On the Job Training

Part One: Lionel C. Martin

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By the late 1980s, MTV had established itself as a star (and profit) making force within the music industry. Record labels knew they had to feed it new material to fill its hours of programming. Still, rap music lagged behind when it came to budget and airtime distribution. Then in 1988, MTV debuted Yo! MTV Raps, and a year later BET premiered Rap City. These shows provided a national platform for artists from around the country, but most of their videos were still made for relatively little money and didn’t have much hope for breakout success.

The upside of this situation was that rap videos became a way for innovative young directors to get started in the industry, or at least to figure out what they were doing. In the decades that have passed, some of these directors have gone on to helm films for major studios, some remain behind scenes, and some have moved on.

MTV didn’t start running the name of a video’s director in the credits until 1992, and BET soon began to do the same. And though there are databases that try to track who directed each video, they are often incomplete. The following interviews highlight a few of these directors and get the stories behind some of their classic videos.

 

LIONEL C. MARTIN

Lionel C. Martin is rightfully known as a workhorse, having directed hundreds of hip-hop and R&B videos during the 1980s and ’90s. He began his career with a video for Roxanne Shanté’s “Roxanne’s Revenge,” which he parlayed into a spot as the go-to director for Cold Chillin’ Records, eventually bringing him to the attention of Def Jam and every other East Coast hip-hop label of the era. Martin co-hosted Video Music Box with Ralph McDaniels, the creator of the cable access favorite that featured only hip-hop videos years before Yo! MTV Raps or Rap City debuted. The two also founded the production company Classic Concepts to develop their music video projects. Since then, Martin directed Def Jam’s How to Be a Player and continues to work as an independent filmmaker, creating features, short films, and commercials.

SELECT VIDEOGRAPHY

3rd Bass “Brooklyn-Queens,” “Product of the Environment,” “Steppin’ To the AM,” “The Gasface”
Arabian Prince “She’s Got a Big Posse”
Big Daddy Kane “Ain’t No Half Steppin’,” “Smooth Operator”
Biz Markie “Just a Friend,” “The Vapors,” “What Goes Around Comes Around”
Cool C “Glamorous Life”
EPMD “The Big Payback”
Heavy D “Money Earnin’ Mount Vernon”
KMD “Peachfuzz”
Kool Moe Dee “God Made Me Funky”
Marley Marl “The Symphony”
MC Lyte “Paper Thin”
Nice N Smooth “Cake & Eat It Too”
Kool G. Rap & DJ Polo “Streets of New York”
Public Enemy “Brothers Gonna to Work it Out,” “Burn Hollywood Burn,” “Night of the Living Baseheads,” “Welcome to the Terrordome”
Roxanne Shanté “Roxanne’s Revenge”
Stop the Violence Movement “Self Destruction”

 

BIZ MARKIE “VAPORS”

 

I’ve often found that when rock videos try to create a narrative from a rock song by directly portraying the lyrics, it rarely works, but one of the things about hip-hop is that the videos can pull off a much more literal storytelling approach.

Biz Markie comes to mind when you say that. He would come to my little office in midtown and say, “Hey Lionel man, I want you to do my next video.” So I’d say, “Let’s come up with a few ideas. What’s the concept?” And he’d reply, “I’ve got the concept. First, I’m a do this and then I do this, and then I do this, and then I do this.” As I would listen to him, I’d realize that he’s just telling me the lyrics, step by step, of everything in the song. But it worked with Biz because he was such a character. In “Vapors” there’s a line about TJ Swan: “…you work for UPS.” And we’re shooting the scene in front of Swan’s house, because with Biz you always had to shoot at the real places. I’d ask, “Where does TJ Swan live?” and he’d tell me he lives all the way out in Jersey, and so I’d say, “Biz, we can just shoot it front of this other house,” and Biz would say, “No, no, no, we have to shoot it in front of Swan’s house.” We go to Swan’s house and he comes out wearing this UPS uniform. So I say, “Where did you guys that UPS uniform? That’s really cool.” And Biz says, “No, he really did work for UPS.” His stories really stayed true to real life and he really tried to stay authentic to it. I didn’t realize at the time how close it was.

In “Vapors” it’s interesting to see how you try to portray them living the good life when you were dealing with not much of a budget. It seems like your options were having them wear jewelry and putting them on a boat.

I had done a couple of videos by then and they were always in the New York area and in the city in the streets of New York – I was getting kind of bored and I always wanted to do something different. But, the budget was always limited. I think at the Staten Island Ferry or someplace in Brooklyn, you could rent this boat. It turned out not to be that expensive. I thought it’d be a nice idea to take these guys out on the water. In my head they weren’t on a cruise, they were on a yacht. For those guys, and for myself, being on a boat in the water was big.

