VMA Lens Recap: The Story Behind Nas’ ‘One Mic’

Director Chris Robinson tells the story behind a Best Video of the Year contender.

A few days after filming the video for “One Mic,” Nas promised the clip would be “nothing like what you’re seeing out there.”

“It’s gonna move you in a spiritual way,” the rapper said.

The video, one of six nominated for Best Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards on August 29 (click for the complete list of 2002 VMA Nominees), certainly lived up to his expectations, becoming one of the most emotional clips of the year.

“More than anything, this video makes you feel something,” said Chris Robinson, the veteran director who conceptualized the video with Nas. “I’ve gotten phone calls from people who were like, ‘That really touched me.’ I’ve done a whole lot of videos over the years, a lot I’m really proud of, and this is one of the ones that really touched people. And that felt good.”

From the beginning, there was something special about the “One Mic” video. When Robinson, who had always wanted to work with Nas, first heard the song, it triggered an idea he had been toying with for years.

Rather than write out and send in a treatment — the standard industry process — Robinson phoned the rapper with his pitch: film the video in South Africa and re-create the 1976 student uprising in Soweto.

“He said, ‘You want to deal with Soweto in my song? I’m from Queensbridge,’ ” Robinson recalled. Still, something attracted Nas to the concept. “For him to say, ‘I’m feeling this’ was taking a big chance.”

Nas injected some of his ideas and the two settled on a treatment that would also portray youth of today struggling with authority, along with footage of Nas rapping the track in a dismal room equipped with just, of course, one mic.

As it came closer to the shooting date, Robinson realized the difficulties of filming in South Africa.

“It was close to September 11, and things were still at a high alert,” Robinson said. “And he was on such a promotional tour and so busy at the time. So we ended up re-creating Africa in L.A.”

Robinson was determined, though, to make the video seem as though it was shot in Soweto. He employed an experienced art director “who did her homework” and closely studied the shantytowns.

After the video aired, Robinson was continually asked the same question: “How was Africa?”

“I was like, ‘Yo, those kids are from Compton who look African,’ ” Robinson said. “We went to Compton and hooked up with this baseball team. What was dope to me about it was it showed how everything came together. Sh–, we are Africans. We got different clothes and different ways of thinking and we’re Americanized, but we’re all the same.”

When the extras in the Soweto scene arrived on set, some were complaining of the clothes they had to wear. “And then before we did the shoot, I showed the kids a videotape of the actual kids in Soweto and the actual riot and said, ‘This is what you’re representing here,’ ” Robinson explained. “I think they really got an appreciation for it.”

Robinson and his crew spent weeks prepping for the riot shoot, but there was one thing out of their hands. In South Africa, the weather is hot and sunny, but on that particular day in Los Angeles, where the sun perpetually shines, it was raining.

Fortunately, the director’s concerns soon vanished. “Exactly the time it was time for us to go outside, the clouds parted,” Robinson said. “It was just meant to be.”

And their good fortune didn’t stop there.

“All kinds of cool things happened,” Robinson explained. “The guy who drops the Heineken, we cast somebody for that, but that guy just happened to be hanging out where we were shooting, so we replaced our actor with this guy, who was really, really from the street.”

The crew also lucked out with an experimental filming technique Robinson envisioned. Wanting to focus on the music behind “One Mic,” he instructed his director of photography to open and close the shutter to the beat of the song while filming the scenes with Nas. The results were particularly powerful in a haunting video such as “One Mic.”

“You don’t know what you are going to get until you get to the post [production],” Robinson said. “When things like that come together, it’s special.

“We were safe, though,” he added. “We did some without!”

The video was not entirely without a glitch, however. The key moment when the kid throws a rock directly at the camera was shot more than 10 times. “He had a bit of a curve on his throwing arm,” Robinson said.

Once he finally threw a straight one, the post-production team altered it with special effects to create the look of the rock coming into the lens — one of the clip’s most dazzling elements.

Just after the “One Mic” shoot, Nas explained the meaning of the song. ” ‘One Mic’ is how I’ve been feeling,” he said. ” ‘One Mic’ has been on my mind for a long time. I knew that people weren’t being for real and truthful from the heart with the music that was coming out. ‘One Mic’ represents my every emotion, everything that’s in my mind.”

It was a heavy track for Nas, who was coming off the controversial “Got Ur Self A …,” the first single from Stillmatic. Yet Robinson said the mood on the set was not as sober as one might expect.

“We had a good time. We were dealing with serious material, but we knew we were getting special stuff, so it just kept us excited.”

For a full-length feature on Nas, check out “Nas: Stillmatters.”

Catch all the sizzlin’, star-packed VMA action direct from Miami on August 28. MTV News’ preshow kicks things off at 6:00 p.m. ET/PT, followed by the big show at 8 p.m.

Vote for the Viewer’s Choice Award, see a timeline of MTV Video Music Awards history, and more at our VMA web site.

Check out red carpet highlights, backstage reports, and all our VMA news in the VMA News archive.