Fans know Kendrick Lamar as a rap star. People recognize Dave Free as the President of Top Dawg Entertainment. But what many don't know is that these longtime friends are also power players as music video directors. Together, they are The Little Homies.
Their work on "Alright" helped the video to receive four nods (including "Best Direction") at this year's MTV Video Music Awards. But before the duo became influential creatives, they were teenagers with dreams.
At 16, Dave met Kendrick, and the two bonded over love for hip-hop and "Martin." Eventually, those two things would become part of their growth. And together, they'd help build the TDE empire on stage and behind the scenes.
They're usually quite mysterious (and often silent) about their work as The Little Homies. Many people who love both of them aren't even aware of the duo's directorial triumphs. But in a rare interview, Dave Free opened up to MTV News about their history, challenges, successes and future goals.
Here's the story behind The Little Homies:
MTV: How did The Little Homies concept start?
Free: The first idea that sparked the concept of The Little Homies was probably a video I did back in the day with Kendrick. We put the concept together and then we brought in my guy Mike [O.G. Michael Mihail]. He helped us choreograph it together. I’m talking about “Ignorance Is Bliss.”
That was a turning point for Kendrick, when he identified with the sound that he wanted to go with. And visually, we were trying to match that as best as possible with the resources we had, which wasn’t much.
MTV: So, the beginning was "Ignorance Is Bliss," but that wasn’t actually billed as The Little Homies. So, when did The Little Homies start?
Free: The Little Homies actually came about one day when me and Kendrick were sitting down at the studio and one of our other videos came on. Everything is always a collaborative effort, so it would have so many names on there. And Kendrick was like, "Yo, we’re from Top Dawg Entertainment -- so let’s change the concept of what we do together and let’s make it a brand, something under the TDE umbrella. Why not be The Little Homies?” So, now, when you think of Little Homies, you can think of creatives. Right now, it’s just me and Kendrick, but that doesn’t mean it can’t involve other directors and other musical people.
MTV: Do you remember a time when you saw a video or a movie together that you were excited about or inspired by? Something that made you say, “One day, we’re gonna do something big”?
Free: We always watched a lot of movies in the studio, in the background, and we wouldn’t even have the sound on. I don’t want to contribute it to one in particular, but, you know what? I’ma give it to “Martin.” It’s not because of how the show was taped -- aesthetically, “Martin” was a studio audience type of show -- so, I would say it was the way they creatively set up that show. For him to have that limited amount of space…that stage was very small.
So, I can shoot some sh-t on a VHS camera and that doesn’t matter. But the concept of, what are you trying to get across? -- that’s what makes it more important. That’s probably one of the best shows ever made. If you look at the production value, that was a big show, but compared to the white shows, it didn’t get the super-super high production values. So, what he did with limited resources, that’s the concept we strive on. You don’t need a lot of money to make a really dope concept.
MTV: That takes me back to “Ignorance Is Bliss.” In that video, you’re basically in a car for a large part of that, a small space. I’m sure there wasn’t a huge budget for that video.
Free: No budget for that video! The most expensive thing that we paid for in that video was those jumpsuits. I used to work with my pops on the weekend. He had this floor cleaning company. So, I took the jumpsuits from his company. And I put [ScHoolboy] Q and Kendrick in them. And I think we had to buy some 40 ounce bottles and I had to pay the homie for gas for his car.
MTV: To go from that to where you are now is a big difference. What’s been the most challenging video for The Little Homies as you've progressed?
Free: “i” was probably the most challenging video. “i” is such a bright and positive song that every idea you want to come up with is like, “Happy day! Nice day! So happy! Always so happy!” So, we wanted to steer away from that to get people to understand, you have to have concepts that grab people to come back, like...I remember being young and I couldn’t wait to see a Michael Jackson video. I couldn’t wait.
So, that was the hardest video, but when it came to shooting -- working with [Alexandre Moors] was incredible. It was probably one of my favorite shooting experiences. I learned a lot on the set. Alex learned a lot too when it came to how we like to portray ourselves.
MTV: That was the most challenging as far as concepts. What was the most challenging to shoot?
Free: I would say “Poetic Justice.” It was shot in three cities over two months...I had to fly to Toronto to shoot. Me and Jerome D. flew to Toronto and shot with Drake up there. Then, we had to basically make New York seem like L.A. That was pretty difficult, but we were able to kind of pull it off.
And then, “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” was like a sh-t-show. It was set up correctly. Nothing wrong by that. But you know, when the sh-t happens in the day, unfortunate sh-t like timing and just ideas that didn’t work out during the day, we just had to make something out of it.
MTV: I didn’t know that any of “Poetic Justice” was shot in N.Y. So, you did a good job of disguising it. What part of it was shot in New York and why?
Free: Pretty much the whole video. I would say, all the scenes where Kendrick is on the ground and the car outside, with all the people…it was a few shots. When you see Dom Kennedy and L.A. people? All that was shot in Downtown L.A. But when you see Kendrick, that was shot in New York.
MTV: We went through the most challenging. Which one has been the most fulfilling?
