Before there was Hype Williams, Little X and Benny Boom, there was Lionel C. Martin.
From 1987 to present, Martin’s videography reads like a scroll of all of the great talents of the past 25 years in urban and popular music. Martin is responsible for giving urban music videos life and authenticity at a time where Hip Hop and R&B desperately needed a pioneer to deliver a quality product for the world to see. Martin has produced videos for TLC, Stevie Wonder, R. Kelly, Public Enemy, Bell Biv Devoe, Big Daddy Kane, Jay-Z, Keith Sweat, Toni Braxton, Boyz II Men, SWV, En Vogue, MC Shan, Jodeci, Mariah Carey, Jill Scott, Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, Notorious B.I.G., Father MC, Hi-Five, Tupac, N’Sync, Backstreet Boys and many more.
Martin, a native of Queens, NY, was a trailblazing force in the 1980s when he helped launch the Video Music Box channel with his childhood friend, Ralph McDaniels in 1984. The Video Music Box channel was only seen in the Tri-State area at the time. The Tri-State area consists of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Martin was one of the first hosts on the show and his moniker was (The VidKid). The channel would play every Hip Hop video from the popular artists of the time period.
After its inaugural year, Martin devised an idea to expand the channel’s brand and this move helped to make the channel achieve legendary status. Martin alongside McDaniels made the decision to travel extensively through the emerging hip-hop scene to cover parties and shows to illustrate the influence that Hip Hop culture was having on New York City and the surrounding areas. It would prove to be pivotal in shaping the career path of Martin.
During this time, the Video Music Box channel was the only Hip Hop program in syndication on public television in the United States. It gave a voice and face to a culture that would begin to dominate the mainstream in the forthcoming years. Whilst working on the Video Music Box channel, Martin would see the types of videos that would come in from the artists and thought that the Hip Hop culture needed to have better representation for the art form. This is where his voyage of directing music videos begins.
Recently, SoulCulture sat down to talk with Martin about his contributions to urban music videos, behind the scene stories and the importance of maintaining pride in urban culture.
Martin recalled the story of how he was introduced into directing music videos.
“At the time, I was attending NYU doing some film stuff,” says Martin. “I was also working on a science program for kids for the Children’s Television Workshop known as the Sesame Street Company. So I knew a lot about film making, editing and all of the correct elements. I met this girl named Laura Corwin at the Film Tech Transfer in New York City. We began talking and she told me she was the one editing all of these Hip Hop videos we were getting and I was looking at her like, ‘Yea right, what are you talking about?’ but then she started naming Crash Crew, Grandmaster Flash and all of the Hip Hop acts that I liked. I was surprised they were being edited by this girl and she ended up being really cool.
“I told her I’d love to try to do some music videos and she told me that she knew someone that wasn’t really good and I looked like I could do a better job than this person. She turned me on to Marley Marl and they had an artist named Roxanne Shante and that was the first music video I ever directed. I went in cold, not knowing much about it, but that gave me the relationship with Tyrone Williams and the Cold Chillin’ Crew and that’s basically how I got started.”
The relationship with Tyrone Williams and the Cold Chillin’ Crew led to Martin helping Williams get signed to Warner Brothers Records due to the high quality of the videos he was producing for his acts. Martin also began working with some of Williams’ other acts, which included the legendary Biz Markie, MC Shan and Big Daddy Kane [pictured right].
Martin spoke on how seamless the transition was from being a video host to being behind the camera directing and his influences.
“It was one of those things where I was a part of the culture,” says Martin. “I would go to the clubs and all of the popular Hip Hop artists would be going to the same clubs with me as spectators. I was running into many artists who were about to do their thing and I consider myself very blessed because I didn’t look like an outsider looking in. I was part of the culture so it was an easy transition for me.
“A lot of my influence came from David Fincher. He was directing many of the rock videos back then and I admired his style. So I wanted Hip Hop and Soul videos to look like the videos that were on MTV like Aerosmith and Guns N’ Roses because they looked amazing so those were the kinds of things I was looking at in terms of direction.”
Martin became the first prominent black video director when the music industry was very segregated behind the scenes. As Martin rose to fame for his directing prowess, he encountered many all White crews and this was a revelation to him because the only people of color who would be on set would be cab drivers.
Martin also faced a strong racial bias by record executives wanting their artists to work with the typical White directors they’ve used before. Amongst all of these obstacles, Martin excogitated a strategy where he would become a trendsetter by building relationships with the artists instead of the labels and going against the status quo.
