As far back as the earliest music short films in the early 1900s to the mass broadcast premiere of “Video Killed the Radio Star” on MTV in 1981, the format of music video has left an indelible mark on the shape of popular culture for over a century. Arguably no other genre of music has been more thoroughly defined by music videos than hip-hop, a genre whose mass cultural breakthrough in the late ’70s runs parallel to the ascendant popularity of music videos as a mode of both commercial promotion and artistic expression.
For as long as there have been music videos, there have been music video directors. By extension, the history of hip-hop as a genre is as inextricably bound to the advent of commercial music videos as it is to the long-standing legacy of film itself. There are countless music video directors who have gone on to direct feature films, and vice versa; including the likes of Michel Gondry, Ridley Scott, David Lynch, Mary Lambert, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Jonathan Glazer, each of whom have created videos for artists such as The White Stripes, Roxy Music, Nine Inch Nails, Madonna, Radiohead, and Jamiroquai, respectively.
There are countless visual practitioners and music video directors whose work merits long-overdue recognition and appraisal. With that said, for this particular piece, we’re limiting the scope of our selections to (A) music videos featuring a song that falls approximately within the genre of hip-hop and (B) videos created by directors who at one point in their career have produced a work equivalent to that of a feature-length film (longer than 40 minutes).
Now that we’ve got the preliminaries out of the way, let’s get down to it!
“Gangsta’s Paradise” (1995) – Coolio
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Known for: Training Day (2001), The Equalizer (2014), The Magnificent Seven (2016)
In 2023, Antoine Fuqua’s name is synonymous with big-budget action thrillers, an artist known for his work on such movies as 2001’s Training Day and more recently the 2022 historical action drama Emancipation starring Will Smith. But back in 1995, Fuqua was just a 30-year-old up-and-comer from Pittsburgh who loved Akira Kurosawa and Caravaggio. After making a name for himself directing videos for the likes of Stevie Wonder and Prince, Fuqua got his shot at breaking into Hollywood when Jerry Bruckheimer offered him the opportunity to direct a music video for Coolio’s single “Gangsta’s Paradise,” which was intended to promote the Bruckheimer-produced Dangerous Minds.
“When I spoke to Bruckheimer, I wanted to move into movies,” Fuqua told the hip-hop news site SOHH in 2010. Fuqua asked if he could get the star of Dangerous Minds, Michelle Pfeiffer, to appear in his video alongside Coolio. Bruckheimer gave Fuqua her number, Pfeiffer accepted the offer, and the rest is history. The video featured Coolio being interrogated by Pfeiffer’s character LouAnne Johnson in the dark ransacked room of a tenement building, punctuated by scenes from the movie.
Coolio told Rolling Stone in 2015 he initially questioned Fuqua’s concept for the video, citing how different it was from what he had first imagined. “I wanted some low-riders and some shit in it; I was trying to take it ‘hood.’” Eventually however, Coolio relented and was pleased with the final version of the video. “Gangsta’s Paradise” would earn the award for Best Rap Video at the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards, and the success of “Gangsta’s Paradise” would open up even more doors for Fuqua’s career, with Bruckheimer eventually tapping him to direct the 2004 film King Arthur starring Clive Owen.
“Alright” (2015) – Kendrick Lamar
Directors: Colin Tilley, The Little Homies (Kendrick Lamar and Dave Free)
Known for: If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power (2021)
Kendrick Lamar released his third studio album, To Pimp a Butterfly, in 2015 to near unanimous critical acclaim, earning seven nominations at the 2016 Grammy Awards and winning the award for Best Rap Album of that year. The album’s fourth single, “Alright,” was elevated to the status of a generational anthem and rallying cry in the wake of several youth-led Black Lives Matter protests throughout 2015 and following the election of Donald Trump in 2016.
The music video for “Alright,” directed by Colin Tilley, was released on June 30, 2015. Shot in black and white and clocking in at just shy of seven minutes, the video opens on a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge as seen from a body of water and a swath of ominous clouds amassing in the distance. Following a minute-long montage of scenes of societal strife, the camera transitions to the video proper with scenes of Lamar floating through the streets of California, driving through an empty lot in a 1969 Chevy Camaro tossing money out of the passenger side window, and dancers performing in the streets throughout the city. It’s a video as raucous and defiant as it is eminently beautiful, emphasizing a message of solidarity and hope in a time rife with uncertainty and tumult.
