Rik Cordero: Shoot 'Em Up
Cordero polished his "guerilla filmmaking" skills in true self-starter fashion. In 1999, armed with only a degree in graphic design and a passion for art, he formed Three21 Media, a non-traditional production company. His ability to create filet-mignon on a steak-and-cheese budget led to work with Beanie Sigel, Joell Ortiz, Joe Budden, and even former American Idol contestant Constantine Maroulis. The renegade auteur's breakout moment came in September 2007 when Def Jam representatives tapped him to film the trailer for Jay-Z's "Blue Magic" single. Cordero answered with an artful depiction of the shadowy path that "the product" travels from producer to consumer. The gritty trailer received J-Hova's approval and soon became Three21's most-watched, most-talked-about production.
Breaking from tradition is a necessity for a young director like Cordero. Weak album sales have caused record companies to be more conservative with video budgets. The days of spending nearly $3 million for Diddy to elude SWAT teams and massive explosions in "Victory" are all but finished. As he made preparations to shoot a video for rap duo Kidz in the Hall, HipHopDX spoke with Cordero about the changing industry and how his directorial style will fit in this new era.
HipHopDX: What exactly is guerilla filming?
Rik Cordero: It's pretty much shooting by any means necessary. That includes going out into the streets without [filming] permits or the usual stuff that filmmaking entails even no insurance sometimes. It's just using your environment and your resources to the best of your ability.
DX: Has that ever presented problems in the past?
RK: Not really. I think the way Three21 how we function we work well within our resources. Rather than try to throw money at the problems that always arise during a shoot, we come up with creative solutions to solve them. I think we've really learned how to work in pretty much any condition.
DX: Smif-n-Wessun's "Stomp" showed that the right lighting and camera techniques could make or break a video. Where did you get the idea for that style?
RK: The idea for that was pretty much the older '90s videos where it's just artists moving. It's a raw video where Smif-n-Wessun and Joell Ortiz are just attacking the song and spitting great verses. So it's like, "How do I complement this without being too typical?" The original idea was that we were going to shoot at some construction site. We tried to shoot it there, but they kicked us out, so we just found this location with a bunch of rocks and used it. Not really having a plan is what made that video. We found this weird location in Brooklyn and we kind of winged it. [Three21] actually ends up having to wing it a lot actually. We always have something planned and prepared, but it's good to be flexible.
DX: The "Blue Magic" trailer is your most known work. How did you land that opportunity?
RK: Last year I was running around the Def Jam offices networking and meeting everyone. The marketing department had this idea to come up with something different to announce Jay's return to music again. They told us that the album would be inspired by American Gangster and that was our only direction. They told us, "This is a scene where you see Frank Lucas' apartment and they're packaging drugs." That was it.
When I met Jay, he was like, "I see you're getting your name out there," which was kind of crazy because I had no idea he knew of anything else that I did. I don't know if he's on YouTube all the time. [Laughing] He could have just been being nice, but it was cool. I thought it was interesting that he gave the thumbs up to something that wasn't produced with a whole lot of money, but he gave it the thumbs up because it nailed the tone of American Gangster and the Reasonable Doubt era of Jay-Z that was more street. Having that first visual look for that album was huge for us.
Jay-Z - Blue Magic Trailer
DX: What's the response been like?
RK: It snowballed after that and still iswe're working with Duck Down Records now. They just signed Kidz in the Hall and we're actually shooting their video tomorrow. We worked closely with Consequence and a lot of the upcoming acts on Def Jam like Razah. We just did a shoot with Consequence and John Legend that's going to premiere on Valentine's Day. We also have the Pete Rock and Redman video coming out there we're going to shoot in two weeks.
Smiff-n-Wessun - Stomp
DX: When you're making a video, do you ever get the feeling that one job is I don't want to say more important, but maybe more meaningful than another?
