On the Job Training: Part Eight
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.
Ben Stokes’s directorial career began in the mid-1980s while he was still a student at the Art Institute of Chicago. After Al Jourgensen of Ministry saw some of his work, he commissioned Stokes to make videos for the songs “Stigmata” and “Flashback” for $500. Stokes co-directed these clips with Eric Zimmerman, who became his partner in the new music video company H-Gun Labs. H-Gun made a name for itself by making videos for industrial acts, including other Wax Trax artists and Nine Inch Nails, before branching out into hip-house with “Get Busy” by Mr. Lee. Since H-Gun dissolved in 2001, Stokes has created the visual show for DJ Shadow’s tours, including the current Shadowsphere. Continuing a relationship that started when H-Gun was still active, Stokes has become a touring member of Meat Beat Manifesto, working as their live VJ.
De La Soul “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays’”
Del tha Funky Homosapien “Mista Dobilina” (co-directed with Eric Koziol)
K-Solo “Fugitive,” “Spellbound” ( both co-directed with Eric Zimmerman)
Mr. Lee “Get Busy” (co-directed with Eric Zimmerman)
Profits of Unity “Profits of Unity” (co-directed with Eric Koziol)
Public Enemy “Nighttrain”
Public Enemy & Anthrax “Bring the Noise” (co-directed with Eric Zimmerman)
Son of Bazerk “The Band Gets Swivey on the Wheels,” “Change the Style” (co-directed with Eric Zimmerman)
SON OF BAZERK “CHANGE THE STYLE”
After Mr. Lee, who was the first hip-hop act you did a video for?
Son of Bazerk. That came about because the Bomb Squad, Hank or Keith Schocklee or both of them, had seen the Ministry videos and were like, “Let’s check out these weirdos from Chicago. Let’s go off roads with this.” I think they really took a chance by doing that.
Did you submit a treatment for it?
Yeah, we did. A cassette of the music was sent to us. Back in those days, H-Man was a fairly collaborative engine. There weren’t as many jobs as there were later when we got to auteur videos a little bit more. So, Eric Zimmerman and I co-directed that. Pretty much everyone got involved, and all of our friends—skate friends, people in bands—took part as various performers.
Are there any notable cameos?
There’s Damon Locks, who was in a band called Trenchmouth. He’s the guy whipping the turntable around. Stevie Dread was in there, who was in our band, Ungh!. He was also a pretty well-known skateboarder at the time.
How long was the shoot?
It was a two-day-long shoot in Chicago, and we had the band for the full two days. Flavor Flav was there for one day, briefly. We did all the shooting with him in an intensive little burst. Having Flavor Flav in our studio thrilled everybody. And personally for me, getting to meet Keith and Hank Shocklee was a real treat.
What were they like?
They were really involved [Son of Bazerk was signed to their label SOUL Records]. They read the treatment and Keith said something like, “Can you make the image all distorted and make them look like Mr. Potato Head?” I don’t think there are any scenes in the final video that particularly describe that, but what he effectively communicated to us was to go weird with it and don’t try to put an overt hip-hop thing on it. I really liked their whole approach, and they were both so open-minded and creative. Keith and Hank Shocklee were really pulling the strings for that one.
Was the group open to being so out there?
I do remember there was a certain amount of bickering between the band members. We did do another video with them, “The Band Get Swivey on the Wheels,” and my recollection is that both times the band was a little bit bicker-y with each other. Keith and Hank Shocklee were awesome and they were doing most of the communicating with us as far as concept and visual stuff. The band seemed a little less involved, but as soon as they got in front of the camera they could turn it on and perform.
Were the special effects and techniques in “Change of Style” stuff you had tried before, or would you use videos to experiment with new approaches?
When it was time to write a treatment, there was always this thought of, “How can we one-up the visual gags?” I think “Change the Style” was the perfect song for that. On top of just different sets and costumes and scenarios, there was also this slight tweaking of the footage, and that’s the Mr. Potato Head thing. We kind of forced the perspective of this room where the bald headed chick is dancing. But there was always a call to figure out, visually speaking, what we can do next. What’s a weird place we can put a camera? Can we film from a Steadicam on a skateboard? Sometimes it was successful, sometimes not, but I think we were always successful in pushing into new territory.
De La Soul “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays’”
How did your video for De La Soul come about?
As soon as we had done Son of Bazerk, we added it to the reel and sent it out to a whole bunch of people. We sent it to Tommy Boy, and there already had been some contact because Jive was the label Mr. Lee was on and they were partnered with Tommy Boy. De La Soul Is Dead had come out and they contacted us. The opportunity to do “Saturdays” came up and there was zero hesitation. That one was shot in New York. It was mostly shot in Central Park and at this roller skating rink in Long Island that I think is in Amityville.
That’s where they’re from.
Yeah, that location came from them. They really wanted to shoot at this particular roller skating rink. I think the idea of shooting some stuff outside in Central Park was our idea. They definitely had some vision of what they wanted to do for this video. Our job was to try to film it in an interesting way. The band had arranged all these cameo appearances, like Charlie Brown from Leaders of the School, Russell Simmons is in there in the beginning, Queen Latifah is in there on a skateboard, and then, of course, Q-Tip. They pulled that all together. When I was first introduced to Russell Simmons, I was pretty young at the time. He didn’t think I was directing the video, I think he thought I was just some kid on the crew. When he realized who I was, he put his arm around me and was like, “Listen, don’t mess this up. This is a big break for you.” He made me very nervous.
How old were you at the time?
I was probably about twenty-five.
De La Soul’s clothes in the video are pretty great. I imagine this was shot during an era before stylists in hip-hop videos. Were their outfits just what they showed up in?
They were very involved in that. In fact, we arrived in New York a few days before the shoot and we met the band and they took us to Triple 5 Soul, which at the time was just south of Houston [Street]. They were like, “These are our friends.” I bought a bunch of clothes there. I think a lot of the clothing they’re wearing in the video is from there. I told them they should express exactly what they wanted to wear.
De La Soul is an interesting group where almost from the start of their career they had issues with how they were presented and how they were perceived because of the whole hip-hop hippie tag they were labeled with. In their earliest days they may have done things that fed into that, but very quickly they were going against that idea. Were there things they expressed that they didn’t want in the video or things that they were trying to stay away from? How conscious were they of how they were being presented?
I think they were very conscious. My perception of them to a large extent was that they had blown up, their first record was huge, but that they were outsiders to this larger hip-hop thing. They were from Amityville, they were coming at it from a different angle. By their second record they were very aware of that. To a certain extent they were fighting that and to another extent they were embracing it. It was an interesting situation. If you look at “Saturdays,” in some ways it’s a typical summer, good vibes kind of video. In another way, it’s very personalized to them. Lots of things in the video are little stories that they wanted to tell. Like at the roller skating rink, there’s a line where we added a gunshot sound effect and they all duck. Posdnuos was very specific that there be this exact part where they all duck. I had no idea what that was about and he explained that back in the day the roller skating rink was a little more dodgy. It was obviously a place that they had all grown up with and hung out at. It was part of their backgrounds.