“One day, I got a call from Dave Free, Kendrick’s manager. He was like, ‘Kendrick and I really want you to do this video,’” Tilley told MTV in 2015. “He was like, ‘We want to see what you can come up with. One thing we’re thinking about is we keep seeing this image of Kendrick floating.’ […] I just kind of took it from there and created this treatment revolving around Kendrick floating through the city.” Both Lamar and former TDE co-president Dave Free are credited as co-directors on the video under the name “The Little Homies.” The music video for “Alright” would go on to receive seven nominations at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards and win the award for Best Direction.
Honorable mention: “These Walls” (2015) – Kendrick Lamar
“Turn Down for What” (2013) – DJ Snake and Lil Jon
Directors: Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (“Daniels”)
Known for: Swiss Army Man (2016), Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)
Directing duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, known collectively as the Daniels, have been working together since 2007, producing videos for musical artists including Foster the People, The Shins, and Tenacious D. The pair are known for their outlandish concepts, raunchy humor, and strong emphasis on practical effects, all of which are evident in their 2014 breakout video for DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s EDM trap single “Turn Down for What.”
“It’s about a guy humping things until they explode,” Scheinert explained in a 2015 breakdown of the video. “It’s contagious, and [so] other people hump things and their genitals dance. Our moms weren’t happy [laughs].” Daniel Kwan himself stars in the video alongside actress Sunita Mani (Glow, Spirited), whom the pair first met while attending Emerson College and who would go on to appear in the duo’s 2022 sophomore film, Everything Everywhere All at Once. As of January 2023, the original video has amassed over 1,142,000,000 views on YouTube.
“Lose Control” (2005) – Missy Elliott
Director: Dave Meyers
Known for: Foolish (1999), The Hitcher (2007)
While Dave Meyers is a director best known for his commercial and music video work, having produced videos for artists like Outkast, No Doubt, SZA, and Taylor Swift, he’s also the director of two feature films: the 1999 comedy drama Foolish and the 2007 remake of the 1986 horror thriller The Hitcher. It’s difficult combing through Meyers’ body of work to highlight just one video, but his 2005 video for Missy Elliott’s “Lose Control” nonetheless stands out.
Set to the lead single off of Elliott’s sixth studio album, The Cookbook, the video features a variety of eccentric scenes, including an ensemble of performers clad in navy blue hoodies dancing against a black background to an elaborate sequence featuring Ciara, and an accompanying group of dancers in vintage attire performing an elaborate number that combines elaborate wire work à la 1988’s Beetlejuice with Lindy Hop-style dance choreography. The music video for “Lose Control” won the Grammy award for Best Short Form Music Video, while the song itself would become Elliott’s second-highest-charting single to date.
Honorable mention: “B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)” – Outkast
“Ms. Jackson” (2000) – Outkast
Director: F. Gary Gray
Known for: Friday (1995), Straight Outta Compton (2015), The Fate of the Furious (2017)
F. Gary Gray’s career as a film director is nearly entirely owed to his career as a music video director. Gray was hand-selected by Ice Cube, who had previously collaborated with Gray on the music video for his 1993 single “It Was a Good Day,” to direct the buddy comedy Friday in 1995 — Gray’s feature debut at the modest age of 26. Gray has gone on to not only direct 10 feature films since then, but music videos for artists including Queen Latifah, TLC, Whitney Houston, and Jay-Z.
Gray’s 2000 music video for Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson,” the second single off the duo’s fourth album Stankonia, follows André 3000 and Big Boi as they attempt to weather a torrential storm that threatens to tear their dilapidated farmhouse apart — all while under the watchful eye of the eponymous “Ms. Jackson.” The tone of the video is perfectly in sync with the song’s lyrics: Equal parts comical, sincere, caustic, and unflagging hopefulness in the face of life’s many hurdles and disappointments. The concluding shot of André 3000 and Big Boi smiling up at the sun shining through a gaping hole in the house’s ceiling as droplets of water trickle around them easily ranks as one of the most beautiful images in hip-hop history.
