Flava in Ya Eyes: A Hype fixation on Hype Williams & Afrofuturistic Visuals in Hip Hop

Source: “What’s It Gonna Be?” ft. Janet Jackson (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hUxN0K1ykNo)

I have been fascinated by the creation and transformation of Hip Hop for as long as I can remember. Even though I was born in 1997, I’ve somehow felt very connected to this culture and all of its parts even though I’m not a rapper, DJ, b-girl, or graffiti artist. I’ve watched countless music videos, downloaded numerous Hip Hop songs, read articles, and much more. So when figuring out what to submit for this fellowship, I figured this was my time to hyper-fixate (once again) on one of my favorite genres while applying an Afrofuturistic lens. I sorted through various Google keywords and stumbled on the article that would lead me down a pleasant rabbit hole that I had yet to discover. This article broadly discussed Afrofuturism in music and visual art which included a brief blurb about Afrofuturistic visuals in Hip Hop in the mid to late 1990s and early 2000s. They mentioned the director Hype Williams with a hyperlink to a Youtube video listing some of the 90s music videos that wouldn’t have existed without him or his vision. Before this project, I only knew of Hype Williams because of his director credit for the film Belly (1998) which contains what is considered one of the most iconic opening sequences with the brilliant and vibrant glow in the dark color lighting alongside an acapella version of “Back II Life’’ by Soul II Soul in the background. Sends chills down my spine every time I see it. Because of my lack of knowledge of this prolific director that made a profound impact in Hip Hop visuals, I found my entry point into yet another hyper fixation. So who is Hype Williams, the man behind the myth?

“Well, I’m from New York. St. Albans, Queens, a little part of the borough. And I, literally, Q-Tip’s grandmother lived around the corner from my house. I went to catholic school with Run-DMC.” (2:06–2:34)

With any new person I’m learning about, I typically start with their Wikipedia page. I know, I know. Wikipedia is not the most credible site. However, it did offer me a jumping-off point to figuring out who the person is behind the work. Learning that Harold “Hype” Williams, born on August 1, 1970, in Queens, New York, to a Honduran mother and a Black father was an important nugget of information to stimulate my thoughts. I started thinking about how a considerable amount of hip-hop artists and producers have familial ties to the U.S. and other lands across the globe and it made me think about how that distinct background plays a role in their work. So for Hype, I briefly thought about what it means for him, like others, to have an ethnic background that transcends borders and how that could impact his work. Just a thought, not a claim. Then I pivoted to thinking about him being from St. Albans, Queens specifically and casually being in community with people who would eventually become some of the biggest names in Hip Hop to date. And he was born in 1970, the first Hip Hop party was thrown on August 20, 1971. So Hip Hop was literally being built from the ground up during his childhood. What a life to have lived! Additionally, he started as a graffiti artist who was influenced by Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Something that I’ve found interesting throughout my duration as a self-proclaimed and self-educated Hip Hop scholar (trust me I’m not as pretentious as this sounds) is that it is not disputed in the documentaries and docuseries’ I’ve seen that graffiti art is one of the foundational elements of Hip Hop. However, beyond the discussion of the origins of Hip Hop, graffiti art and breakdancing aren’t widely discussed in the ways that emceeing and djing are. Personally, especially now that I’m on the other side of this research project, I find this to be rather disheartening. The art of rapping or emceeing is the language of Hip Hop. Djing and/or producing is the sound. Breakdancing is the movement. Graffiti art is the visual. Without graffiti art, we don’t necessarily have the look and feel of Hip Hop culture. I don’t know, I just feel like we should put more respeck on graffiti art’s name. Anyways, Hype having a background in graffiti art before taking up film at Adelphi University in the late 1980s makes perfect sense given his cultural contributions to the visual side of Hip Hop.

