Godfather of Harlem Executive Producer Markuann Smith discusses telling the story of Bumpy Johnson on TV, working with Forest Whitaker, getting checks from Epix, paying his dues starting as a roadie for his brother Father MC, hip-hop aspirations and the grind of being in the entertainment business.
Warren Shaw 00:11
What’s good everybody welcome to dope interview I’m your host one shot here again with another dope interview I’m so so excited. We’re keeping a gangster professionally gangsta we’re joined by a very very special guest whose resume in the entertainment business it’s like the one that has worked for beach worked with the h1 b t right now got something going with the ABC network through FX I got my man Mark Kwan Smith here the executive producer for the godfather of Harlem one of my favorite TV shows right now mark on how the hell are you doing family?
Markuann Smith 00:43
I’m good brother Thank you for having me in your platform and I’m glad that you’re enjoying the show.
Warren Shaw 00:49
Am I ever me and my wife so I’m gonna be honest with you and we’ll get to this in a little bit but we haven’t watched the second part of season two because we’re one of those like we get irritated when we get to an episode and then there’s nothing left to watch we have to wait so we’ll add them back up right well then crinkle up a little bit so that we can get to it I mean cuz I really enjoy it you know i mean what we’ve been watching so far man so
Markuann Smith 01:09
it’s like going to the barbecue and just having a lot of Tupperware with you right and
Warren Shaw 01:16
x my guy socks so let’s get into it. And before we get into the actual show itself, just wanting to learn a little bit more about you, you know just just how’d you get into this business so to speak, you know, being an executive producer working in an industry for as long as you have like that’s hard work. That’s hard work. How’d you get here and kind of the oh just kind of alleged that down this path.
Markuann Smith 01:39
I mean Um, I’ve always been acting you know, I grew up in Harlem was raised in Far Rockaway, Queens I think my first bite was um, I used to watch a lot of movies and if anybody knows about Far Rockaway in New York the last stop on a train it’s like it’s out there. And it’s not one of the best communities you know, it’s it’s somewhere where you have to you know, jump off the porch earlier, or come out the mud in the quicksand so I used to watch a lot of movies and I used to lock myself in a room kind of like drowning out my surroundings what was happening outside from gunshots and things of that sort, trying to stay out of trouble. So that really got me into you know, the the the art of creating you know, I used to watch movies like on the waterfront and Rebel Without a Cause, you know, one of my favorite movies is once upon a time in America by Sergio Leone. So I used to love just the craft of storytelling, the art of that and even you know, watching like, certain directors like you know, I could tell what’s a couple of pieces or a Sergio Leone piece or Scorsese piece, it’s, it was something that I just naturally grew into. My older brother was into music. And he goes by he’s an artist by the name of father and say he was trying to Uptown Records you know, getting used to be his a&r and Anja hirosaki them and I remember just traveling with him on tour when he first got signed and being able to see the world and see different cultures so just something that just kept me going you know something where I didn’t want to go back to the community that I was in I wanted to escape that by any means necessary whether it was just creating whether it was just you know through music It was just something I didn’t want to go back to
Warren Shaw 03:24
Did you try your hand at music you know with a successful artists already kind of in the family me you just drop it like like people don’t know who we don’t find their MCs?
Markuann Smith 03:34
Yeah, you know what I’m absolutely I was talking to Whitney Houston’s a label at one time it was called a better place. It was on the nippy records. They had a group called Sunday and another r&b artist by the name of Mars. So I was one of the the artists I was rapping that was under her company. Unfortunately, the company broke up broke off like earlier. And Merlin Baba was with Sylvia Rhone to a lecturer in Robin Crawford was the president of nippy Inc so you know I did you know I’ve always loved music I’ve loved creating and not just performing
Warren Shaw 04:10
yeah man yeah man well go and take me down this path like heroin dope interviews we don’t keep it super linear we go where the conversation takes us so I’m a little bit more interested in not more interested but interested in this as well too. So like you said you was on tour like what are some What was that like? You know, how old were you that sat that age like kind of be on tour?
Markuann Smith 04:29
You know, I mean, I was I mean, to be honest with you was wonderful man. I was on tour with you know, I was a roadie and and for your, your audience out there who do not know what roadies are. We did the grunt work man. We didn’t enjoy the highlight for being on tour with the women and, and the after-parties and things of that sort. You know, I was carrying turntables I was carrying suitcases. I was the first one off last one on you know, but I also, you know, met a good friend of mine by the name of Tupac Shukla and Tupac was Rolling for digital underground and trench was a really full it for so we had a lot of fun and a lot of great times just traveling the country actually traveling the world as well you know and I just knew that this was a place for me to be at where I can just have a creative freedom
Warren Shaw 05:17
yeah I feel you so my father wasn’t into it like that so to speak, but he was a DJ in the New York area for the longest time when I came up, I had to lift him crates and carry them
Markuann Smith 05:28
out those you know about those 1200s and those coffins are like the size of a baby coffee and it was just like you know, no pun intended, but it was just like wow, you know, but it definitely gave me structure and discipline for life you know, um, I remember my first two I was on tour with a Candy Man true high five second and none AMG, Tony, Tony, Tony. And I was able to experience different cultures and different sounds like you know, I knew about West Coast music I knew about DJ Quik I knew about music in Seattle sir mix a lot. Check out his kids sensation I knew about you know, MC breed, it was just, I was exposed to different things.
Warren Shaw 06:09
Nah, man, that’s 100% live 100. So I’m glad you shared that with me do because I mean, again, like something I didn’t know coming in. And that’s actually really kind of cool to find out. So let’s transition a little bit. How did the story of bomba kind of come to you and to kind of go down this path that you’re with the show.
Markuann Smith 06:27
Um, like I said, I grew up in Harlem and was raised in Queens. And I remember coming up to lettings terrorists every Sunday man. And I was, it was almost 18 years. And I was in an apartment of a young lady, who’s my godmother by the name of Margaret Johnson. And she’s telling me these magical stories of Harlem in the 60s, how she used to walk out of a building a tenement building and smell fresh laundry hanging out the window, or walk past 120/5 Street, they Apollo look up and see James Brown’s name on the marquee, and walk past sidaway Robinson’s barber shop peep inside you might see that can call waiting for a haircut, or Jackie wasn’t getting the shape up or save. But she also told me about how Harlem had a lot of systematic racism, like people actually migrated, African Americans from the south, tried to escape bull Connor’s water hoses and his dogs to still be dealing with racism. And I’m in Harlem at the time. You know, there were stories that were told to me by her that to even go do something as simple as go purchase a hat store owner may say, you need to put a shower cap on your head before you put this hat on and try it on. Or even a black family just wanting to go get a steak dinner on a Sunday. You know, while the other patrons was inside eating, they had to sit outside and take it take it to goat. You know, Hong Kong was very magical, but a lot of racism was happening. And she also used to tell me about her grandfather. His name was Ellsworth Raymond Johnson. He was from Charleston, South Carolina, how he came to New York. He didn’t come to New York to become a gangster. You know, he came actually to come up here to become an attorney like Malcolm X did. He went to City College and the verses often said, you know, we don’t get financial aid to color folks. And he basically said, I’m gonna make you regret those words. And he became bumpy Johnson with the streets, no masks, but he wasn’t just a gangster. He was the only gangster that was able to sit down with the five original families like Maya Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, Lucky Luciano venom, Vito Genovese, Frank Costello, they didn’t look at him as a as a threat. They looked at him as a smart black man who was the liaison from pleasant avenue to West Harlem or central Harlem, as you may call it. So um, but we had, you know, he was like I said, He’s more than just a gangster. He read Shakespeare. He read Nietzsche it’s urban legend that he beat Bobby Fischer and chess. And she wanted the real story to be told of her grandfather that wasn’t told that what you saw in hoodlum, not what you saw in the Cotton Club or American Gangster. Bumpy didn’t die in front of 25 RCA TVs talking about Pepsi is the best product out there like blue magic, you know, you actually died in my character’s arms in a restaurant Paul wells have congestive heart failure. So I made our promise almost 20 years ago that I would get the story done so the world could know who my grandfather was as a person.
Warren Shaw 09:21
My guy so I mean that’s a wild story in the way that it kind of came to you and you know, you’ve been grinding with it. And we all know like in this business, specifically, pitching is the key part. Like so. How did you get somebody to say yes, greenlight this this is where we’re at right now especially because you know, I mean, we’re in a better quote-unquote better space to tell black stories
Markuann Smith 09:45
that everybody’s betting on black nowadays, but you know, you know, I tell people don’t look at my breakthrough Look what I’ve been through because to get a show sold. It’s not an easy task. I’ve got turned down by three networks. With my big brother who’s sitting next to me who’s an Academy Award winner. Active Forest Whitaker and my other brother Chris Brancato, who created the TV show Narcos Emmy, Emmy nominated writer. So I got 1000 notes. We got 1000 those before we got one. Yes. And I tell people all the time when you’re when you’re pitching ideas, and you’re sitting down trying to create content, you have to understand at the end of the day, the suits, creativeness is just plays a little part of it, you know, the big part of it is the ROI, what’s the return on their investment. So it was it was nice in you know, nights and days that we didn’t know where we were going with it. And who’s going to accept this, this risk a project. But there was one person who believed in us and his name is Michael Wright. He came from Steven Spielberg company, amblin Entertainment. And when he when he read this, when he read the pitch, and he saw the arcs of the story, he was like, I don’t want to be coy about this, we have money, and we want to get this project done. And Michael Wright believed in this and epics came behind this with this system on ABC signature, and we got the show boy in the room.
