Hard to believe but this month marks 21 years since the release of Gang Starr’s sophomore album, Step In the Arena. The LP’s lead single, and some would argue, the definitive Gang Starr song, “Just To Get a Rep,” neatly encapsulates all the group’s signature musical elements (e.g. Guru’s detailed street narrative with a conscience; DJ Premier’s peerless production and precisely dispensed scratch hooks). But nearly as important to the record’s success with hip-hop devotees upon its release was its accompanying video. Inventively directed by Yo! MTV Raps host Fab 5 Freddy, shot in stark black and white, and prominently featuring several Gang Starr Foundation members, the “Just To Get a Rep” music video is perhaps the ideal visual rendering of the song imaginable. Ever the gentleman, Fab 5 Freddy recalls the making of this classic music video. Along the way, Fab talks no-budget shooting constraints and casting concerns, Williamsburg before the hipstaz took over, and how Guru and Premier captured the essence of a BK street institution: the stick up kid.
What stands out to you about this particular video?
Fab 5 Freddy: I guess a lot of what I feel is my best work had a strong narrative. I tell a story. Not just [show an artist] running around performing in the obligatory video fantasy world. I would find a way to pull a narrative out. And “Just to get a Rep” that was kinda like [that]. Just that real grimy street shit that I grew up around. I was very confident that I could tell this story dictated very clearly by the script, meaning the song. At that time [in hip-hop] the West Coast had got really strong. They was coming hard. So gangsta rap was beginning to become this big, impactful thing, and many of the West Coast artists had a lock on how [street subject matter] was seen. I felt like New York had gotten a little bit soft at that particular time when I did the video. And I wanted to show, like, yo, this is real street shit here – let me show you. But the thing about that video was the budget was mad low for that time. I think I barely had 20 grand.
How familiar were you with Gang Starr to that point?
Fab 5 Freddy: I had known Guru and Premier when they were hanging around [on the downtown club circuit]. “Amazon,” “Milky Way” – those were the types of clubs that were going on then. They were on that scene waiting for their shit to really pop off and blow up. I guess “Manifest” had come out, which was the first single, which everybody loved. But they were still like kind of up and coming. So I knew those dudes from just being around – and [I also knew] Patrick Moxey, who managed them.
[Gang Starr] had been on Wild Pitch Records. Wild Pitch had got at me numerous times [to direct videos] and they had a lot of acts that I liked. But I couldn’t find a way to work! I got a [professional film] crew [to pay], and to do something effective and to make a few dollars it was almost impossible. Wild Pitch had great acts and they squandered so much of what they had because they were so fuckin’ cheap. And they would eventually lose a lot of those acts. [Step In the Arena] was Gang Starr’s first album after Wild Pitch [for Chrysalis Records], “Just To Get a Rep” – the first single from the album. But even then they had a dumb low budget. But that song was just something where I said, man, I gotta do this. And we went in. Cats did it on a reduced rate because the budget was so low. But [since some of them] had did a few other jobs with me and dug the work, everybody cut their rate. So it was the most raw dog low budget joint I had done up to that point.
What besides the low budget was the biggest challenge?
Fab 5 Freddy: When we had the first meeting I told them, dude, the key thing is casting. We gotta get the right kind of dudes. And in [doing previous] casting sessions I had learned that all these wannabe actor cats show up – a lot of times pretty boy GQ looking dudes, and they were never right. And so I knew this was gonna be the problem. And I remember Preemo and Guru and them were like, “Nah, man. We got these dudes for you. Here are these dudes in our crew.” So I remember meeting them, and it was like Lil’ Dap, fuckin’ Jeru. Now, none of these dudes had come out [with their own records] yet. So I looked at these niggas, and I’m like, yeah! They were all down with the whole gang Starr clique with what they was doing. I think LIl’ Dap might have been down with the Decepticons – some ill Brooklyn gang at the time. They was young, grimy dudes and shit. So I was like, okay, yeah, all these dudes got the right look.
It was so dope to see the video a year or two later as Group Home came out, as Jeru came out with “Come Clean.” And dudes would begin to be like, “Oh shit… that’s the dude in the video!” That was what was so dope about Gang Starr – how they developed this little clique and had all these grimy motherfuckers around them, and they did look out. A lot of those cats got put on.
A pre-Group Home Lil’ Dap as seen in “Just To Get A Rep.”
Where was this filmed?
Fab 5 Freddy: Right there at the Brooklyn side of the Williamsburg Bridge, practically under it. In and around Williamsburg, right off of Broadway.
