It was the video that changed everything for Tyler, the Creator; his barfing silhouette is already iconic. To create “Yonkers“, Tyler had a little help from his friends, industry folk far too old for an Odd Future membership. RESPECT. talked to the team behind “Yonkers”: the producer Tara Razavi, the director of photography Luis “Panch” Perez, and Tyler’s “creative godfather” Anthony Mandler. After the jump, find out what went on behind the scenes — like, did he really eat that bug?
Tyler, and the Creators of Yonkers
words by Nick Harwood
Tyler, the Creator gave three days warning; “YONKERS Video Drops Friday. oddfuture.com GOBLIN ; April; 2011” he tweeted on February 7 of this year. Three days later, as promised, the OFWGKTA YouTube account uploaded the music video that would rocket the young rapper into popular consciousness and solidify his place in hip-hop history. The brief and shocking clip — three minutes of contorting, hurling, and hanging — was Odd Future’s tipping point, the moment when fame became inevitable. Coupled with the infamous Jimmy Fallon performance a week later, it was a one-two knockout.
Yet “Yonkers” sticks out from the group’s prior homemade repertoire. Notorious for his strictly in-house regimen, Tyler had newfound money to his name since signing a deal with XL Recordings after endless negotiations. His manager, industry vet Chris Clancy, assembled a team of professionals to translate Tyler’s vision to the screen for his big label début.
Clancy put in a call to Anthony Mandler, one of today’s most popular music video directors, who is no stranger to pop culture controversy. His latest clip is Rihanna’s “Man Down,” which has drawn heavy critique from the Parents Television Council for its depiction of a violated woman who murders her offender in vengeance. Mandler served as Tyler’s “directing godfather,” guiding him into a “world of possibilities where we have equipment, we have cameras, we have tricks, we have techniques…. It’s just about presenting him with options and putting things in front of him, and then he goes, ‘I like this. I like that.’”
“He comes to me with six lines…. ‘I’m sitting on a chair rapping, I’m playing with a bug, I eat it, I throw it up, my eyes go black, and I hang myself,’” Mandler says, “That was his treatment.” In his mind, Tyler had each spectacle timed to the exact moment in the song. Once everything was in place, he led Mandler, Clancy, and the production team at Happy Place, Inc. down his morbid checklist on a conference call. “It was really low budget, like it’s probably something we usually wouldn’t touch,” says Tara Razavi, owner of and executive producer for Happy Place, “but I don’t know… I just learned immediately that Tyler is a creative genius…. Now, he’s new as a director, so as far as the lingo of explaining the shot, or understanding — there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes that people don’t know.”
Other than Wolf Haley, only one name is tagged to the “Yonkers” video on YouTube. That’s Luis “Panch” Perez, the seasoned director of photography who got his start working under Hype Williams in the early ‘90s. Tyler is outspoken in his disinterest in old school rap, but Perez spent the golden era working in its nucleus: New York City.
As a “hip-hop head…I was like, thank God somebody’s thinking a little bit out the box and giving us something nice,” he says, “Creatively, we came together almost like it was a laser beam sharpness.”
Once on set in downtown Los Angeles, Perez showed Tyler different lenses and lighting techniques until they agreed on a formula He suggested the tilt-shift lenses that anxiously throb in and out of focus, aiming for an aesthetic reminiscent of “if Nine Inch Nails and Ol’ Dirty Bastard had a baby.” “I think the objective was to try to sell a piece that had no gags,” says Mandler, “We didn’t want you to feel like we were cutting at all, we were doing stunts at all, there were effects or no effects. It was all clever old school filmmaking, and the tilt-shift is a really nice way of making people feel unsettled.”
Then came the cockroach.
“It came in a box with holes in it. It shows up to set, and he was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t do this,” Razavi says, “It took him 30 minutes. We were like, ‘Why don’t you just go sit with the bug, hang out, get used to the bug, just get comfortable. And the funny thing is Hodgy [Beats]…just walks in, doesn’t say a word, picks up the bug, puts it on his face…and I was like, This kid is crazy. And Tyler was jumping around, and finally he got used to it, and it’s hard to make a bug cooperate — so that time, we had to do a few different takes. Sometimes it would just sit there; sometimes it wouldn’t walk. Sometimes it walked too fast, and Tyler would be like ‘Oh, shit!’” The production team, of course, won’t divulge if Tyler actually consumed the creature. “All I know is when he bit into the roach, he actually gagged. That’s the take you see,” says Perez.
The shoot was briefer than usual, spanning a few rehearsals, around 15 takes, and 10 hours. Post-processing work was minimal, says Razavi. Tyler’s puke was enhanced, and the footage (which was shot in color) was reverted to black and white and colorized. “Really what you’re looking at is very simple: you’re looking at a 19-year-old kid sitting on a stool rapping to the camera,” says Mandler, “but what we did with the lighting, and what we did with the tilt-shift, and the way the camera moves, and the chaos of him — the whole thing puts you on the end of your seat, and it creates a horror movie without doing much.”
Immediately, the crew knew they had something special. Perez says, “It was such an interesting moment in my career and in Tyler’s career, period. Even management was looking around; we were all looking at each other like, I don’t know how this is gonna be received, but everybody was excited, and that was beautiful. When we started doing some of the technical things that were needed to allow him to puke, to eat a cockroach and hang himself, it never felt like we were doing something silly. It felt momentous, in the sense of — here’s a guy who had an idea and for the first time in his young life, he was doing something that he knew that was exactly what he wanted…. It was like the genesis of a moment — and I hate to sound über-romantic about it, but that’s how it felt.”
“When we were making it, we turned around and said two things,” says Mandler, “One: this video’s gonna piss a lot of people off. Two: Kanye West is gonna be jealous as fuck.” Sure enough, on February 23, Kanye tweeted a link to the video followed by a cogent co-sign: “The video of 2011.” 15 million views later, “Yonkers” is still a contentious conversation piece. “We can talk about all kinds of ways to intellectualize the piece,” says Perez, “but he himself said it: it’s like, Stop trying to fucking find meaning into it. I just wanted to fucking do it.”
Tyler, the Creator’s co-creators are all but effusive about his artistry, and the team reassembled to shoot the clip for Goblin’s second single, “She.” “I think he has a really powerfully creative mind and his kind of ADD chaos allows him to not get hung up on things,” says Mandler, “and that sort of rambling style of creating, that free-flowing creation, can be really beautiful, harnessed the right way.” Yet Razavi admits, “It’s so weird jumping from Odd Future into all these other artists.” For Perez, “No matter what happens for the rest of my career, I can always look at [“Yonkers”] and say, you know what? That was a moment where a few people put something together that forever will be ingrained in pop culture.”
Though MTV refuses to play “She” without a slew of edits, Tyler is still dreaming of a VMA. “I had a private conversation with him when we were shooting ‘She’,” says Perez, “and he was talking about concepts he wanted to do the next video with. And the funniest thing — he kept talking about a talking ostrich. And I’m like, Dude, we have to do it. I can’t wait.”
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