It’s a damn shame Pen + Pixel didn’t make videos
Rap videos suck now. They’ve sucked for a while, ever since the whole visual vocabulary of money-porn and chicks-dancing-mechanistically ossified and became the norm, ever since video-chicks became almost sort of famous for being video-chicks and everything became one endlessly repetitive static blur. Every once in a while, we’ll still get a great low-budget video like Crime Mob’s “Knuck If You Buck” or an endlessly strange one like Da Backwudz’ “I Don’t Like the Look of It.” But those are the exception, and they used to be the rule.
The two best rap videos of all time are 2pac’s “California Love” and Method Man’s “Bring the Pain,” both mid-90s videos with grainy film stocks and urgent fast-cuts and furious displays of rappers’ charisma. “California Love” has a big concept (the whole Mad Max thing), and “Bring the Pain” doesn’t, not really (it’s just some people on a bus), but they’re both grim and powerful displays of threatening star power. There was a lot of that going on in the mid-90s: dudes flashing guns and getting electrocuted and making angry, mean faces at the camera; it eventually became a cliche, though I never really got sick of it. But my favorite era for rap videos was the late 90s, when money really started flowing and people started showing off cars and diamonds really prominently but also pulling off goofy movie-parody concept shit and being unafraid to look ridiculous. It’s also the time when BET, possibly in response to the Box, started playing a whole lot of obscure regional stuff, especially Southern stuff, that never made it on the radio, and that’s a big part of the reason that No Limit and Cash Money blew up huge and eventually took the rest of the South with them. This period was also when I started college and had cable for the first time, and I used to schedule my classes so I wouldn’t miss Rap City. These things would only get played for about a month, and then they’d disappear forever except sometimes when BET runs an artist’s top 25 videos (Lil Wayne’s is great), but now we’ve got YouTube, and finally all this stuff is there for us to watch it all over again. Here are my five favorite videos from that time:
1. Juvenile: “Ha”
Mark Romanek’s video for Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” got enormous attention when it came out a couple of years ago, for Jay getting shot and for Vincent Gallo’s cameo and for a whole bunch of other reasons, but the main thing was that Romanek managed the trick, as Jay kept saying, of making the hood look like art. It’s a great video, but then rap video directors have been doing the same thing for years and years without getting anywhere near that level of attention for it. The Youngbloodz’ “Damn,” which came out around the same time as “99 Problems,” is a perfect example, but the best one of all time was Juvenile’s first national single, a gorgeous visual depiction of New Orleans housing projects in 1998. The images are strong enough to speak for themselves without a whole lot of context: kids jumping on dirty mattresses in the middle of the street, a dude with one leg on crutches, old ladies in church clothes, a pitbull sitting on the roof of an old Cadillac, ambulance lights. Through it all, Juvenile and the Cash Money dudes look young and rangy and hungry, four gold fronts, small diamond medallions over cheap T-shirts, rapping in slow-motion. Poetry. Honorable mention goes to the “Back That Azz Up” video, which has a similar naturalism but none of the bleak stuff, just dudes rapping in front of huge crowds and girls shaking asses. That thing the one girl does with her hips when the beat comes in still kills me every time.
2. DMX: “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem”
Another massively successful hood-as-art video, except DMX wasn’t introducing himself to the world with this one. He’d already done that; I think this was his third video, and he was already hugely popular. So he’d already invented his own mythology; he only had to solidify it, and this one did it absolutely. Here, X revels in his own menacing authority, rapping bare-chested in a jail yard with a whole mess of other bare-chested dudes, guys standing on top of fences and burned-out school buses, pitbulls snarling in slow-mo. And then there are the bikes, dudes pulling ridiculously dangerous stunts on rice-rockets and four-wheelers, doing donuts and going up staircases, rolling around in enormous packs. After this video, you couldn’t go anywhere in Baltimore without seeing thousands of kids riding around on bikes like that, which might’ve happened anyway but I don’t know. Another great DMX video is “What’s My Name,” a weird recreation of the Lenny Kravitz “Are You Gonna Go My Way” video, X standing in the middle of a circular room rapping with people surrounding him on balconies going up, with great urgent editing and more slow-mo pitbulls and the best Jay-Z cameo ever. Jay just stands there when X says his line about people who think they have figures as big as Jigga, staring defiantly at the camera, arms crossed, not saying anything because he doesn’t have to.