“But what I found out was the stuff that was being done at the time was so shitty, it just felt like I could do it better. ’Cause they didn’t love it, the people that were doing it at the time. From a young person’s perspective, it just looked bad all the time. And I thought ‘Maybe someone should apply themselves differently.’ No one would listen so I said I would just do it myself.” (11:04–11:52)

Based on the videos from the early 1990s compared to his work once he started his own production company, he’s absolutely right. Even in his earlier videos, before he started his own production company in 1993, there were some stylistic choices like the prevalence of strong color contrasts and unique camera angles. However, they were not the film-like videos he would go on to create once he got his big break in 1994. In that pre-production company period, the lighting was rather standard and uninteresting. This is not to be an asshole but it was a reflection of its times much like early 1990s feature films. I also think it’s important to build context around the sound of Hip Hop at that time. Back in 2010, 9th Wonder did a lecture at Duke University that analyzed the different components of Nas’ classic debut album, Illmatic (1994). He explains the typical style of producers in the late 1980s and early 1990s was primarily focused on drum breaks and James Brown records. This also coincides with the popularity of New Jack Swing in R&B music at the time. So perhaps maybe the focus wasn’t to create alluring visuals but rather something that people could just dance alongside at the time Hype entered the industry. Just another thought, not a claim.

Bringing it back to 1994, the soundscape at the time was shifting in a different direction. I mean the production of BWP’s (Bytches With Problems) “We Want Money”, his first directorial credit, is vastly different from Wu-Tang Clan’s “Can It All Be So Simple”. 9th Wonder speaks to this as well when he mentions the “Boom Bap” era of Hip Hop that DJ Premier and other DJ/producers ushered in at that time. He explains that Boom Bap is more “head nod” music rather than music that you can dance to. Why is this important? Well, if you think about it, films have scoring that takes you through the emotion of the scenes themselves. This means, according to my theory, the shifting production style allowed for the music videos to embody more film-like theatrics that “elevates the songs themselves”. For example, in Wu-Tang Clan’s “Can It All Be So Simple” the cinematography is much clearer with slow deliberate shots that help to tell the story of the song itself which is, according to Wikipedia, Raekwon and Ghostface talking about the hardships of growing up in 1980s New York and wanting to achieve a lavish lifestyle to escape that. Other stylistic choices in this video include high saturation and letterboxing (but not with the top and bottom panels having visual effects, that comes later) which become integrated with other choices like the usage of stages, solid color backgrounds (which also comes back around in the mid to late 2000s), the usage of color lighting, flashing lights, unique camera angles, spotlight lighting, and Black & white imaging. It wouldn’t be until 1997 wherewith mo’ money came Afrofuturistic visuals that worked in conjunction with what is considered the “Bling Bling” era or, as Questlove calls it, the “Cristal & Ecstasy” period in Hip Hop.

“It peaked in ’97. So everything was kinda going in a direction and like everything else we all just took it too far. Everybody had too much access to everything and that’s what happened. The end of the 90s was that. It was just this crazy celebration of everything going right.” (21:26–21:49)

What does Hype mean when he says 1997 up until the early 2000s was a celebration of everything going right? I think “Feel So Good” by Mase is a great depiction of that feeling. That particular video is very gaudy, shiny, extra, and just over the top. (Special shout out to Jane Ambrose for her wardrobe contributions to that time. Fun fact: she put Missy in the trash bag and Puffy in the shiny suits.) Hip Hop had also been through some major shifts at that time following the East Coast/West Coast beef that ended with the deaths of Tupac in September 1996 and Biggie in March 1997. So niggas wanted to dance again and celebrate this new upward mobility that came from a culture that many people thought was going to die out in the 1980s. The South was also further establishing its place in the Hip Hop scene and provided a drastically different sound that was a deviation from what was popularized in the East and the West. The beats themselves were becoming more technical, digital, and futuristic, especially with producers becoming more well-known relative to their predecessors (see: Hip Hop Evolution: “The Super Producers” S4 E3 on Netflix). Simply put, a lot of niggas were able to eat off of their art and they were not afraid to lean into that. Hype was very instrumental in capturing the height of the commercialization of Hip Hop on screen and was able to play with futuristic stylistic choices now that he had larger budgets to play with. Now, I can talk about the fisheye lenses, the usage of strong costume work, time-lapses, cameos from other artists, swinging fixtures, the reimagination of classic films, tight rooms, optical illusions, fantastical elements, and much more. But other videos and articles already do that work. I would rather break down his big-budget Afrofuturistic style through the lens of two iconic artists: Busta Rhymes and Missy Elliot. I picked these two artists because a.) Hype directed multiple videos for them and b.) the videos he directed for them just so happened to be the earliest iterations of this new Afrofuturistic style. Let’s start with Busta Rhymes.

