For D.C. Hip-Hop Crew’s Videos, A Director Steeped In Jonze And Gondry

By Joe Warminsky

yU and one of his passengers in "OneNine7-T-8."
yU and one of his passengers in "OneNine7-T-8."

At first glance, the videos for Diamond District’s “First Step” and The 1978ers’ “OneNine7-T-8” look pretty familiar, with their guerilla-style cinematography and serious-faced MCs rapping at the camera. But it quickly becomes obvious that the two D.C.-centric clips aren’t the usual YouTube hip-hop filler.

Much of the credit goes to up-and-coming director Jay Brown, who gave “First Step” a smart little narrative arc, with MCs Uptown XO and yU hopping through D.C. to share a hookah with bandmate Oddisee. The sequence feels thoroughly authentic. And the video for the 1978ers — yU’s duo with producer SlimKat — is mildly trippy and yet perfectly representative, with the rapper rhyming while piloting an eccentric cast of customers around D.C. in a pedicab.

“No one wants to take time to make a video right anymore,” Brown says about the current glut of visual hip-hop content. “They’re just like, ‘Oh, let’s just get this dude, give him a camera, get iMovie, slap something together.’ The quality of everything has taken a huge hit, in my opinion.”

It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Brown — a 27-year-old skateboarder and resident of Portland, Maine — finds inspiration in the genre-busting classics of Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. The director’s previous efforts include a paranoid video for “The End” by L’Orange that incorporates some of the self-aware tone in the work of his heroes.

“Going into anything, I always try to do something that I’m not sure how to do … to expand what I can do, and just make something cool,” he says.

Brown’s work with L’Orange led him more tightly into the fold at Mello Music Group, the label for both Diamond District and The 1978ers. He says he’s shot one more clip for each group, to be released later this year, and others could be on the way.*

I asked him to give the backstory for the first two videos. (Both songs, by the way, come from critically acclaimed albums: March On Washington and People Of Today.) Here’s what Brown said:

About “First Step” by Diamond District: “The goal of that one was to give an idea of each of the artists. Not necessarily just through the locations, but how it’s shot, how it’s edited … When you meet them, you realize they’re all homies and they vibe well with each other, but they’re so different than each other. Their styles are so different. And I think that was the goal — that’s why it seems a little bit like puzzle pieces, I guess. … We wanted to capture each one of their styles, and show off who they are as individuals, but have it all come together at the end, and show off how as a team, they’re amazing, but as individuals they’re equally amazing.” (Oddisee is indeed a hookah fanatic, Brown adds: “He’s the shisha king.”)

About “OneNine7-T-8” by the 1978ers: “[The pedicab idea] was all yU. That was the man himself. He used to operate a pedicab, so he had all the connections to make that happen, and I was game for it. I have a really good relationship with Mello at this point, so the concept development with all these videos is very healthy — between the artists, and myself and [the label]. But that was largely yU. … He was like, ‘Man, I used to drive a pedicab, and I’d love to shoot a video riding people around — riding SlimKat around — in that.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, that’d be dope.’ And from there it was like, ‘Well, the album’s called People Of Today, so why don’t we load it with all different kinds of people.’ … From there, it took on a life of its own.”

* When interviewed last week, Brown wouldn’t say when the new clips would drop. One of them — Diamond District’s “A Part Of It All” — came out today: