Taj Critchlow on Fela, Partnership with Director X, and Breaking New Talent

Some great insights on the Canadian media industry from one of its leaders.

Today’s music landscape has seen more Canadian artists rise to prominence than ever before. The same way the music is shining, so are the visuals that tell the story. When thinking of the top Canadian music video directors, one name reigns supreme: X. Whether you knew him as Little X, Director X, or as Julien Christian Lutz, the factor that doesn’t change is his status as the godfather of music videos in Canada. With director credits for acts like Redman, Maestro, and Noreaga as early as 1998, he's over 20 years deep and still one of the best in the game today, most recently landing a Grammy nomination for Future and Drake’s Life Is Good video.

Much like the artists that X creates visuals for, he is the frontman of his team. But like every successful frontman, he has an equally if not more talented team to back him. If X were the head, Taj Critchlow is surely the heart and soul of their creative collective. He's the co-founder and managing partner of their new production company, Fela

Originally operating under the company Creative Soul, which then became Popp Rok (and finally, Fela), the name may have changed over the years, partners come and gone, but X and Taj’s friendship and professional relationship have remained the consistent factor in their success. This is the year we will always remember for a global pandemic and civil unrest, but Taj decided 2020 was a year for change, in a big way. After building up Creative Soul and Popp Rok with the team, Taj found himself in a cycle of growing the wealth and success for companies that he or X did not have ownership over. When push came to shove, and differences were had between other partners involved, Taj’s hands were tied and he ultimately had no say in the companies he helped build. That didn’t sit well with Taj so he decided to do something about it and take ownership of his work. This was the birth of Fela. The company's motto is “own your culture, tell your stories.”

I was recently invited by Corus Entertainment's SVP of Marketing & so.da, Dervla Kelly, to moderate a conversation with Taj for a new speaker’s series. The focus of the series is meant to highlight industry professionals and learn from their experiences in the media industry. This marked the first installment of the series and Taj shared his journey as well as touching on topics of representation, ownership for BIPOC creatives, and cultivating our own Canadian talent. See below for some great insights on the Canadian media industry from one of its leaders, Taj Critchlow.

On beginnings with X:

So X is doing his school of hard knocks training, and then I was doing my school training and it got to a point we hit another crossroads where I'm about to graduate and possibly go to law school and X now is about to break through after doing his grunt work. And now breaking through, he's like, "Yo man, I just did this little music video and everyone's getting excited about it and now I got this bigger company coming at me trying to pick me up and pull me out of Hype's company." I go, "What's the music video?" It's for Redman, "I'll Bee Dat!"  If you guys haven't seen it, you should check it out. It's still stands. It's really funny. It's comical, it's animated, it's just fucking awesome. And when I saw the video, because X is a man of few words, he's like, "What's up?" He's very robotic. He's like Mr. Roboto. And I said to him, "This is crazy. This is bananas!" Like, you made it seem like it was like some average shit, like you out of here just snapped [this] shit in half.

And then, low and behold, he got signed by this big production company. "We're going to give you a car. We're going to give you an office. We're going to give you a Rolex." And it was like they were treating directors like rap stars back in the day, like literally, like they were paying advances. It was a thing! So when he got signed to HSI and they were like, "Hey, man, you could have an executive assistant?" the first person he thought of was me. But it was weird because this is my best friend. OK, you know, they say don't mix friends and business. Well, we did. We did that. And luckily blessings of life like we got through that. We figured it out. But it was a tough decision for me to make because here it is, I just went to school and my mom just put me into university to go to explore this degree and go to law school and cut my hair off and get a white picket fence and a dog named Toto, and live happily ever after and die, whatever. And I didn't choose that path. And X is like, "Look man, I know you want to get into music management" and now this is where it all ties in, "and be an A&R", whatever, whatever. "This is a great opportunity for you to come in and learn the business." 

"This was my first opportunity as a Black executive and a partner with X to start a company, to create a platform to cultivate our own. And that was very important to us."

On their first venture together, Creative Soul, and discovering Karena Evans:

Creative Soul was our first production company. And the reason why it's important because it's the beginning. This is the origin story. Like any movie, any Marvel film, this is the origin story. This is a place where we produce "Hotline Bling." This is where we produced Rihanna "Work." And we did our first big campaign and won a Bronze Lion for "Skittles Pawn Shop." So this was my first opportunity as a Black executive and a partner with X to start a company, to create a platform to cultivate our own. And that was very important to us. We wanted to make sure that we came back to Toronto to create a platform for creatives from our city. And that's what we did with Creative Soul. And one of the best success stories that came out of Creative Soul was this little director by the name of Karena Evans, who's kicking some major ass right now. So Karena came to us when she was 18 as our intern. OK, and this is where we had her shadow us and we mentored her and she was shooting some behind-the-scenes stuff. This is where we were developing her. And as we were developing and growing and of course, when Hotline Bling blew up and our situation with our first company started getting weird because the CFO was just doing some pretty funky, funky stuff. 

Creative Soul was part of a conglomerate, right? We are part of an overall system. So there was like a post company for finishing for editorial and there was like two or three production companies, and we were one of the three, but it just wasn't working out.

On Popp Rok:

A media company out of Montreal called Attraction Media, they had a company called Mile Inn. So they wanted to open up Mile Inn Toronto. And we're like, OK, this is interesting. And he's like, look, I love what you guys do. I want to get creators and makers that speak to culture. And I love what you guys represent. I said, well, I'm not happy with this current home, so yeah, why not? So that's how Popp Rokk started.

So I literally brought our roster over from Creative Soul. So Karena and the gang all came over. And then we started doing what we did. And some of the big videos that came out of this company was, of course, Drake's "God's Plan," "Nice For What," you know, the amazing Samsung collaboration that we did (with so.da). You know, we did a lot of really awesome projects. The list goes on and really, really, happy and proud of what we did there. But then, unfortunately, everything comes to an end and it got to a point, two years in... the same thing happened again, in a sense, where even though I had people that wanted to be partners and gave us this illusion that we're really here to support you, they really weren't there. They didn't care about us. They cared about the bottom line. And they weren’t really great allies and supporters. And there's been some weird shit that went down. We will get into that, me being a Black executive and being a Black, you know EP, in this business, it comes with its challenges. And when those challenges came up and it happens, the former president of Mile Inn Toronto just wasn't there. He just did not support us. And then the breaking of the straw on the camel's back is last March that passed. When COVID hit, he put my whole team on temporary layoff, even though our unit itself was self sufficient. 

Everything we did has always been on our own merit, our own relationships, our own resources and our own team. Because even though we are a production company and we have a roster of directors I never looked at it as any kind of typical company. I look at us even now with Fela. We are a creative community. We are a creative movement, and I'm very protective of my family. And I never felt with both situations that they really appreciated what they had in front of them. Because artists are beautiful beings. They are wild, they're emotional, but they're just beautiful beings that create and disrupt. And my job is to figure out how to continue fostering and developing and giving them that platform. OK, and when we all got put on temporary layoff, even though it was some BS., that was time for me to be like, you know what, enough's enough. And it was heartbreaking because literally here it is: two companies I built with my team from scratch, our own, our blood, our sweat equity. And my power was taken from me. 

On Fela:

And then they say third time's a charm. So with Fela, as you know, during the time with COVID and what happened with George Floyd, the civil unrest, the protests around the world. And then there was this whole conversation and energy about mobilization when it comes to Black entrepreneurs, Black creatives, BIPOC creatives and ownership, and it really it really connected with me. It really woke the lion inside of me because I won't lie. After that situation went down with the Popp Rok, it broke my spirit. 

Unfortunately, because all these owners who do not look like us are in these positions of power to tell us what to do, just like what happened with me, with Popp Rokk where here it is, a company that I built and the money I made from my relationships and from my team, they now could tell us what to do with our money and do who knows what with. And that to me just didn't feel right. And for me as an industry leader, I would say you got to lead by example, so I decided to step out of the situation even though they brought me back.

The whole mantra of Fela is own your culture, tell your stories. Ownership for obvious reasons. You should have control of your shit. When you have ownership of your creativity, you have the right to do what you want and how you want, and then more importantly, you are going to make sure it's pure. 

On The Canadian media industry:

I love Canada. Look, I love being Canadian. I am Canadian. But even when you grew up watching those commercials, you never saw myself in those spots. They always said Canada's Canada's Canada [multicultural]! But everything that came out to advertising was white, white, white. But I'm like, where's the Black, where's the Indian, where's the South Asian, where's the biracial—it was such a confusing thing because I don't know, it just makes no sense. So representation matters on so many levels.

I grew up watching a lot of cinema. But you understand the damage it did to me when I grew up, not understanding how what my worth was, because I never saw myself I never see myself as a hero or as a ladies man or the charmer or the hero or the genius or, you know, like I watch MacGyver make cool shit. I watch James Bond do some cool shit. I watched Superman save the day. But me, I was a drug dealer. I was the crackhead. I was the guy that got killed first in the horror movie. So it was horrible. But now, like my kids who are spoiled to ask who are 11 and eight, who can now wake up and yeah, you know, we got Black Panther and now just Atabay me at it. And now there's a lot of commercials with diversity in it, which is awesome. So representation matters because voices matter and relatability matters and feeling like you're a part of the community matters. That's why it matters. And for me, with all my companies before I became a thing or a mandate or headline, you know, with creative soul to Popp Rokk, we always were a brand that represented inclusion and diversity. 

We created a company because we wanted to break out, up and coming new talent from our city. I can make my life very easy and say, fuck all this shit. Let me just set up a bunch of American directors that got reel's for days and not worry about the stress and just this deal with easy layups. No, I rather break a Kat Webber and a Lesean Harris and a Kit Weyman and you know what I mean? Like, I, I take pride and say, yeah, Karena Evans is Toronto's own. And I literally was with her from the very beginning, just like how I know Drake from the very beginning. I knew The Weeknd when he was homeless. I knew a lot of these cats, Belly, all these guys coming up. X, when X couldn't get a music video here, he had to go to New York City. So to me, it's about continuously fighting the fight, breaking down barriers, giving ourselves a voice, giving ourselves a platform. So one, yes, making sure representation is always front of mind instead of back of mind. But more importantly, the bigger issue as well is making sure we support our own.

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