Martin describes the atmosphere of the music video industry in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“As far as black directors, Spike Lee was doing his thing and his movies were coming out, then you had the Hudlin Brothers and Rolondo Hudson that much I do remember,” says Martin. “In fact, when I got to the set it was all White. Not too many black people were doing behind the scenes work like cameras and lighting. I can tell you every time I arrived on set some White guy would come up to me and ask, ‘Hey, can you go grab me a cup of coffee? Can you get me a sandwich?’ I would tell them, ‘I can get a DA to do that, but I’m the director.’ They would be blown away by that and that’s how sad it was in the beginning.
“Back then, you had to always go through the record company to get a video. But the record companies only had one thing in mind and that was to go with the White directors who were friends with them and that’s how they wanted to do it. I had to bypass the labels and develop relationships with artists and their management and stay true to them. One of the things record companies wanted to do was once you directed the video they would say, ‘Give it to us first and we’ll make the corrections and tell you where to go?’ I was kind of like a rebel and I would always tell them, ‘No.’
“I always went back to the artists because they were the ones hiring me and that’s where my loyalty was. I would show them the cuts first and let them give their input. So by the time we went back to the record company, they really couldn’t do anything because what they were trying to do was sabotage. They wanted to make me do something that wasn’t good looking and then it would make it easier for them to convince the artist to go with one of their guys and not use me.”
Martin’s groundbreaking concepts and directing techniques were borne out of necessity due to the limited budgets for videos that Hip Hop and R&B acts were given during the time period. This forced Martin to become resourceful and creative with the technology he had at his disposal and it also led to the formation of his company called Filmmakers With Attitude. FWA gave birth to the career of Hype Williams who acted as the art director for Martin. Choreographers Darren Henson and Fatima Robinson also came from Martin’s in-house staple of talent. Martin always felt the need to reach back and help the young, up and coming talent, particularly people of color because of the lack of their representation in the industry.
Martin mentions how he revolutionized video direction and the methods he used.
“Hip Hop artists received the lowest budgets for videos,” says Martin. “The rock guys got the big money. Our budget was $30,000 to $40,000 tops so it always put me at a disadvantage, but what it did that I think helped my career was it made me smart and creative and made me think of different ways to make the visuals as strong as possible.
“When we did the Public Enemy videos, the reason I came up with that low angle, which we called the street level in those early rap videos was due to the fact we didn’t have enough money to have cartonis. A cartoni is a type of low head that you can use to get low angle shots. We used to put the camera in a sandbag because we didn’t have any money.
“Well, people saw that look and said it was pretty cool. Then, the White directors and camera people who did it after me had the proper equipment to do the shots not knowing that I did it out of being creative and having to come up with a different way of doing things. We only had a certain amount of hours to shoot a whole bunch of scenes so it forced me to become creative and resourceful.”
He continues, “I had to be resourceful with the amount of film I had as well. It forced me to try different looks with the film so I would take a scene and do something completely different to it just to make it look extraordinary because the whole thing from my perspective was the projection value. I was the one who came up with the black and white and you keep the blue in the shot, which a lot of the rock directors started to use later, but the reason I came up with that is because we had a limited amount of film.”
Being a student on the history of film and his tireless work ethic gave Martin a distinct advantage when putting together ideas for certain videos for different artists. He also gave credit the artists he worked with over the years and how working with them made his job much easier.
“I approached every video like a film and I did my homework,” says Martin. “Every music video that I’ve ever done, we had serious scouts and a lot of preparation. I learned this from studying Alfred Hitchcock. He was a person who did a lot of his research beforehand so when it came to shooting a movie it was like nothing to him and I tried to have that same approach.
“The other thing I thought that worked to my advantage was working with Hip Hop artists. See, Hip Hop artists and Soul artists are natural born actors. Part of the whole Hip Hop expression to me is you have to be very visual when you deliver the rhyme. It was easy for me to take from them and give them movie scenes to use for their videos.
“Another thing that worked to my advantage was the ability to make these Hip Hop artists bigger than life and that’s what they wanted to be anyway. They wanted to do movies and TV and the only way they could get close to that was doing a music video. The perfect is example is Will Smith. If he doesn’t do the video for “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” there isn’t a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air TV show.”
Over the past 25 years, Martin has worked with a plethora of artists and has directed some iconic videos for urban and pop music, but it’s the videos that have a social message attached to them that he holds in the highest regard. There is one video that has stood out from the rest – “Dear Mama” by Tupac. The story behind the video is what makes it so special to him.
