It's 8:40 on a Thursday night near Candler Road and I-20, and Gucci Mane is on his cell phone: "Ain't shit, just out here working, trying to get it hot," he says into the receiver. "You know I just got out so I'm trying to get it back like it was."
There are still 12 days left in January, and he's already shot eight videos this month. Wait, make that nine.
"Figz, we done?!" Gucci's manager Kevin "Coach K" Lee yells from the driver's seat of his white Hummer. He's talking to the director, 23-year-old Adrian "Figz!" Guardiola. Figz nods and walks over to explain what just happened.
Basically, they shot a music video in 40 minutes flat. It's a record for Figz, who's all smiles as he talks to Coach K, who never had a reason, or hardly time, to exit his Hummer — even as Figz shot a scene in the back seat while Gucci mouthed the words to his song "North Pole" bumping in the background. The lyrics make metaphorical wordplay out of dope and its likeness to all things wintry. Gucci plays Santa. Mrs. Claus is "on a pole with her panties off." Oh, and they live in an igloo full of snow. It's a funny number, if you dig that sort of thing.
Gucci asks Figz to see some of the footage and everybody, including Coach K, a few of Gucci's associates, and a rapper named Stickman who holds the honor of being the star of Figz's first video shoot some 40 million YouTube views ago, gathers around to watch the moving pictures glowing from the back of Figz's Canon. It feels like a campfire.
Suddenly a thought occurs to Gucci: "Y'all wanna shoot another video?"
"When?" Figz responds.
Like the archetypal hustler in mainstream rap known for slangin' dope boy narratives and mixtape manifestos, the latest wave of hip-hop video directors has applied the same DIY grind to music video production. Their toolkits consist of HD digital cameras (as in the Canon 5D), Final Cut Pro software, and MacBooks for editing on the go. Mostly self-taught photographers who became videographers, often with little-to-no traditional film schooling, these directors have gained industry prominence alongside the gaggle of unsigned blog rappers, independent hustler/MCs, label signees, and occasional vets whose music their videos market. Here in Atlanta, the best have succeeded in creating cinematic productions with hood integrity, often on the kind of budgets their predecessors would've laughed at. But independence has also made it harder for them to command their true value in a penny-pinching industry.
A scrappy, self-inventive bunch, some of the locally based standouts sport monikers as colorful as their rap counterparts: Phil the God, a self-styled conceptual artist and East Coast traditionalist; Motion Family, a cream-of-the-crop trio of gritty, documentary-style auteurs; Decatur Dan, whose narrative treatments evoke every bit of Southern rap's street aesthetic; and others on the come-up, such as Figz, who's penchant for complicated post-production editing techniques results in seizure-inducing works — a fitting complement to the music.
In a post-MTV world of ADHD sensory overload, where rap aficionados are conditioned to consume and regurgitate daily downloads at the speed of Wi-Fi, the videos they make are more than mere promotional tools; they're the new radio single. And directors aren't just visual artists, they're the talent developers now that major labels have mostly outsourced the A&R role.
"Because of the Internet, videos get so much attention that they can actually compete with the music," says Figz, a 23-year-old editor/director who made his foray into music videos by filming open mic rap nights at Marietta's Club Mariachi. Shortly after the premiere of his viral vid for Travis Porter's 2010 hit "Make It Rain," replete with nude stripper silhouettes, the song debuted on Billboard, cementing the group's deal with Jive Records. The G-rated video the label released three months later remains about 4 million YouTube views shy of the 7 million Figz's version garnered.
An unofficial gauge of a video's enduring infectiousness, online views are to videos as SoundScan numbers are to weekly sales. The Motion Family-directed video for Waka Flocka Flame's 2010 hit "No Hands," featuring Wale and Roscoe Dash, has amassed more than 45 million YouTube hits. Fueled by social media, such visuals spread in real time across a 24/7 digital landscape of content aggregating hip-hop blogs like the voyeuristic beast WorldStarHipHop.
Like any genre, rap has always been defined by its iconography. What would Bad Boy's late '90s reign be without the early work of director Hype Williams, who embossed hip-hop with a glossy sheen, courtesy Puff Daddy's predilection for shiny suits.
Williams remains a legend for raising the bar in rap video production, but also for directing some of the most expensive music videos in history, including 1999's $2.4 million Terminator-inspired joint "What's It Gonna Be" by Busta Rhymes and Janet Jackson. While Williams still churns out nearly a dozen high-profile videos per year (Spin's Christopher Weingarten calls his latest, Nicki Minaj's "Stupid Hoe," a "Technicolor MoMA explosion"), his pricey flicks of a decade ago have become the exception rather than the rule.
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