Director X Explains Why You Can’t Stop Watching Drake’s “Hotline Bling” Video
The Canadian music video legend on how an instant-classic came together, and the lineage of its look. “I’m definitely familiar with [Turrell’s] work, he’s a genius. But if you look back at what I do, this is my style.”
Director X knows how to make a hit. The Toronto-based visionary is responsible for crafting the videos for Usher's "Yeah!," R. Kelly's "Happy People," and all of Sean Paul's signature clips. The thread between these classics is dance and X's latest release, the video for Drake's "Hotline Bling," with its blend of color and movement, effusively celebrates that legacy.
Drake's long been a fan of Director X, a fellow native of Toronto with whom he previously collaborated on the videos for "Worst Behavior," "Started From The Bottom," and "HYFR."
On Wednesday, as he prepared to start a day of shooting on the latest Center Stage sequel in Los Angeles, Director X talked with The FADER about "Hotline Bling"'s success, its place in the history of X's work, and the importance of focusing attention on dance. Below, the director speaks about what Drake brings to a set, the most important lesson he learned from video titan Hype Williams, and why James Turrell is brilliant, but not solely responsible for all those perfect colors.
DIRECTOR X: Drake and I have a way of working, we know each other really well. It would be what you'd expect from the kid.
We shot [the "Hotline Bling" video] in Toronto. I just started a production company called Creative Soul. My longtime manager and I started it, as a part of a larger company called S8. We started up in May, so this is one of our early productions. It was a great little thing. Everything in house, from the effects to the editing, it all comes under the S8 umbrella.
I'm influenced from a lot of places. I'm a set-driven director. A lot of kids were noticing that this feels like the Sean Paul video [for "Gimme The Light,"] which was a light-driven piece. A lot of kids were saying it looks like this other Sean Paul video, "I'm Still In Love," which is another video I did, which is another set-driven, people in boxes kind of piece. I do understand why people would say that's Turrell's thing but this is my style best of all. I'm definitely familiar with the man's work, he's a genius. But if you look back at what I do, this is my style.
Maybe from my graphic design background I just have a graphic style. It's something Hype [Williams] told me when I was first getting into everything—at first I didn't get it, but he said, "A video should be about something." I was like, "What if it's a performance video, what if it's about them?" But then I understood—it could be about the light changing, it could be about the sets being arrows, it could be about sets being lit from the inside, it could be about whatever. It's a philosophy I've always kept and it works. [With "Hotline Bling"] you've got a very strong visual piece and that's what it is. We're not mixing it with street footage, we're not trying to do a different type of performance. This is what the performance is—it's these boxes, it's these walls, it's this thing.
I'm West Indian, I'm from Toronto, it's a very dancing kind of culture. If you go out and see me out, I'm probably boogieing around, I'm probably dancing with some girl because girls like dancing. I'm always a promoter of dance in music videos, so that hopefully [dancing in videos] will become dancing in public. It's really disappointing to me to go out and see all of the men just standing around, hoping that some girl with have fun with them. I'm always happy to see a guy dance. So as much as people laugh and joke and have a lot of fun with it, guess what? Even if Drake wasn't Drake and he was in a club dancing like that, he'd get a lot more attention and love than Mr. Bottle Service Guy who's just standing around. I don't know what the fuck they do with that. Drake is touring the world doing festivals every weekend, dancing.
Dancing is a big part of my culture, a big part of my work. It engages people. So I support the dance movement, all shapes and forms. Toronto is a big multicultural town—look at Drake's friends.
Drake's vibe and involvement [made the "Hotline Bling" video experience] a little different than your usual music video, where you're hired and it's: "Here's the gig and here's the thing we're doing." Drake is a part of it, he has an idea of what he wants. He wanted to do that whole dance number with Tanisha at the end.
That dance was a throwback for me and Tanisha, to Sean Paul's "Gimme The Light." Tanisha and I do the same dance and situation in those videos. This really does feel like a "Gimme the Light" for a new millennium, or the '10s. But this is definitely on a different level. I've seen some videos react, "Gimme The Light" was a real pice of culture. It was a music that was out of the spotlight for a while—it all really hit and people were excited when it happened. Even Kendrick Lamar, when I did "King Kunta," there was a noticeable online presence. I saw on my Twitter, I saw on my Instagram. I saw different people react to it, "This is crazy, this it's nuts. But it's fun!" Doing this video, that's the one thing Drake was like: "I want this to be fun." Fun, fun, fun. The buzzword was fun and there was full focus on this. And you've got to admit, it looks like fun.