With the timeline still ablaze over this past Sunday's jaw-dropping season finale it's official: Succession is no longer just a show, it is That Show. (It's even crossed the Unfounded Conspiracy Theory threshold). Of course, for most of us, it's been That Show since last year. But it's great to see the world slowly but surely beginning to catch up, as the show's popularity crests and it crosses over into becoming HBO's next hit. A key step in advancing that master plan came last week, when none other than Pusha fucking T jumped on the show's already hard-hitting theme music for an offiicial rap remix.
For a series to connect with the zeitgeist it has to have the whole package, and Succession's hypnotic main theme is arguably just as indelible as its performances and plot twists. Beyond just appearing in the opening credits, the theme recurs as a non-diegetic compliment to the narrative in essentially every episode, and for multiple moods at that. Sometimes it's a triumphant backdrop to a successful power play, sometimes it's a sorrowful soundtrack when a power play doesn't go as planned. Either way, it's woven into the show's DNA—so much so that composer Nicholas Britell technically scored the series' first Emmy for it earlier this year.
Britell's been scoring our favorite pop culture moments for awhile now—he's the genius behind the beautiful music that compliments Barry Jenkins' two opuses, Moonlight and If Beale St Could Talk. With fans starting to lobby for Succession as having one of television's all-time great themes already, and the Best Rapper Alive hopping on his Emmy-winning composition, it's safe to say Nicholas is having a moment. And he's just getting started. A self-professed hip-hop head, Britell has a background in experimenting with rap production long before linking up with Push—in fact, we have him in part to thank for the genius of Kendall Roy's "L to the O-G" rap. Who's to say where it might go from here, but we had to check in. Complex caught up with Britell, currently in London, on Facetime Audio ahead of the Succession Season 2 finale, to geek out on the theme's popularity, working with Push, Kendall's "9PM in Dundee" moment, and more.
Congrats on winning the Emmy. It feels right that that was the show's first Emmy.
I appreciate it, well, you know, it's been an amazing experience working on the show and the whole creative team has just been so supportive and I think every department has really just worked so closely with all the others. So it's been just a fantastic kind of creative collaboration on everything.
One of my favorite things about it is—obviously there's a whole soundtracks worth of different compositions for different characters and moments—but I love the way that the main theme is, like, woven into the show itself and the narrative.
Exactly. Well, and it's interesting because every project—when I start you never exactly know how you're going to go with it. Like, how you're going to approach it, and you start experimenting with things. And with this one, as I worked on it, it just felt like there was something almost kind of maniacal about the way that everything would keep coming back. And always kind of evolve and be, you know—it's always a little different. And in Season 2 it's been fun to explore taking it into some left turns as well, where it goes into something very different, then starts to come back again. So it's definitely a part of the framework that I work with to think about 'where does the music go' and 'when do we bring in some of those chords?'
Someone tweeted that the Succession theme is an all-timer, because when you hear it on the show, you know someone's about to get like screwed over or score some huge win or something.
It's amazing. Oh man. Well, and it's so interesting too because it's now taken on this life of its own with like all these memes, and you know, the Kermit The Frog and I mean there's just all these kinds of places in which the music winds up that I never ever would have anticipated.
There's something almost kind of maniacal about [it]
Why do you think it's resonating so much? We're in an era where there aren't even really that many credit songs to begin with anymore.
It's a good question. First, all credit goes to the show itself, which I think operates in this really fascinating kind of in-between zone of tonality where on the one hand the show is quite serious. It's dealing with these real issues of concentrations of wealth and power amongst smaller and smaller groups of people and the effects of that and what is that world.
But then, on the other hand, it's completely absurd at times and embraces this high, comedic, ridiculousness. But it does both of those things at the same time. The show itself has this wavelength that it's hitting that I think is very unique. And maybe the music, I think in some ways, is trying to do something similar where, if you just look at the music, it's quite serious and it's got this pretty hard beat in there and it's got these 808s, and it's got a huge string orchestra and everything. But then at the same time it's got this bizarrely out of tune piano, and these sleigh bells and things. Sonically there's something almost like curious about it in a way. And for me too, most of the music that I've released over the past five years is clearly orchestral or more clearly in one sort of a zone. And I think the fact that this is actually this very kind of dark classical music, but in the guise of a hip-hop beat, may enable it to live in more universes than some of my other music.
And even with all the memes, I think an official rap remix is kind of like the last thing anyone expected.
So from the early days of Season 1 when people started recognizing the theme, I started getting people reaching out to me, just tweeting or sending me messages saying, "Hey, when is someone going to rap on this?" And at first I was like, "Oh, that's awesome. Totally cool. Thank you."
But then over time it actually continued, and actually increased until people were like, "When is there going to be a rap version of this track?" And so, I'm very careful with it. If we were going to do it, we really wanted to do it right. And so I said to myself, if we could have our dream come true, who would I love to work with and collaborate on this? And the only choice honestly was Pusha-T. There wasn't even a number two. Or we're not doing it. And through a friend of mine, Tommy Alter, who helped organize all this, I connected with Push and his manager Shiv, and it turned out they were big fans of the show and Push loved the music and right away it actually felt like there was this real opportunity to make it happen.
