Video Flow: Director X
An x-trospective on the acclaimed Canadian music video director's greatest hits
Starting at the bottom and becoming one of the world’s most prolific music video artists, Director X came up through the 1990’s hip-hop community in Toronto. Carving out a voice with his work for local luminaries Kardinal Offishall, Sean Paul and Nelly Furtado (and today, everyone from Kanye West to ZAYN), he became known for his high-energy music videos, all sporting intricate set design, commanding performances and a sense of comedic irony. Notably, all these signatures were reached in his infamously viral collaborations with Drake (“HYFR,” “Worst Behaviour,” “Hotline Bling”). This year, X directed his first feature film, Across the Line, about a black hockey player facing mounting racial tensions in North Preston, Nova Scotia.
Days after he won the Special Achievement Award at the 2016 Prism Prize, we spoke with Director X via Skype while he was simultaneously editing his new video for Drizzy. Hustle never sleeps. You can see the prolific director in conversation with TIFF Artistic Director Cameron Bailey at Canada's Top Ten Film Festival on Thursday, January 19th. Tickets are available here so you can see the north.
MAESTRO, “STICK TO YOUR VISION,” 1998
WHAT STATE WAS YOUR CAREER IN AT THAT POINT? AS A DIRECTOR, YOU WERE STILL GOING BY LITTLE X.
Oh yeah, in ’98, I was just getting started. Still bubbling. I think that was before I did a video for Redman. So, even for Maestro, me directing a video was recognition that I was a kid doing some things. When it comes to hip-hop, there’s respect and Maestro is an OG. Some people get more weight, you know?
THERE’S A LOT OF SHOTS OF BUILDINGS IN TORONTO, THE COMMUNITY. WHAT WERE YOU TRYING TO SAY?
I wanted to get the scope of this traveling wise man who has “seen so much.” The thing about Maestro is that even though he’s from Scarborough, you don’t associate him with Scarborough. He’s more about the city itself.
KORN, “COMING UNDONE,” 2006 Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/embed/CSJXle3LP_Q
HOW DID YOU END UP WORKING WITH KORN AFTER DOING SO MANY HIP-HOP AND R&B VIDEOS?
My record label and production company put it together. I remember at some point during the shoot, the bass player in Korn turned to me and said, “We’re hip-hop! We’re a hip-hop group!” Like adamantly, “We’re hip-hop!”, and I was like, “Oh, okay.”
THE VIDEO FEELS LIKE IT HAS A DIFFERENT ARTISTIC SENSIBILITY TO IT.
This video might be more me than a lot of my work. I’m a sci-fi guy. There’s a part of me that likes all those weird videos. I’d love to do a video where the artist is just floating in the middle of a fucking museum and crumbles to dust and out of the dust a fucking baby is born and then the baby disintegrates. That super weirdo artsy shit. But you can’t pitch that to Drake: “So you’re floating in an art gallery, and as you disintegrate, a baby comes out of your eyeball."
HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THE CONCEPT? THE SKY FALLING AND KORN UNRAVELING INTO RIBBONS?
It’s inspired by Chicken Little, remember when the sky falls and you see what’s behind it? I remember commenting on YouTube when the video first came out and people went nuts on me. They just lost their shit. “Chicken Little, what the fuck?” They didn’t believe that I was the director.
THE EDITING IS PERFECTLY DONE. IT REALLY MADE ME LOVE THE SONG. HOW DID YOU CONCEIVE THAT EDITING PATTERN?
Well if you cut directly on the beat, and I mean directly, turn on the sound and edit and go “Guck, guck, GUCK” on each musical hit, you’re subconsciously visualizing a beat for the audience. They don’t know what’s happening but visually, it’s happening… They can feel it.
AND WHY IS JONATHAN DAVIS WEARING A KILT AND GRILLS?
I mean, that’s Korn. That’s literally what he wanted to wear.
R. KELLY AND USHER, “SAME GIRL,” 2007
THIS IS SUCH A GREAT MUSIC VIDEO. DID R. KELLY APPROACH YOU WITH THE IDEA?
We did what he wanted on this one. A lot of times, R. Kelly puts his name on a video as a director and he would put his name before mine. He comes up with the idea.
WHAT WERE YOUR FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF HIS CONCEPT?
