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Someone needs to compile a 10-minute YouTube retrospective of “lame white people” scenes in rap videos. Tell me you’re not watching this. Who among us wouldn’t benefit from revisiting, say, Dr. Dre’s “Keep Their Heads Ringin’,” in which a stuffy cadre of honky air-traffic controllers are at first befuddled but eventually seduced by Dr. Dre’s anthemic majesty, dancing in time-honored lame-white-people style as Chris Tucker literally steals a plane? The Iconz’ “Get Crunked Up” is similarly instructive; N.W.A.’s canon is basically a more sinister version of Reno 911! with better mustaches. It’s enough to make you pine for Yo! MTV Raps, for the halcyon days of Fab 5 Freddy.
Also pining for the halcyon days of Fab 5 Freddy: Fab 5 Freddy. The iconic star of stage, screen, and subway car stands on a lazy Monday afternoon in the library at New Design High School on the Lower East Side, teaching impressionable high schoolers how to make rap videos. He briefly summarizes his formidable résumé—Downtown 81, Wild Style, and most notably his Yo! hosting gig, effectively making him among the first public faces of hip-hop for thousands of miles of flyover country. Back in 1988. “Some of y’all wasn’t even born,” he notes. Most of y’all.
Fab 5 Freddy has directed around 70 music videos himself. He lists the basic types—the “performance video” is your standard stage/street/club setting, highlighting the rapper’s live show. But Freddy prefers the “concept video,” with actors, a narrative, a dramatic arc. This latter type, he notes ruefully, is rarer now. “Not many stories,” he says. He feels that Southern music’s influence has resulted in simpler records—”This Is Why I’m Hot,” “Throw Some D’s,” what have you. “A lot of chicks wearing not a lot of clothes.” Also, “cars with big rims.” His era had more of an “anything goes” feel, he concludes. “Videos were more creative when the music was more creative.”
The 30 or so kids nod. Freddy is here as part of Master Classes, a months-long program treating multiple high schools to arts-based instruction delivered by celebrities, at the behest of the nonprofit group Working Playground, along with the usual slate of corporate sponsors. All the kids wear black T-shirts with what looks like a gun sight on the back. Advertising Target, not Public Enemy. The library was packed earlier when all the students were consolidated—dance, theater, fashion, animation. Talib Kweli is now off in some other classroom holding forth on spoken word; Sway, a more recent MTV entity, is lecturing on, uh, cool hats or something. Michael Ealy, an actor from Sleeper Cell whom the girls seem to find particularly attractive, evokes the loudest shrieks; Law & Order: SVU‘s Mariska Hargitay (who at one point announces, “Mariska’s in the house!” for no apparent reason) joins Matthew Lillard in the acting class to much similar shrieking. Matthew is the event’s most popular celeb overall. Freddy and Talib have some pull, of course, but they don’t have shit on Scooby Doo.
That scrum now pared down to music-video enthusiasts, Freddy shows them his most famous directing clip—”One Love,” by Nas, appropriately enough an artist whose last record is titled
Hip Hop Is Dead and who berates people for not knowing who Big Daddy Kane is. Was. Is. “One Love” is a concept video, footage of Nas rapping semi-enthusiastically mixed with scenes that sketch out the song’s “letters to friends in prison” conceit. (When Nas raps “I hate it when your moms cries,” Freddy furnishes a shot of a woman crying.) It ends when one of the inmates’ girlfriends is accidently shot—a visualization, Freddy explains, of the line “Mistakes happen/So take heed/Never bust up in the crowd/Catch him solo/Make the right man bleed.” Other than Nas’s dreadful overalls, the clip has aged pretty well.
Freddy’s it-was-all-better-back-then rhetoric is pretty mild, and there is some truth to it, though the video for “This Is Why I’m Hot” is appalling because it’s boring, not because it’s particularly vapid. And he’s not so much angry at music-video culture today as he is jealous—prohibitively expensive equipment back then is Best Buy (sorry—Target) discount fare now, and YouTube is the great equalizer, where anyone can see and be seen without MTV’s approval.
“One Love” is available online, of course. And so is the latest project from our other marquee presenter today: Pharoahe Monch, who, like Nas, is a rapper prodigy from Queens. And just as Nas famously wrote from the perspective of a gun, Monch’s latest track—the video for which is banned from television, he notes (almost brags), but flourishing on YouTube—is told from the perspective of a bullet. “Gun Draws” is Monch’s directorial debut. He warns the kids that it’s “provocative” and that he “didn’t give in to what the rules say.” The clip takes a while—all right, two minutes—to warm up, opening with an awkwardly acted domestic violence scene that doesn’t make the
Law & Order cut. But once Monch himself shows up (wearing his dad’s police uniform, he notes), it regains its footing, mixing real JFK/John Lennon/Malcolm X/Biggie and Tupac footage to create a disturbing carnival-violence air, unnervingly goofy and deeply grim. It ends with news reports of the Sean Bell shooting.
“Gun Draws” is meant to stir up interest in Monch’s new album, Desire, due in May—the video seems to have been made with the intent of getting loudly booted off regular TV. (His label, he says, dug the clip and supports it, though not officially, of course. “They knew it would get attention,” he explains.) It won’t win any acting awards, but if Fab 5 Freddy wants more concept videos, there you have it.
It’s unclear what the Master Classes kids are supposed to learn from all this. They’ll meet regularly for five months or so, and at the end compile the poetry and songs they write into one video project. After Freddy and Monch’s presentations, they read their own poems, with titles like “American Dream” and “Passion Flower,” and then discuss images therein that’d make good video footage. Someone wonders whether you can take cameras on subways post-9/11. Freddy muses about how much film school used to cost, and how immediately and cheaply available all the equipment and knowledge are now. If the kids have an abiding interest in cars with rims and chicks wearing not a lot of clothes, they don’t mention it now.
And then the classes all merge again, and it’s time to shriek more for Scooby Doo. Freddy doesn’t seem too bothered, though. He silences the din briefly and thunders that for every superstar, there are 15 workers in the background—directors, producers, tech experts, worker bees. So learn to do it all. The perils of Southern hip-hop notwithstanding, he doesn’t seem too curmudgeonly about the future, so long as there’s a certain respect for the past. There are worse things to teach kids than nostalgia.