On the Job Training: Part Five
Charles Stone III
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.
CHARLES STONE III
After graduating in 1988 from Rhode Island School of Design, where he majored in animation, Charles Stone III moved to New York City. He gave himself six months to get his first music video, and succeeded when he landed the clip for Living Colour’s “Funny Vibe” that appeared on the group’s video collection, Primer. Among the dozens of hip-hop videos he made over the next decade were five collaborations with the Roots, including their notorious, rap video cliché skewering “What They Do.” He went on to create the “Whassup?” commercial campaign for Budweiser and directed the films Drumline, Paid in Full, and Mr. 3000.
A Tribe Called Quest “Bonita Applebum,” “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo”
Black Sheep “Choice Is Yours”
Fu-Schnickens “La Schmoove,” “True Fu-Schnick”
Public Enemy “911 Is a Joke”
Tragedy “Arrest the President”
A TRIBE CALLED QUEST, “I LEFT MY WALLET IN EL SEGUNDO” & “BONITA APPLEBUM”
One thing I noticed in a lot of your early videos, and particularly your videos for A Tribe Called Quest, is the use of multiple mediums and formats. There’s not a singular look, but a collage of different looks.
I was a huge fan of animation growing up, anything from Bugs Bunny and Tom & Jerry cartoons to Japanese anime from the ’60s and ’70s, like Astro Boy and Gigantor and Star Blazers. Then there was a lot of international animation coming out of Poland and Czechoslovakia where fine art materials were being used. There were independent filmmakers who were animators using oil paint on glass, sand on glass, push pin animation, crayon on black paper, claymation… There are a million different kinds of techniques. I was really exposed to that. Growing up, my parents collected art, so there was anything from figurative art to impressionist art to abstract and expressionistic art on the walls. The textures come from that.
And if you look at early MTV ID spots, they also totally use that. Back in the mid- to late 1980s, especially in New York, there were a lot of these mom and pop production house boutiques that did animation and effects for commercials. You started to see more and more of that get applied to music videos. Egotistically speaking, I guess the thing that was unique to my work within the hip-hop community was there weren’t too many cats applying animation and graphics.
With the first A Tribe Called Quest videos, obviously the music sounded different, but the visuals worked with that because they didn’t look like the other videos.
Tribe was somewhat whimsical and you didn’t see that kind of whimsy in hip-hop at the time. Their whimsy is what I responded to. For “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo,” I literally followed the way the song played out. It was like a moving comic book. It’s this whole journey. That whimsy allowed for my animation and all these little things. “Bonita Applebum,” even when I look at it today, it really has a personal signature to it for me. There are certain animated words I use that are responses to the lyrics. It’s almost like I’m having a dialogue with the song through the use of the graphics. I think I had the word “dag” in there, which is something I grew up saying. There are all these fun little things, like them walking on the purple carpet and the JIMMY helmets and the weird baseball catcher. That’s definitely my whimsy. Back then they allowed me to paint the picture the way I wanted to, even though the budget was limited. All those videos were $45,000 to $55,000. For “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo,” we shot a full day in Brooklyn, literally got a plane that night to Las Vegas, then shot the next day in Vegas and then got back on a plane. Back then it was a total guerilla art kind of mode.
Having that freedom on those videos, was that coming from the label or was that from the group?
I think it was more of the label. Tribe hadn’t even had a single, so they were fresh on the scene. Usually with bands like that, they don’t have much control or input. Someone must have shown them my work and they must have approved my idea, but at that point they probably didn’t have much decision making power. It wasn’t until later that I started encountering, “Talk to the band and see what they want to do” or “Talk to the band’s manager, who happens to be their mother, and see what she wants.” I still had to present an idea and get it approved, but then I could go off and do it.
What was the treatment for “Bonita Applebum”?
