On the Job Training: Part Nine
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.
After Tamra Davis graduated film school, she was trying to figure out how to get her first feature made and decided to direct a video for a song by the band True Believers that she wanted to have on the soundtrack. The resulting video for Alejandro Escovedo’s Austin-based group was filmed on Super 8 and cost almost nothing to make. When the band’s label found out about the unsanctioned video they liked it so much that they offered Davis $50,000 to recreate the unique look for one of their other acts. “[True Believers] looked that way because that was the only equipment that I had, but everything else at the time looked like ‘Uptown Girl’ or Poison,” says Davis. “Out of struggling to get credibility to make a movie, all of a sudden I had come up with an interesting look and all of a sudden I was a music video director.” She continued to land jobs for college radio acts like Hüsker Dü and Sonic Youth, but then her friend Matt Dike of Delicious Vinyl asked her to direct the video for “Wild Thing” by Tone-Loc, her first hip-hop video. Davis estimates that the grainy black & white parody of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” cost $400 to make. The surprise success of “Wild Thing” and Young MC’s “Bust a Move,” which she also did, made her an in-demand rap music video director. Ultimately this led to her first studio-financed film, the rap mockumentary CB4. Davis has since directed features including Billy Madison and Half Baked, and in 2010 she released Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, a documentary centered around a rare interview she conducted with the artist in 1986.
Beastie Boys “Netty’s Girl”
Chris Rock “Your Mother’s Got a Big Head”
The D.O.C. “It’s Funky Enough,” “The D.O.C. & The Doctor”
MC Lyte “Cha, Cha, Cha”
Tone Loc “Funky Cold Medina,” “Wild Thing”
Young MC “Bust a Move” “Principal’s Office”
THE D.O.C. “It’s Funky Enough” & “The D.O.C. & The Doctor”
How did you end up doing the video for “It’s Funky Enough”
I had been making videos for Tone Loc and Young MC, and they were going up the charts. The videos took people that nobody had ever heard of and all of sudden they were selling millions of records. Then I got a call from Eazy-E and he said, “I’ve got an artist and I want you to do the video.” Like a businessman, he wanted to hire me. I was like, “Where do you want to meet?” And he said, “I’m going to meet you in the president’s office at Capitol Records.” I knew he wasn’t on Capitol Records, so that was kind of weird. So then I go, and there he is in the president’s office and I was like, “What are you doing here?” And he said something about how he wanted to show me how much of a big deal he was, that he could kick that guy out of his office. It was crazy. I’m somebody who would laugh at something like that, so I started laughing.
What was it like working with Eazy?
I worked with him on a few videos and I thought he was really fascinating and interesting. The first video we did was the D.O.C.’s “It’s Funky Enough.” I got along with Eazy really well. That’s the sad thing. The last time I saw him, I was working with him and he wasn’t doing very well. I was making a video for Michel’le and I wasn’t happy with what was going on. I was shooting at Eazy’s house and all these guys just came in with the gin and juice. It really happened that way like in the videos. It was not like a fifth of it how you’d see at a college party, these guys were walking around with full gallons. Then they all had guns. And what they were doing with the girls, I was not into that. I just couldn’t work with him anymore.
“It’s Funky Enough” was a stylistic departure from the stuff you were doing for Delicious Vinyl.
I was watching all these western and noir kind of films. I wanted to film them in a classic, bad guy western sort of style with cinematic black and white.
Then I did “The D.O.C. & The Doctor.” When I made “The D.O.C. and The Doctor,” I made a short film at the same time. It’s like a wrap-around for the song. If you watch the video, it looks like there’s a scene going on, so I filmed all the dialogue to that. It’s in my files somewhere so hopefully I’ll be able to turn it up.
Were you aware of NWA’s reputation before you started working with Eazy on their projects?
Kind of, yes. I grew up in Los Angeles and I knew what Compton was. This was before I directed an episode of America’s Most Wanted with a gang member on it that went on to become notorious with all rappers. Yes, NWA were all gang members, which scared me, but Eazy could also have conversations with me as a business man. He was funny and creative. In the beginning of “It’s Funky Enough” I do a shot where I’m filming their legs from a low angle and they’re all walking with their shoes forward and I pan up. One of the guys didn’t have the right shoes, it wasn’t the look I wanted, so I told him to change his shoes. And the guy gave a look like, “Who is this little blonde girl telling me I’m supposed to change my shoes?” He looked like was going to kill me. Then Eazy came up and told him, “Do whatever she says, she knows what she’s doing.” He let me do what I wanted to do and got the vision.