Motion Family, Decatur Dan, and Phil the God lead rap's viral offensive
A new breed of Atlanta-based video directors mix creative vision with hustlers' ambition
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.
"Everything evolved," says Gucci's manager Coach K. "Back then, you had to go to a director, you had to rent these $100,000 cameras, you had to buy this film. Everything's microwave now; it's fast. So a kid can actually pick up a camera, 'cause it's HD, you don't even have to go to school. You can go online and teach yourself the classes. So it's really an independent world now."
Although Gucci Mane is signed to Asylum/Warner Bros., the song Figz shot a video for in three takes ("North Pole") appears on the free mixtape, Trap Back, that he's releasing independently on Superbowl Sunday. "All this shit is like marketing. Back in the day I came up under guerilla marketing, where we got out and put up posters and fliers. All that shit is dead now. Video, visuals, blogs — all blogs are is visuals," says Coach K.
Recognizing the constant need to feed the machine, this year Coach K started his company Original Content that will eventually house three recording studios and three editing suites located on Atlanta's Westside. He also plans to dive into film in 2012, motivated in part by the 30 percent tax credits the state of Georgia offers for films shot in state. He's taking filmmaking courses himself, and says Gucci Mane even penned three feature-length scripts, including two comedies, during his last jail stint.
Just as the city's filmmaking prospects have lured in creative talent, it's also kept Phil the God intrigued enough to stay put. Though the Philadelphia native, who moved here with his parents when he was still in high school, hasn't made deep forays into Atlanta's mixtape-laden trap scene, it was Coach K who gave him his first Canon 5D a few years ago. "I owe a lot of what I do now to him because if he hadn't given me that 5D I wouldn't have been able to practice and get busy," says Phil.
It paid off in early 2010, when Phil responded to a random tweet from Diggy Simmons' camp soliciting videographers to record the son of Rev. Run's first music video.
Phil developed his "whole run-and-gun thing," from the shoot in New York's Times Square "'cause we never had shot lists or camera choices or lighting," he says. "It was like, 'Does this look good?' 'Alright, let's shoot it.'"
Upon returning home to Atlanta, he immediately chopped up the footage and emailed Diggy's manager the edit. When Phil woke up the next morning, "that shit was everywhere," he says regarding Diggy's "Made You Look." An instant viral sensation that got airplay on BET, it became Diggy's legitimate break, the visual that made people stop rolling their eyes at the reality TV star and son of hip-hop royalty long enough to pay attention.
The majors courting Diggy suddenly multiplied "from two labels to like seven," confirms Diggy, who eventually signed with Atlantic. "That video definitely added on to people's awareness of me."
It also gave Phil's career a major bounce. Instead of moving to New York or Los Angeles, he simply hooked up with producers and business managers on both coasts who've helped him secure and execute major label projects, including 2011 visuals for industry vets Ghostface, Philly soul star Jill Scott, and a total of three videos for Common. For "Sweet," his first Common video, Phil flew to Haiti with no crew, no lights or setup, and ran through the streets shooting Common with his Canon in hand. "I'm so used to shooting with no budget. 'Cause you still got videos with huge budgets that still look like pooh-butt, so it's all in the creativity," he says. "You've gotta really have that shit."
The most expensive-looking music video Decatur Dan shot in 2011 was produced for a major label for less than $30,000 after being slashed in half from its original budget. The shoot for Future's "Magic," feat. T.I., lasted 12 hours and featured fancy crane shots on top of the renowned strip club Magic City as well as two nude models adorned in head-to-toe body paint; a fire-eating woman; an old-school Chevy doing fishtails in the parking lot; cameo appearances from Atlanta's hip-hop elite; and a reluctant star who almost blew the money shot on the rooftop.
The most compelling video he shot in 2011 was filmed for next to nothing. A narrative video for a song titled "World Goes Round" by a new mixtape artist named Trouble who'd never shot a visual before, the treatment (written in conjunction with Trouble's manager Derek Schklar) told his hard-knocks, ex-con story. His real family members were cast as themselves, and clean cinematography conveyed a sense of intimacy that all the money in the world couldn't have faked.
Point being: Money doesn't matter as much as vision and talent — but also that pure hustle is the new currency.
"Video shoots are wars," says Decatur Dan. "It's an all-out war."
At 25, Decatur Dan (née Daniel Hall) is almost a seasoned vet. He got his start as a self-taught photographer before he began shooting behind-the-scenes videos and studio sessions for producer/mixtape DJ Don Cannon, who eventually introduced him to Young Jeezy. He'd already branded his Decatur Dan moniker while working at Atlanta sneaker boutique Standard, where he photographed inventory for its blog, and as a club photographer, shooting Saturday night parties at MJQ for DJ Rob Wonder. After filming and editing an estimated 200 videos over the last two years for signed and unsigned Atlanta artists ranging from Jeezy (Def Jam) to Cyhi the Prynce (G.O.O.D. Music) to Alley Boy (Duct Tape), his ability to execute sterling vision on a dime has become his calling card.