Free: All of them have a certain moment. I would probably say there's something about “Ignorance Is Bliss.” It was our first idea. I always go back to that video to reference and watch our growth. When I look at it and I know Kendrick looks at it, it was a moment for us that we realized visually and musically we were on the right path. And Top Dawg was so supportive. He was just like, “Keep working. Keep grinding.” I can remember all that from that time period to how we got up to this point. That will probably always be my favorite.
MTV: Now, to the most recent one. "Alright" is nominated for multiple VMAs - what was your collective goal for the visual?
Free: We wrote the whole concept out. I know with Colin [Tilley], we got on his f--kin' nerves because we drill our ideas into the ground. Colin came with the heat and it was definitely a collaborative effort. It turned out to be an amazing piece. He put in that extra time, too. I could never knock anyone we've worked with.
We work with certain people for certain projects. It's very strategic. When it comes to executing and creating the ideas, we're not guys who say, "Do whatever." We're very much involved. There have been times where people have seen me pick up a camera and I'll start shooting sh-t myself because I want things done a certain way. We convey that message to anyone we work with, so they know that's what we expect. And to be honest, we've had nothing but positive outcomes.
MTV: What was your reaction when you heard about the VMA nods for "Alright?"
Free: There's no way you could not love that. I appreciate people appreciating us and I appreciate the VMAs. There's no way to not feel anything but happiness and joy for a moment like that. I was nominated [previously] for "Man Of The Year" video also, so I got to go and be in that environment and just see it.
I always tell people, I want to be the best and I want to win. But it's not so much about the awards. It's more about when we go to meet 12, 13 and 14-year-olds and they understand what we're trying to do. That is my reward, when you can talk to a child and learn something from a child, his perspective and get his ideas.
I think I did an interview with NPR once, but this is probably the first interview outside of that that I've ever done because it's not about what I have to say; it's about what I have to do.
MTV: You mentioned reaching the youth and you guys were just kids when you met as The Little Homies. Do you remember the first time you thought you could really do something outside of the music world?
Free: Yeah, after "Ignorance is Bliss." Well, to be real, before that, we shot a lot of stuff before that, too. We shot this video and it was the worst video ever and I don't want people to look it up [laughs] but we shot this video called "Compton [State of Mind]" in Compton and it was a remake of Jay Z and Alicia Keys' song ["Empire State of Mind"]. Just being able to do stuff by ourselves, you know? I'm editing on iMovie and sh-t. We had this terrible camera and we were just out there trying to get it.
I look at it now and I delete it, you know? I don't want to see it. But I appreciate it for where it got me up to this point now. I still look at it and remember that in that moment, I was geeked. I remember being hella young and being like, "Ah, sh-t. This is about to be tight." And it dropped and it was really the music, it wasn't the video, that made people love it.
MTV: When did you feel like you reached a level you were finally proud of?
Free: There are so many moments. It's almost like a capsule in time that I haven't been able to go back and write out my summary for. It's been like a melting pot over these years where we literally, every year, push ourselves to be greater, push ourselves to be better. The birth of that time period is the most influential time for me, when I turned 22-23. That's when I learned who I was and who I wanted to be. I didn't have to try to figure it out anymore. That was when I realized that I have to keep reinventing myself. I have to keep doing greater things.
I'm most proud of our work probably now, at this moment, because it's Kendrick's best body of material. And we were able to be right there to help create the landscape of the visuals for that material. Even for Jay Rock to put his ["90059"] video out...this moment right now, I know that I have the knowledge to execute these ideas and have enough experience to actually do it in a way that's cost efficient. I'm not just thinking about one side of the spectrum, which is the artistic side, I'm thinking about the business, too. I'm 120 percent confident in the work that I can do. And this concept has transitioned into our stage show [too]. Little Homies create all of the artists' stage content, from the BET performance to his "SNL" performance. That's The Little Homies, too.
MTV: You guys keep a mystique around The Little Homies. Why is that?
Free: We're just cool, calm, chill people. We're getting more to the point where we're gonna start writing concepts and working with other artists outside of TDE. It's not just the concept of videos. It's about visually how you should come out to the world, how you present yourself. To be honest, I've gotta sit down with [TDE CEO Anthony] Top Dawg [Tiffith] and figure out a way to build a brand.
We're working on so much other stuff, so much going on with the artists. This is really a hobby. It's something we love to do. It's something that I would do just to do it. So, it hasn't grown into a business yet. It's definitely going to get there: movies, film and everything else.
But right now, we have the goal of getting Jay Rock established, getting Isaiah [Rashad] and SZA out there grinding to get a strong team. So, we're getting into film. We're getting into more concepts and videos. We're doing more stuff across the board. You're gonna see more. You're definitely gonna see a lot more, especially from TDE artists.
MTV: You mentioned the rest of the roster. What else can we expect from TDE in 2015?
Free: It's all about being the best. I'm not settling for second place in this sh-t. Just know it ain't coming out unless it's tight. We have an opportunity to be where [Dr.] Dre is, if we do the right things. Look at what Dre's doing. We have an opportunity to get to that level if we take this seriously and stay on this grind, so everybody's on that mission. I've got a loaded clip right now with a lot of great music and a lot of visuals.
MTV: Is there anything else you wanted to add about The Little Homies?
Free: The Little Homies encompasses everybody. If you're tight, if you visually see it and if you're trying to change the world, if you're trying to reach the youth, you're a Little Homie.