On the Job Training: Part Eleven
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.
While Phil Maillard was at Hofstra University in New York he became friends with a classmate named Rodd Houston, and together they became a DJ team. After graduation, Maillard started working low level jobs on TV commercial shoots and Houston became the video commissioner for Tommy Boy Records. After a couple of years, Houston asked Maillard if he wanted to direct a video for Too Poetic’s “God Made Me Funky.” Though he accepted, he felt thoroughly unprepared. “I went to a director I was working with named Bill Hudson, he used to do Burger King commercials, and I used to drive him home from the set,” says Maillard. “I told him, ‘I have to direct this video this weekend. What advice do you have for me?’ He said, ‘Just don’t let them know you don’t know what you’re doing.’ That’s been the story of my career. I took his advice and I pretended to know what I was doing. I knew four words: cut, action, wrap and lunch.” Along with continuing his directing, in the mid-1990s Maillard and Houston founded a production company called Shoot Til U Drop, which fostered the talent of future directors including Marcus Raboy.
De La Soul “Buddy,” “Keepin’ the Faith (Straight Past remix)”
Diamond & the Psychotic Neurotics “The Best Kept Secret”
Don Newkirk “Small Thing”
Naughty by Nature “Guard Your Grill,” “Uptown Anthem”
No Face “Fake Hair Wear’n”
Phase & Rhythm “Swollen Pockets”
Poor Righteous Teachers “Easy Star,” “Shakylia”
Queen Latifah “Laitfah’s Had it Up to Here”
Resident Alien “Mr. Boops”
Too Poetic “God Made Me Funky”
DE LA SOUL “BUDDY”
How did you get the job directing the video for “Buddy”?
I got a call from Rodd at five o’clock in the evening on Friday saying, “Listen, we’ve got to do a De La video and we’ve got to shoot it by Monday because they’re leaving town on Tuesday.” I wanted to do De La Soul and I knew how big this was. You never turn down an opportunity, but I was shitting bricks because although I was getting a little better at the craft, I was nowhere near where I would have liked to have been in that situation.
We decided to go shoot some shit with De La out in Long Island on Saturday. Then we were going to shoot on a Monday, which was Columbus Day. We’d shoot them in front of a white cyc and a blue screen where we’d add some animation from my friend Mike Yuman. We were going to try to piece this thing together. That’s when I learned to not think about music videos as a whole, but to start breaking it down by elements. You just move the elements around to get the picture you want.
We go out to Long Island the next morning and shoot them with the roller skates and scooters. I meet with Mike Yuman and he starts to come up with some graphic designs. We shoot some stuff with Prince Paul and the boombox for the opening. Things are starting to come together and I feel more comfortable. Now we go to the shoot day on Monday which is at Broadway Studios in Astoria, and talk about nerve wracking. There were people and artists there that had nothing to do with the video. On top of that, my father shows up. My mind is just racing. We got there early and we had brought this chroma blue curtain we were going drop. My gaffer comes over to me after they’ve spent an hour hanging the thing and lighting the thing and says, “We’ve got a problem. That’s not chroma blue; you won’t see nothing on that.” It was my second video and I was screwed already. That [blue screen] was the basis of everything I was going to do. You can’t just have 15 black people standing against a white wall. That’s just unattractive. You can’t do that for four and a half minutes. I had learned enough to know that despite all the things that are thrown at you, at the end of the day it falls on you. If someone says, “That video sucked, who did it?” They will point to the director. No one is going to remember you found out about the video on a Friday and had to shoot it on a Monday. No one is going to remember that the blue screen wasn’t blue, which wasn’t my fault. All I knew was that I was blowing my shot, and not only was I blowing it, I was blowing it big time because everybody sitting in the room would say, “I was there and that guy sucked and I’m not hiring him.” I saw my career ending before it began. I went inside the makeup room and closed the door. I was banging my head on the wall. My gaffer comes over and says, “We can take the curtain and make folds in it and make a little design in it with some creases to give it a little background. We’ll shoot against the blue background and the white background.” I started to feel a little better because I started to think of the elements again.
The story goes that when the video was done, they showed it at Tommy Boy and they hated it. Monica Lynch didn’t like it. Tom Silverman didn’t like it. It was George Clinton who saved the day for me. George Clinton was up in the office visiting somebody and he walked in the room when the video was playing and afterwards he said, “That shit is dope. I love it.” And Rodd turned to Monica Lynch and said, “See?” George Clinton saved me. He gave it the blessing and it became a little cult classic. It was what it was. Considering the hand that was dealt me, I think it’s pretty good. In retrospect, as an experienced director, I don’t think there’s that much I could have done differently.
With all those extra people in the video, did De La Soul invite them?
They invited people. We were shooting in Astoria, Queens, which isn’t that far away. It was Columbus Day and people didn’t have shit else to do, so they came by the video. Managers were there. The place was packed. That’s what made it even worse. I was directing in front of audience, an audience of potential artists who might want to use or not to use me.
Were they aware that this crisis was going on?
No, they had no idea. I don’t think De La got the ramifications of it all. I knew and Rodd knew. For Rodd it was very important because he put me up as the savior for this, and I’m his man. I’m representing him and his thoughts and his beliefs. I have to win, and not only just win for myself. If I never got another video in my life I could have gone back to PAing, but that was his gig. Any recommendation from then on would be questioned. And I couldn’t have that. I think that was the most pressure I felt in any music video I’ve ever done, and I’ve had bigger music videos. When I think about it I still feel that pressure.
What really carries the video is seeing the chemistry between those different groups and individuals and seeing that they are actually friends.
“Buddy” was the beginning of something that would be greater for all of them. I had three cameras going, and that gave me the chance to cut between different perspectives, so you could see different relationship levels. I started to learn about the aesthetics of framing.
I think what really helps is the opening with Prince Paul against the brick wall. It’s a great color temperature. It’s warm. It’s friendly. It’s hip-hop. The fact you can hear his voice but he’s not moving his mouth, it automatically tells you that this isn’t going to be a normal hip-hop video.
In the Long Island footage, there’s a part where a guy running in the street stops and a word bubble pops out that says, “This video makes no sense.” Where did that idea come from?
When we were looking at all the footage, we decided that quirky was the way to go. If we had more time, we probably would have come up with something that wasn’t quite literal, but was more tied to what the song meant. I think what we did was that even if someone didn’t know what the hell the track was about, and if they didn’t know anything about De La Soul, they would have found it enjoyable to watch because of its quirkiness and its playfulness. There was also a bit of innocence in it.
And, the video made no sense. And what we went through made no sense. The fact that the blue curtain wasn’t blue made no sense. The fact that I got the video on Friday to shoot on Monday made no sense. We started thinking outside the box and started to take ourselves less seriously.