"Decatur Dan's movement has been strong for a while," Future's cousin/mentor and legendary Dungeon Family co-founder Rico Wade commented at the "Magic" shoot. "He makes videos that look like the big-budget videos we used to get from labels."
It's a compliment Dan doesn't take lightly, considering the challenges he faces to pull them off. "There's really no one else who could've produced that video for that amount of money," he says, noting certain hookups he wrangled, like the location fee, due to his relationship with Magic City's general manager Lil Magic. "We cut corners where we could, and I've been blessed to be able to do that."
Though he's also started working with a production company based in L.A. that feeds him opportunities to secure work with major label artists, he reels in the majority of his projects on his own.
"There ain't some guy behind closed doors pulling all these strings and making stuff happen," says Dan, who counts Phil and Motion Family among his peers. "We pull our own strings — and it's not even about pulling strings. At the end of the day, demand is based on the quality of your product. So if you make dope stuff, people are gonna come."
One of the best rap videos released in the past 12 months, independent or otherwise, was for "Dreamin'," a sentimental song from Def Jam signee Big K.R.I.T.'s 2011 mixtape Return of 4eva. Directed by Motion Family trio Diwang Valdez, David KA, and Sebastian "C-Bass" Urrea, it offers a poignant portrayal of Mississippi native/Atlanta resident K.R.I.T. as a young, mop-pushing high school janitor, who dropped out to pursue his seemingly unattainable dream of rap stardom. In one scene, K.R.I.T. stands in a dark, empty school auditorium with the stage lights dead center while he spits raps into his broom handle.
"K.R.I.T.'s family members were watching that and one of his cousins started crying," says C-Bass, recalling early reaction to the video, which was shot at Atlanta's Grady High School.
"Yeah, we hadn't done anything that ever touched people like that. It was always the opposite," Valdez says with a laugh that conjures up talk of their now-classic 2009 documentary-style video for "Trap Goin' Ham" by Pill. Featuring an unsolicited cast of real-life crackhead zombies and corner store hustlers, it served up a nongentrified slice of Atlanta's Zone 6 in the raw. The video quickly made the rounds on hip-hop blogs before landing in the hallowed pages of the New York Times. The little-known rapper Pill had arrived in a major way, courtesy Motion Family.
But the too-real-for-TV video also sparked big-time backlash for exploiting tired cultural clichés. "I come from a school of rap where if you ain't pissing anybody off, you ain't telling the motherfuckin' truth," says Pill's manager Derek Schklar, who was eager to document Pill's environment on video.
But the controversy almost obscured an inportant fact: The convenience of having such a sophisticated handheld camera enabled Motion Family to capture the kind of inner city realism that typically was staged in gangsta rap videos of the past. "The camera's not as big, and you don't have to have a crew," says Motion Family's Valdez, "so people are a little more comfortable being themselves."
Forming tight bonds directly with artists has also served them well. Before Louisiana rapper Lil Boosie began serving his prison bid in 2010, he invited Motion Family to stay at his Baton Rouge home to film a documentary titled Last Dayz. When B.o.B. toured Asia last year, he brought KA along to record his video diaries along the way. And when the crew competed in last year's 48-Hour Film Project in Atlanta, they called on Pill to star in their romantic short, "Pretty Happy."
Despite directing career-defining videos for the likes of major artists T.I. ("I'm Flexin'"), Yelawolf ("Pop the Trunk"), and B.o.B ("Strange Clouds") — all of which garner regular play on MTV2 and BET — their independence has also made consistently securing bigger budget opportunities from labels a challenge. It's been a trial-and-error process for them, since they didn't come up the traditional way under an established director. "At first, we just didn't know," says KA, referring to the network of producers and reps most directors hire to garner label work. But now that they've "already worked to get to the level that most directors get a rep to get to," says KA, it makes less sense for them to sacrifice their independence.
As for Figz, well, he's content for the moment. After directing videos for a couple 1017 Brick Squad crew members, including Waka, his protégée Slim Dunkin (killed last December), and even Waka's little brother Kayo Redd, he can finally say he made one with the big dog, Gucci Mane.
Make that two.
By the time Gucci arrives at the second meet-up, Patchwerk Recording Studio, two hours after leaving the set of his "North Pole" shoot, Figz is already halfway done editing the first video on his MacBook. Eager to pick up some Final Cut Pro techniques, Coach K and several others in the studio watch as Figz chops up footage while head-bobbing to the music pumping out of his headphones. "We in school," Coach says with a laugh.
Gucci wastes no time selecting another track from Trap Back, and he and Figz get busy filming his 10th video of the month. The plan is to release a video for nearly every song on the mixtape.
"Gucci you shoot videos like niggas record songs," a member of his entourage says. By 1 a.m., they're done, and Gucci's ready to bounce to his next engagement, a party at a club on the east side.
Before Gucci and his crew head out, Figz thanks him for his time.
"Oh yeah," Gucci says, with a final thought. "We gonna do about 20 more of them muhfuckas."