Big Daddy Kane was on the shoot when we did the video, but one day I remember I was going to the bank on the Upper West Side and I saw him on the street and he said, “Lionel, man, I really love what you did with the ‘Vapors’ video. I want you to do all my videos because you know how to capture me. You know the angle to shoot me at.” Those weren’t even things I was thinking about, but  when it was his turn to do videos I just bonded with him and we did quite a few together.

 

MARLEY MARL “THE SYMPHONY”

 

How did you come up with doing the genre approach for “The Symphony”?

I think at that time Kool Moe Dee had already done “Wild Wild West.” That video, from a director’s point of view, made an impact on me. I actually kind of bit that video. When “The Symphony” came along, it had all the Cold Chillin’ rappers who I thought were cool. I liked the idea that Marley was playing the piano, I saw him in the studio when he was making the song, and so this whole western motif came to me. I thought we’d put them in a saloon and  have all this stuff going on. We shot that in upstate New York. We were already at the location and had to get a bus for the crew and all the Cold Chillin’ artists. As they were driving, some altercation happened on the bus with Kane and some other guy, maybe an extra. To make a long story short, and I have to be careful how I say this, but somebody got shot on the bus. The producer took the person who got shot to the local hospital and we didn’t know at the time that as soon as you bring somebody in with a gunshot wound, there’s going to be an investigation. Before you knew it, all these police came down to our set and they took Kane. As a director and a producer, you’ve still got to shoot, so if you look at the video, Kane was supposed to be in it, but he’s the only person who is not in a cowboy get up. He was supposed to be like a Bat Masterson character, the card shark, which I thought would have been so perfect for him. Ironically, years later, Mario Van Peebles does Posse, and Kane’s character is exactly the character I wanted him to be.

Luckily, Warner Bros. got him out of the situation. The best way I can tell you the story is that the person who got shot went in a room with Big Daddy Kane and when he came out he had a gold chain around his neck, a really fly sweat suit and the matter was solved. It was never brought up again.

We shot the whole video, went back to New York and Tyrone Williams, who was at Cold Chillin’, said, “What are we going to do? Kane has the last verse and the most important part.” That’s when I came up with the idea that we should make the thing like it’s a soundtrack to a movie and Kane is watching all these scenes on the big screen. I don’t think it went over really well, but it was the only way I could think of saving the video at the time.

 

PUBLIC ENEMY “NIGHT OF THE LIVING BASEHEADS”

 

Are you surprised by the impact that the “Night of the Living Baseheads” video has had over the years?

It’s one of the videos where I didn’t realize how powerful it would be when I was doing it. It was the first video I did for Public Enemy. They were making a little bit of noise in New York as far as the underground, and I was a fan from the beginning. I just loved Chuck D’s voice. Hank Shocklee and Chuck approached us. I was living in Queens and they were living in Long Island, so we had mutual friends and connections. The concept they talked about sounded crazy to me. Nothing like that had ever been done before. Hank Shocklee said that they wanted the video to stop at certain points and bring in these little commercials. I said, “What’s going to happen to the music, is it just going to cut out?” I couldn’t conceive of how it would work. Then something in my mind was like, these guys are radical and crazy anyway, I think I’ve got to just go with the flow. I think it affected my personality and life from that point on. I was just more open to doing crazy things; I was not as reserved. That group brought that out of me, as far as being a director was concerned.

They also told me that in the middle they wanted me to drop in a scene of I Love Lucy, then drop in a scene of The Honeymooners.  I was like, “Uh, you can’t do that.” And they were like, “Why not?” So I said, “Well, there are copyright issues. You can’t just use TV shows.” And they were like, “Nah, just tape it off the air. Tape it on a VHS.” Then it hit me that these guys are just sampling music, they’re not going through the legal thing. When they want a sample they just grab it, and I think that’s how they were looking at the visuals.

It was an amazing video to make, but it was one of those things when I finished it I wasn’t sure how people would feel about it. I wasn’t sure how it was going to be received. Years later, you read a lot of critical reviews and it was ahead of its time. I’m glad I was part of it. I developed a relationship with Public Enemy and we did more videos after that.

I believe I read in an interview that Flav said he wanted to be in the video smoking crack. Is that true?

That story sounds right. I remember something like that. Flavor was a handful. Basically when I shot a Public Enemy video, I had to have a special PA, usually a woman, just to babysit him and hang around him because he was infamous for jumping off the set and disappearing. I could tell Chuck was a little frustrated.

It’s such a unique video, when you showed it to Def Jam, did they just go with it or were they taken aback?