Warren Shaw 11:04
That’s what’s up. That’s what’s up. So a true story of perseverance, even a little bit, how bumpy was he? He had to, you have to transition and kind of kind of stick to it to make it happen. Again, we’re going to jump around here a little bit, and we’ll get back to more kind of the serious part of the show and kind of what’s going on there. But to me, the show was one of the best intros in TV right now like that, that it goes home.
Markuann Smith 11:28
Actually, he actually won an Emmy for that, because we had the best, the best title sequence,
Warren Shaw 11:34
man. So I think and I’m not an industry like you, right? But I feel like some showrunners and producers, stuff like that. That’s like kind of throwaway. Like they don’t really think about like how important that is it gets you every time that thing comes on. Like I get hired me and I hear Swiss and I hear Rick Ross and so forth and so forth. Yeah, I’d like Justin Kay, I mean, the whole the whole nine, what was your thought process or who kind of like made sure like wow, was a
Markuann Smith 12:01
big shout out to digital kitchen and Peter pack who had won me over there. It all came from sitting down and I really didn’t know understand the importance of what a title sequence was, until sitting down with Chris Brancato, the showrunner and he said you know how the theme for Narcos came came about and he said that’s what carry the show like if you watch Mad Men they have a beautiful opening title sequence and or you’re watching Narcos how it makes you feel like you’re actually in Midian and in the Colombian rain forest it was was really important that our opening sequence tells the story of what our our series would be like and I remember being in jungle studios with Swiss and Rick Ross being you know in in the Roman Swiss beats has is one of the most amazing math scientists that I know you know and for him sitting there and we given them a clip of what the show is going to be like he said you know what, let me get some stuff together he had requested and we’ll see play that that opening but what the just in case you know and you know what have gone down to 120/5 Street and you know it was just like wow this is it right here you know
Warren Shaw 13:13
not that that that bumps it does bump so you know cracks congrats you your team everybody who are done that as well too. I mean it’s to me it’s already kind of iconic there are certain things that you hear and like you know what it is when it’s coming on it definitely gets you hyped for the show each time it goes on there. One of the things that I think is like super amazing and you’ve already talked about you know for us a little bit too but the casting is crazy. It’s bananas. Like it’s bananas and more people are added to season two I think I said I haven’t been watching the second part of season two as of yet but I thought I think I just saw a clip with Whoopi in it and I no method has been added and things of that nature. Like people like just beating down the door. You don’t I mean, you got Jean Carlo, you got for us. Yeah, and I mean, Vincent, like it’s Chazz? It’s a wild cast. Just how did you bring all this collective talent together?
Markuann Smith 14:01
Well, it wasn’t just you know, it was a combination of different minds and, and, and the vision of different people from Chris Brancato to myself to Jim Atchison to Paul Eckstein to Nina Yang Bon Jovi to you know, to forest you know, we all sat down you know, you know, big shout out to Vicki Thomas and Meredith Tucker. And pitch pitching was over at ABC on a casting it was just a combination of where we saw the characters and going and who could tell the best story of the characters you know what I mean? Um, you know, let’s start really easy with casting and even with Nigel with Malcolm X, I had to beat down the door to tell him you know, I need to get now I need to get Nigel in here right now because I feel like he’s the best person that can possibly play this. play this character, and they couldn’t understand why I was so like, I was so determined. I was just like, I saw him in Soma. You know, I need you guys to give him an opportunity. And I can remember standing in front of ABC. Casting, it was about 95 degrees weather and I’m sitting, actually standing on the side of the building and I got shorts on and I see a yellow cab pull up and Nigel comes out of the cab with Malcolm X attire. I mean, the older coat, the suit, the white shirt, the black-tie, the hat, the glasses. And when I went upstairs to casting and I sat down with the other executive producers, he walked in and he says this, I don’t play Malcolm I work Malcolm. And it was just amazing. I was like, Yo, I mean, there’s nobody else that I personally want to see. And Chris Brancato told me said thank you more Quan, thank you for pushing so hard pushing that button to get Nigel Lin.