Kind of a different place these days.
Fab 5 Freddy: It’s ironic because when I did the video there the whole artsy scene had not yet come to Williamsburg. I’m from Bed-Stuy, which is just 10 minutes from there. But I never ventured that deep into [Williamsburg]. Especially those areas because it was heavily Puerto Rican when I was coming up, and I just didn’t go that deep into that hood. Williamsburg was still rough and dusty and very kind of edgy ghetto, so to speak. That little pocket [where we filmed] was residential, but it was poor. And then on the other side was Hasidics. But the immediate area was just poor, working class type dusty shit, you know. And we just went and got it in and just banged that motherfucker out.
Off Broadway: Scenes from a pre-gentrified Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
What was the process of the actual shoot like?
Fab 5 Freddy: The key thing when you’re budget is that low is you gotta do it all in one day, and mostly under daylight because we didn’t have much money for lights. So it was basically a type of shooting that we call “run and gun.” It was all run and gun practically within a one-block radius. But I was able to get enough different looks to change it up and get a story. I remember going from one location to [another], runnin’ across the street, grabbing equipment going, “Come on, come on we gotta hurry up and get these shots!” We had a tight shot list and we need to get all these story elements, which were critical to filmically capturing all this shit with a bunch of non-actors. [With other shoots] you might have the leisure of getting three or four takes of certain shit. I didn’t have that.
MTV’s censorship of the content of rap music videos was a very big concern for the directors, artists, and labels at that time. Yet one of the things that’s most memorable about “Just To Get a Rep” is you managed to get around the issue of guns appearing in this video in a creative way.
Fab 5 Freddy: MTV was starting to come with these different [restrictions], like okay, you can’t show this, you can’t show that. And a lot of it was some bullshit. But you had to be [mindful of it]. I obviously had more info on these things than anybody because I was working at MTV. I was very savvy about [what we were able to show].
Everybody else was runnin’ around trying to be gangsta this, gangsta that in various videos. And what would happen was the video would come in and then they’d send it back and tell you: you have to cut this, that and a third. And a lot of time with small companies, since it was more money, it would delay the video for periods of time. So my whole thing was, I’m gonna have to figure out a way [to address this through] filmmaking. Okay, we can’t show guns. But nothing is real in a movie. Some guy points a gun at you and shoots – that’s not a gun. You don’t get shot. So how do I do this and keep all the elements of that real street shit? [And I decided to just] show this dude [in the video] pointing his finger. I felt like it would be just as powerful, and everything that happened as a result of it would still make a strong statement. You get the story.
How did that idea go over with the group and everyone else?
Fab 5 Freddy: I had to talk to them and explain that to the group and that we were gonna do this. Because if we wanna pull this off right, there’s no way we can do this and not have to blur the gun. So why fuckin’ do that? Let’s tell the story as if it’s theater on stage: Nigga, I point, you hear the bang, you fall. In the fuckin’ creative language of theater – of film, of storytelling – you understand what I’m telling you.
Lil’ Dap pulls the trigger, with no gun.
I’m going through all this emphasis of explaining it now because I still remember being on set, and motherfuckers are like, “Yo, what the fuck are you doing?!? Pointing the finger?!?” I’m like, trust me. I knew we was gonna cut that shit together and you would still get it. It’s like little kids – bang, nigga, you’re dead! And it was an ill thing that I went there, but I felt strong about it. Because the [rules of the network had led to folks] butchering videos.
What are your other recollections of working with Guru and Premier?
Fab 5 Freddy: I remember Preemo being a stickler that I had to get a shot of him doing those scratches. So that was one of the last two set-ups we did it. We had one turntable going and I had Preemo do those little things with his hands where we could cut the scratches in. I remember Preemo and Guru – they had total trust and confidence in me because they knew my steez and knew who I was.
I think another great thing about those dudes – and it’s fascinating when you think about it – is that Guru’s from Boston, and Preemo’s from Texas, but these dudes surrounded themselves with the right cats. And they absorbed all this energy to be able to tell these stories. And it’s a perfect thing that hip-hop does when it’s done right – where they can articulate the story [so well] you would think these dudes was [from Brooklyn] they way they did it. Growin’ up in Bed Stuy in the period when I grew up, Brooklyn in terms of every other borough was the home of the stick up kid. Like one of the street hustles that was most common. It was just something that was very, very, very much a part of the existence here. And [with “Just To Get a Rep”], it was just like, oh my god, they just caught the essence of some real, grimy New York shit. They damn sure did.
DJ Premier…in deep concentration.