They had no comment at all because Chuck D was Chuck D. This is what they wanted to do. Public Enemy always broke the rules. It basically didn’t matter whether the company liked it or not, they had that kind of control. A couple years later I did a video for someone that was part of their group, Sister Souljah, and she kind of reminded me of Chuck. She was a lot more radical, and she had this video we did called “Slavery is Back in Effect” and she had some of the craziest visual ideas. It was supposed to be a future state where all black people were turned back into slaves again and I remember sitting down with one of the guys from Sony Records at the time, one of the big shots over there, and he asked me, “What do you think of this video?” I said, “Well, it’s really controversial.” He said, “Lionel, tell me, is anybody going to play this video?” And I said, “Nope.” He said okay, and that was it. We went and did the video and it didn’t get much airplay at all. She had kind of the same power that Chuck had, but Chuck knew how to cater to the public. Sister Souljah didn’t have a Flavor Flav in that group. Her message came across as super militant, super hardcore, whereas Flav kind of softened Chuck’s. It was a good balance.

Where did the idea to film at the Audubon Ballroom [where Malcolm X was killed] come from?

That was something really important to Chuck that he wanted to do. That was one of the first major moments in my life where I was a little in awe. Then there’s that opening line, “Here it is, Bam!” and that’s Afrika Bambaataa, the legend himself, in the video. That was their idea, I can’t take credit for it. I wanted to do this shot that was just low, but I didn’t know how to set up the shot. I tried all these different things and I was going crazy. At the time I didn’t know there was this device called a cartoni where you put the camera on it and it’s almost a sidewalk point of view. But, we didn’t have that and we didn’t have any money and we’re trying to make this cool ass video, so I put the camera on some sandbags and filmed them as Chuck and Bam come into that scene. It became such a classic shot. I’m not going to say I invented it, but I think from that point on a lot of rap videos used that model of shooting rappers from a low angel, looking up to them. Not all rappers can get away with it, but I think that Chuck could.

Along with the Bambaataa appearance, there’s also the Red Alert cameo.

I think there were a lot of people even then who didn’t know who Red Alert was. Public Enemy was really cool at marketing themselves, using important connections, and Red Alert had one of the biggest radio shows on KISS. He was very important as far as playing new music. They picked people for a reason.

 

LL COOL J “BOOMIN’ SYSTEM”

 

Tell me about working with LL Cool J.

I did a video for him called “Boomin’ System.” It was the only video we ever did together. The song’s about guys driving these cars with these incredible systems in them. With Biz and some of these early artists, you just followed the stories [of the lyrics] for the literal visual translation. With LL, he was a pretty smart dude and was willing to try new things, so I came up with this Road Warrior concept. I told it to LL and he was like, “I love it, let’s do it.” So we did the whole video, we went into this desert area and we had cranes and this whole Road Warrior feel and I dug it, but the video was a big failure. The song was big, but the video was just a huge failure. Nobody got it, nobody jumped on it, and it bothered me, from an artist’s point of view. And I saw LL a couple weeks later and he came over to me and we started talking and he said, “Dude, you did nothing wrong. You had an idea, I went with it, it just didn’t happen, that’s Okay.” Whereas another artist would have probably killed me. I always admired that about him.

You think people just didn’t want to see rappers dressed up like that?

Yeah, it was just way ahead. Most of the people who came up to me, including friends who I had good relationships with, said, “That’s not what I thought the video was going to look like. You should have had big cars. That’s how I envisioned it.” It’s just one of those things, you just take it with you. I was down for a little while, but then I went on to the next one.

Hype Williams is a very good director and he was like my understudy—he did a lot of art direction for me and finally I started him off directing stuff. Years later with Dr. Dre and 2Pac he does “California Love,” which is the same Road Warrior concept. I learned that it’s just timing. We were just a little too early. I remember one day I was watching MTV Jams and I think it was Bill Bellamy with Chris Rock. They were talking and then Bill says, “Here’s the new video for ‘California Love,” and Chris goes, “I’ve seen this video before when it was LL Cool J’s ‘Boomin’ System.’” I had a little smile on my face, a little vindication.

 

3RD BASS “STEPPIN’ TO THE AM” & “THE GAS FACE”

 

How did you link up with 3rd Bass?

They hunted me down. They were very familiar with my work, which was cool. It was the first time I ever worked with white guys. They were very smart, and they were like night and day – it wasn’t surprising that they eventually split. I saw that happen as I was doing the videos for them. Serch was really out there. The story about him, and I don’t know how true it is, is that he was this young white kid who always used be in the mosque, going around looking for information, looking for knowledge. And I think that’s why he got his name Serch. Pete Nice, on the other hand, was just this really cool dude. Very smart, but laidback and more reserved. You see the difference in the videos. Serch is the guy that comes out and he’s dancing, and his lyrics are more provocative, whereas Pete is a little bit more laidback and a little bit more cryptic in his message. But that combination together really worked.