RK: Sure. As an artist, you always want to be inspired by something. I think that my job is to really figure out what is the best picture for this music. Where do I find the inspiration? Is it from meeting the artist or the song itself? Maybe there's a storyline that we've never done before or just talking to an artist to see what inspired them to create the song might inspire me. It's not always just what's the budget or this artist is a major label artist. It's not those things that would be typical and obvious. For me, it's from inside. If I don't click with the song, automatically I try to find something to give me that motivation to do something original.
Beanie Sigle - Go Low
DX: How much does the artist influence the treatment you give the video?
RK: I always love to hear what the artist feels first about what they want to visualize. That's always a good thing because I can just adapt what I was thinking and come up with something new. Discovering something with the artist together usually makes a great video, especially when the artist brings more than half to the table. They have a certain vision and they know what the image is all aboutIn this day in age, you can't just show up and hope that something good is going to come out. They really have to know what the deal is. The ones that do know that I've worked with those are the videos that really stand out and are great experiences.
DX: Did that happen when you did Big Lou's "Crack Head" video?
RK: Absolutely. Big Lou brought everything to the table with the extras and locations. You know, it's such a sensitive topic for him because it's based on his real life. We had never met before that but he just kind of knew from my work before that that I would be sensitive to that and bring a sense of realism to his story. He provided all that stuff and it was just my job to meet him halfway to capture it.
Big Lou - Crack Head
DX: Right now, the buzz in Hollywood is about the Writers Guild of America strike and the union's belief that the Internet is going to drastically change the old entertainment model. What do you think about that argument?
RK: It's happening now. Writers and creators are sort of moving out of the network game and coming into the Internet for Internet-based shows. Think about it: the average person is on the Internet more than they are on television. It's just a matter of how do we drive the advertisers to understand that as well? That's sort of what gave us the idea to get our videos out directly to our audience because we weren't making the kind of videos that MTV and BET would air. I was deemed a music video director even though only two of my videos had network play, so the Internet is strong.
DX: With BET and MTV offering even less music programming hours, what do you say to the label executive who's trying to justify the expense of even shooting a video?
RK: It's low-risk, high-reward to shoot a video. The videos that we do aren't those budgets of $100,000 or $500,000 those budgets are dwindling. Labels don't even have that kind of money to play with anymore. The artist needs to have [video opportunities] on the Internet more than they do on the networks, especially if you're up-and-coming. How can you afford not to do a video? It's not that difficult.
Through our YouTube channel, our partnership with Cornerstone Promotions and relationships with bloggers, it's not like we just shoot it and that's it. It'll get out there through our grass-roots promotion and it's easy. Bottom line: would you want to do one video for X amount of dollars or would you like to do five of them for the same amount?
DX: Do you think we'll see more artists making web-focused videos?
RK: It's happening now, especially in Hip Hop. The phrase "Internet video" will be phased out by next year. We won't separate it from online or offline, it'll just be a video. That's what I want to see.
DX: What inspires you right now?
RK: The Wire is one show because it has incredible writing. It's like reading a book when you watch that show because there's always something important. I don't really watch too much television other than that. I'm definitely inspired by a lot of movies. I'm really inspired by Robert Rodriguez, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Jonze, and Michel Gondry. These are guys who kind of have that renegade attitude, meaning they're very resourceful and can shoot, write, direct, and edit. All of their movies seem very personal and that's what I want to bring to the table.
DX: The progression over the years has been to go from music video director to feature film director. It seems like you're heading down that path.
RK: Yeah, I'm in development for my next feature film called Inside a Change. It stars Jaime Hector, who plays Marlo on The Wire, and Al Thompson. We're set to shoot that in March and there's a lot of great music in that. Consequence is a part of that project and he's co-producing with me.
DX: The Sundance Film Festival just wrapped up. When can we expect to see Rik Cordero's name on a marquee in Utah?
RK: Hopefully next year if all goes correct. That's definitely the next step branching off into narrative filmmaking, feature filmmaking. It's difficult, but the rewards to being able to do something that challenging is why I do this.