Director X has been making music videos with pop's biggest stars for over 15 years — but he's never seen anything like the reaction to Drake's "Hotline Bling." Released earlier this week, the "Hotline Bling" video became instantly memorable (and meme-able) for its hypnotic, minimal vibe showcasing Drake's endearing goofball dance moves and X's highly stylized sets.
Like Drake, Director X (known earlier in his career as Little X) is from Toronto, and the entire "Hotline Bling" video (their fourth video together) was made in the city through Creative Soul, the new production company X started with his manager. As X prepares to shoot his first feature film — he won't name it, but mentions it's a dance movie — he took some time out to talk about musicians as directors, the talented choreographer Tanisha Scott, his relationship to the work of acclaimed light artist James Turrell and more.
When did you first meet Drake?
It was a long time ago. Drake and I are both from Toronto, so I've known him for quite awhile. He was a teenager around the city. I liked him the moment I met him. We've been talking about working together for a long time, but "HYFR" was the first time we actually worked together. He reached out to me and said, "Alright, I got one for us." He had the idea — he wanted to do this bar mitzvah.
What did you think of that concept?
I loved it. The special thing about the "HYFR" video is that it's something only he can do. It really started getting into his philosophy. He wants to make these music videos that stand out. It's not enough to do something where you're standing somewhere and singing a song. Especially in the age of the Internet, you really got to work harder to make something that makes people stop and take notice.
How often does it happen where an artist has a concept that they want you to help them execute, as opposed to you pitching them?
Certain artists are like that. Iggy Azalea is like that, Drake is like that. I actually prefer it. I like doing my own thing, but I also like it when an artist has a clear vision for themselves and you can focus on molding that idea into a full working piece. It becomes a partnership. They're acting more like creative directors.
How did it go with "Hotline Bling"? Who pitched the idea?
[Drake's team] came to me and they wanted to do something from my wheelhouse. They wanted to do a performance video — something like the Sean Paul work I used to do. One of the things that I'm known for is big set-driven pieces, heavy graphic pieces. Sean Paul's "Gimme the Light," Sean Paul's "Temperature," Kelis's "Trick Me," G. Dep and Puff Daddy's "Let Get It," Kardinal Offishall's "Ol' Time Killin'." Big budget or low budget, I have a very graphic style. That was really a hallmark of the older days of music videos, when we had money to build sets. Not many people are doing things like that now.
Did you have this concept in your pocket where you were just waiting for the right person?
No, it was just listening to the song, coming up with something, letting inspiration take you….And this is where it took us.
A lot of people have seen a similarity between the look of "Hotline Bling" and the art of James Turrell. Was that something you were trying to evoke?
Inspiration just hits you. Graphic sets are my style. I look at James Turrell's stuff and I go, "Oh, I'm in that wheelhouse." I came out of the Hype Williams school — I was lucky enough to have him as my mentor, and this was his style. This is my territory. So I definitely understand how people see it, and it's actually really great. Some Drake fan somewhere is going to be like, "James Turrell? Who is that?"
The other major collaborator on this video is choreographer Tanisha Scott, who shows up at the end of the video. You guys go way back, right?
Shit, I've known Tanisha forever and ever! She choreographed Sean Paul's "Gimme the Light." Tanisha and I are in the same age range; Drake is, like, 10 years younger. I compare it to, if I was a senior in high school, he was a freshman, and Tanisha would have been the grade under me.
Why do you keep going back to her as a choreographer?
It's just vibes, man. No one dances like her. That was Drake's whole thing about dancing with her at the end.
Everyone is talking about his dancing in the "Hotline Bling" video. Is that just him going for it, or were those parts choreographed?
That's him going for it. That's him doing him. You can't choreograph that. That's just a man dancing.
You're the director who's really been able to capture Drake's sense of humor best. Why have you been interested in bringing that aspect of his personality to the forefront?
That's really him. That's who he is. It's not so much me bringing it out. I guess he can just express it with me in a different way. I'm not sure why the combination works, but it does.
With "Hotline Bling," almost instantly there were tons of GIFs and memes inspired by the video. Do you have a favorite?
The Star Trek meme and the tennis meme. I'm on Time magazine right now, they've got the tennis meme up. Why is Time magazine posting something about a Drake music video?
Drake is such a self-aware artist in terms of how he is perceived. When you were making the video, were you guys thinking at all about creating those meme-able moments?
You can't predict that. We're making the video and I'm like, "Oh, I think people will like this. These are cool sets and this is cool lighting." That's about as far as you're going. You feel like people who like the song will like the video, and the world moves on, maybe a pop culture magazine or two would want to talk about it. And then this happens, and I'm getting sent articles written by real highfalutin websites really intellectualizing the whole thing! You can't predict this kind of stuff. It's nuts.