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 Crunk is 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."
Or this separate, unsolicited testimonial from location scout Allem Moreno, who has secured more than 20 South Florida sites for videos produced by Watanabe-Batton, including the ultra-exclusive Biltmore Hotel and Bal Harbour Shops for Trick Daddy shoots: "I try to work extra hard to get her something extra cool."
The "Play No Games" location is unusual for Miami. No glamour, no glitz, and not a wave in sight.
"No mansions," explains Lil Jon. "We ain't about that boogie shit. We about being regular. In a normal video, you're VIP. You're on the guest list. In [the video for] 'I Don't Give a...,' we get dissed. We aren't on the guest list. We rush the VIP. The average person can't get into the VIP. Fuck that."
"It's real," location scout Moreno says of Lil Jon's choice. "Sometimes in rap, they're so conscious of what people are going to think. They want bling-bling."
Then he looks at a young woman with her privates barely covered by two strips of cloth. "Now if only we could not have all these girls in bikinis," he sighs, as if she can't hear him.
Insulted, the bikini girl gets up and walks away.
Another undressed hoochie makes her way toward the street.
"We need some clothes on you, honey," Moreno calls out. "Go put on a robe or maybe wrap yourself in that flag," he tells her, gesturing to an enormous U.S. flag hanging from the roof. "We can't have you walking around the streets." He shrugs. "It's not that I don't want to see it. It's just this is a neighborhood, not an MGM lot."
"I'm getting tired of rap videos," Moreno adds. He has just returned from his other job as a road manager for cerebral Latin pop group Bacilos. "When I work with a group like Bacilos, I think, 'Why can't they have this kind of budget?'" He shakes his head at the parade of hoochies. "That's what the money goes for."
Trick Daddy is not at all tired of girls in bikinis. He is, however, tired of being on the set all day.
"Hey, Rachel," he yells, "I'm leaving in five minutes."
Engrossed in the task at hand, Watanabe-Batton ignores Trick's tantrum. When he gets no response, the rapper slumps into the director's chair, muttering, "Nobody better call me 'bout no fuckin' thing. No radio show. No TV show. No nothin'." Then he lifts his head and yells into the room at Rachel again: "Somebody say something!"
Finished with the setup, Watanabe-Batton walks calmly to his side.
"I'm not going to talk to you if you're gonna holler at me," she tells him quietly.
"No," sulks Trick, "I'm saying I shouldn't have to holler at you."
She talks to him softly.
He nods his head.
"Whatever you want," he blusters. "But I'm leaving in five minutes."
Lil Jon, who has been standing off to the side, walks over and puts his arm around Trick's shoulders.
When Trick gets up for a tight shot, he delivers his lovelorn rap like he's taking a hit out on somebody, scowling and swiping at the air. When the take is through, he storms out of the house. Jon puts his arm around Rachel as the two watch Trick's furious playback.
"He's done so many videos, it's frustrating when he knows it can move faster," Lil Jon explains as he eats his fast food. "I give him respect because he stayed in here and gave what we needed."
He can't help but be worried, though.
"Was it sexy?" Jon asks the producer about the playback of Trick's scene, which he missed while giving the interview.
"Was it 60?" producer Kareem Johnson asks back.
"I said 'sexy,'" Lil Jon corrects him.
Johnson cracks up and nudges the director of photography beside him. "I thought he said '60,' like he knew what time it was."
Not wanting to be shown up as codirector, Lil Jon insists, "I did."
"He's frontin'," Johnson says to the DP, still laughing.
When Jon protests, Johnson tests him: "60 what?"
"What's sexy to you?" New Times asks as the producer leaves the room.
"Girls on top of girls," Jon answers distractedly, watching the producer walk away. "I'm just sayin' my star is gone," he yells after him. "My star is gone, and you can't bring him back. I just want to make sure we right."
Lil Jon might not be after bling-bling, but he's not taking any chances with sex appeal. "Everybody wants to see exotic, beautiful women," he explains. "It's definitely a different kind of woman that's working on making the video than that's in the video," he says, staring at New Times. He takes his arm, which has been resting on New Times' shoulder, back to himself. "What you gotta do is what you gotta do," he says. "If you're hired to be a pretty face and a pretty body, you can't overstep your boundary. I just wanna make sure I got a hot finished product."
Assistant director Matsoukas, herself a beautiful woman wearing jeans and a cut-off Ethiopian soccer jersey and carrying a Frida Kahlo bag, doesn't much like questions about the difference between women in front of and behind the camera either. Her job mostly seems to be delivering the right kind of girl for each scene. ("Get the black girl; she was good," Watanabe-Batton tells her, and back Matsoukas comes with Genie, a lean, long-haired, long-limbed Slip-N-Slide video favorite who dances at the Liberty City club Foxy Ladies. An aspiring actress, Genie says, "I'm doing videos cuz that's how you get discovered.")
"I'd rather not comment," Matsoukas says, looking away. But she can't help herself. "My politics are different. But I look at it as I'm getting a lot of filmmaking experience." She stops and starts again. "I think hip-hop is really powerful, and young people get their ideas from music videos. But I'd rather not say any more." She does. "I'm not in the director's chair. When I direct, it will be different." But maybe it won't be. "A lot of it is that the artist knows what he wants to do," she says, more to herself than anyone else, "and if the director doesn't do that, you're not the director anymore."
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