SpeechIsMyHammer x Rik Cordero (Pt. 1)

22 Dec


At its most expansive, hip-hop is a multimillion-dollar industry that consists of marketing budgets, costly recording equipment and luxurious homes, jewelry and cars. But without all of those things, hip-hop would still exist – in its purest form, all that’s necessary is a boombox (or a beatboxer, for that matter) and an emcee. Rik Cordero, a music video director based in New York City, is as boom-bap as it gets. He and his company, Three/21 Media, have established a reputation from using relatively limited resources to make compelling, narrative-based videos for the likes of everyone from Nas and The Roots to Ghostface Killah and Consequence. And the work keeps coming in – since this interview was done in September, the blogs have been burning with Cordero-directed offerings from Royce Da 5’9″ (“Shake This” – VIEW HERE), Busta Rhymes (“Arab Money”), Heltah Skeltah, Jadakiss, Q-Tip and others.

With such a prolific video director, we had a lot to talk about – so much that the interview will be published in two parts. Follow the jump for the first segment, in which SpeechIsMyHammer asks Rik about his penchant for the grandiose, and the stigmas that come with rap acts being his primary clientele. For Part 2 – in which Cordero talks about his feature films, why film school may not be as essential as you’d think, and what artists have proven as his best actors – CLICK HERE.

Is there any specific video or film that made you want to start doing this?
Yeah. It was a movie that came out in the 80’s called Alien, directed by James Cameron. It was the first movie that really influenced me as a kid, just the magic of film making and stuff. And in high school, I worked at a Blockbuster, and I feel like a lot of my movies, a lot of my educational inspiration came from watching the early 90’s independent films, like Pulp Fiction. You know, guys like Robert Rodriguez and [Steven] Soderbergh, those were the artists I was following back then. But I have to say my all time favorite movie is Aliens.

What about them influenced you so much?
Robert Rodriguez, he directed Sin City [and] Desperado. The thing with him is that he’s really independent, he writes, edits, scores his own release, and that’s like the ultimate creator to me, because he’s able to make movies really similar to videos on his own, with his own resources, and he’s able to do it at a reasonable price, so he’s not really wasting money for the studio. That’s the kind of thing we’re trying to do.

Soderbergh was doing a bunch of small movies that turned into big ones, like Traffic. Then, after Traffic came Ocean’s Eleven, you know, all these big movies. But the two are kind of similar, like when he did Traffic he shot it all himself, really run-and-gun, guerilla style. So those are the kind of things that I’m attracted to.

Now you’ve brought up Soderburgh’s guerilla style, and Aliya told me that you have a real guerilla style too. So tell me about that a little bit.
You know, I’ve been labeled as a gritty, guerilla director. Really, though, it’s working with the resources that you are allotted at any given time. So it’s going to be different for every audience. The videos are done with really fast turnaround; you only have the audience for a little amount of time. We don’t really set out to make a “guerilla video,” it’s just complications that come about from shifting the camera around and running around the streets. There’s another part of that, a story that we have to tell, and with that in mind, if it’s about capturing a certain emotion or doing a complex camera move, it’s in service to the story, not just to embrace a genre just to do it. It has to add to the tension, something about adding to the problem of the video. That’s how we make them; there’s a start and an ending, with a climax in the middle. And again, that’s why the videos that we do feel the way they do. We’ve put some thought into it, it’s always different, it’s always unpredictable.

…We’re kind of beating our own path with it. Really focusing on it as an art form, you know what I mean? It’s still a business, but it’s really an art form first. Every video allows you to have different ideas, try different things within the hip-hop video genre. You notice a lot of videos that are the same, concepts that are, you know, played on the networks. With the internet it’s cool, you have a little bit more freedom to do things, the artists have other videos that they want to explore, that aren’t just dance videos, it’s cool. We’re defining our own path.

