Hype Williams isn’t a team of one.
The legendary director, who is responsible for some of the most indelible visuals from the past three decades, had the vision and the will to make fantastical things happen. But it takes a team to ensure his grandiose ideas were executed at the highest level.
When he was producing 2-3 music videos a month, Williams worked closely with the imaginative costume designer June Ambrose, cinematographer Malik Hassan Sayeed, producer Connie Orlando, and many more to bring his vision to life. And then there were the very talented artists, such as Jay-Z, Missy Elliott, Kelis, and DJ Khaled who trusted Williams and took his direction.
But what was it like following his lead? And how impactful was his work?
Here, we speak to the celebrities who worked with him, the artists who were inspired by him, and the crew who collaborated with him to make magic.
“Can’t Knock The Hustle” (1996)
It was the first time we worked together. “Can’t Knock The Hustle” felt like cinema. We also have to talk about Malik [Hassan Sayeed], the cinematographer Hype worked with. The cinematography was just so beautiful and the way it was shot it just elevated it to another level. We weren’t spending that sort of money then to finish the pyrotechnics. So when the limousine blows up it’s really janky, you know. But the vision and the cinematography was just beautiful and his eye was just different. The combination between Hype and June [Ambrose] elevated our look and feel. I remember people talking about how great a video it was.
I wasn’t spending money on videos like that and Hype was commanding, like, $750,000 to $1 million dollars. We were an independent company and this is ‘97. We were shooting videos for around $20,000 at the time. So there was no way I was spending that sort of money. He pitched this really grand idea that was amazing. It was this whole circus. I think he had elephants. I think he may have given the idea to Busta. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but I remember being blown away by it. And then he said the number, and I think it was, like, $1.8 million or something. And I was like, ‘Hype, come on, bro.’ Like I got mad at him. Like are you trying to play me? You think I’m dumb?
So to fit the budget we stripped the idea down. And I learned a valuable lesson from that. Either I’m going to trust Hype’s vision or I’m going to go with another idea. Don't condense ideas. Either shoot the brilliant idea or move to another idea. Don't take a brilliant idea and make it less and then expect brilliant results. That's not how life works. We broke down the idea and it looks like a cheap version of what we were trying to shoot. So we did it to ourselves. But then you realize in hindsight that the money, it's just money. But the visuals are priceless. The Missy video is priceless. The Busta video is priceless.
I remember receiving criticism from that video, but I think because of Reasonable Doubt, everyone had this different sort of expectation for me. I’m not going to say it was great. It’s a good song and I just think people didn’t want that from me at the time. They wanted Reasonable Doubt Part Two. They wanted 1,000 “Streets Is Watching” and “Where I’m From.” Those records were actually the first records I recorded for Vol. 1. So that was the direction people expected from me. So that played a part in the perception of it.
“Big Pimpin” (2000)
That was our first big-budget video. He's like, ‘We're gonna go to Trinidad and go to Carnival.’ He has the right name, Hype Williams, because we were sold into this idea. We went there and we were in the Ritz, and he rented a home. He was just living the life. But to create, he had to create the environment for himself as well. That's what I learned about him. He needs to be living and breathing in the environment to really tap into these visuals that he's trying to bring out.
The song was bubbling and the visual took the song to another place. If Vol. 3 was at one million [in sales], “Big Pimpin” definitely took it to four million for sure. You can't even quantify it. That’s like a 1000% increase. But we set it up well. We had a “Making The Video” behind it. All the marketing was in place—but the video delivered. It was the first time he did the white letterbox, which was mind-blowing at the time. The letterbox existed but he brought it to a hip-hop space. Then he was like putting an overlay on the letterbox. It was like a crispy pair of Jordans and he was just giving us all kinds of colorways. So when he came with the white letterbox, we were like,”Oh my God.’”
Hype definitely has a vision for what he wants to see. So he’d be like, “Yo, blow the smoke right here and this is gonna be crazy, it’s going to be bananas!” But I don't know if I was coachable as far as a performance at that time. I don't know if anyone could coach me, you know, because I was so guarded. I think about the early videos that I have and I listen to myself talking and it’s kind of hard for me to watch. That’s not even how I speak. So I don’t know if he could coach my performance, but he definitely coached the scene and everything around it. And other people may have a different experience. I'm sure he coached Missy more or coached Busta more and you could get more out of them. I don't know if he could get more out of us at that time. And then it was like 30 of us and all we wanted to do is laugh.
On the rumor that he was supposed to play DMX’s character in Belly
That's a rumor. Again, because of how guarded I was, I hated acting. This is why I don’t act, because I would get in my way. I would be thinking, “No, I don't wanna do something that I ain't gonna look cool.” But you know, I was young and immature. Or I was young mentally. You know, if you see our own movies, I was in for like 30 seconds and I wasn't even speaking. I had no idea how Nas did that because I felt like he was in the same place as me. But he did it and he made it work. But I never was meant to be in Belly. I don't even know where that came from.
