Persistence pays off for "Empire" songwriter

Mon Jan 4, 2010 8:06pm EST
 
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By Mariel Concepcion

NEW YORK (Billboard) - "Empire State of Mind" has been a chart-topping hit for Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, spending five weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100. The No. 1 anthem is also responsible for reigniting the singing aspirations of songwriter/producer Angela Hunte, who penned and produced "Empire" with writing partner Jane't "Jnay" Sewell-Ulepic. It all started with a bad case of homesickness.

"My writing partner and I were in London, missing home," Hunte says. "We said to ourselves, 'We complain so much about New York -- about the busy streets, about the crowds and the pushing, about the subway system -- but I would trade that for anything right now.' Before we left the hotel that night, we knew we would write a song about our city."

The pair sent the song to entertainment company Roc Nation in hopes that its founder, rapper Jay-Z, would record the song. But when that attempt failed, they became convinced it was the end of the line for the track.

Eight months later, Big Jon Platt, president of North American Creative for EMI Music Publishing, heard the song and fell in love with it. He suggested to Hunte and Sewell-Ulepic that it would be a perfect fit for Jay-Z. Despite the women's hesitance given the results of their first pitch, Platt sent the song to the rapper, who, Hunte says, "recorded it that night." Jay-Z wrote all new verses inspired by the original lyrics and left Hunte's words in the song's hook. At Hunte's recommendation, Alicia Keys was recruited to sing the hook.

"We were so happy he wanted to honor our work," Hunte says. "For him as a rapper to take a song by two female writer/producers? That's not a combination you see a lot. And Alicia has my same vocal tone. She made the song sound so close to the original. She just nailed it."

FROM BROOKLYN TO EUROPE

A Brooklyn native, Hunte -- who grew up at 560 State Street, the address Jay-Z mentions on the track -- launched her music career as a singer. But eventually she began studying production alongside mentor/producer Salaam Remi because, Hunte says, she found music becoming more "commercial. I just felt there was no place for me (as a performer) in music at that time."

In 2001, she signed a deal brokered by Remi with EMI and moved to Europe, where she began writing for Ms. Dynamite, Mis-teeq and British R&B singer Beverly Knight, among others. Hunte received her big break when she wrote the track "Do Somethin'" for Britney Spears. The song appeared on Spears' "Greatest Hits: My Prerogative" compilation and was released as the second single off the 2004 set.   Continued...