Honorable mention: “It Was a Good Day” – Ice Cube
“This Is America” (2018) – Childish Gambino
Director: Hiro Murai
Known for: Atlanta (2016-2022), Guava Island (2019), Station Eleven (2021-2022)
As far as contemporary music video directors go, Hiro Murai is his generation’s answer to Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. After graduating from the USC School of Cinematic Arts, Murai amassed a reputation for producing dark, cerebral, and eminently impressive music videos for artists like Earl Sweatshirt, Chet Faker, Flying Lotus, and Childish Gambino, the musical persona of multi-hyphenate actor-musician Donald Glover.
While Glover and Murai have since collaborated on several projects, including the 2013 short film Clapping for the Wrong Reasons, the 2016 original FX TV series Atlanta, and the 2019 musical film Guava Island co-starring Rihanna, I’d argue the peak of Murai’s ongoing creative partnership with Glover and his own subsequent breakthrough into mainstream recognition was his 2018 music video for Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.”
As Murai told IndieWire in 2018, “[I was inspired] by the idea of a dance video that took place in the last 20 minutes of [Darren Aronofsky’s] Mother! or in the world of [Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s] City of God.” The result is four minutes of pantomime-like surrealism that gives way to unbridled pandemonium, as Murai and DP Larkin Seiple’s camera follows a shirtless, unshaven, and visibly shaken Glover dancing alongside a group of African school children throughout a derelict warehouse gradually filling with rioters and cars. The scene is one of indiscriminate mayhem and violence, divorced of any discernible cause or reason. Glover’s performance has been compared to that of Jim Crow-like Pied Piper, exaggeratedly dancing to distract himself and others from horrors enveloping around them — though occasionally sneaking away to take part in the mayhem himself.
The video for “This Is America” has been analyzed to death, with the commonly accepted reading of the work being that it is a commentary on the ways in which Black culture, and Black pain, is commodified for mass consumption — more often than not at the expense of Black people themselves. The video can also be read as a work about the uneasy tension that exists in Black art as means of expression, catharsis, and tempering oneself from the everyday hostilities that come with living as a minority in America.
The video would go on to not only win the 10th place on Billboard’s list of the greatest music videos of the 21st century in 2018, but the award for Best Music Video at the 61st Grammy Awards. Murai has since gone on to directe episode of Patrick Somerville’s Station Eleven series, the dark comedy crime drama Barry, as well as produce videos for more artists like FKA Twigs and the legendary hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest.
Honorable mention: “Dis Generation” – A Tribe Called Quest
“Diamonds From Sierra Leone” (2005) – Kanye West
Director: Hype Williams
Known for: Belly (1998)
Hype Williams is one of the undisputed masters of the hip-hop music video. With a career spanning over three decades, the list of Williams’ clients and collaborators is a who’s who of hip-hop luminaries, featuring the likes of such musicians as Outkast, Wu-Tang Clan, Busta Rhymes, A Tribe Called Quest, Nas, and DMX, the latter two of whom would co-star in Williams’ sole feature film to date: the 1998 crime drama Belly.
Given the sheer breadth of his career, choosing just one music video to represent Williams’ contribution to the culture and visual language of hip-hop feels daunting, if not impossible. That said, if I were asked to choose only one Hype Williams music video for preservation in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, I would choose the 2005 music video for “Diamonds From Sierra Leone.”
Kanye West, who legally changed his name to Ye in late 2021, has always been a lightning rod for controversy. However, that fact has taken a significantly dark and precipitous turn as of late, with Ye having been banned from Twitter last December following a weekslong string of antisemitic comments, publicly severing ties with collaborators such as John Legend and Pusha T while appearing alongside white supremacists and alt-right commentators. Given this exceptionally dire turn of recent events, one has to ask: Why highlight this video by this artist?
The answer is neither simple nor easy. Kanye West is — was — one of the most influential musical artists of the 21st century, and the onetime vanguard of a significant aesthetic shift in the culture and history of hip-hop. In 2023, the music video for “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” stands as both a testament to that fact and bittersweet proof of just how far this once-in-a-generation talent has fallen not only from grace, but his own artistic apex.
