The Transcenders are an award winning - mean, lean composing team consisting of Brian Lapin (keys), Terence Yoshiaki (drums) and Mike Fratantuno (bass and guitars). They were all founding members of the legendary hip hop band, The Black Eyed Peas, and their songwriting collaborations have received Grammy nominations and BMI Songwriter Awards for the Black Eyed Peas’ hit songs Let’s Get It Started and Where Is The Love, featuring Justin Timberlake. They are currently working on the hit shows, Blackish, Madam Secretary, andThe Real O'Neals among other projects.
You guys were all in the Black Eyed Peas? That’s wild!
Mike: Yes. We all played with the Black Eyed Peas (BEP) for a long time. We met Brian while producing the first record. Terence and I had already been the rhythm section for a couple of years, and we had been doing a lot of the recording for the first album in bedroom and home studios with Will.i.am, on the fly. Brian was in the Recording Arts program at Loyola Marymount University, and he met Will through one of BEP’s managers. Since Brian had access to a studio after hours when everyone was gone, we would all shuffle down to Loyola after hours, literally under cover of darkness, and use the studio to record the first album.
Brian: The start time was midnight.
Mike: Brian ultimately joined the band while the record was being made. We did a tour with him before he left the group, but Terence and I ended up staying on with BEP for the next two albums before the three of us started working together again.
So, was this is the beginning of Transcenders?
Mike: Yes. Terence and Brian got together to score a pilot in probably 2001 or something. Is that right?
Brian: I thought it was just songs. We started doing songs for a TV show called Undeclared. It was Judd Apatow’s show.
Mike: We were still recording and touring with the Black Eyed Peas, so T and I were basically living life on the road. With composing for TV and film, we saw the possibility of ownership of our own destiny – it was very appealing. Also, the work was interesting. I think, as a team, we appreciated everyone’s contribution to this little trio; each of us seemed to complement the other. So, we were like, “We should quit the band and just do this for a living.” So that’s kinda how it all happened. It snowballed from there. Hustling for yourself is a lot different than hustling for somebody else. We all had a very symbiotic concept of how we wanted this company to grow.
Terence: Absolutely. The victories are all way more celebrated!
On the Blackish score, the bass is really a featured instrument. Could you talk a little about your work on that show?
Terence: Yeah, that’s become a signature sound of the show actually. It’s what ties all the cues together, and makes it recognizable as a Blackish cue. I program all the drums on that show. I’m using different sounds, textures, percussion and loops, but the thing that ties it together is the bass.
Mike: This is all orchestrated by T. When it comes time for me to play on it, he’s always got notes for me, but I gotta be honest, the whole cue is pretty much done by the time I see it. It’s just adding a layer of that glue (with the bass) that says “this is a Blackish cue”.
You each have your main instruments, but what else do you bring to the musical party, so to speak?
Terence: We all have our individual strengths. A lot of times, depending on the cue I’ll lay a bed and a tempo, and rhythms and sounds for these guys to play over. Mike plays guitar and bass, Brian plays keys and does a lot of orchestration, both of these guys do. I think our sound, regardless of the genre of music that we’re doing, comes across through different jobs.
Brian: It’s its own thing for sure. I mean, none of us were trained to be composers. We’ve all been songwriters, producers, engineers, but composing we had to figure out as we went. This is year thirteen for us now, as a trio. You know, thirteen years of doing this, we had to find our own way.
Mike: Yeah, sometimes we listen back to some older cues and we’ll be like, “What the hell is that? (they all laugh) What is that cue? Who did that?” And then we’re like, “Oh that’s us”.
You guys also composed the music on Gossip Girl. What did you learn from that experience?
Mike: The sound that we developed for Gossip Girl, which we were on for six years, I don’t even think we knew that it was unique at the time. It was just a trial by fire. The concept is that we started with the drums. Terence would do a road map of drums on these cues. Sometimes they were super layered, and sometimes they were really avant-garde. Then, you’d play something on it and somehow, by listening to it, and having it seep into your brain, you write something different every time on top of those drums. It turned into a really unique sounding score because of that.
Terence: I was also kind of imagining what these guys would play. While I was programming the drums, I was thinking of different melodies I know that Brian might play, or what Mike might add to it.
What’s your basic process of composing a cue for Blackish?