I loved it. It was great. Here’s the thing, if an artist comes up to you with an idea, even if you don’t like it, at least it’s their idea. Their fans like them and their thought process. I could think it sucks, I could think it’s crazy, I could think a bunch of things. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that this is what they like and their audience likes them.
As a director, I have an instinct that places me above everybody else. Everyone has a moment, but there’s also an override. I can override. In 20 years, I have never not been right when my instinct has told me to do something. Seriously, not once. So, the one person who can override me on a video shoot is the artist, the creator. That same instinct and rule I give myself, I give to them. It’s their video. So, if R. Kelly comes up to me and says, “I want to fart pigeons,” I’d be like, “Alright, we’ll tell effects to get some pigeons to shoot out of your ass.”
I LOVE HOW YOU FILM IT LIKE A CONVERSATION: PLAYING BASKETBALL, DRINKING BRANDY BY A FIREPLACE. HOW DID YOU DEVELOP THOSE SET-UPS?
Well, the song is a conversational song. And both of those guys are seasoned. So there’s not much you have to do to get R. Kelly and Usher to perform.
DO YOU THINK COMEDY WORKS IN HIP-HOP AND R&B VIDEOS?
If they’re funny people! I don’t think Game should ever do comedy. But Drake can do comedy, obviously. If it comes from them, that’s the important thing. Like Redman, he can do comedy. Kanye is funny. If you’re actually a funny guy, then comedy is something you should go for. But non-funny people trying to do funny things is not funny.
DRAKE, “HOTLING BLING,” 2015
SO, “HOTLINE BLING” IS OBVIOUSLY ONE OF THE BEST MUSIC VIDEOS OF ALL-TIME.
Of all time! Definitely.
WHERE DID THE JAMES TURRELL INFLUENCE COME FROM?
This is more my style. Turrell and I have a certain graphic sense. I design my sets, then I work with an art director to build or improve them. I allow freedom, but again, all those sets over the years, there’s a reason why there’s a consistency. It’s because they’re mine. So, whatever it is, Turrell and I have a similar aesthetic.
I have a book of sketches that I did. I showed them to my art director and he said, “I like this one, I like that one, I think that one’s really cool” and we decided out of those pages of sketches, which ones we were going to go with for the set.
I FEEL LIKE THE VIDEO FOR “HOTLINE BLING” WOULD HAVE KILLED ANY OTHER RAPPER’S CAREER. DRAKE IS SO ENDEARING IN IT.
What makes that video great is that he’s honestly being himself. It’s not like some man said, “Now you gotta dance!” He’s just doing what he’s doing. The more you’re just yourself, the more that you’re expressing yourself, the better.
And on top of that, dancing is the first language. Before we were speaking, we were moving, this is the deep primal, reptilian brain stuff. How many different animals dance during their mating calls? So, if you go out and dance, even if it’s a crappy dance, people will appreciate that you’re dancing. How many concerts have you been to where the lead singer just moving a little bit and the audience goes wild. “Ahh! He’s moving! He’s dancing! Kind of, sort of! He’s moving to the beat!” That’s the real takeaway with “Hotline Bling.” As a director, it’s about setting the stage and giving him a place to do it. This makes things memorable.
So you can debate, what’s more powerful: the dance or the setting of the dance? Maybe the sets in “Hotling Bling” are what made it palatable to the larger audience.
I FEEL WITH YOUR WORK WITH DRAKE, YOU’RE SUBVERTING THE CONVENTION OF THE HIP-HOP VIDEO. YOU’RE FILMING HIM AT A BAR MITZVAH, WORKING AT A SHOPPERS DRUG MART AND ALL OF THE SUDDEN, IT BECOMES A WAY TO GAIN ACCESS INTO DRAKE AND IDENTIFY YOURSELF THROUGH HIM.
Yeah, yeah! It comes down to what I said before: if that’s what they want to do, you do it. I remember earlier in my career, working with the record labels, I used to go, “Oh, (his or her) ideas are so corny!” Before you get a hit, all your ideas suck as an artist. Everyone knows better than you. Then you get a hit and everyone falls in line with what the fuck they’re told to do. I began to notice that whenever I didn’t do what the artist said, or fought it, it was a mistake. So I just applied my own format to them.
