What Happened to the Music Video Director? Rappers.
Way back when, before the onslaught of reality TV, The Box and Viacom’s networks flourished.
They offered nonstop music culture through iconic shows like MTV’s Total Request Live and B.E.T.’s 106 & Park. Videos weren’t just essential to the hip-hop culture, they were a culture in themselves, complete with grand budgets and well-documented creative processes.
Equally popular were the behind-the-scenes videos, where fans could watch the creative process, from planning to actual execution. They would see their favorite artist arrive on set, wait to be called upon, and subsequently stand in place on their mark, waiting. When those sound markers were clapped, cameras rolled and a voice rose above the rest to yell “Action!” Then they did what they were told.
In those fleeting moments, artists became followers instead of the cocky leaders we knew them to be. Rappers who claimed to be street suddenly seemed smaller, much shyer than their rap alter-egos. When viewers saw Hype Williams or Little X on episodes of Access Granted or Making the Video, they knew what time it was and who was calling the shots. (Of course, there were some exceptions: Puff Daddy, for instance, co-directed “Hypnotize” with Paul Hunter in 1997. But who would tell the CEO of Bad Boy Records “no” in the late ’90s?)
Then, times changed. Grandiose visuals with ostentatious sets, props, and technology became a thing of the past, especially as ratings and viewership for video shows declined. The recession hit at the same time that reality television stole the show, muscling out music videos on MTV. When YouTube launched, in 2005, it made it so that any artist could shoot, edit, and post a video and reach millions of people without the financial backing of a major label. Plus, after the recession hit and digital music tanked label profits, those budgets got much smaller; executives weren’t quite as ready to pay Williams’ million-dollar-plus video costs, especially for something that would just land on the internet.
Enter Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and accompanying musical short film Runaway. Although the script was written by Hype Williams, it was conceptualized and directed by Kanye West himself. This was the beginning of Renaissance Man Kanye, and redefined what it meant to be a hip-hop artist, more than just a rapper from the block. In the years following, it’s increasingly common to hear about a rapper having a role in the creative process, and even without the addition of a major-name director.
Former music directors F. Gary Gray, Chris Robinson and Marcus Nispel have gone on to do successful major films like Straight Outta Compton, ATL, and 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre reboot (and who could forget Williams’ cult classic Belly?), hip-hop artists with no formal training are right on their heels. Kendrick Lamar and longtime friend Dave Free, who is also Co-President of Top Dawg Entertainment, joined forces to become directorial super-group The Little Homies; they are the creatives behind Lamar’s critically-acclaimed “Alright,” video along with “i,” “B Don’t Kill My Vibe,” and “Poetic Justice.”
And Lamar’s not alone in his directorial pursuits: Young Thug co-directed “With That”; Chris Brown directed “Fine China” along with Sylvain White, “Love More”, and “Loyal.” Earlier this year, Chance the Rapper released Mr. Happy, a short film he directed with good friend and current hip-hop go-to director Colin Tilley. Even Master P is gearing up to direct his own biopic centering on his reign in hip-hop.