"Hype could take credit for 50 percent of the success of the music at that time. If not 55 percent." -Jay-Z
Thoughts on Belly
I felt like Hype wasn’t ready for cinema at the time and I felt like he blew a huge opportunity. When someone goes from our space to another space, I'm rooting for them. I want them to kill it because they open the door for all of us, right? I don't know if he took it seriously enough. I don't know if he was ready for that moment at that time. And I felt like he was so brilliant and I wanted so much more. I don't know the behind-the-scenes of it. I don't know what the budget was. I don't know if they stripped down his original ideas. But the final product is a hood classic for us. And we loved it. And there's classic moments. But I felt like at that moment, I felt like he could have been what Quentin Tarantino represents for his folks. He was that avant-garde, but you can be avant-garde and it doesn’t touch the culture because we don’t relate to the story behind it. It’s just aesthetics for the sake of aesthetics and you know, that's boring. Hype had both. He had aesthetics and then he had a sensibility that touched us in a way that was like, ‘Oh, culture connects to this.’ And that's what I believed for him.
And so the harsh criticism, it was out of love because I believed that he was the illest in the world at that moment. I thought the storyline was good. But I thought the way he went about that venture, it should have been Hype Williams presents a film next year, and then the next year, and then the next year. I felt like he should have dominated that space. And when he didn't it was like a letdown like, ‘Yo, damn, what happened?’ But it could have been a Dave Chapelle situation where it would be, like, being disappointed in Dave Chappelle. It's like, no, he did the right thing. He stepped away because he wasn't treated fairly. But we wanted the Chappelle Show. Selfishly, I wanted Hype to dominate that space. But in my opinion, Belly and Paid In Full gotta be the best hood cult classics of that time.
On Hype’s contributions
I would say that Hype could take credit for 50 percent of the success of the music at that time. If not 55 percent. We gave people an audio experience that they imagined in their mind and when he put those visuals to it, it took it to a whole new level. I remember hearing “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See” on Hot 97 and thinking this song is crazy. We played it 1,000 times that night. But when I saw the visual, I was like, oh, this is a rock-n-roll record. This is way bigger than a nice club song. This is a cultural moment for us. And even Missy’s “The Rain.” It just took it to another place. And then Puff with “Mo Money, Mo Problems.” Like the way Puff was looking in those videos, I think it took him to an iconic place. Because Puff is not gonna dazzle you vocally. It’s gonna be a great performance and you're gonna enjoy it and you love the stunting of what he’s saying. But the way him and Nas look walking through the club [in “Hate Me Now,” that's a whole other thing. I think without that video, we got a good song. But accompanied with that video we got a classic moment.
Missy Elliott, artist who worked with Hype on “The Rain,” (1997) “She’s a Bitch,” (1999) and others
Sylvia Rhone, Merlin Bob, and Gina Harrell at Elektra told me about Hype Williams. When we first met, Hype said he loved my music and he felt that the video should reflect my sound, and for him, my music sounded futuristic. He was hype so it makes sense that his name is Hype Williams. When he pitched the idea of the blow-up suit and the fisheye lens for “The Rain” I wasn’t hesitant because I’ve always been a risk-taker. Nothing was off-limits to me visually. I came up with the rest of the video scenes, which I thought of when I was writing the song. I wanted to be in the video sitting on the hill. I wanted Yoyo to appear when the lyrics said, "You don't wanna play with my Yo-Yo." I wanted SWV to appear when the lyrics said "Can we get kinky tonight? like Coko." I wanted my friends Lil’ Kim, Brat, Total, 702, and Tim[baland] to be in the video and I wanted a crazy jeep on the beach. So Hype and I meshed perfectly. We understood each other’s vision.
For “She’s a Bitch,” Hype and I went to eat to talk about the idea for the video. We both knew after “The Rain” we had to up the visuals and the risk. He said to me, “Fuck it, you should do a bald head,” and we laughed. But something in our spirit knew as crazy as it sounded, it also sounded historical. So I said okay! And from there he just started building and of course, June Ambrose my stylist who styled the blow-up suit for “The Rain” video, and Billy B, my make-up artist, added to this masterpiece with the badass black long coat and mohawks and stones on my eyes that took two and half hours. But the whole team was on the same futuristic frequency.
Filming “She’s a Bitch” was intense because we had to keep holding our breath underwater for mad long. We were also dancing on that big M that comes up out of the water and it was so slippery. We were falling off and one of the dancers had an asthma attack. Because we were in the middle of the water they had ambulance boats around.
"Hype fought for big budgets because he knew that these videos wouldn’t just be videos. They were going to be a work of art." -Missy Elliott
Hype videos define so much in the culture of not just hip-hop music videos but all videos, period. He was very particular about the color and texture of videos and making sure he was the first to do something. He made sure he connected with the artist and that those videos showcased what type of artist you were. Hype fought for big budgets because he knew that these videos wouldn’t just be videos. They were going to be a work of art that will be studied when we are all long gone.
