By Ashley Zimmerman
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The premise for Lil Jon & the Eastside Boyz' latest video, "Play No Games," is a straight-up contradiction. On the followup single to "I Don't Give a...," the reigning Kings of Crunk (from their album by the same name) smooth out their usual rowdy club chants and croon all sentimental-like on a chorus punctuated with synthesized chimes, coos from R&B songbird Oobie, and a bassline right out of Ginuwine: I ain't into playin' no games, girl. It's enough to make a thug turn sappy: Guest rapper Trick Daddy declares I ain't into mind games,and Fat Joe laments There aren't too many real bitches/If you got one, hold on. But the video, shot in Miami's Shorecrest neighborhood a week or so ago, might as well be subtitled "Games with Girls."
"It's Animal House meets School Daze meets House Party," says Lil Jon, who, as codirector of the video, developed the concept. Far from the usual hip-hop setting of South Beach, a down-on-its-luck Shorecrest manse has been done up for the day as an Atlanta (that's right, ATL) frat house with raggedy couches, dusty collegiate plaques, busty mannequins, and beer kegs.
In one room, supersize Nuyorican rapper Fat Joe plays strip poker with a bevy of daisy-beduked beauties; in another, MIA's favorite thug, Trick, who lives in Miramar, gets tangled up in a game of Twister. In the bedroom, Lil Jon and his boyz Big Sam and Lil Bo look on as a pillow fight breaks out (feathers and lingerie flying); then the Decatur-based crew gets off when a lusty dominatrix takes a paddle to her pledges, each one emitting the hook from a Lil Jon club hit -- like the 2001 "Bia, Bia" (originally titled "Bitch") or the 1996 "Who U With?" -- as she swats his behind.
No games, indeed.
The contradiction does not end there, though. For if it's all fun and scantily clad dames on-screen, Lil Jon & the Eastside Boyz do indeed find a woman who is not interested in playing any games. Only she's behind the camera; as director of "Play No Games," Rachel Watanabe-Batton is a rare woman in the fraternity of hip-hop video. But that doesn't mean the hoochies go away.
"I need them to take off more clothes," Watanabe-Batton tells a burly male assistant director, who relays her instructions to the ladies surrounding Fat Joe with strip-club hoots and hollers.
"I need the shot right here," she explains to a cameraman, using her hands to frame her own backside.
Sitting in the codirector's chair beside her, Lil Jon nods approvingly.
"All of our videos are wild, far from the norm," boasts Lil Jon later that day as he hunkers down on an overstuffed sofa while Watanabe-Batton oversees the setup for the next shot. He adjusts the Atlanta Braves cap that tops his cascade of baby dreads and big-frame silver sunglasses, then tears into a bag of Wendy's takeout delivered sometime after 9 p.m. -- some 15 hours into the shoot. The talent buffet ran out hours ago, having already served breakfast, lunch, and dinner to 50 crew members, 50 cast members, and who knows how many hangers-on.
This is a big production for Lil Jon, much bigger than a rapper of his stature could normally afford. Although he claims to be the first to immortalize the Deep South word and club movement "crunk" -- which Jon has defined as "drunk, rowdy, and chanting shit" -- in the recording studio, he and the Eastside Boyz have until recently remained a mainly regional phenomenon. Kings of Crunkis the group's fourth album but first nationwide release, on the indie powerhouse label TVT Records. Typically crunk, the album's first video, "I Don't Give a...," edged into the top ten on BET's 106 and Park video show a couple of weeks ago. But "Play No Games" is far from crunk; it's a little piece of ear candy confected to take the group from club novelty to the pop mainstream.
To shoot Lil Jon's videos, TVT Records sprang for the Department of Film, a New York City-based who's who of hip-hop video directors founded by superstar Nick Quested. Miami native and NYU film school grad Gil Green, whose credits include work with Miami stars Trick, Trina, the Iconz, and No Good as well as artists from Brandy to Prophet Jones, directed "I Don't Give a..." Green, however, was not available the same day as guest artists Trick Daddy and Fat Joe, opening the door for veteran Department of Film producer Watanabe-Batton to make her directorial debut.
Whatever qualms Lil Jon might have had about working with a first-time director (or with a woman, but we won't go there) were quelled by the unexpected benefits that come with an eager and well-liked first-timer.
"Rachel's really cool," observes one Miami-based camera operator who reels off video credits like the "Twelve Days of Christmas" -- "three P. Diddys, four Master P's, two Benzinos, Trick Daddy, Cash Money Millionaires, endless, endless. You wouldn't even be able to come close to affording this crew on [Lil Jon's] budget."
New York-based assistant director Melina Matsoukas agrees. "A lot of people here cut their rates just to do her a favor."