They were also very creative with the ideas. For “Steppin’ to the AM,” they would go and scout locations with me and tell me, “We want to go to Red Hook, there are these really ill trains.” They actually turned me on to a lot of stuff that I didn’t know about, and just had these really cool ideas. I don’t think I had a collaboration like that until I started working with Michael Bivens when we did the Bell Biv Devoe stuff.

I loved doing the videos, I loved the music, but in the process of doing the videos I saw the split going on between them. I remember going into an editing session and I think Serch told me, “There’s more shots of Pete than me in this video.” And I was like, “You’re kidding me, right?” I think his girlfriend at the time and him said they counted. Towards the end, it was almost like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis or any of those great teams that start to hate each other. They would do the videos together and barely talk to each other. We’d turn off the cameras and that was it. I actually had to start doing some of their scenes separate. I saw them fall apart right in front of my eyes. To this day I don’t think they communicate.

Did you consciously try to play up their two different personas in the videos?

It was kind of semi-conscious and kind of done by design. They were very hands-on in the concepts, the treatments and the editing—which I loved. I’m a people’s director, so I like to collaborate. Sometimes Pete would say, “In my scene I do this.” And then Serch would say, “In my scene I do this.” So it was kind of by design. I didn’t realize until the end when their relationship started to get weird that there was a reason.

 

 

In the “Gasface” video, there are two controversial scenes: The obvious dis of MC Hammer, then there’s the intro with Doug E. Doug and Public Enemy’s S1Ws. While you were doing it, were you concerned that there might be repercussions for you?

No. You have to remember that back then they didn’t include the director’s name when they played the video. Back then I wasn’t really worried about repercussions. The thing is, when they did the Hammer dis, and I didn’t even know about what was going on between them and Hammer, only DMC is in the scene. Jam Master Jay and Run didn’t want to do it; they didn’t want to be involved.

The Public Enemy thing wasn’t really a dis. The scene they are mocking is from a video I did, “Night of the Living Baseheads.” So Serch says to me, “I want it to be just like the opening of the Public Enemy video. I want it to be in front of the Audubon Ballroom.” I said, “No, I’m not going to do that.” He goes, “Why?” I say, “Do you know what happened at the Audubon Ballroom?” He goes, “No.” I said, “That was where Malcolm X was assassinated. That’s disrespectful.” That’s when I saw a side of Serch too, he didn’t fight me on it. He really didn’t know. I think they were trying to do more of a spoof. I don’t think they were trying to dis Public Enemy. They were definitely dissing Hammer.

Well, Flavor Flav is actually in that video, but I don’t think everybody understood that it wasn’t a dis.

Though Flavor Flav is in it, I’m sure they asked Chuck D to come down and he said no. Flavor was more likely to do things like that, but Chuck is conscious of what he does. I remember Chuck told me once that Dave Chappelle wanted him to be on his show and do some sort of spoof on the whole revolutionary rapper type thing and he politely said he couldn’t do it. He loves Dave Chappelle, but Chuck takes what he does very seriously.

How did Gilbert Gottfried get in that video?

They always liked Gilbert. I think one of them had some sort of relationship with one of his managers. I’ve done two features in my life—How to Be a Player and Long Shot—and both of those movies have Gilbert Gottfried in it. The thing about Gilbert is, he’s not that person you see on camera. He’s really shy, and his voice is pretty normal. Then you turn on that character and it’s just crazy.

Doug E. Doug is in there too, but he wasn’t really known at the time. How did he come to be in the video?

He was one of the guys that Pete and Serch wanted. They were creative with the input of who they wanted in there: Flavor Flav, Don Newkirk, EPMD. They were handpicked. A lot of Def Jam artists are in it. Russell Simmons is in it.

In “Steppin’ to the AM” video, there’s a scene where 3rd Bass are driving a car and they slow down in front of KMD, but speed by them before they can get in. I’ve always been curious about the politics of how do you convince someone to be the person who gets played out in a rap video. Is that a tough conversation to have or are people just happy to be in a video?

I had no idea when we shot it that KMD were one of [3rd Bass’] artists. That scene is exactly what they wanted. To be honest, when I shot it, I had no idea what the purpose of that scene was, but KMD, who I later did “Peach Fuzz” for, turned out to be a very Nubian type of group. I think it’s a bunch of white guys in the car who dis them, so I think they were trying to play up what KMD would be about.