June Ambrose, costume designer who created the looks for Hype Williams’ most iconic videos (“Mo Money Mo Problems,” “The Rain,” “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See,” and the Belly film
He was like the artist whisperer. He could go, get close to them, say something, and it changed the temperature of the room. While on set we had to cancel out a lot of noise. We tended to just talk to each other because the only people that really mattered were the subject and us two because you can drown yourself in opinions from people who don’t understand the creative process or what’s in our heads. We'd always start with the music and then look over his treatment and we’d discuss what was doable and what wasn’t doable. But he never wanted to hear what couldn’t be done. For Missy’s “She’s A Bitch,” he wanted a suit made out of lights. And I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ And he’s like, “I need it to feel like the inside of a computer and I need the lights to move to the beat of the song.” For Busta’s “Gimme Some More” he wanted me to make everything as big as possible. And when he’d see the costumes come on set he would laugh so hard. We were probably doing three or four videos a month, back to back with short turnarounds. And I wasn’t just dressing talent. I was dressing all of the dancers and I couldn’t go to Zara. It was custom. But we were having a blast and making lots of money.
"We used to hate everything we did. But it was healthy because it made us want to be better." -June Ambrose
We used to hate everything we did. But it was healthy because it made us want to be better. And if your shit doesn’t stink, where is the hunger? And the reality is that everyone was coming for us. They wanted us out of the way. We were dominating. We were expensive. People thought we became too powerful. Every time I worked with another director they were like, ”Give me what you give Hype.” I've always only seen him as the messiah of music video creativity. He's a savant and he doesn't think like anybody else. And there was humility in him. There was an intimacy in his creativity. His greatest contribution to culture is not being afraid to do things that made others uncomfortable. That is so brazen, especially as a kid from Queens who wasn’t born into privilege. But we created a privilege for ourselves. And he gave us the opportunity to not be afraid and step outside of the trauma in which we were raised and live this other life.
Fatima Robinson, choreographer who worked with Hype on videos like “Rock The Boat” and “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See”
Working with Hype is just amazing because his brain thinks so far out of the box. I remember rehearsing for “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See” and the song was so amazing. Then we get on set and we had to dance to the half-speed version of it, which was so wild. But when you play it back, it makes that stuttered kind of feel and vibe that was so new and became kind of a signature look. We also did the Gap Khaki Soul commercial together. I had auditioned for Gap for years as a dancer but never got it. And when Hype got a commercial and they let him bring in whoever he wanted, he kind of helped with my transition from music video choreographer to commercial choreographer. And from that point on, Gap hired me all the time to do their commercials.
On “Rock The Boat” we were talking about the song and what the movement should feel like and Hype was like, “What if the girls dance with girls?” And I loved that idea so much because we hadn’t seen it before. Working with him was like attending the best creative school you can go to. A lot of times people go to school and are told what they can and can't do. Or they are given the lines to play inside. But with Hype it’s all about coloring outside the lines.
Margo Wainwright, former video commissioner at Def Jam. Worked with Hype on all videos he directed for Def Jam artists
All of the Def Jam artists wanted to work with him, but most of the time it came down to who could afford him. Hype's budgets were always astronomical. Like ridiculous. But that was just the nature of the beast. His treatment writing wasn’t extravagant. You might get a paragraph or one photo, but with him it was kind of like, I'm shooting it so it's gonna be the shit. I think “Big Pimpin” was like a million [dollar budget]. And I think that was one of the first million-dollar budgets that we ever dealt with. We shot in Trinidad and then we had to shoot in Miami. That video had a lot of hiccups. I don't think anybody really expected much of that video to be honest because the experience was so crazy. We weren’t really sure. But then, when the video came in—and that was the first time Hype had done the white letterboxing—it looked so grand. It was the dopest video ever and you just forgot all about what happened to get there.
Hype is so personable and he's so nice. And he's focused. You know when to speak to him and when not to speak to him because you can feel his energy. He's great at pivoting and figuring something out or making changes. He's great behind the camera and he's not afraid to shoot himself. He doesn't rely on other people to do things. He was the barometer. He was what everybody was striving to be as far as music video directors go. And during that era, there was nobody else that was moving the needle visually the way he was. At one point he felt like he should be getting points on the albums because he felt like he was contributing to the record’s success.
Irv Gotti, CEO and co-founder of Murder Inc. Records and Hype’s childhood friend
Before he became Hype Williams, we used to sit on his stoop [as teenagers in Queens] dreaming about what we wanted to do. He used to be like, “I got the visual, you got the music.” He shot the Mic Geronimo [“Shit’s Real” (1994) video] for me for $5,000. I didn't have a lot of money, he was shooting a video for another artist and he ordered extra film stock and used it to shoot my video. He came to the set from the other set with film in the trunk.
I begged him to put DMX in Belly. X was still new. [While] making the movie, X exploded. For DMX’s “Get At Me Dog” video, we were at the Tunnel and X performed it, like, 15 times and Hype was the cameraman on stage. X didn't really trust anybody, but he trusted Hype. “Put It On Me” was huge for Ja Rule. That helped set his image and market, which is what Hype would do, he would give the guy a look. “Put It On Me” was a record like no other and he brought it home with the video.