One thing I’ve noticed about all of your videos, it’s not just that they’re cohesive from beginning to end, it seems like… for example, most of Michael Jackson’s videos were an event. And many of your videos, regardless of what they’re about, they all have a grandiose feel to them. That’s interesting in an industry, especially hip-hop wise, where music videos seem to be getting more and more expendable. How do you make such a short piece feel so grandiose? (Ketchums’ Note: Pause)

You’re right. Videos like “Thriller,” when I was a kid, I had the poster in my room and it scared me. That video was actually one of the most expensive videos, at the time, it was probably a thousand dollars, you know? [laughs] It was this whole big thing, and I think Mike Jackson got the idea from it from watching “American Wolf” in London, and that was directed by John Landis, who was like a feature film director. So it was like, a really big deal, with that director, and all this money, and the video really delivered.

I think, in a small way, we tried to do as much as we can for the [Nas] video, from the marketing aspect, putting posters online for the fans, and then giving a little bit of a story element to it. It may not be this huge, choreographed piece, but, you know, all the spectacle of it, there’s elements that are definitely narrative-based. And telling the story, and using visual metaphors, for a lot of the lyrics, rather than just showing what the artist is saying. You know, if an object is mentioned or named, we try to incorporate it into the storyline, rather than have it appear out of thin air, which feels contrived. You know when you watch a movie, and the plot moves because they introduce a contrived situation. Like in a horror film, when the character does something stupid, it doesn’t make any sense; but they do it to drive the plot along. To me, when you do that, you don’t respect the audience’s intelligence.

I think it’s really creating excitement, a buzz for the video, and delivering on that. Not just, “Hey, this is gonna be a big video;” but, “Hey, it’s big, but not more of the same”. Kind of making these videos unpredictable, that’s what the idea is. It’s weird, because we don’t have the same budget that we used to have, but we make the most out of it, we just try to do something different every time.

But it’s not just the promo-the actual videos themselves seem like events. For example, look at Jay-Z’s “Blue Magic” trailer, or Nas’ “Be A Nigger Too.” I know part of it was from the music, but that entire thing just felt really tense from beginning to end, I was waiting for something to happen. And I usually don’t feel that way about videos, I feel that way about movies. So how do you evoke so many emotions in such a short span of time?

It’s really a combination of a variety of things. It’s really being surrounded… my partner Nancy Mitchell is an actress, so she’s able to evoke a lot of emotions with a lot of these artists. And because she’s a female and I’m a male, we have a dynamic on-set. [That] makes a lot of the artists – you know, people who haven’t really acted before – …feel really comfortable. It’s not really delegating to them, and telling them, “OK, you’re in American Gangster, you’re gonna be this guard holding a gun,” you know? It’s really about being in the zone. A lot of those emotions you see, and a lot of what the characters are doing, you believe them. It’s not just someone who looks out of place. A lot of the people that we use in these videos are everyday people, they’re interns, people you could recognize. It blends into the storyline.

And that’s the whole idea if you’re capturing emotions, that the person is really capturing that emotion. If they’re not, that’s false, and you get thrown out of that feel that you described. If any part of the feel doesn’t feel right, it gets thrown out of the storyline. Those videos, they weren’t used to milk the artists…everyone knows the artists have to be on their game. They did their thing. And It’s not like one formula can create that, it’s like a variety of things. It’s my job to make sure everyone is comfortable, to create that environment where everyone is honest and truthful, and that’s the only way that those kinds of videos will sell, if it’s real and everyone is feeling that way. You don’t get that from yelling at people, or all the other shit that happens on-set.

Hip-Hop as a genre has gotten mixed responses concerning its versatility. Some people really believe it can be used to do a lot of things, and some people say, “I love it, but it’s rap: It is what it is”. With your obvious level of creativity, when you’re working within the hip-hop spectrum, does it ever feel like hip-hop is restricting you?