Have you had other experiences where you’ve seen a rapper convince his friend that he’s going to be the one that gets dissed in a video?

When we did Big Daddy Kane’s “Ain’t No Half Steppin’,” I came up with this whole boxing thing for how I wanted the video to start. The opponent that Kane goes up against was just a guy that we cast. There’s no dis intended. Later Kane came up to me and said that Rakim has a problem ’cause we’re dissing his group, we’re dissing Eric B. Then it hits me that the dude we cast looks just like Eric B.—he’s got the braids, the gold, the whole look. It created this whole little beef thing, and that wasn’t even the intention.

 

THE STOP THE VIOLENCE MOVEMENT “SELF DESTRUCTION”

 

How did you get the gig directing “Self Destruction”?

Ann Carli [the head of Jive Records] and Nelson George came to me with the song, and they preached to me the message they were trying to bring across. I had done quite a few videos at that time and I think I was the frontrunner because I had done so many. 90% of the artists in that video I had done a video with before—it was like a reunion.

They told me the whole thing and how they wanted it to have a positive message. They played me the song a couple times and asked me to come up with a concept for the video. I remember I was in this room totally unprepared and I made up the whole thing off the top of my head. I came up with all the scenes you see in the video—KRS-One in the library, Just Ice had just come out of prison so we had him in The Tombs downtown… The only thing different was, at the end of the video I had Kool Moe Dee and LL Cool J walk up to each other and shake hands. At the time there was a big beef between them. (In the end LL didn’t want to do it.) I had Ann Carli, Nelson George and all these people, including some of the rappers, listening to me. They loved it and they clapped and I thought, “Whoa, I got over on this one.”

There’s a bunch of rappers in the video who don’t even perform on the song.

I remember there was a publicist, her name was Leyla Türkkan, and she was coordinating all these celebrities that were going to be in the video. She introduced me to Tone Loc, who’s in it, and this cat called Young MC. I’m looking at them and she goes, “This guy Young MC, he wrote Tone Loc’s album. He’s the hottest writer in California right now.” So much input was being thrown at me; I couldn’t take it all in. In hindsight I realize how many people are in it that hadn’t even hit yet. I remember it was 6 o’clock in the morning when we shot that scene where they’re all sitting on the bleachers and Slick Rick showed up with a brown paper bag with some Moët in it. I think he’s actually holding the bag in the shot. At the funeral scene in the cemetery with Doug E. Fresh, we had Marley Marl and Red Alert, two guys who were kind of in conflict with each other because they were on opposite radio stations and they didn’t really get along. I originally had Big Daddy Kane in that scene. We were about to shoot and I was telling him the concept and Kane says, “Lionel, can I talk to you for a minute? I don’t do cemeteries, man.” I said, “What do you mean?” He says, “I can’t do a cemetery. You got to put me in another scene.” So I put him in MC Lyte’s scene.

The other thing that I remember is I would take little moments from other videos I did for these artists. For Lyte I had done “Paper Thin”, and there was an effect where it was in black and white and color seeped into the screen, so I did that in the “Self Destruction” video when Lyte’s scene came up. In Heavy D’s scene I also did something that I had done in a video for him.

That was an amazing bunch of talent that came together. Now, the inside stuff is that everybody was there except Chuck D, who didn’t want to come to the shoot. Flav came, as you can see and the S1Ws were there. We shot it and Ann Carli and Nelson George said, “What are we going to do about Chuck?” He did this thing at WBLI where he had a radio show, so we went there and shot a scene. I don’t think it looks too bad, it kind of works with everything, but that’s why you never see him in any of the group shots.

Read Part Two.

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2 Responses

  1. Love this article. You did a nice job with the writing. I’m a big fan of HipHop, but most of the stuff I enjoy now is more recent or a little before my time. This is literally when my time came. Yo! MTV Raps sounds like a dope show. All of this makes me want to be a director. It’s “that” inspiring. I’ve learnt a lot while reading. Part two here I come.

    sidenote: what was Will Smith(jazz) about to say regarding sampling? damn. Why did the up-loader tease me. Should have just cut the vid before all that

    either way. Thank you.

    Kene
  2. This is the article I have been waiting for! I remember ALL of these videos and Self-Destruction is in my Top Five favorite videos of all time. I was 8 years old and just mesmerized the first time I saw it. I still do the Lock-it (that’s what we call it where I’m from) during D-Nice’s part. And the Vapors?!? I really thought that was a yacht. What a taleneted, innovative artist. Your videos are part of the reason I cannot stand most rap videos now because there is no storyline.

    – Dyva80

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