Hype is a quiet, reserved guy. He doesn't hang out, he doesn't go to clubs. Every major artist, they all came to him because he was them—they trusted him to deliver the vision. He’s a true artist, so he related to them, he spoke their language. Hype knows every aspect of filmmaking. Trust me, other directors don't. He's gonna give the shutter angles, camera [placement], lighting, wardrobe, styling. Then, he knows how to work with the artist, how to get the best out of them. I've seen him on sets with Beyoncé and get Beyoncé to do shit to make the video great.
I love Hype, he's my brother. He's the greatest music video director that ever lived. Hype’s story is nowhere near over. He's gonna have a blockbuster movie. He's the type of guy that makes Avatar.
Kelis, worked with Hype on “Caught Out There,”(1999) her career-defining first single and music video
For “Caught Out There,” Hype wrote the treatment. And then we started talking about it and figuring out what we wanted it to feel like. For me, it was really important that I looked like myself. So it was all my own clothes and pieces from Patricia Field, where I used to shop. We both wanted it to feel like a movie. We filmed it in downtown L.A. For that walking scene with the women holding the picket signs, we wanted it to feel really street. And then the rest of it was obviously shot on a set that was built. But we wanted it to feel real. It was such a defining moment for me. It was the first time people were really seeing me. And so like I said, it needed to look like me. It needed to feel like me. And I think he did such a great job of letting what I am kind of come through. And that felt really good. It set the tone for how people respond to me, how they see me out the gate. It’s that first impression that you can't really reel back. You have to sort of stick to your guns and hope for the best. What we did was really dope and I'm grateful because it gave me the room to express myself, always.
"Hype knows how to make things look really big without them looking cheesy, which is definitely an art form." -Kelis
I love Hype. He's a real artist. He's super creative. He has a vision. He knows how to make things look really big without them looking cheesy, which is definitely an art form. He's great to work with. We've worked together a handful of times and every time it's something different, but really fly, really Black, really creative. He set the tone. So many videos from that era and onward for the next decade or so had a certain tone because everybody wanted to follow what Hype was doing. The visuals were so important back then too. It was the only way we could really show people how we felt and what the song meant to us, what it was supposed to look like, and how it was supposed to be received and digested. And so he really solidified an era of visuals for Black music.
Tuffy Questell, actor, casting director, and producer who worked with Hype when he first started out at Classic Concept, a production company founded by Ralph McDaniels and Lionel Martins, and served as a production coordinator on videos including “What’s It Gonna Be?!” and “Hate Me Now.”
I remember watching him and Puffy go at it on the set of “Hate Me Now.” We were shooting in a club called Float on 52nd Street. I’m on the street waiting for a tiger to be delivered in a cage and I saw Lou Rawls walking by. I had met him one time before, so I said hello and he asked me what we were working on. I said, “We’re shooting a music video for a song called ‘Hate Me Now,’ and Hype is directing with Puffy and Nas.” I told him I’d love to have him involved because he was doing something right down the block. I said it would be kind of cool if he wanted to do a cameo, and the casting director in me was speaking but I knew I wasn’t working as the casting director on this shoot, I was coordinating. I call Mike Ellis, I’m like, “Mike, can you please come to the delivery area,” and he says, “If I come over there and you waste my time, your head is rolling back to the Bronx.” So as soon as he gets there, he sees Lou Rawls and they talk. So [Rawls] ends up doing a cameo.
The funny part was, Hype told both Nas and Puffy that Lou Rawls would be in the car with them and get out of the car to go to the club. Nas was like, “Oh my God, that’s like a bucket list moment.” Puffy was like, “I don’t know why Lou Rawls is in my motherfuckin video,” and Hype was like, “I hear you, but he’s Lou Rawls. That’s a legend.” And Puffy was like, “We’re legends!” Puffy was trying so hard to defeat Hype, and Hype was like, ‘I just need you to trust me on this, just do it because it’s going to leave a good mark.’ And he said something in Puffy’s ear that I did not hear that I wish I did, but Puffy was like, “Okay.” Whatever Hype said was enough to convince him. Even in the arguments, he always knew the key moments to get what he needed by addressing something to whoever needed to hear it. He was always brilliant with that. Most directors yell or they talk to the one person that understands them, and they don’t talk to everyone else. He was able to talk to anybody in any department.
I was on set for Busta Rhymes and Janet Jackson’s “What's It Gonna Be?!” which was amazing. It was so funny because Hype was like, “No one takes a picture with Janet.” And as soon as Janet came out of her trailer he took a picture with her immediately. Videos like that were iconic and they were fun, and I remember when he first created that lightboard, he figured things out that no one else did.
He contributed color to a blank slate. He contributed so much color to hip-hop. He gave young filmmakers the opportunity to become Scorcese in his creations. A lot of people would give Spike Lee so much credit and other directors, but Hype really opened the door for people who looked like us, and I love him for that. His creativity had no walls or ceilings, it just had possibilities.
Salaam Remi, music producer who knew Hype as a teenager and worked with him on one of his earliest music videos, “Rakin’ in the Dough” by Zhigge (1992), a rap group Remi produced for
When I first met Hype, it was probably around ‘88, so I’ve known him prior to the Hype Williams explosion that took over everyone's eyesight when he was making old TVs look new with his approach to color grading and direction. Zhigge was my first group and their video for “Rakin’ in the Dough” was one of the first music videos Hype directed. He shot it in his house in Jersey City. He took all of the furniture out of his place, put it in one of his peoples’ places, and then painted the rooms in his house different colors as the art direction, and then shot them in the park right outside his house. He basically took his own personal space and made it into a video studio in order to make the budget work.