SO DRAKE’S THE ONE THAT’S SAYING,“I WANT TO BE RAPPING AT A BAR MITZVAH, I WANT TO BE IN A SHOPPERS DRUG MART…” WHAT A GENIUS.
Yeah! The first video I did with Drake that was actually my idea was “Hotline Bling.”
“WORK,” RIHANNA AND DRAKE, 2016
I WANT TO TALK ABOUT “WORK” AND THE MALE GAZE IN HIP-HOP AND R&B VIDEOS. BECAUSE I THINK IN RIHANNA’S VIDEO, SHE’S LOOKING AT HERSELF IN THE MIRROR, SHE’S GUIDING THE ACTION. YOU FEEL LIKE SHE’S DANCING IN THE REAL JERK TO GET OFF AND DRAKE IS ALMOST SECONDARY. YOUR VIDEO FOR CIARA’S “BODY PARTY” IS ALSO SUPER INTERESTING. HOW YOU FEEL ABOUT FEMALE SEXUAL AGENCY IN HIP-HOP AND R&B MUSIC VIDEOS?
It’s all context when it comes to women in hip-hop. Like your homegirl calling you “bitch” and some guy in the street calling you “bitch.” It’s the same word, but the context of who said it, why they said it and how they said it makes it two different things.
There’s a booty shot of some girl in a hip-hop video where the guy is rapping about a disrespectful, throwaway use of a woman. If you see a woman doing the exact same thing, it changes the context of the conversation, it changes what that means.
HOW DID THE ASS AND TWERKING SHOT BECOME SUCH A CONVENTION OF HIP-HOP VIDEOS?
I mean, let’s be clear, that whole, “Oh my goodness, the camera is on her ass!” thing, this is all puritan behaviour. Every time you get angry at a girl for wearing a bikini or dancing or doing something that you deem to be wrong, it’s all deep-rooted psychological bullshit that got in your head. That’s what tells you, you’re not supposed to dress that way, you’re not supposed to show that much skin because it makes the men horny and it’s your fault if they do – all that shit. Now you have a generation of women who are like, “Fuck you! I’m gonna dance. I like my body. I like dancing. I like feeling sexy. I like when people find me attractive.”
The stuff that I was fighting in the earlier days with the “video girl” controversy… At least ours is music that you can dance to. When you see girls dancing around in tiny clothes during a football game, society has said that’s OK, but with rap videos: “Oh my goodness, look at her!” On top of that, it’s ethnic bodies, black women’s bodies and mixed bodies that are a lot more curvaceous. It’s not my problem, or the woman’s problem, it’s your problem. You need to doublecheck your problem.
I GUESS, I’M CURIOUS: HOW DO YOU FILM AN ASS SHOT? SLOW-MOTION?
Always slow-motion. That’s not debatable. It’s a fact of life. Gravity, things smashing to the ground and ass shots are all always better in slow-motion. I love physics.
WHAT DID RIHANNA WANT TO CAPTURE IN YOUR “WORK” VIDEO?
Through the song, she wanted to capture that island feeling. In West Indian culture, grinding up on someone is not a scandalous thing. You do your dance. In Trinidadian carnivals, it doesn’t mean a boyfriend-girlfriend thing, it doesn’t mean I get your phone number, you can go on to the next person and just dance.
That’s the point I wanted to get across in that video. You see Rihanna in the background, she’s leaning against the bar and one of her friends is getting grinded on by some guy and her friend is like “Wooo!” And that’s a pretty serious piece of grinding going on. That’s not humping. That’s the culture. It’s just a dance. It’s just dancing, it doesn’t mean nothing more than that.
WHAT DID YOU THINK OF THE OTHER RIHANNA VIDEO FOR THE SAME SONG?
I thought it was genius actually, the fact that kids had a choice. One was completely X-rated and the other was not, except for some nipple, but then again, it’s like, “grow up.”
SEEING THE IMPACT OF A VIDEO LIKE KENDRICK LAMAR’S “ALRIGHT,” DO YOU THINK HIP-HOP VIDEOS NEED TO PUSH THE BOUNDARIES OF REPRESENTATION FOR BLACK AND URBAN CULTURE?
They will, regardless. There’s no need to intellectualize it. There’s just gotta be something that’s hot. That’s what gives music videos their power. There’s nothing deep about it, this is what’s hot right now and if you don’t know, now you know.