If you didn’t know, before Busta Rhymes was a solo act, he used to be in a group called Leaders of the New School. They were high school classmates and they put out a couple of albums together. However, his verse on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario” set him apart from the rest of his group because of his very unique and Jamaican-influenced style relative to the typical style of New York rappers at that time. They had some internal problems because of it and they split in 1993. Post-split, Busta did various features for other artists. He was interviewed in 2012 where he talked about not even wanting to be a solo artist, which explained his presence on multiple features before his first album, The Coming (1996). Now, why is this context important? Well, thinking back to his features, based on some of the videos I reviewed, this man’s face STAYED in the camera. He was consistently very animated in his bars and that always came out in the videos themselves. So it was no shock that the video for his first single “Woo Hah!! Got You All In Check”, directed by Hype, contained the fisheye lens to create that panoramic distortion that fits very well with Busta’s need to be in the camera. The vibrant colors and backgrounds with fun transitions and little fantastical elements aid in establishing his solo identity within the industry as a very rambunctious, creative, bar-heavy, fast-paced rapper. They would continue to work together for projects like “Gimme Some More”, “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See” (my personal favorite), and “What’s It Gonna Be”, which featured icon Janet Jackson and was brilliantly executed with Hype’s highest budget to date, $2.4 million. It takes skill, time, and effort to execute great visual projects. It takes vision to create visuals that not only breathe life into a song but also compliment the personality of the artist. Multiple times over. That’s truly remarkable if you ask me. Now, let’s talk about my good sis, Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliot.

I feel as though I would be doing you a disservice by going over her distinct style, flow, and creativity because I find her contributions to the culture to be well documented already. So I’m going to drop this blockquote where Hype talks in an interview about his perception of Missy when asked about his initial inspiration for the treatment of her music:

“Well, the young lady that I told you about, her name is Judy Troilo. She used to work for Island Records. And she introduced me to Michel [Gondry], Jean-Paul Goude, and Jean-Baptiste Mondino, who is a very important person also. I immediately was familiar with all of their stuff because I grew up on all that soul music I was telling you about and the soul music rolled into other forms of music and Island [Records] was the homeplace of Grace Jones. Same record label. There’s an interesting story about that too. Island Records, [the] first artist that they signed was Bob Marley. The second artist, I think as a group, that got signed was U2. And then came Grace Jones. So it just so happened that Jean-Paul Goude was like the Hype Williams for Grace Jones at the time and I was already familiar with the aesthetic. And I just thought Missy had the same thing when I met her.”

To me, this story was so heartwarming to learn about in real-time. This man casually makes the comparison between Missy and Grace Jones and uses that comparison to treat her music with the futuristic and fantastical quirkiness it deserved. Not to mention that “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” was their first video together and opened the door to a whole new artist breaking into the industry as a solo artist. Of course, they went on to do the video for songs like “She’s A Bitch”, “Hot Boyz”, and “Sock It To Me”, which had his second-highest budget of $2 million. I think you have a clear understanding of my newfound reverence for this nigga’s work so I have nothing else to add here.

To wrap up, here are my final thoughts. Hype Williams, despite his rather quiet and reserved demeanor, gave us the look and feel of Hip Hop at a time when music video directors were not interested in putting in the effort and intentionality to bring Hip Hop classics to life on screen. He gave the people something to visualize when their favorite artists played on speakers, in clubs, on radio stations, and everywhere else. His Afrofuturistic vision, with the help of extravagant budgets, in a smaller subset of his videography beautifully complemented the more futuristic production style at that time. I also think it’s important to mention that the work he was able to do with specific artists made it possible for them to achieve major success with timeless visuals we continue to talk about to this day. His work also challenged me to think of music videos as a more contemporary iteration of graffiti art, the visual element of Hip Hop that deserves a lot more attention than we give it currently. Hip Hop is, in fact, Afrofuturism.

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