One time he said to me, “Salaam, if the song sounds like all the other songs, I don’t do the video.” I almost interpreted that as he was letting the song's differences score a different type of picture for him. A lot of directors did different things, but he was just stepping out on a ledge that a lot of people wouldn't. Anybody who saw it knows the difference and knows where it came from. He pushed the envelope so that everybody else had to rise to that standard.
ASAP Rocky, artist influenced by Hype Williams
I grew up on Hype Williams and loved his work ever since I was a kid. His visuals are very enticing, so when my development for film started to broaden I realized that he meticulously worked in similar ways to myself. He always assembles the best teams from the gaffers, first ADs, colorists, art department, cinematographers, etc., to get his vision across. My favorite Hype video is "Woo-Hah!!" by Busta Rhymes. I think the reason I loved it is because I was a kid, so the vibrant colors and the fisheye lens really stood out to me. I think Busta's charisma and Hype WIlliams’ direction was a perfect groundbreaking connection. I think Hype Williams is the godfather of hip-hop visuals. He takes iconic urban cinematography to another level.
Daymond John, co-founder of FUBU who grew up with Hype in Queens and worked with him on FUBU commercials and music videos
I met Hype through a friend named Alfred when we were either 13 or 14 years old. Later on, Hype would end up doing the movie Belly, which is about Alfred—DMX would play his character. It was me, Hype, Alfred, and Irv Gotti. Hype and I originally didn't like each other. Hype was a wise guy, always cracking jokes. I didn't like him at all. I hated him. Actually, I wanted to fight him to tell you the truth. But one weekend we went to a concert in Maryland that Alfred was throwing. We ended up in the bathroom, Hype and I, and he said something like, “Hey man, I apologize for being like that.” He showed he was a way bigger man than I was. And I felt stupid to be very honest. Man, all he had to do was that and I could have done that a long time ago. I gained a lot of respect for him after that.
Then he started to blow up maybe three years later and I was doing FUBU. Hype started bringing artists back to the neighborhood. He'll be like, “Hey LL [Cool J], let's shoot the 'Hey Lover' video in the middle of Farmers Boulevard in Hollis, Queens where you grew up.” LL said, ‘'Man, we're going to bring Boyz II Men to Hollis? They're the biggest stars [on] the planet.” Hype was like let's do it. Then he'll say, ‘Daymond, I'm shooting LL, you got something?’ And I’m like, “What do you mean? He has a million stylists?” “Yeah, do you have something? L, you want to rock it?” LL would be like, “Of course.” So, you know, he started putting my stuff in everything. And he's just been one of the biggest blessings that I could ever ask for.
He did one of our FUBU commercials with the models swimming underwater. When I asked for the treatment, all he said was, “I see blue.” He kept saying that for about a month. I told him my partners are going to kill me, what do you mean? He told me, “Just come to California. I see blue.” The day before the shoot he said he wanted to film in a pool. OK... is there water in the pool? Am I in the pool? Who was in the pool? What's even in the pool? The point is that Hype can tell you generally what he's going to do. But he's Hype and he gets you hype. That's where the name comes from.
"When I asked for the treatment, all he said was, 'I see blue.' He kept saying that for about a month." -Daymond John
He told me something really important once. He said when you look at the screen, it's all one-sided. So I have to be the one that finds the angle and dimension. And if you look at everything in life through angles, you always find the barrier of entry. An easier way to overcome the barrier of entry, or to pull the beauty of something out, you have to look at it through angles. I would call him the Hitchcock of our hip-hop genre. Whether it's Tarantino, Spielberg, or Hitchcock, Hype is there with his craft. He's the greatest to me.
Director X, music video director who got his start interning for Hype during the mid- to late-‘90s
I wanted to intern for Hype. He was kind of the first person where the average hip-hop fan noticed that something more was happening. The videos felt different. When you dig into the history, he wasn't the first person to ever do a hip-hop video that looked great, right? Marcus Raboy was one director whose videos all looked great. But as good as it all looked, it didn't have that unexplainable culture part, whereas Hype was really part of it. He had all that. He knew the right shoes, the right pants, the right lighting. He clearly came from the culture. Back in the day when I was on my own and all of my boys would be wilding out in my apartment, I remember waking up and all of them were watching "Flava in Your Ear (Remix)" with the girl dancing. I remember seeing this girl dancing next to LL and just saying, “Look at that girl,” then falling back asleep. So it was that. When directing became something I was interested in I went to the source of it.
Before Hype, the visuals told you where an artist lived. Oh we're in New York and I'm on a stoop. Oh, I'm in L.A. and I'm in this bungalow. But when Hype came along the visuals themselves said this is hip-hop. Those forced perspective sets that we all remember. The wide-eyed lens. The big bright ring lights that you could see reflecting people's glasses. These videos where the fashion got really loud. The whole thing said this is hip-hop culture. This is how hip-hop does visuals. This literally got in your face. No one else did that. That didn't come from anywhere. That came from Hype. You can't point it to another movie or reference place because there's no other place it was from. It was from him and it belonged to hip-hop. It belonged to the culture.
