Filmmaker Jeymes Samuel Discusses Working with Lil Wayne, JAY-Z & Others On His New Film ‘The Book of Clarence’

Samuel wrote the script and the soundtrack for the biblical epic.

As a student of both music and cinema, British filmmaker, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer Jeymes Samuel knows that the sounds heard in classic Westerns—all those reverb-drenched electric guitars favored by composer Ennio Morricone, for example—would’ve been completely alien to people actually living in the 1870s. That’s one reason Samuel had no reservations about filling his 2021 feature directorial debut, The Harder They Fall, with hip-hop, soul, and reggae, all of which slotted neatly into a story about Black cowboys.

Samuel does something similar with his latest film, The Book of Clarence, a biblical epic in the style of Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments. The story centers on a wannabe messiah (played by LaKeith Stanfield) coming up alongside Jesus circa 31 A.D., and the soundtrack once again makes clever use of modern musical elements.

“Biblical movies don’t necessarily have soundtracks—they would just have score albums, like Alex North’s score for [1960’s] Spartacus,” Samuel tells Genius via Zoom. “So with The Book of Clarence, I wanted to reimagine what those songs are like while keeping true to the classical scores and the big epic melodic landscape that go with the visual biblical vistas, so to speak.”

Samuel, aka The Bullitts, wrote and produced every song for The Book of Clarence, including “Hallelujah Heaven,” which appears in the brand-new trailer released today. Featuring hard, funky instrumentation and killer verses by Lil Wayne and Jamaican dancehall legends Buju Banton and Shabba Ranks, “Hallelujah Heaven” came together while Samuel was writing the movie itself. This is typical of how the multi-talented London native (and brother of pop star Seal) approaches his work.

“It has to be organic, so I write the songs as I’m writing the script,” Samuel says. “There’s no dialogue without melody. So as I’m writing the dialogue, I’m finding the motifs and the melodies for each character. I start writing the songs from there, and with each song, I then decide on what artist best suits this particular song as I’m producing the music and laying down the instruments.”

Samuel doesn’t do everything himself, though. When it comes to working with rappers, such as his close friend JAY-Z—who served as a producer on The Harder They Fall and The Book of Clarence and recorded songs for both soundtracks—Samuel grants his collaborators full creative license.

“I wouldn’t even give Wayne, Buju, Shabba, JAY-Z, or any of these people a [creative] brief, because they’ll know from listening to the song,” says Samuel. “I mean, the song is called ‘Hallelujah Heaven,’ so I don’t think someone’s going to rhyme about robbing a liquor store. And people like Wayne, they’re such great artists. Lil Wayne is one of the greatest lyricists of all time and to me possibly the greatest metaphor rhymer, analogy rhymer, in the history of hip-hop. I would just sit back as a fan and wait to see what Wayne comes with.”

Wayne doesn’t disappoint on “Hallelujah Heaven,” dropping thematically appropriate zingers like, “Put you on that highway to heaven like I’m your Uber.” At one point in the song, Weezy declares, “I’m a god, so when you see me, say Hallelujah.” At first, this bold declaration of divinity would seem to contrast with Buju’s pious line at the start of the second verse, “All praises to the most high,” but Samuel doesn’t see a disconnect between what the two artists are communicating.

“It’s different understandings, but it’s all the same thing,” says Samuel. “God is inside us. God made man in his own image. Both Buju and Wayne are uplifting, and I think what Wayne is doing is internalizing the upliftment. We say, ‘Peace to the God,’ ‘Peace, Black king,’ ‘Peace, God.’ [When Wayne says] ‘I’m a god, so when you see me, say hallelujah,’ it’s just that.”

Wayne, Buju, and Shabba are just three of the major talents Samuel has been able to book for his soundtracks. In addition to JAY-Z, The Harder They Fall boasts musical contributions from reggae great Barrington Levy, CeeLo Green, Jadakiss, Conway the Machine, Kid Cudi, and Ms. Lauryn Hill. The Book of Clarence features a host of big names the studio is still keeping under wraps.

“I’ve always been kind of lucky when it comes to artists and actors and stuff that I want to work with,” says Samuel. “I think great artists want to make great art, and I believe I make great art, and so when it’s presented to a great artist, I’ve been fortunate in that they’ve pretty much always responded to it. So it’s a really cool thing.”

Not that it’s a given. Samuel had no relationship with Lil Wayne, Buju Banton, or Shabba Ranks before he approached them about “Hallelujah Heaven.”

“You should never take it for granted when someone agrees to work with you,” Samuel says. “Never take that thrill for granted. I’m from the hood. I’m from Kilburn Lane in London, and I’m out here working with Buju Banton, Shabba Ranks, and Lil Wayne on one record. It’s amazing.”

Samuel pulled off another crazy get when he landed an orchestral version of Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U” for his initial The Book of Clarence trailer. That was partially thanks to JAY-Z, who has a relationship with the Prince estate, and it’s just one of the ways Hova has helped Samuel throughout the long process of making The Book of Clarence. The idea for the film dates back more than a decade, and Clarence is even referenced in the script for The Harder They Fall.

“When I make a movie, I compose the score and I write and produce all of the songs, but me and Jay collaborate 24–7,” says Samuel. “In London, we say [someone’s] our ‘co-D,’ our co-defendant, right? He’s my co-D. So we are collaborating all the time, literally on every song. We’ll be going back and forth and just exchanging ideas, and on every part of the script, we’ll be talking. It’s almost like me and Jay, we just laugh our heads off, and when we’re finished laughing, this classic is made, The Harder They Fall. This classic is made, The Book of Clarence.”

A lot of these exchanges take place on FaceTime, while most of Jay’s hometown is probably still asleep.

“Jay creates a lot on his treadmill,” says Samuel. “He wakes up at like 5:00 every morning—madness!—and works out. And when he’s working out, he’s writing. When he’s writing, a lot of times he’ll call me with bars. When Jay FaceTimes me, and he’s on his treadmill, I go, ‘I’m going to get bars.’ And by the time he’s finished that run, I’ve got new bars, and we’ve exchanged a song idea. Or I’d be telling him about this melody I’m working on and this and that and the other. So it’s just a constant collaborative friendship.”

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