Honorable mention: “California Love” – Tupac Shakur ft. Dr. Dre
“Without Me” (2002) – Eminem
Director: Joseph Kahn
Known for: Torque (2004), Detention (2011), Bodied (2017)
Joseph Kahn has been a music video director for over three decades, producing videos for artists as varied and diverse as Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, Backstreet Boys, Dr. Dre, and Eminem, for whom he would direct the Grammy Award-winning video “Without Me” in 2002. Created at the inarguable peak of Eminem’s breakthrough success, Kahn’s video is as boisterous, freewheeling, and gleefully uninhibited as the rapper’s own lyrics, referencing everything from the 1966 Batman series and Blade to Jerry Springer and the absurdity of reality television as a whole. Kahn would go on to produce three more music videos for Eminem between 2009 and 2011, and Eminem in turn would be a producer on Kahn’s 2017 battle rap comedy-drama Bodied starring Calum Worthy.
“Picasso Baby” (2013) — Jay-Z
Director: Mark Romanek
Known for: Static (1985), One Hour Photo (2002), Never Let Me Go (2010)
Mark Romanek’s work with Jay-Z dates as far back as 2004, when the One Hour Photo director created the music video for “99 Problems,” for which Romanek would win his first MTV Video Music Award for Best Director. The two have since collaborated several times, though nothing else the pair has produced together quite matches the conceptual audacity of the 2013 video for “Picasso Baby.” Clocking in at over 10 minutes, Picasso Baby: A Performance Art Film is exactly what the title describes: an experimental music video centered on Jay-Z performing live in an installation room in the Museum of Modern Art. Featuring appearances by Jim Jarmusch, Judd Apatow, Alan Cumming, and performance artist Marina Abramović, whose work and 2010 installation The Artist Is Present inspired the video, “Picasso Baby” represents nothing short of Jay-Z’s bid to to elevate the genre of hip-hop — and himself — to a cultural status equal to that of contemporary fine art.
Honorable mention: “99 Problems” – Jay-Z
“No Church in the Wild” (2012) — Jay-Z and Kanye West
Director: Romain Gavras
Known for: Our Day Will Come (2010), The World Is Yours (2018), Athena (2022)
Romain Gavras’ 2022 epic action drama Athena feels so indebted to the visuals of his 2012 music video for “No Church in the Wild” that it’s almost impossible to imagine the former even existing without the latter. Gavras’ video is perhaps one of the most striking examples of mass protest depicted in popular media produced in the last decade-plus. Employing over two hundred extras as police and rioters engaged in a bitter, prolonged battle through the smoke- and fire-laden streets of Prague, “No Church in the Wild” for better or worse encapsulates the modern aestheticization of civil unrest at a time in which said unrest is impossible to ignore or look away from.
Honorable mention: “Bad Girls” (2012) – M.I.A.
“Drop” (1995) – The Pharcyde
Director: Spike Jonze
Known for: Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), Her (2013)
No list of rap music videos created by film directors is complete without Spike Jonze. As the co-creator of MTV’s Jackass reality comedy franchise and the acclaimed director for such films as 1999’s Being John Malkovich and 2013’s Her, it’s not hyperbole to say Jonze’s music videos for artists like Beastie Boys, Chemical Brothers, and Daft Punk inspired an entire generation of young directors who followed him, shaping their aesthetic tastes and aspirations. Like Hype Williams, there’s just too many videos to choose only one “definitive” Spike Jonze music video, but his 1995 video for The Pharcyde’s “Drop” certainly ranks as one of his very best.
The video follows the group as they perform the eponymous track, but with a catch. Jonze’s video features footage of the group performing the song backward, with the footage itself played backward in the final version. The result is a music video that feels as surreal and extraordinary as the music itself, with the members of The Pharcyde by all appearances defying gravity like Neo in The Matrix as they parade through the streets of Los Angeles making mischief and magic in equal proportion. Hiro Murai cited Jonze’s video for “Drop” as one of his “essential” favorites in 2021, saying, “[I’m] pretty sure this is what made me want to direct music videos.”
Honorable mention: “Sabotage” (1994) – Beastie Boys
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