DJ Khaled, artist and producer who has worked with Hype on numerous music videos
“Hate Me Now” really took me to a place for a lot of reasons. I thought the record was an anthem that I wish I would have made. And as far as the video, just the energy that was caught and captured, the fire, the smoke. There [are] so many other videos he's done, but that one in particular just really touched me in a special way and motivated me. Every time I make a video, I always go back to that.
“Go Hard” (2008)
It was always a dream of mine to be able to work with Hype Williams. “Go Hard” was my first time working with him. It was crazy because he ain't give me no treatment. I was just so excited that he agreed to do it and I’m used to getting a treatment, a shot list. When you work with Hype Williams, you don't know which Hype Williams you're gonna get that day. He agreed to do the video but he came with his crew. We just got to follow his direction and trust the process.
I'll never forget, you know how when you need smoke you might pull out a smoke machine? He took a piece of paper and lit it up on fire and made it smoke. You say you needed a light, the man pulled out a flashlight. Remember, this is the first time I am working with Hype Williams. I'm saying to myself, “I've never seen shit like this in my life.”
It was a small crew and I was used to seeing 30 people in the back behind the camera. It was just him and his man. When that video starts and it says “Hype Williams,” you're locked and loaded. It was a new experience for me, but I was very happy.
“I Wish You Would” (2012)
That one was serious because you had Hype Williams and then you also had Rick Ross and Kanye. But remember, Kanye is hands-on like Hype Williams. It's two super creative geniuses making art, right?
We shot “Theraflu” that day too and put a little clip at the end of the video. So we really got two videos in one. And that video was dope because he had a studio that we walked into and Kim Kardashian was there and paparazzi was all over the fucking place. What was so dope that I learned that day was his camera angles, the way he would shoot somebody from a side or from the front. You see how the shit was shaking like that. And then him and Kanye working together, it was flawless. It was probably one of the easiest videos to shoot. I remember Kanye climbing up the ladder and he was hanging off something and I was hoping that nobody would get hurt. But Hype filmed everything. It was so much shit that day we filmed. I'll never forget, I had the sneakers around my neck. There's footage of that video that never got released. I don't even have it. I gotta call Hype because I really wanna see it because we really shot two videos.
Was it always the plan to shoot both of those videos that same day?
I ended up using “Wish You Would” as one of my singles and Kanye ended up putting out “Theraflu.” When we shot the video for “Wish You Would” we was like, ‘Fuck it. Let's shoot the video for “Theraflu” right now.’ And Ye let me have it. So it was crazy. It was a blessing to be able to make these two records. And I got a chance to work with the great Hype Williams. It was a special time in my career and to this day I'm forever thankful for everybody that was a part of it, from Hype Williams to Kanye to Jay-Z. We end up making two records instead of one. And that's what hip-hop is about, great minds coming together to make great music. And then Hype Williams just captures all that shit.
“Sorry Not Sorry” (2021)
“Go Hard” and “Wish You Would” had no treatments. At least I ain't see no treatment. Now, “Sorry Not Sorry” I'm working with Jay-Z and Hype Williams and Nas. Hype had conversations with me. He had conversations with Jay. I'm sure he had conversations with Nas. It was just beautiful ideas going back and forth. He captured that song and he captured Jay and Nas and myself unbelievably. To this day, I watch certain scenes, like the cigar scene in the casino, that flower shot, just all that shit. He showed us the treatment and it was mostly just beautiful pictures. You gotta remember, Hype Williams ain't gonna write you a treatment like a normal director's treatment that says we do this, we do that. He'll just give you the color, the feeling. The pictures he sent over were so beautiful that I knew this was gonna be something special. For me, he captured that video perfectly. The song was recorded, but also there's a video so my kids get to see that. It's documented.
When I make a documentary, I need Hype to talk about working with me because I know he got some stories. He's one of the best that ever did it. And if you look at his portfolio of all his videos, they're iconic, they're legendary. The minute it says “Hype Williams,” you're locked in.
Hip-hop is forever and Hype Williams captured it at a special time. He took the visuals to a high level… That's big talk. I'm just thinking about all the videos he's done. To this day, even if you don't use Hype Williams, you're looking at his videos for inspiration. Hype Williams is the level where you gotta go with this.
And me, personally, I want to thank him for everything he's done for us in hip-hop and continues to do for us. He's an icon. He's up there with not just music directors, I'm talking about, Van Gogh, Picasso, Basquiat, he’s there as well. From film to art, everything. He's one of those guys. I’ve worked with Hype Williams. You can't tell me shit. DJ Khaled worked with Hype Williams. It’s a big accomplishment for me. And it’s always been a learning experience. Like, damn, he pulled that shit off.
