Sometimes it's a lyric, a random conversation or a movie that inspires the treatment for a video. For director X it was a laser ... and a beat.
"I just felt real strongly about the laser beams when I heard it," said X (formerly Little X) of his work on Usher's "Yeah!" video. "I can't even explain it. "Duh-dah, duh-dah," he sang, mimicking the song's insistent, grinding hook. "That sound just felt like laser beams to me and the fact that the beat was so distinctive and ... it's just laser beams, man."
Like a fellow Best Video nominee, the "Yeah!" clip was co-directed by the artist. D12's "My Band" was a joint effort between Philip G. Atwell and Eminem (see "Man-Breast-Hugging Dresses, Manly Groupies Make D12's 'My Band': VMA Lens Recap"), and "Yeah!" was the result of X's laser obsession melded with Usher's smooth dancing. And, like Em and his directing foil Atwell, X and Usher have a history of working well together.
"It was just a mix of his vision of how he wanted to be portrayed and the way I felt about lasers," said X, who also helmed the clips for Usher's "U Don't Have to Call" and "U Got It Bad." The "Yeah!" video mostly features Usher dancing in front of hundreds of blue and green laser beams, which shift, pulse and rotate to the song's mechanical beat. If the light show feels a bit familiar when paired with Usher's patented dance moves, X said there's a reason.
"I didn't think about it before, but when we were shooting it, that Michael Jackson video did come to mind," X said about the similarity between the look of "Yeah!" and Jackson's low-tech, laser-flashing "Rock With You" video. "But this is some new Michael Jackson sh--. That's not what we walked into it doing, but Michael Jackson is the best that's ever done it. And Usher is the new Michael Jackson."
X shot the video over two days in an empty art gallery in Los Angeles, which explains why the walls in the background are mostly bare. With 40 extras cast as dancers, the first job was to find the pair of love interests who tempt Usher on the dance floor, a process in which the singer was happily involved.
"Usher definitely wants to know who is walking onto that set," X said. "He went through the photos and made some phone calls." The woman who ended up with the gig as the first flirtation was Destiny, a dancer friend of the director. (The video's second temptress is " 'hood famous" model Melissa Ford, who makes out with Usher in a darkened hallway.)
While Destiny's Marilyn Monroe-like dress blowing up in the air was choreographed to match the lyric, "She had me feeling like she's ready to blow," when it came to Usher's dancing, it was all feeling. "Those dance moves are all in his head," X said. "He's our new king of pop, so you just let Usher do what he does."
The same went for the video's co-star, Lil Jon. "You just let Lil Jon be Lil Jon," X said of the high-energy rapper, who bounces in and out of the frame holding either a bottle of bubbly or his pimp cup and growling his signature taglines, "Okaaaay" and "Yeah!"
During most of the shoot, X revealed that Jon was helping to keep the party vibe going by acting like an assistant director, stomping around the set with a microphone and barking out orders. In addition to fellow A-Town star Ludacris, who also dropped in to film his vocal cameo, X roped in another fixture of many hip-hop clips, man-about-town Farnsworth Bentley. P. Diddy's former assistant was in L.A. during the shoot and X begged him to drop by for a quick dance through the scene while playing his violin. "If Farnsworth's in town, you gotta get him," X laughed.
Because it's Usher, the dance routines had to be on, but just in case, X brought some brand-new moves with him from Jamaica, where he had just wrapped a clip for Beenie Man.
"He takes direction well, but he definitely has his own ideas," X said of Usher. "He knew what he wanted for his wardrobe and how he was going to dance was in his head, but I brought some island stuff we do in the dancehalls." Among the steps X helped integrate into the group dance at the end of the clip — alongside the muscle and Usher's Atlanta-bred A-Town stomp — were the rockaway and the thunderclap.
In fact, X said he's particularly proud that the rockaway ended up inspiring Fat Joe and Terror Squad's hit "Lean Back," something he likes to call "the residual effect on popular culture from that little scene."