“Interscope Records approached me and said, ‘Tupac had seen some of the stuff you’ve done and he wants you to direct his ‘Dear Mama’ video,'” says Martin. “I told them I wanted to speak to him because I thought it was important to get a vibe for what he wanted in the video. I was a big fan and respected him so I wanted to make sure everything was correct and I didn’t want to make the mistake of having the label tell me what to do and not be true to the artist.
“He spoke with me on the phone and told me he had some ideas, but really wanted me to just run with it and do what I wanted to do. He told me that it was important that it be about mothers and respect toward women. He also told me that he wanted me to meet his mother. I was excited because of the whole Black Panther Party movement and I was a fan of hers as well. I ended up going upstate to visit him and that was a surreal experience.
“I saw him in jail and I met his mother and she was really cool. She gave me all of these pictures of him and broke down the whole growing up process for him and a lot of that stuff I used in the video. Then I told her my concept on how I planned on shooting the video and I told her I wanted her to be in it. I couldn’t even imagine the video without her being in it. We just started shooting it and what came out of it was something magical. Ironically enough when I did get the chance to work with him, it ended up being his last video before his death.”
Among all of the people Martin has worked closely with over the years, Michael Bivins of New Edition and Bell Biv Devoe fame stands out the most. Martin and Bivins had a great working relationship, which led to Martin directing his first R&B video for Bell Biv Devoe in 1990.
rom his relationship with Bivins, he was able to direct videos for Boyz II Men, Jodeci, Another Bad Creation and many more. These experiences proved invaluable because he became the most sought after director in urban and popular music for many years expanding through the late ’80s into the 2000s.
His reputation for being a legendary music video director set the stage for his next move. Martin was given an opportunity from another childhood acquaintance, Russell Simmons to direct full length feature film. In 1997, he began to develop the movie, “How to Be a Player,” which featured Bill Bellamy [pictured above], Elise Neal, Mari Morrow, Bernie Mac among others. This would be Martin’s first time directing a movie and it proved be another success for him. He notes that his experience as a video director made the transition to movie directing almost flawless. The movie is now known as a cult classic. In 2000, he directed his second feature film entitled, LongShot, which featured Britney Spears, N’Sync and the Backstreet Boys.
Martin realized the global power of video during a screening for LongShot in London when he visited in 2000.
“We had a premier screening for the movie in London and they flew me out to London, which was cool because I was actually born in London,” says Martin. “I remember we were in the screening place with all of these young kids and the credits came up when the movie started and it said directed by Lionel C. Martin. The kids started losing their minds by clapping and yelling and stuff. I was really taken aback by it and I said to a guy, ‘Do they really know me over here?’ And he said, ‘Yea, they know you from all of the music videos.’
“I realized then that MTV Europe was playing all of these Hip Hop videos that had my name on it. So I was a little bit of celebrity out there myself and that was the first time where I realized the global power of video.”
Martin feels the directors of today are lacking in the overall quality of their work and cites the difference between a good and a great director.
“You try not to hate on them because there are some current directors that are talented like F. Gary Gray and the Hughes Brothers,” says Martin. “These are the cats that came after me and their work speaks for itself. I’m also really proud of Hype because I think he showed the classic concepts of making a real music video. But in general, most of the directors that have come after me are garbage. I think there isn’t much creativity put into the videos and I think they’re just glorified directors meaning they have the director’s name, but their cameraman and his crew are really the ones doing all of the work.
“It’s bad because it gives people like me a bad name. It makes artists think there’s nothing to it. But the problem is the same when the artist directs their video. They’re doing the same things the glorified directors are doing. I feel that’s a major problem with music videos today. When you look at them you can tell nothing was put into them. It’s becoming so boring that I don’t even watch the stuff. It’s intolerable and unfortunately it’s the urban music videos. Imagine if the same amount of money was spent on R&B videos that are spent on Hip Hop videos today.”
“I think a great director pays attention to the music and listens to it,” says Martin. “I don’t think that happens much anymore. I remember the record companies would send me the songs and I would play them over and over again, then I would look at the artist to see what I had to work with. I don’t think the new directors look at their artist and study what he/she has. I think what a great director does is he is able to look at his artist and bring the best out of them and not just put something together. You have to study what you really have and move forward.”
Currently, Martin has just completed a short film entitled Mixed Nuts and he’s working on a Sci-Fi TV Series called Pawn Shop, which is an urban version of The Twilight Zone. The other side project he’s in the process of starting is a compilation DVD series of his earlier music video work. The DVD series will showcase his videography to a new generation who may not know about it.
“One of the things I’m proud of is that I never did a video for a Jodeci that looked like a Boyz II Men video,” says Martin. “I made sure that every artist I’ve ever worked with had their own unique identity, which I think is what everyone respected me for.”