Melina Matsoukas, filmmaker and music video director who is inspired by Hype’s work
He's like the Black godfather of film for so many of us. I’m standing on his shoulders, but he's never been honored in the way I feel like he deserves. Because he has influenced so much in filmmaking and pop culture and fashion. Also, he had an all-black crew. He made sure that he incorporated the community into the work. It was us telling our own narratives and owning our own images. You could photograph our community and make art. It inspired me to get into filmmaking and music videos. It’s had such an effect in filmmaking. I think of Kehinde Wiley and how he puts a regular Black man from the street on a horse with a crown on his head. And it’s like where does that come from? He’s a child of Hype whether he knows it or not.
"I’m standing on his shoulders, but he's never been honored in the way I feel like he deserves."-Melina Matsoukas
His work helped me find beauty where there’s darkness. One of my goals has always been to keep it very authentic but doing that in a way that’s artful and honoring your subject. He really is maybe the first one to popularize the fisheye lens and finding the humor in that, but also the beauty. He’s a comedic storyteller, but then he can also be dramatic at times. The narrative, the color, and the way he photographs Black skin is just like no other. I don’t know if anybody compares to him. I still reference Belly to this day. It’s one of my favorite films. When I was working on my film, Queen & Slim, I worked with a DP who was a white British man and his references were very different from mine. His references were great and the stuff he worked on was great, but I had to give him the school of Melina Matsoukas and one of the main things I told him was to watch Belly. From that opening scene right when you get the contact lenses, then the strobe lights and the acapella music. You are just like, “What is this ride and adventure we are about to be on?” Then, also coming from New York, I was like wow, this is what it feels like. I felt like I was of that world and I had a place that I could belong in.
Malik Hassan Sayeed, cinematographer who worked with Hype on Belly and various music videos
We were both drawn to imagery that had a visceral effect on the nervous system. And we realized that’s the kind of work we wanted to produce. We were trading work from photographers like Albert Watson, Jean Paul Goude, which was in Belly. Filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola. Movies like Apocalypse Now, The Godfather, and Gummo. There’s [Sergei] Parajanov, a Russian filmmaker. And I really can't separate myself from AJ [Arthur Jafa]. He’s like my mentor, my big brother, and one of my best friends. He was sending me a lot of stuff and I would share it with Hype. So I’m collating stuff and he’s collating stuff and we are just waiting for the right opportunity. And then once we did get one, we were like “Oh, now we can do that thing.”
My favorite projects we’ve worked on together are always the ones where the visual feels like the music sounds. I didn’t do this entire video, but I feel like we achieved that with Wu-Tang’s “Can It Be All So Simple.” I love that shit. I did “Mary Jane” by Scarface. That one comes really close. And there was one that not a lot of people saw, Mic Geronimo’s “Masta I.C.” And a lot of the time it’s the energy that exists in real-time on the day we are doing it. And that gets transduced into the film. Film allowed us to capture that energy and those were the ones I liked the best.
Belly is an extension of the growth that was already going. Everything was building up to that and now we're doing it in a narrative context and the stakes are higher. But it's also a bigger opportunity for us to be fully free to do what we want to do. And it had to be like that for Hype to do his first feature. Hype started as a graffiti artist and he was a comic book guy. That space is a lot more free and a lot of the references for Belly were comic book references. Hype was also into video games and the world-building that’s involved. So that’s a big piece of it. It pushed us a lot further than we would have probably gone if we had different limits. We visualized the whole film before we shot it.
We were in Jamaica, which is one of my favorite places in the world. My father used to take me there when I was a kid. So it became my spot and I went a few times a year. So a lot of the people in Jamaica scenes are my people. We wrote down every scene and how we wanted it to look, down to the colors. DMX became Hype’s acolyte. He was hanging with us in Jamaica and he did a lot of the storyboarding. I usually don’t like looking at my work but a lot of scenes hit. I love all the Jamaica stuff. All the stuff in the house. Nas’ house was meant to be warm and Tommy’s was going to be cool. And it all kind of worked. When they are walking down the street on Queens Boulevard. There are a few scenes where I’m like, “Ehhh. Almost.” But it was the vibe. The energy was right.
"Belly is an extension of the growth that was already going. Everything was building up to that and now we're doing it in a narrative context and the stakes are higher."-Malik Hassan Sayeed
The movie got leaked and bootlegged before it came out. So that affected the box office numbers, and that’s the main metric of success for the industry. But even today it hits the nervous system in a way that still resonates. I mean there are several classics that nobody paid attention to when they came out. The part that hurts me is how [the studio execs] attacked Hype. It really, really, really affected him in a way that was kind of seismic. And there weren’t enough people who came before him to prep him for that. He gets love for it today. But at the time, it did some damage to him.
Hype did have another movie written. It was amazing. He was going to cast Paula Patton in it. And this was before she became big. It was going to be in 3D, before 3D got popular again. It was about the Jamaican Maroons, Africans who freed themselves from slavery and settled in the mountains in Jamaica. And the British government came to fight them and they beat the British government. A studio bought the script, but they had a regime change and the new person who came in wasn't interested in it. And because they were producing it, they owned the project and Hype couldn't take it anywhere else.
