You might not be familiar with his name, but there’s a good chance you’ve watched one of Director X’s music videos before. Since he started in 1998, the Toronto-born and raised director (who goes by the James Bond villian-esque moniker Director X) has directed over 50 videos for some of the biggest names in Top 40 hip-hop, R&B, and pop music. Perhaps you’ve seen his clips for Nelly’s “Hot In Here“, Sean Paul’s “Temperature” or Rihanna’s “Pon De Replay“? Maybe “The New Work Out Plan” music video, with Kanye West playing an enthusiastic fitness instructor and a cameo from Anna Nicole Smith? His latest project however saw him working with a pop star of a different kind.
“One night the Biebs and I were playing a drinking game and I got really smashed and started talking…” begins X before trailing off into laughter. The director is sitting in the lobby of the Royal York Hotel, as part of a brief press junket for his upcoming appearance at the first annual Toronto International Music Summit, explaining how he got involved with Canada’s most famous teenage musical export. One thing lead to another, and after hearing the record at one of Def Jam Records’ offices (which he describes as being kept “under lock and key”), X was asked to direct the music video for the 18-year-old Canadian singer’s new single, “Boyfriend”. In case you haven’t seen the video, it features Bieber doing his best Usher impression, while drifting around in a sports car in a parking lot surrounded by a bevy of ladies and backup dancers. As of Friday, it had almost 28,000,000 views on YouTube. “We shot the video in L.A. in a parking garage and the paparazzi got into a parking garage on the other side,” says X, “The owner owned them both, so after we figured that out we were able to kick them off.”
There’s no question that the director has come a long way from answering phones while interning for iconic director Hype Williams in New York City. “Every single day there would be someone calling in and wanting to intern,” says X, “So I really had to deal with and acknowledge the fact that I was in a spot that was coveted.” From Williams, he learned the importance of being involved in the entire process of directing, from the casting to hair and makeup to cinematography. “Hype really knew all the departments,” explains X, “The crews respected him that much more because they knew he was someone that should be leading.” There’s no doubt that these experiences helped influence X’s decision to work mostly in the United States. Citing the population differences between Canada and the U.S, he says, “It’s simply a numbers game. Not only Canadians want to head over to the States, even people in places like London, there’s a lot of opportunity. The States is the place to be, that’s the major leagues, no matter how you cut it, the USA is the NBA. You might play ball in Italy but it just ain’t the same.”
He hasn’t forgotten his roots though. X’s family still lives in Toronto and he visits every so often. Occasionally he’ll be asked to direct a music video for a Canadian artist, such as Kardinal Offishall or Nelly Furtado, which he says is always a source of pride. Recently he directed his first video with Drake, for the rapper’s song “H.Y.F.R.“, which sees Aubrey Graham recreating his bar mitzvah in a Jewish synagogue in Miami. “He knew the concept was an attention-getter,” says X, “We built it from there, just making it a really fun video. At the same time it was one of those ones where we had to walk the line and be very respectful of the religion and the ceremony. There’s no part in the synagogue where they’re swearing. We respected that space and from then on, well, we got Lil Wayne at a bar mitzvah.”
For those attending the Toronto International Music Summit on May 26, you can expect to hear more stories from X’s experiences working in the industry, the biggest changes he’s seen as to how videos are produced, directed, and consumed, and his thoughts on the future of the medium. “It all just flows in a different way now. There’s a recession, the music industry doesn’t make as much money, budgets are dropped, digital has changed a lot of things, and then there’s a whole new world of great looking homemade videos,” says the director, “It’s incredible what you can do with a 5D camera.”
X feels that while the rules for making videos have changed since the days when they made up MTV and MuchMusic’s primary content, he still sees very few directors pushing the boundaries. Part of the reason for the lack of creative videos he states is due to the fact that major labels’ music video budgets typically only pay for a day’s worth of shooting. The director says it’s only artists not “strained by the big machine” that have the freedom to push the form artistically. “At the same time, then you see these crazy projects. Do you have see those videos that the kids do? Like a high school class and it’s all backwards and the entire high school has gotten involved,” he says, “We live in this age where one of those high schools, if they wanted to and had a really talented school of theatre students and audiovisual students could write, direct and distribute an Academy Award-winning movie.” And while he admits he has no plans of starting his own film school any time, X is optimistic about this new generation of directors.
“There’s all these unlocked doors, they may be closed, and I’m waiting to see which kids will test to see which doors are open.”
Max Mertens is a regular contributor to the Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter at @Max_Mertens.