3. Cool Breeze feat. OutKast & Goodie Mob: “Watch for the Hook” (not on YouTube, WTF)
The greatest movie-parody video ever, all the Dungeon Family guys dressed like the characters from Reservoir Dogs, doing stuff that looked cool in the movie but absolutely amazing when cut down to three minutes and change. The group went to insane lengths to do this stuff without including guns or violence in the video, anything that would’ve kept MTV from playing it. So Andre 3000 plays the Tim Roth character, and the blood his shirt is soaked with is blue instead of red; he figures out later that a pen just exploded in his pocket. It’s funny, but it’s presented in this viscerally thrilling quick-cut form, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that the song is absolutely fierce too. Posse cuts almost always make for great videos. Another example:
4. LL Cool J feat. Method Man, Redman, & DMX: “4-3-2-1” (this one doesn’t have Canibus or Master P for some reason)
Every once in a while, LL used to remind everyone that he was still an amazing rapper, that he could still hang with the absolute hardest dudes out (see also: “I Shot Ya (Remix),” another great video). And so this video is on grainy, distressed film, and the camera shakes a lot, and the beat is all spare and ominous. But LL was an enormous star, and so he could do all this hard shit and still get goofy and theatrical. So we get funny costumes and set pieces. Method Man’s appearance is just stunning: he’s dressed as a mummy, his skin pale and his mouth dripping black stuff while a bunch of dudes in Scream masks stand behind him. Redman is dressed as the Mad Hatter. DMX is wearing a leather vest with goggles on his head, which looks futuristic-biker but might not actually be a costume at all now that I think about it. In the video’s original version, Canibus is dressed like a football player, and I think Master P is just standing outside a convenience store or something. And this was where LL decided Canibus had dissed him when he asked to borrow the mic on LL’s arm, so LL gives himself the last verse so he can bash Canibus (“your naive confidence gets crushed by my dominance!”), running all around the beat but still coming absolutely heated, standing in an alley and breaking a mic stand over his knee. Just awesome.
5. Three 6 Mafia: “Tear Da Club Up ’97”
Three 6 was just an obscure regional thing at this point, of course, and this video is about as grainy and low-budget as they come. But it still got heavy rotation on BET and turned them into something a lot bigger, and that’s because it’s a truly exhilarating work. All the Three 6 dudes look a bit funny: Lord Infamous in overalls, DJ Paul in a Michelin Man jacket, Gangsta Boo in leather pants. But when Infamous is rapping while crowd-surfing and wearing a lucha libre mask, when a bunch of bare-chested dudes mosh behind the rappers while a red light shines out on everything, it’s just bizarrely spooky. Even nine years later, after the group has won an Oscar and become a household name of sorts, this still looks fascinatingly alien. I should also mention the “Who Run It” video, where Juicy J raps while sitting on the hood of a jeep as it rolls down the highway in a shot that doesn’t look like a special effect.
Mobb Deep feat. Lil Kim: “Quiet Storm”
B.G. feat. Hot Boys & Big Tymers: “Bling Bling”
Jay-Z ft. UGK: “Big Pimpin'”
Big Tymers: “Get Your Roll On”
Ghostface Killah ft. U-God: “Cherchez La Ghost”
Redman: “I’ll Bee Dat”
Onyx ft. 50 Cent: “React”
This was all done off the top of my head, and I’m probably forgetting a lot of stuff, so remind me in the comments section and maybe I’ll do another one of these.