Imani Lindsey, production coordinator who started working with Hype Williams in 2016 and eventually became a line producer
Hype brought me on to help him co-produce a Travis Scott video that I believe didn’t come out. Working with him is similar to working with most visionaries and geniuses. It takes a minute for you to wrap your head around the way in which they operate. But once you take a step back, you begin to see the creativity come to life. You see the ingenuity. Sometimes when it starts, you really just don't know where it's headed. But then as things build, you see it all come together. It’s the really small moments that I remember most. Like when he puts his hands up to his eye and tries to see the actual vision or the shot he wants. Or when he gets in go mode and puts his hoodie on and starts listening to music before our first shot. And just seeing the way in which he operates with his core crew. They've worked with him for decades, but you still see that they love to work with him and when it's time to go, no matter what they're up against, they always do whatever they need to do to get it done. And it feels like a family in a sense.
"He showed the world Black opulence—not only in terms of wealth, but also Black beauty too, especially during a time when we as viewers had limited access."-Imani Lindsey
My favorite video we worked on was probably an unreleased video with Anderson .Paak and Kendrick [Lamar]. It was the energy between the two creatives on set. Everybody was willing to give their best. One of the biggest gems I’ve learned from him is accepting and embracing changes and mistakes. He always compared that to Thelonious Monk, and how when he's performing, sometimes he would make a mistake, but he would incorporate it so that nobody would even notice. Knowing that mistakes can be your greatest gifts or your best lessons is something Hype taught me. And being thoughtful in your approach. He caters to talent. He curates playlists for them and always tries to make them feel as comfortable as he can with the process. And always feed your crew bomb food. Hype rarely used traditional caterers. He always supported local restaurants with really great food. I learned you can literally shift crew/talent's mood/energy when they eat good on set.
He showed the world Black opulence—not only in terms of wealth, but also Black beauty too, especially during a time when we as viewers had limited access.
Connie Orlando, former executive producer at Hype Williams’ production company Big Dog Films
Hype is a paradigm shifter. He displayed culture in a different way. It was big. It was loud. It was everything that it is, but no one had ever really seen that before Hype. And once that happened there was this immediate thirst for it. Labels discovered that these can be real marketing and branding tools for artists and Hype was the catalyst to all of that. With his art he opened up the doors for bigger budgets and to do bigger things, and the video became more important than it had ever been. Remember the world was different then and you weren’t looking at videos on your phone. The premiere turned into an event that people would wait on.
Him starting Big Dog Films was game-changing. You had a young Black man who had his own company that basically cornered the market. He became an example of what is possible. And doing that at that age and at the scale he did it, it just opened up opportunities not only for people who wanted to direct and create and produce, but also for gaffers, set designers, etc. I never thought I wanna be a music video producer but it opened a door to me to a world that I didn't know really existed. And I've seen countless people come through that door that have amazing careers.
The job was challenging but fun. Because no one had chartered this path before, it was a lot of learning. We were the first to do CGI in a video. I think the first one was for Busta Rhymes and Janet Jackson’s “What's It Gonna Be?!” Back then CGI wasn’t something a 16-year-old could do on their computer. It was a process that took time. In any creative field, you have to stay challenged to be ahead of the pack. And if you aren’t feeling challenged, it just indicates that you're not pushing or doing as much as you can.
I remember when we shot Mary J. Blige in Hawaii for the “Everything” video. It was one of the most beautiful videos that I had ever done in my career. His vision was Mary as a queen. So he picked all of these beautiful places in nature and it was a tribute to that. It was spiritual. Like "you are my everything." You really felt that on those sets. With the helicopter shots it really showed how grand the world is and God’s power, and to see Mary in the middle of the sea, it was so beautiful. And Mary and Hype were friends, so she really trusted him.
But we were all really young, June, Hype, Malik, and I. And we were like family. So when we showed up, it wasn't like we were all going to work. We were showing up for our families and we were showing up to create something that we all were very passionate about. And all that passion exudes from all those videos. That’s why they were so popular. You need the heart. And at Big Dog Films, it was just all heart.
Westside Gunn, artist who worked with Hype on “Da Birds” music video with Griselda
I always wanted a Hype Williams video. That was on my bucket list. All the way up until WWCD, it was always just Griselda independent, so [“Da Birds”] was the first project being signed to a label. So it was just like, “What’s the budget? Hype, I only need one video for this album and it’s all going to you.” I’m using the GOAT because I just always respected his vision, and I still remember vividly when Belly came out. It was so legendary and cinematic. And all the other videos he was dropping. I even liked the shit like “Drive Slow.”
He was like, “I want to give you something I never did before, just show up and trust me.” And it was legendary. I had on a Blackhawks jersey and he signed it for me. He was like, “This is the first time I ever did this.” He said whenever I need him again I can hit him, and I think it’s almost about that time. And fun fact: I got the “Science Class” record with Swizz Beatz on the beat and Raekwon, Ghostface [Killah], and Stove [God Cooks], and prior to bullshit going on with it, Hype was going to do the video for that. Even though the song is a little older now, you can always go back in time. I’m going to start dropping videos for my classic songs. It don’t matter if I made it in 2017. I’m going to give them fresh energy. Sometimes you have to catch people up.