Warren Shaw 15:47
Now that’s the move as ironically it’s like you’re peeking over my notes right here right now because I did want to talk about him specifically. Because we’ve seen Malcolm played in numerous movies, right? And it’s usually short-lived so to speak whenever over the course of a series kind of like this unless I’m mistaken. Just again, what type of dedication Do you have to have to the crap that like stay in that character is such an iconic character and bring life to him? in a way that’s so again, that’s moving every time you see him on screen?
Markuann Smith 16:20
Yeah, I mean, when uh, when, when Nigel is on set, he walks around, you know, constantly listening to Malcolm speeches, from his mannerism to even something as little as the cleft and his chin. He goes to hear our makeup, he said, I want to make sure that we can replicate that to how he finished what is rang when he’s talking. So a little bit of harshness not looking laziest slouchy this but more into the character. I mean, he’s an amazing individual, especially with the monologue after monologue he has to do every episode.
Warren Shaw 16:53
Yeah, man, real talk. So listen, I you know, I’m gonna shoot my shot here, man, if you ever need an extra, somebody like a street vendor, or some either, let me know, because I’m about that life. We’re talking with Markuann Smith here, executive producer of Godfather of Harlem, make sure you follow him at more fun. And then also Charlotte, follow the show at Godfather of Harlem. Common spelling on Well, I forgot for all their volume, if you hadn’t say a percentage of the show, right? Because all things that are based on real-life, they have to make things for TV-like so how much of the show Do you could you say is factual? Like, okay, these are the events as told to you or as you know, them, versus how much you have to kind of put in there for TVs?
Markuann Smith 17:37
I mean, that’s really kind of a hard question, because it goes on episode per episode. Um, you know, we always say this, that this is not a documentary. And it’s a big disclaimer at the beginning of the show, saying, you know, these are not based on a lot of true events. These are, you know, similar similarities. So, if you wanted me to say a number, I would say maybe about 60 3060 6040. You know, um, but we try to, we try to hit it as as much as possible, especially with the characters, you know, you know, Malcolm’s daughters came on set. Uh, Adam Clayton Powell sons came on set. And so far, we’re doing pretty good. You know, I mean, there are things we can always improve on, you know, we’re not 100% at all times. But we’re open to criticism.
Warren Shaw 18:27
Well, again, like I said, You are You are in my notes, you are in my nose model. So let me ask you this point, point blank. So what are some of the criticism that you’ve heard from the show, and I’ve always kind of wondered when people work on things like this, too, because you have trolls out there, you have people who are going to hate for the sake of hate and whatever, whatever. But sometimes that can be a valid point, you know, I mean, none of us are above reproach, none of us are perfect. So for those who have sent complaints, what are some of the complaints that you’ve heard and then say, you know, what, hey, maybe we could have done this better or maybe fixed let’s fix this or that.
Markuann Smith 18:57
I’ve always heard, you know, from the nation, that we’re not getting it right. And they wouldn’t wear bow ties like this and things of that sort. And, you know, to create a man, I have to drown all that other stuff out and stick to what my job is to be creating. Because if you’re not on set in the director’s chair, and you’re not understanding or in the writers room, knowing what it takes to create a show, we don’t get it, right. We nobody’s going to get it. 100% right, you know, and I like I said, I respectfully understand what people are saying, but we’re not telling once again, a documentary, we’re telling a story that’s entertaining and educational as well. And we’re doing to our best of abilities because a lot of a lot of times they’re even doing the research. I was at the schomburg Museum doing a whole bunch of research is a lot of stuff that you can’t find so you would have to embellish. I mean, Buffy was born in 1905. Anybody alive right now would have to be like 110 years old to understand and say Yo, I knew bumpy Johnson. So it’s all a lot of wives tales. A lot of individuals that Maybe 85 and 90 but they still were little kids when he was alive You know what I’m saying? So we have to just go in the research that we do what we can find and make it as accurate as possible
Warren Shaw 20:11
so let me ask you this as well too Do you have so far something that you’re like damn we nailed that is mean like that’s like your favorite scene or favorite show our episode rather you know from the service as far
Markuann Smith 20:27
Oh man, even the speeches that Malcolm is doing that the writers have put together like even like the bullet in the ballot but you didn’t see Season Two so I don’t want to give you any spoilers but
Warren Shaw 20:38
the first half of season two, so Okay, one of my favorite episodes it’s funny you mentioned that because I was like yeah,
Markuann Smith 20:44
I mean it’s it’s so relevant to what’s happening right now in America the POV you know, Muhammad Ali is Colin Kaepernick, you know, the Harlem riots is our the riots that are happening all across the country due to due to black lives matter to the the the law enforcement, how they are treating us you know, so we are trying to just show something that history is definitely repeating itself,
Warren Shaw 21:14
For sure is really interesting because I think that was a common theme in television, anything that had to take a break or got extended due to the pandemic and that all of the social justice issues or whatever it seems like some shows really made it a point and some shows probably already going in that direction one way or another year and I mean, but those themes are constantly in what we’re watching right now and I think like the battle and the bullet is one of I think one of the best episodes like I’m glad you brought that up one of the best episodes in the series that I’ve seen thus far I was like, you know this thing this is odd it’s very similar to like there’s like you know, I think a lion even or Narcos, it’s like you know, what’s it the bullet or the money you know what I mean and that type of thing like that too so like those really strong themes really really do stand out you know for sure. So have you been renewed for season three yet? Like what’s good man, what’s up guys?
