When Kanye West started out as an artist, he had to fund his videos. Now, he simply walks into the office of Island/ Def Jam Chairman Antonio “L.A.” Reid and says he’s ready to open up a budget for over a million dollars, and he’s given the money, no questions asked.
And Def Jam had no problem bankrolling West’s “Stronger” clip — which is up for Video of the Year at Sunday’s VMAs (see “MTV VMA Race Is On: Justin Timberlake, Beyonce Lead Nominations” ) — even though West had no script, no storyboard and a very general concept.
“When we went to Def Jam for the money, it was like, ‘L.A. Reid, we need $1.2 million to shoot four videos. And the treatment for the first one [“Stronger”] is right here,’ ” Don C, one of West’s managers and confidants, said about the embryonic stages of the Hype Williams-directed “Stronger” clip.
“The treatment was just ‘Kanye and Hype in Japan,’ ” C added with a chuckle. “That was it. … Thank you very much. Let’s go shoot. We just went and did it. Kanye and Hype had the vision in their brains, but they didn’t have anything on paper. It wasn’t no storyboard. They just went out there and was like, ‘We’re going to get a bunch of footage.’ ”
If you follow Kanye’s career, you know he’s a stickler for detail at times, but with the legendary Williams as your lensman, he felt more at ease not having a stringent setup. So they began to roll cameras in April.
“Hype is so ill,” C said. “You get six days of Hype Williams footage in Japan, it’s just the editor’s job at that point. It was kinda like Kanye and Hype collectively coming up with the concept. Kanye has always been inspired by Japanese animation and follows a lot of Japanese directors. He was inspired by wanting to shoot in Japan, the whole setting of Graduation being in the future. He wanted to have a futuristic look with the neon lights and bikers in Japan.”
Williams and Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music family hit Tokyo with ideas for shots and a rough plan to film a video with a story line. The plot went like this: Kanye is part of a motorcycle gang in Japan. He goes into a bar, gets into a fight with some Japanese rivals and takes a vicious beatdown — so vicious the doctors have to rebuild him, kind of how Lee Major’s “Six Million Dollar Man” character was robotically enhanced.
R&B singer Cassie was a last-minute cast addition (see “Kanye West’s ‘Stronger’ Video: Japanese Motorcycle Gangs, Mad Scientists — And Cassie” ). The Bad Boy beauty was in Connecticut visiting family when she got the call to participate in the project. Cassie was so excited to work with West and Williams that she was on a plane the next day — despite not knowing what the video was about and never hearing the song. When she landed, the singer was put to work immediately.
“It was my first time working with Hype,” Cassie said. “I had no idea what was going on. They were shooting guerrilla-style in Tokyo. The first scene, I was on the stairs, the multicolored stairs. I was thinking, ‘This visual has to be crazy!’ They had me dancing like, ‘Go for it.’ It was insane. I didn’t talk to Kanye before I got there, so I had no idea what his new style was, his new vision, so I was taken aback. But it was cool. I like crazy and spontaneous. I don’t know where we were in Tokyo, but it looks like a Japanese version of [New York’s] Times Square. We were literally running in the middle of the street, filming when the lights were red.”
“It was very guerrilla,” Don C reiterated. “We didn’t have any permits. We had interpreters to talk to local people. The scene you see where a riot is going on — that’s an actual riot. It was some type of political figure that was in town, and the people didn’t like him and they started rioting outside the hotel [where] Hype was staying. Kanye was like, ‘Let’s go shoot it right now.’ We ran out, shot the riot scene. … We was riding around till, like, 4 in the morning scouting locations all throughout Tokyo and Yokohama.”
Back in the States, Kanye wanted a little bit more, so he abandoned the story line aspect of the video and decided to just make the clip with the hottest shots possible.
“The video went through so many different stages,” C said. “It was a story going on, but it didn’t fit. That’s when Kanye almost had a brain aneurysm, editing this video for three months. Literally, 10 weeks of editing going back in. Then he still was not satisfied, so he shot more footage in New York.
“Kanye and Hype both were going to have brain aneurysms working on this video,” C added. “They were trying to get this masterpiece out, and a few times out of frustration they were like, ‘We don’t know what more to do. We think it’s the hottest.’ But Kanye put everything else on halt. He was in the editing suite till 4 or 5 in the morning. He went way over budget editing, sitting in them expensive editing suites. He kept going — and not only kept going, but he wanted to shoot more footage.”
And if perfectionist Kanye hadn’t kept shooting, his fans might not have gotten an eyeful of the video’s other co-star: the Venetian-blind sunglasses.
“We were so far over budget, Hype couldn’t shoot no more,” Don C said. “So Kanye hired a local crew and he shot at [New York’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center]. The footage with him against the wall with the white glasses, now known as the ‘Stronger’ glasses, that was shot in New York. But the [director of photography] at this time wasn’t Hype’s DP, so the shots didn’t come out looking as ill as Hype’s shots. That’s why Kanye distorted the film so it would look like something on TV, like an old tube television with the lines and stuff. He knew it wasn’t going to match the Hype Williams footage. Then the special effects came in with robotic arms and glowing starbursts. The editors put all the magic that everybody shot together.”
There was also filming in Los Angeles with Daft Punk, whose “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” was sampled for Kanye’s hook. The two camps hit it off so well that they might work together in the future.
“It was crazy. The robots came out,” Don C said of Daft Punk’s signature getups. “That was one of the pickup shots in L.A. They happened to be out in L.A., so we had them come out to the shoot. The robots had to be in the video, ’cause that’s what it was. Then they was in Chicago for Lollapalooza, and we took them to the studio after the show to hear Graduation. They loved the album and the way Kanye is pushing the envelope for hip-hop, and they want to produce some songs with him.”
Kanye finally debuted “Stronger” in New York in June, and he was even editing until the last minute on the night of his unveiling party. The song recently went through more editing too. Despite being in heavy rotation and the #3 song on the Billboard Hot 100, Kanye wasn’t satisfied with how the record thumps in the club. So West recently went back in the studio and worked with Timbaland on a new drum track for the record.
Hype and Kanye collaborated on a video for Graduation‘s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” as well.
Go behind the scenes with other Video of the Year nominees:
» Rihanna’s ‘Painful’ ‘Umbrella’ Shoot Kept Her On Her Toes: VMA Lens Recap
» Amy Winehouse’s ‘Rehab’ Was Really Just A Decrepit London Building: VMA Lens Recap
» Justin Timberlake Went ‘Around’ And Came Out With A Broken Finger: VMA Lens Recap
» Justice’s ‘D.A.N.C.E.’ Is An Underdog, But ‘Maybe Kanye Will Jump Onstage Again': VMA Lens Recap » Beyonce’s ‘Irreplaceable’ Guy Had A Tough Time Getting Dumped: VMA Lens Recap
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