I was trying to do an urban love story. The whole pastel, light colors were probably something I mentioned. I also knew they would perform at a basement party where everybody is slow dancing and that Q-Tip would be rhyming in the middle of it. The song has a very specific feel. The beat and the guitar sample and even the softer timbre of Q-Tip’s voice in that piece, it was very thorough in its own vision as a love song. That made it very easy for me to kick it from there.
Is it true that it’s Special Ed who’s making out with the girl throughout the video?
Did you recommend him or was it the group?
They knew him. Part of that idea was that you’d see them in different locations making out around the city. I did something similar in the Roots’ “What They Do” video where there’s a repeating scenario where you see everybody waving a champagne flute to the beat. You see everybody from all the shots doing it, and it reminds me of that idea of this couple making out in different parts of the city.
Who’s the guy with the long hair in the purple tie-dye dancing in slow motion?
I don’t know what happened to him, but he was fucking awesome. I remember he came to the audition and I was like, “Who the fuck is this?” He had his hair all blown out and he had these fucking clown shoes, but he had these crazy break-dance-like moves. I knew I wanted a dancer in there that I wanted to shoot against a grafittied background, and he came in wearing ill colored clothes. I don’t remember his name, but he was a dancer. Everyone had dancers in their videos in those days.
What was the atmosphere like on those sets?
They were excited. They had fun because I was a catering to their whimsy, and I think the style of the work suited them. There wasn’t all that drama that eventually ensued between Tip and Phife. We shot that in D.U.M.B.O. around Vinegar Hill. Back then D.U.M.B.O. was more factory-like rather than totally hip and trendy like right now. It was kind of easy going. It wasn’t a dramatic thing; it wasn’t a challenge.
PUBLIC ENEMY “911 IS A JOKE”
With all the crazy stuff that Flavor Flav does in “911 Is a Joke,” were those your ideas or his? And was there anything he wouldn’t do?
He knew what he wanted to wear. We got him stuff, but he picked what he wanted to wear. It was my idea to put him in the coffin, and having him perform at the funeral service was my idea. He was a bug out, obviously. The thing is, if you ask a director what he or she thought of working with the artist, and then you ask a line producer what he or she thought of working the artist on the same project, usually it will be two entirely different answers. Usually the director will be like, “He was fine. He was fantastic” while the line producer will be like, “He was a fucking asshole!” I know at one point Flav wouldn’t get out of his trailer because we got him food from Kennedy Fried Chicken rather than Kentucky Fried Chicken. There was a little bit of drama because he was quite nutty, but he was also really cool and a very real person. He would go in and out of his persona. He’d be buggin’ out when he was performing and in between takes he’d be just sitting there playing somber rhythm and blues stuff on the piano. Like all of us, he is multi-layered.
FU-SCHNICKENS, “TRUE FUSCHNICK”
Now whenever someone does a posse cut video, they reference the video that Hype Williams directed for Craig Mack’s “Flava in Your Ear” remix by shooting it in black and white against a white background. But you did that look first in “True Fuschnick.” When “Flava in Your Ear” came out, did you take that as a reference to what you had done?
I don’t think so. It might have been, but I didn’t see that because there must have been other music videos outside of the hip-hop realm that were performed against the white cyc. When I was a teenager my mother used to work at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Delaware as an editor for their publications. She would bring home certain publications and magazines like Communication Arts, Graphis and Print. Those were the three prominent industry magazines for illustrators and graphic designers. I was inspired a lot by those. Another big inspiration for me was this cat Jean-Paul Goude out of France. He basically created Grace Jones’ image. He also had this borderline obsession with black women and African culture and African-American culture and Latin-American culture, so he would take it to a place that was borderline blackface, but nonetheless, there was a pronounced quirkiness in his design attitude that was fucking amazing. That was inspiring. But that’s the long-winded answer. I thought you were going to say the Craig Mack thing came out before Fu-Schnickens, I would have said it might have influenced me. I remember that [“Flava in Your Ear”] video and I was into it when it came out. I wouldn’t be surprised if I was inspired by the video David Fincher did for Paula Abdul, “Straight Up.”