Markuann Smith 22:04
We’re still waiting we should know what a couple of weeks um you know, the network is very excited the studios are very excited to numbers are doing very very well. I mean, I’ve heard that our premiere for the second season 35% better than the finale for the for the first season so you know, you know I’m hoping the film Gods love us so much that they say hey, we want you guys to get two seasons you know, but regardless if it’s three or four we just want to create and make great stories especially for the audience out here. I love godfather holla
Warren Shaw 22:36
well, I’m definitely one of those people I think shows like these they typically are what I’ve seen in the trend of TVs like a lot of like shows want to go five seasons right so so to speak, and kind of maybe call it a wrap Do you have something in mind you know, when you said three or four? Or like what do
Markuann Smith 22:53
I mean? Our stories are based on history. And if you look at it, you know Bumpy died in 1968 and my character’s arms I play a character by the name of Johnny bird and um you know he died of congestive heart failure so our plan was to stretch it till his demise to 1968 second season is 1964 30 to be 65/4 to be 66/5 to be 67 six will be the end of Ellsworth Raymond John’s
Warren Shaw 23:20
so sad Well, you see it you already see it in your head Yeah, absolutely. Put it on the page. So last couple ones let you get out of here Just what are you watching these days I what gets you excited, you know, to kind of turn on TV or go to the movies or get you know, screeners or whatever the case may be. I’m a big
Markuann Smith 23:36
Documentary person you know, I love to go in history and really know the facts you know, I’m I love a lot of unscripted stuff, meaning documentaries docu series is a great docu-series called generation hustle on HBO Max, I’ve been watching a nonpoint docu series on con artists who beat the system, you know, I’m gonna try to beat the system because they all got incarcerated. But um, I like that. And I’m a fan of some of the power series, you know, I haven’t really got into it. But I’m, I’m really into documentaries, man, I’m really into that.
Warren Shaw 24:12
All right, last one more call before you let your piece out of here. Just, you know, what are some of your upcoming projects. I mean, I know you got to throw your heart and soul into this thing as well, too. But you are creative. You are a hustler yourself. You know what other irons you have in the fire my guy
Markuann Smith 24:25
after an amazing project about DC that I’m very excited about a tale of two cities from the late 80s to the 90s. Um, you know, I’m very, very excited about that. I’m also working on a project of our a police officer out of Queens, who basically got his friends turned their backs on him. So we’re waiting lists seeing I’m working on a lot of musical legend as well too. So I just want to keep creating good content, good narratives, and telling stories for us.
Warren Shaw 24:57
Well, I think you’re doing an amazing job. And that’s no fluff no BS I really do appreciate you taking the time and sharing part of your story your vision of God for all of Harlem but even just being creative and like you said, telling the stories of us as we’re here as well too which is so important and so needed right now you know and i mean so then you know, that’s what’s up. Markuann Smith I want to thank you so much for joining us. This has been a dope interview I’m your host Warren Shaw make sure you follow me on Twitter make sure you follow him on make sure you follow him Godfather of Harlem and you don’t have that pics make sure you get it find it one way do it legally. Get these numbers up from my guy here. Our client we thank you so much for joining us. And it’s been another dope interview y’all. We’ll catch you next time.
Markuann Smith 25:37
Thank you and you can follow me also on Instagram at Mark Kuan ma rk ua Nn. And on twitter at the real Mark Kwan da al, ma rk ua Nn. And thank you for another dope interview.
Warren Shaw 25:51
My guy peace