. Kenya [the show’s creator] and I talk all the time, we’re around Dre’s age in the show, so a lot of our influences are joint memories of hip-hop, and music in general, from the same era. Then it’s just about getting creative and figuring out what we can actually license—and get done in time to make it on to the screen.
Music is important on shows like Grey's Anatomy where the drama is heavy and people are dying. But Black-ish is a light-hearted comedy that touches on serious issues. How do you set the tone with music?
Black-ish is a comedy with a lot of heart. It all starts from the script—we’re just adding frosting on top with the music. The thing with licensing songs is it’s hard to be funny, but yet simultaneously emotional. Usually, we pick one. Last season, in the episode where the kids are earning money, we did a fantasy flashback where they’re all in an ice cream truck, and we had "It's All About The Benjamins" playing. Originally we tried a different song, but "Benjamins" was just awesome.
A lot of black family sitcoms use music in the same way that Black-ish does—The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and The Cosby Show, for instance. Did you look to any particular show for inspiration?
Not really. We did pay homage to The Cosby Show with the Ray Charles scene last season. But those shows have influenced all of us over time… Who does not know the lyrics to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song?
In a past interview, Scott Vener, who did the music for Entourage, talks about the struggles of getting approval to use '90s hip-hop songs. How do you deal with the licensing?
The '90s were a wild west of uncleared samples. There are definitely some songs that you really wish you could get but can’t, because they have uncleared samples, or the writer splits are non-determined or in dispute, or somebody got screwed and only got a tiny percentage of the song. That’s not really specific to hip-hop. But thankfully with this show, it has been amazing. A lot of people in the hip hop and urban music community have been super supportive. We’ve had a bunch of Jay Z songs, a bunch of Kanye songs. Those are not artists who always license; they really care and are interested in personally approving what they’re involved with, and it’s been great.
And it was amazing last season to have Diddy and Mary J. Blige on the show. Honestly, I’m proud of the whole show.
Speaking of Kanye, the Black-ish pilot opened with “Jesus Walks,” and this second season, the first episode opened with “Gold Digger.” Was that intentional?
It was intentional to use Kanye both times, but not to open each season. The "Gold Digger" episode was supposed to be the second episode, but it was so good that they wanted to make it the first. That was a scripted use—the song was woven into the fabric of the plot, with Dre singing to Jack in the car—and then with Jack at school.
How have streaming services like Spotify changed your job?
I started music supervising about 12 years ago, and I heard stories that music supervisors would get hired strictly based on their CD collection.
Now, the playing field has evened out because everybody has access to pretty much the same stuff. On one hand, it’s made my life easier, because we have limitless resources at our fingertips. On the other hand, it’s made a lot of people amateurs at music supervising. But there’s a lot more to the job than just picking out music: Dealing with the labels and the publishers and the writers and the managers to make sure we can get this all done for the right price and get everybody to agree on the fee.
One of my favorite moments on Black-ish was the scene with "I’m A Thug," by Trick Daddy. It’s a really fun song to sing along to, but it also has a deeper meaning.
You can do a whole sociological exposé on that song. Trick Daddy, with his voice, bravado and delivery, comes across as a tough guy, but then you also have the kids singing the chorus, and that is a whole 'nother thing. When you hear kids singing "‘I’m a Thug," that totally takes the edge off.
Ultimately, this is a family show. You can’t get too wild—and you don’t want to take away from [the show] by playing something that’s so divergent from the theme. My son and I were in the car the other day listening to some music—it was funny because this was right out of the show— some Kanye came on, and my son was like oh I like this and he had never heard it before. It was the unedited version of something on Yeezus, and 10 seconds into the song I was like, nope, I’m changing it. He’s six years old. I just don’t need that in his vernacular anytime soon.
What’s your personal music collection like?
I have a pretty substantial vinyl collection, but I gave up on that about 10 years ago. I moved to LA and it’s really hard to travel with 500 boxes of records. I do have a few thousand records, I keep the good ones handy. My musical taste really runs the gamut—I came up on underground hip hop in the '90s. Then I branched out and I got into jazz for a little while. I’m into everything. I have to be. I don’t only work on Black-ish, I work on a other stuff too—you gotta kind of roll with the punches.
Tune in! Black-ish airs Wednesdays at 9:30 on ABC.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Tahirah Hairston is a style writer from Detroit who likes Susan Miller, Rihanna's friend's Instagram accounts, ramen and ugly-but cute shoes.