On the Job Training: Part Two
by Eric Ducker
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.
Adam Bernstein got his start at Nickelodeon in 1985 as part of the channel’s two-person production department. He primarily worked on a show called Turkey Television, re-cutting old industrial films and putting new narration on them. (He’d later revisit his stock footage resources when making the videos for EPMD’s “You Gots to Chill” and Jaz’s “Hawaiian Sophie.”) After quitting his Nickelodeon job, Bernstein used $1500 of his own money to direct They Might Be Giants’ “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head”, the first video for the then unknown group and the start of a long-running collaborative relationship. Later he landed Audio Two’s “I Don’t Care,” his first hip-hop video. While Bernstein worked with rap acts during the late 1980s and early 1990s, he continued making videos for college rock staples like the Dead Milkmen and Violent Femmes. Describing what he was stylistically known for, Bernstein says, “I was a comedy guy. I was the guy doing the absurd videos before Spike Jonze took over that job, and I was pretty much out of the business by the time he got into it.” Later he helmed surprise hits including Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” and the B-52’s “Love Shack.” Bernstein currently directs episodes of TV shows, including Breaking Bad and Bored to Death.
Audio Two “I Don’t Care”
Beastie Boys “Hey Ladies”
EPMD “You Gots to Chill,” “So Wat Cha Sayin”
Jaz “Hawaiian Sophie”
Public Enemy “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”
Beastie Boys, “Hey Ladies”
How did you get the job for “Hey Ladies”?
The Beastie Boys called me directly about it, as they had seen the They Might Be Giants stuff and maybe some of the other hip-hop stuff. They asked that I come out to L.A. and meet with them about it before moving forward. I had gone on a vacation in Hawaii prior to that, so I stopped in Los Angeles on my way back. I was supposed to meet them with all these executives from Capitol Records at a place on La Brea called CITY Restaurant that’s not there anymore. At the appointed time there were like six Capitol Records executives, including the president, and myself. We waited for about 45 minutes and finally the Beastie Boys showed up, but they didn’t come into the restaurant, they sort of lingered in the doorway and they pointed at me and beckoned me to come over to them. I looked back at the guys at Capitol and they were like, “Go over.” So I walked over to the Beastie Boys and they were like, “We’re taking you to dinner, we’re not eating here.” They hijacked me. They didn’t think it was cool to have dinner with the record company. They took me to Benihana.
That was the first of what was like a week’s worth of meetings because they kept wanting to talk about the concept of the video. These concept meetings comprised of everyone going to Adam Horowitz’s house on Spaulding Street in West Hollywood where there was this giant pile of blaxploitation movies. Most of them were Rudy Ray Moore movies. So we’d watch Dolemite movies while they smoked huge amounts of hashish. I smoked pot when I was in high school, but I quit at a certain point because I got so paranoid when I smoked. Those sessions were punctuated by binges where we’d go to a gourmet grocery store called Chalet Gourmet and they would push around a shopping cart and pile in hundreds of dollars of snacks. Then we’d go back to Adam Horowitz’s house to eat and watch more Dolemite movies. At one point, Adam Yauch, who was my favorite Beastie Boy, took a toke and he looked really disgusted and he goes, “Aw man, someone left crack in my hash pipe.”
After a week of doing that I had to say, “Guys, I can’t stay here indefinitely, so we’re either going to do it or we’re not going to do it.” Then they were like, “Okay, let’s do it.” So the video is just a series of images and scenes that were inspired by Dolemite movies and other 1970s movies. I think we were watching Shampoo, Saturday Night Fever… Everything in there is a reference to some ’70s film.
Once you got past the watching movies stage, how quickly did that video come together?
I think at the end of the week I wrote up a treatment. The customary production schedule for a video is five business days of prep, then you shoot it for a couple days, then you edit for a week. It’s like a two-week turnaround. Often you’d shoot over the weekend because you’d get a one-day rental on the equipment on Friday and bring it back on Monday; it was cheaper to shoot over a weekend.
That video has some pretty elaborate set-ups for two second-long jokes or visual gags, like the body-painted girl who fits into the clock for the “your body’s on time” line.
We had a pretty good budget. It was about $130,000. An average, mid-range video that I was doing at that time was $50,000 to $60,000.
Did you feel liberated having double your budget?
When you have much less, you run through your bag of tricks pretty quickly. You want to do more elaborate stuff and have bigger toys, and you need more money at a certain point to pull that off. I was never someone who made massive videos. The biggest budget I had was $250,000 for a Bruce Springsteen video. I got offered some big budget videos that I passed on because I wasn’t interested in the singer.
Where was “Hey Ladies” filmed?
We shot most of it at this crazy mansion in Chatsworth.
It has the biggest swimming pool I’ve ever seen.
Apparently it was owned by gay Nazi sympathizers. Then we shot in Echo Park for some of those driving scenes. The opening scene where Adam Yauch is putting a fishing rod in the back of a Cadillac, we stole that shot at the oil fields off La Cienaga you see on your way to LAX. We got the last shot just as they were kicking us off the property.
Where was the nightclub stuff filmed?
I don’t remember where that was. We had to put the [illuminated] floor in there. All I remember is that the bathrooms smelled terrible. We had that scene where the girl is putting on those giant butt pads and it was horrible in there.
There are some great characters in that video. Did you cast it with their friends?
No, we had a list of types and we cycled them through. I don’t think the Beastie Boys were there for the casting. My best casting was for Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby’s Got Back.” We had to bring in all these dancers and performers. Their buttocks were the feature that was being most closely evaluated. It might be a cultural thing, but no one was shy about letting us snap a Polaroid of their butt. Not their naked butt. We had to assemble this giant matrix of Polaroids of different butts and then FedEx them up to Seattle so Sir Mix-A-Lot could approve which buttocks would be in the video.
Public Enemy, “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”
“Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” is a pretty big departure in tone from the rest of your videos. How did you get it?
I think the reason I got that job was that Public Enemy had a producer named Hank Shocklee and I had done a twenty-minute short that was a riff on A Knife in the Water. It was a really dark little thriller. Hank Shocklee had seen that and hired me because of it.
What was the atmosphere on the set like?
We shot that at a prison in Newark, New Jersey that dated back to the Civil War. It was also used as a location for the movie Turk 182!. Chuck D was probably the most professional guy I ever worked with. He’s just a very collaborative, respectful guy who showed up to do the work. Flavor Flav, he attracted a huge crowd of people outside the location once they saw him, and he was leading them in some kind of cheer. The high point of my hip-hop directing career came when I asked Flavor Flav what time it was.
I often found that there was a disconnect between the public persona and your private experience with an artist. Public Enemy at that time had the most intimidating, badass public persona, but they ended up being the most pleasant guys. Then you had people like Lyle Lovett who you would think would be the quirky, nice, interesting guy, and he was awful. A terrible guy.
What memories stand out from making that video?
There is a long tracking shot past a series of cells and there are a bunch of hip-hop cameos of guys inside the cells. I remember Q-Tip was in there. They wanted Joey Ramone to be a prisoner in the video and someone gave me his number. When I called him up he got really angry at me. Public Enemy had a guy who was part of their group, Professor Griff, who had made anti-Semitic remarks. Professor Griff wasn’t even in the video, I didn’t meet him and he wasn’t around, but Joey Ramone was so angry at Professor Griff that he was like, “I’m a Jew and you’re a Jew and you shouldn’t be doing this video.” He laid a big Jewish guilt trip on me.