With years of being a rap fan, which turned into years being a rap-writer-about-er, which has now turned into a month of working at a label, you might think I’m an expert, that I know the ins and outs, ups and downs of the industry. You’d be wrong.
Though I’ve read countless video breakdowns, though I’ve watched The Coup’s “Me and Jesus The Pimp in a ’79 Granada Last Night” a million times — in my opinion one of the best videos ever — the art of the music video has always been a mystery to me. I know how they are made, but I don’t know how. There’s only so much you can learn from watching, from reading, from interviewing. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to work at Strange Music–to learn it first hand from one of the best labels around.
I just didn’t know it would be on my second day of work.
I arrived to work still-half asleep (I hadn’t woken up before 8 AM in forever), sat down at my desk, and was handed a piece of paper full of names, dates, and times; the call sheet to Ces Cru’s “Slave” video . Being a rookie, I was fascinated. I had never seen one before. It was nothing more than a piece of paper with dates and times, but I could have studied that all day. In fact I planned to…until I was told I’d be headed to the shoot to get behind the scenes interviews.
I tried to remain calm, but the truth is the butterflies in my stomach were throwing up. I had never been to a music video shoot, I had never met the Cru, shit, I didn’t even have timesheets yet, but I had to get some dope content?! As I drove to the Kansas City diner with Lauren, who forced me to listen to a Migos song all the way through for the first time – “Bad and Boujee” is just adequate contradictory to what Gambino said –I knew what I had to do but I had no idea how to get it…or what to expect. I tried to run through all the things I remembered from those MTV Making Of: things they used to do back when MTV did music things; that’s how desperate I was. The 25 minute drive wasn’t long enough to get prepared.
We arrived at a diner you might frequent when highly intoxicated and in need of late night breakfast and immediately, I was overwhelmed. There were people running all around– some were Strange video guys, some were diner employees–a whole lot of hash browns, and a some fancy equipment. Cameras, boxes, wires, TV screens, microphones, lights, all of which I was terrified of being around for fear of breaking equipment that costs more than my rent. I tried to play it cool and hide in the corner while the professionals did professional things. It was working quite well, until it was time for me to you know, do my job. An interview is nerve wracking enough, but one on camera too? On my second day?
I snuck into the bathroom, to have my 8 Mile moment minus mom’s spaghetti. Like jumping into an ice-cold pool, you just gotta go for it, so, in one fell swoop, I took a deep breath, busted out of the bathroom and made a bee-line for the parking lot, where Godemis and Ubiquitous were waiting.
We crammed in the back of Ubi’s car and waited for Trey to set up the cameras. I fumbled around, asked a few questions and tried my damned-est not to make eye contact with the piercing gaze of the camera. I have a face made for editorials. I can bend words into a disguise behind the screen, but in front of the camera, every move, ever stutter and slip up, every awkward interaction, is captured and magnified because of it. The interview is a blur now, but felt like an eternity in the moment; either way–good or bad–it was done and I could breathe again. Until I found out Ces Cru needed extras for the video.
All I had to do was sit at a table, take a few pictures for social media, and eat Wendy’s — the diner had closed the kitchen for filming. I was told it was no big deal, and I did my best to act like it wasn’t one, but still, I couldn’t get over the moment. Trying to get in character (scared diner customer number 4), while also acting like I wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary, being damn sure not to ruin a take or get in the way. Trying to appear natural, but being hyper aware of the giant camera behind me. For me personally, a rap nerd who spent years in what felt like a bubble, so far removed from the music I wrote about, it was a big moment; my bubble had popped and I crash landed on the set of a music video.
I watched, I listened, I picked up every detail I could. I watched as director Jason Cantu changed lenses — I had never even thought about different lenses before — speaking technical language that might as well have been German. I watched as Ubi and Godi mapped out the next shot–the “it’s a collaborative effort” quote he gave ran through my head. I watched as they watched playback. I watched as they moved around lights, and adjusted every detail for every take. While all minute rose to the surface, it was still the bigger picture that defied understanding.
It takes a special ability to take what’s happening in real life and translate it to the video. The smallest details, from the way someone moves, to the lighting, to what the extras are doing and where they are placed matter so much. For me, this was a huge moment, a big event, but for the video for CES Cru, for Strange it was just one scene in one video. You still have to get the others scenes, knowing how they allow will blend, and then you have to edit the hours of raw footage into a four-minute cohesive visual.
I guess that that’s what makes the artists the artists and the directors the directors. How an artist can let themselves go enough to be comfortable in front of a camera. How they envision a bigger picture and how they bring it to life with a few scattered pieces of the puzzle. I was looking for a set formula, but there’s no science to creation, no step by step breakdown. There’s no science behind art because art isn’t science, it defies logic; it’s meant to amaze, to mystify, and that’s true whether you are there or watching from home. The biggest lesson I learned was the art of the music video, what makes them special, can’t be taught.
Check out the final product below and check out the cameo from the back of my head!