On the Job Training: Part Six
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.
Peter Lauer worked in MTV’s promotions department alongside Peter Dougherty, Ted Demme, Pam Thomas, and Mark Pellington. Eventually Dougherty and Demme created Yo! MTV Raps, Thomas produced Saturday Night Live and Kids in the Hall, Pellington went on to direct feature films after the success of his video for “Jeremy” by Pearl Jam, and Lauer developed a career directing episodes of quirky TV comedies like Arrested Development, Chuck, and Strangers with Candy. But before any of that, the five of them made money on the side by directing videos. The gigs they got were usually considered bottom of the barrel projects with tiny budgets and no real chance of getting put in rotation on MTV, and often that meant they were for rap artists. “There was no conflict of interest because we didn’t have any pull in getting these things played,” says Lauer. “Though maybe people didn’t think that was the case and that was why they sought us out to do videos.”
Black & White “Feel the Vibe”
Dana Dane “This Be the Def Beat”
De La Soul “Me Myself & I”
DJ Quik “Jus Lyke Compton”
King Tee “Bass”
Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock “It Takes Two” (co-directed with Pam Thomas)
Run-DMC “Run’s House”
Salt N Pepa “Push It”
Slick Rick “Hey Young World”
RUN-DMC “RUN’S HOUSE”
How did you get the job directing “Run’s House”?
I did a video for Dana Dane’s “This Be the Def Beat.” Russell Simmons saw it and liked it a lot, so they asked me if I wanted to do a Run-DMC video. Run-DMC at that point had crossed over a lot. They’d had a lot of success doing stuff with Aerosmith and whatever, and people felt Run-DMC were losing touch with their base. So for “Run’s House” we were just going to go around New York and shoot some stuff. We started down in Washington Square Park and made our way north until we got to Harlem.
There are parts in it where you can see the cameramen and in Washington Square Park you can see the lights set up. What was the reasoning behind those choices?
We weren’t trying to hide the fact that we were shooting a video. That didn’t matter at all. It was about watching Run-DMC work the crowd. I didn’t want to try to hide anything for both a practical reason and a creative reason. We could get a lot more shot that way and trying to hide stuff would require designing shots and slowing us down. And creatively, it would make them more special by seeing the mechanics.
We didn’t have film permits or anything, we were just stealing shots. When we got to Harlem it was around 3 o’clock on a school day and word got out that Run-DMC were shooting a video. Before you knew it, 125th Street was a riot. They had to bring out the police and shut the street down. It was incredible. It worked out great.
You didn’t expect that reaction in Harlem?
I didn’t expect it all. I was a fan, but these guys were kings at the time. I think that came across in the video. They really ruled their genre. The video was successful, and later Profile called me about doing another one for Run-DMC, but the budget was cut in half. I said, “Why’s the budget so much smaller?” And somebody over there said, “Oh, well, they’re over.” I thought that was so callous. Profile was basically a distribution outlet for some British labels, and then they landed on Run-DMC who made that company. And then for them to say that, I thought, “Well this is a cutthroat business.”
BLACK & WHITE “FEEL THE VIBE”
I don’t know if I’m familiar with Black & White. Who were they?
This was before the L.A. riots and there was obviously a lot of trouble between the Bloods and the Crips. The gimmick with Black & White was that they were these two rappers, one guy was black, one guy was white, one guy was a Blood and one guy was a Crip, but here they are working together and making music. The song was called “Feel the Vibe.”
This all sounded very intriguing at the time, but they had zero money. We shot in a warehouse on the East River filled with pigeon shit. It was like meningitis everywhere. I think we could afford three lights. We had a couple standing lights and one Super Trouper, which I was going to use for an effect throughout the video. The plan was to use a macro lens on a camera and we were going to put some lyrics on a female body, but the macro lens would travel over her skin so close that it would look like a landscape; you’d never quite know it was a female body. That was the interstitial crap that would go in-between whatever else we could get with our three lights. I needed a woman to do this. A friend of mine named Ted Hope, who now runs Focus Features, had recently done a movie called Frankenhooker, and there was a porn star in it named Heather Hunter. Heather apparently wanted to go legit and Ted said I should talk to her. So I did, and she was into it. So Heather is in the make-up trailer getting these words put on her body. But the Super Trouper breaks. It won’t light, it won’t work and we can’t shoot anything. So we’re waiting around this shithole of a banana shipping warehouse with asbestos. Finally somebody gets the light working, so I go get Heather in the trailer in this enormous warehouse that for some reason is 200 yards away from where we’re going to shoot. And we’ve set up this private area where we’re going to shoot the scene so when we do shoot we can do a section of her body at a time and it can be very discreet and honorable. I tell Heather that we’re finally ready, and she says, “I’ve got to go. I’ve got to be on the Robin Byrd Show in half an hour.” I show her all these storyboards and all these different things we want to do, but she says, “I’ve got to go.” So I say, “We’ll put the camera on a bungee cord, but we’ll have to do it all at once and you’ll have to take all your clothes off.” She says fine, strips down in front of me, walks out of the trailer, walks naked across the warehouse in front of the crew, over to this area, and she lies down on this bed where we’re going to shoot her. And she was perfectly fine with it, she couldn’t have cared less. Everyone else was stunned and speechless.