Terence: Initially, the show’s creator, Kenya Barris, had an idea in mind for the sound of the show, and he really wanted it to sound contemporary, like something you might hear on the radio. Hard hitting beats, stuff like that. I think the show has since progressed into having more opportunities for score, and more emotional scenes. So, there’s no one real formula for the show. We spent some time over the summer building a huge catalog for them, which we could also dissect and break down with stems, giving them many options. The main thing for the writers is making sure there’s space for the jokes. We want everything to be super clean and powerful and hitting, almost bombastic. The tricky part is creating a cue that gives you that feeling but also has a lot of space for the dialogue. A lot of times Brian does the emotional cues.
Mike: He’s a very emotional guy. (laughs)
Terence: He has a flair for all the romantic and emotional stuff. A lot of times I’ll start a cue with a beat or tempo in mind and then Mike will add his bass and Brian will add his thing. Then, I’ll get the cue back from them and I’ll try to shape it to the scene a little more before we mix it and turn it in. It’s definitely a collaborative effort. Our computers are all networked together so we just send files down to each others’ hard drives and work like that. It’s pretty efficient.
On Madam Secretary, the music is very different than the music on Blackish. Do you approach the process differently?
Brian: On that one, Mike and I share a lot of the responsibilities. That would be our first purely orchestral show. It’s the same kind of process except it doesn’t start with the drums on this one. When we split the cues up, we try to think about each other’s skills, and a lot of times we’ll split it up based on story lines too. That’s what’s great about TV - hip hop on one show, orchestral on another.
Terence: We’ve done everything from courtroom dramas to medical procedurals to Indian Bollywood score, and we all bring different influences and styles to our unit. We’ve been able to create authentic sounding score for all these different genres, which is something I think we’re probably most proud of.
Do you use sample libraries to get the orchestral sounds?
Mike: Mostly sample libraries. On occasion, we’ll have live players come in and embellish on some stuff, but most of it’s done in the box.
Brian: In general, we usually buy something (a new sample library) every month or two.
Mike: I think the fun of it is to get new libraries, tweak sounds, and make them your own to create signature sounds for a show. It’s like mining for gold. When you find a great sound that you can use them in multiple cues, you feel like you’ve won a little lottery.
What are some advantages and challenges working in a group?
Brian: I can tell you that the greatest advantage is being able to play off each other, not only musically, but the support. We treat it like a band. The stress level is through the roof in this business, especially in television, turnarounds and stuff. I don’t know if I’d want to do this solo.
Mike: We’ve all done our individual projects, and it can be fun. But from my perspective, it’s always more fun when the three of us are involved because we do play well with each other. In terms of challenges, in 13 years I could point to a couple times when the stress level got hot enough that the three of us snapped, but it is very rare.
Brian: Creatively also, in 13 years I can’t think of a puzzle we haven’t cracked. It might take numerous four-in-the-morning sessions, but we’re persistent guys, and luckily we’ve been able to crack it! You can’t be an expert at everything. I don’t know any other teams that have this benefit.
Is there anyone on your bucket list that you would love to work with?
Brian: I’m a big Blake Mills fan. He just produced the new John Legend album, the last Alabama Shakes record. Monster guitar player! He got a Grammy nomination for the Alabama Shakes album.
Terence: There’s a lot of people I admire and would just love to be in the studio hanging with them and talking music, but, I can’t really think off the top of my head who I’d like to collaborate with…maybe work on a score with Anderson .Paak? That would be fresh!
Mike: I’m a big fan of Tycho, Toro Y Moi, and many instrumental groups that I think would fit into a score situation well. It would be fun to collaborate with groups or individuals like that.
What projects do you guys have coming out in 2017?
Terence: Well, we all do individual projects. Brian recently wrote a musical, Tony the Hat. He used a lot of really talented L.A. musicians and vocalists. It’s a whole concept album that turned out really cool.
Brian: We do another show for ABC, a comedy, called The Real O’Neals, which is on Tuesday nights. We are also working on a pilot for ABC with Blackish creator Kenya Barris, and exec producer Vijal Patel. Hopefully we’ll be blessed, and 2017 will continue into fourth seasons for Madam Secretary, Blackish, and a third season forThe Real O’Neals.
Mike: We are in pilot season right now, so that’s the big push-time of year for us. You really can’t guarantee that any of these shows will be back until they’ve actually signed on the dotted line. So, in pilot season we’re pretty aggressively trying to work on new projects. We are always looking to the future. We like to work, and we like to keep working so we are constantly on the lookout for projects that we like and believe in.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing, Copy | Paul Goldowitz
Extending gratitude to Transcenders.