So honestly it's a dream come true because it's one of those things where you imagine 'what would be the total, lights-out, we-did-it' version of this? And then Push, he was into it. And he was so collaborative with the whole process. I sent him the instrumental and he went in the studio and put some verses together. And then as soon as I got those back, I realized that I really wanted the theme to also have its own new take for this. So I had this idea of, well, what if I actually sample my own theme into this remix? So that's what I did. I actually sampled the theme and took stems and actually made the beat even harder. I gave it extra hi-hat, gave an extra sub and 808. And actually created some new textures within it while also sampling the string, sampling the piano, bringing all that back in. And as I did that, then I sent that back to Push and then he did more verses. It was really this awesome back and forth, iterative collaboration.
That's fire. So were you a fan of his already?
Oh my God. Pusha-T? Absolutely. I mean, you know, I turned 13 in 1993 so it was a good year to be a hip-hop fan early on and I've loved hip-hop since I was a kid. So the opportunity to work with Pusha-T, as one of my hip-hop heroes. And, also I think that the best rappers are really virtuosos, you know? They're virtuosos like a concert violinist on the highest levels of virtuoso and I think there are certain rappers who have that kind of other level of artistry. And for me that's Push.
Yeah, when you guys announced, you mentioned that you had a hip-hop background and I was overjoyed to learn that you, essentially, are Squiggle, the man who "cooked up a beat" for Kendall.
Yeah, that is true. That is true. I was in a hip-hop band in college—it was an instrumental hip-hop band with two rappers. We performed around the Northeast, we were called The Witness Protection Program. And basically I spent most of my time in college, literally most of my waking hours, making beats. It was during that time that I really started writing music every day, actually.
I was a concert pianist when I was young, but it was actually hip-hop that got me into this daily rhythm of writing music all the time and getting a chance to perform it. And so what was interesting was when I found out about episode 8 with Kendall rapping, they were like, "Oh, I think we need this to be kind of cringe-worthy, but we also need it to be really well done."
So, again, the show had to be right in between the two tonalities and we were trying to imagine, what was the type of beat that Kendall would want someone to make for him for this scene. And I think there was a bit of a thought of like maybe he would want the type of beat that was his favorite thing from when he was back in college or something? So we were thinking maybe early 2000s, late '90s, and I said to the producers, Jesse Armstrong and the team, "Actually, you know, I have like beats from then that I was making at that time," and one of the beats I made years ago for that [became] this, it was kind of like a reinterpretation of a Bach C minor prelude that I did. And I put a beat under it and redid the track and turned it into a hip-hop track. I sent it over to Jesse and Jeremy Strong, and they just loved it.
Did you help Jeremy get his flow down?
Let's just say I worked very closely with Jeremy. He really knocked it out of the park. I mean, he did such a great job and he really practiced it. And we just spent a lot of time both in pre-production and on set thinking about how it would sound and then even in post with a great music editor, Todd Kasow, who helped kind of like weave the mix together in the right way so that it felt really full for the scene. So a lot of work went into that L to the O-G.
With that and now the Push thing, the next logical question then is when are we going to see you producing for rappers actually?
You know, I'm actually working on some stuff right now, between us, and I'm starting to put some stuff together and I have some ideas. So it's been something. Music and film and television—music's always been a passion of mine, but as a deep longterm dream, being able to collaborate with incredible rappers is something that I've thought about since I was a kid. So yeah, there's some stuff in the works.
I mean the Succession theme is already hard enough as it was. I can definitely see you giving Push an original beat that hits just as hard.
Absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely, amen. I would love more of that to happen. And, again, you know, just all respect to Push for coming onto this and for just being such an incredible collaborative on it because without him this wouldn't have been possible.
Nice. So Season 3 has already been greenlit. Are you looking forward to adding any kind of new compositions?
It's a good question. For Season 2, I definitely wanted to make sure that the original elements were still present, but that they were an evolution. And one of the first things I said to Jesse about Season 2 was, "I'm sort of imagining this is like the second movement of a symphony where it's still the same symphony but it's kind of taking you to a different little bit of a different place." So Season 3, I think, yeah, maybe that becomes the third movement of some sort of a symphony where—I don't know anything about season three, so I don't know where I'll go with it, but I definitely feel that I want to keep the DNA of the music, but evolve it somewhere.
Dope. The show was big last summer when it debuted, but it feels like it increases in popularity with each passing week this year. What do you think it is about the show, just in a broad sense, that's resonating so deeply?
I definitely feel that as well. I think it's connecting in a way to the zeitgeist right now. I think, on a serious level, it raises these big questions that I think are part of the world today that we're facing. These questions of wealth and power inequality in the world and sort of who is in charge of a lot of our lives moment to moment.
But at the same time, I think it's the tone of the show, just every single episode that I feel it goes even further into embracing this sort of high art comedy that it's doing. And again, that's credit to the writers who are doing such an amazing job. It's something about this like a combination of tones that, with everything going on in the world today, I think resonates with that somehow.
Do you have any upcoming film stuff?
I just finished the score for The King starring Timothee Chalamet, that's premiering on Netflix on November 1st and going into select theaters. And I'm also working right now with Barry Jenkins on his Underground Railroad limited series that he's doing with Amazon. I don't know when that's coming out, but I'm in the process with that now, too.
Speaking of Barry, since you're a hip-hop guy, I have to make sure you know that the Beale Street soundtrack was chopped and slopped by OG Ron C.
Ohhhhh yes. Absolutely. Those chopped remixes are incredible. They did it and we talked to them about it for Moonlight as well. There's that Purple Moonlight album, but I'm just... It's such an honor to have them do those remixes and since the time of working on Moonlight, I've become more and more like Barry, where whenever I hear any piece of music I want to chop and screw it, so. I would say, probably like 50% of music I listen to is me going in and slowing it down and being like, oh, that sounds pretty nice.