Meanwhile, the black guy and the white guy from the group are flying out from L.A. to New York. When the rappers arrive, the black guy says that the white guy didn’t make it because his girlfriend didn’t want him to leave L.A. for the weekend. I didn’t know what we were going to do if we only had one of them. The manager, who was kind of a long-haired metal-head, goes, “I basically wrote half the song, I can do it.” We had no choice, so if you watch the video, the white guy was actually the manager, not the rapper.
We wound up getting the thing shot somehow and I go to edit it. There was this afterhours place called Rafik on Broadway in the Village where I could work from midnight until 6 A.M. for really cheap. Ironically, across the hall from me was where Robin Byrd would edit her show, so I’m in there one night trying to figure out how to cut around this manager who sucks, who has no performance in him. It was a weird coincidence that Robin Byrd had factored into the production and now was there during post-production. I think she got pissed at me because she thought I stole a chair from her editing suite.
DJ QUIK “JUS LYKE COMPTON”
Towards the end of your music video directing career you did a video for DJ Quik. What’s the story on that one?
This was the last video I ever did, for reasons that will become clear. I was doing a short film back in New York with my wife, who was my producer, and the next day I was supposed to do DJ Quik’s “Jus Lyke Compton.” The song tells the story about how when DJ Quik was on tour, these little riots broke out at various shows and how they were met with all this hostility. So we’re going to shoot five cities in three days. We were going to start in San Antonio and then fly to St. Louis—shoot something in the morning, shoot something in the afternoon. The next day we shoot in Denver and then go to Oakland. And then the third day we would go to L.A. It was a lot to do.
So anyway, my wife and I are doing this short film the day before I’m supposed to begin this process and we’re going to use a motorcycle I have. We have an accident on the West Side Highway, and my wife goes into shock and comes out of it okay, but I get dragged down the highway fifty feet. I have these contusions all over my legs, and I can’t really walk. I get off the airplane in San Antonio, they get me a wheelchair and we proceed to start shooting. We shoot whatever we shot in San Antonio and St. Louis, but by the time we get to Denver, I’m like, “I need to see a doctor.” So we go to a hospital, and they tell me not to fly because the change in altitude could give me an embolism. I keep going and I’m directing this thing in a wheelchair.
We get to L.A., and the L.A. riots had occurred one week earlier, and we’re supposed to shoot in Compton, but you can’t get a film permit to shoot in Compton at the time because there are sniper attacks going on. So I go, “What looks like Compton?” Somebody suggests East L.A. We go to East L.A., and we find this location that works pretty great for what we’re pretending is this club on a corner. After the L.A. riots, there was a truce between the Bloods and the Crips, but not between the Black gangs and the Latino gangs. So we go to East L.A. with a posse of wasted guys who are Black. We’re setting up for this nighttime shot and there are all these cars driving by at five miles per hour. If looks could kill, bullets would be flying. We’re setting up this shot and it’s a crane shot. The idea is this crane will come down from the top of this club and it will come to the door and you’ll see a bunch of guys get bumrushed out the door at gunpoint, because that’s the story the song tells. So I’m blocking the scene with DJ Quik and a couple of other guys, and DJ Quik goes, “No, that’s not how it happened. Everybody was packing.” I go, “But we’ve only got these two prop guns.” Then all of a sudden everyone pulls weapons out. So I’m standing on this corner with all of these East L.A. Latino dudes waiting for a spark and all these drunken gangsters pulling live weapons. We had two police officers with us for security and they just turn their backs and walk away. They were so fed up with the situation and the riots they couldn’t give shit. Luckily nothing happened.
On our fourth day of shooting, still in L.A., we go down to the L.A. River downtown by one of those bridges. It’s a daytime thing and all of sudden I heard a gunshot. We have the cops back with us and they say, “We’re shutting the production down.” They line everybody up—crew, cast, everybody. It turns out it was an M-80, and they want to know who set it off and if nobody owns up to it, they’re shutting it down. The reason they were so intense about this situation is that apparently a couple of weeks earlier there had been another production down on the same location and there had been a shoot-out scene where they fired blanks, but some kid hanging out down there fired back thinking it was actual gunfire and apparently killed the caterer. This is the story that I heard. So they stop us. DJ Quik says he [lit the M-80]. Maybe he was just taking responsibility for it, maybe he really did it, but in any case, at that point I said to myself, “I’m not going to do any more videos.”