Like any genre, there’s always a Catch-22. When you throw yourself into your work, there’s a lot of being pigeonholed as just one kind of artist. “He’s just an underground director, he’s just a hip-hop director”, you know? They don’t really know my background at all, and the reason a lot of these videos feel the way they do is because my interests lie on that side of hip-hop. I bring that into the genre. But there is always that business aspect, that you’re always going to be “that hip-hop guy”. For a while I struggled with that, and I thought of making videos for like a statement, that might alienate the people that really support my work. And that’s really not what I wanted to do, like, “I’m gonna do a rock video, because I can’t stand you guys anymore”. That’s not really my intention, and if I do, I have to be feeling the artist. But when I was doing rock videos, before hip-hop, I would do a video, and everyone would be so iffy about it that they wouldn’t even put their band name on it, be associated with it. There’s definitely that type of prejudice, I don’t mean in terms of color or whatever, but if you’re not in the Indie Rock game, “I don’t want you to direct my video”. There’s a lot of that notion.
I get a lot of artists who want me to do their videos just because I did so-and-so’s video. Not necessarily because they liked it, but everyone’s just polling for attention. At my age, being around in the 90’s, being a DJ and knowing the progression of it, it feels good that I’m contributing something [to hip-hop]. I’m trying to contribute something to it, because I love it so much. I don’t want to exclude it for money. If I did, I’d make the same video over and over again, but I haven’t. Am I going to do mainstream videos? Probably, because I have to pay the bills.

Alright, so have there been any artists that you worked with-video wise, that it was just difficult to vibe with, and make something that you were both ok with?
Yeah. Not often, but yeah. I hate to name names [laughs]. But I will say that some artists that are not as open to doing a lot of wild, crazy ideas-they’re more concerned with getting the airtime on MTV or whatever. They want to do a conventional video, but not really; they’re open until it comes time to actually shooting it, and then they’re like, “No.” Sometimes there’ll be trailers with a hundred lights behind them flashing on and off, and they kind of have to be themselves, and it’s scary. And then you have the legendary guys like Nas and The Roots, or Snoop Dogg, who are so open and so supportive for someone like me to create. They open the door, and they give me the lane to do something unique. Some of it may come from having so much mired in the game, they’re just used to the excitement of it all. I think they want to see and try something different. And a lot of the stories I submit are storyline driven, and it’s more than just putting an artist into a story. On paper, you know, it sounds more interesting and feels more interesting that just a rapper rapping in front of the camera. Or like with the bands, how many ways can you show a guy singing passionately into a microphone? How many times can you do that? [laughs] I was more interested in putting the artist into a story, and there are so many stories to tell, it’s kind of cool for me to do that. It’s usually the guys who have had a long career, they’re easier to work with. And the guys who are still finding themselves, they’re a bit more difficult. It’s a learning process, you know? I’m still trying to figure out what this whole thing means, but having empathy, meaning having the ability to appreciate someone else’s suffering, is especially good to have and remember in high-pressure situations. It’s very disarming when your director is calm. I’m not afraid to express my creativity with an artist, especially if it’s someone I respect. It’s helpful if they trust me, and they’re not afraid to be themselves.


4 Responses to “SpeechIsMyHammer x Rik Cordero (Pt. 1)”

  1. Heinsain SwaggeR December 22, 2008 at 6:09 am #

    “how many ways can you show a guy singing passionately into a microphone?”

    i dunno, but this dude made a nice career from it lol


  1. SpeechIsMyHammer x Rik Cordero (Pt. 2) « Speech Is My Hammer… - December 24, 2008

    […] from SpeechIsMyHammer x Rik Cordero (Pt. 1) … In Pt. 2, Cordero talks about his feature films, why film school may not be as essential as […]

  2. Miscellaneous Ketch (2-7-09) « Speech Is My Hammer… - February 7, 2009

    […] get a chance to watch it myself. For more on Rik Cordero, check my interview with him on this site: CLICK HERE for Pt. 1, and CLICK HERE for Pt. […]

  3. Sunday Sentiments (8-16-09) « Speech Is My Hammer… - August 16, 2009

    […] it.” I’m super grateful for the people I’ve already interviewed: Rik Cordero (Part 1 │ Part 2), Amanda Diva (Part 1 │ Part 2), Smack!, the Rosenthal Brothers, and […]

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