It's a Thursday night at Delicious Pizza, the West Adams pizza joint founded by the guys behind legendary hip-hop label Delicious Vinyl. In the side room, young people of all races and backgrounds sit shoulder-to-shoulder on stackable chairs, their eyes transfixed on a glowing projection screen. "A Velvet Portrait," a short film featuring the music of jazz/soul artist and hip-hop producer Terrace Martin, transitions smoothly into the video for Future's "Use Me." A sound system with plenty of bass booms out the tracks. As "Use Me" ends and the lights come up, the audience bursts into applause.
Rarely in this day and age do you see a roomful of people giving their undivided attention — much less an ovation — to music videos. Thanks to online platforms such as YouTube, Vevo and Vimeo, watching videos has become a largely solitary exercise. And unlike the heyday of MTV, when a great video could make or break a song, videos now are largely seen as an ancillary product — something to drive that all-important streaming revenue, rather than an art form in and of themselves (the occasional Lemonade notwithstanding).
The way music videos are consumed today is part of what motivated Gregg Kaysen to start Music Video Night, which for nearly a year has turned the fourth Thursday of every month at Delicious Pizza into a celebration of hip-hop videos and the men and women who direct them. "Maybe because of over-saturation or content fatigue or the lack of quality control, people tend to view videos a little more passively," he says. "We just think they could get a little more respect [by] creating a way for people to stop for a second and recognize the best videos in a way that’s more of a communal thing."
Each Music Video Night begins with a sort of video mixtape, showcasing the best new videos released over the past month from artists large (Future, Kendrick, Joey Bada$$) and small (Tez, whose self-directed, retro-sci-fi video for "Summer Set" has to be seen to be believed). The mix, which is interspersed with timely news clips (this month: the rechristening of a section of Sedgewick Avenue in the Bronx as "Hip Hop Boulevard") is produced by Kaysen's partner Jessica Rew, a filmmaker who also DJs under the name DJ Hella Kitty.
Then comes the main event: a guest director, who introduces and talks about some of his or her best-known videos and takes questions from the audience. Already, Kaysen and his crew have booked some heavy hitters, including Matt Alonzo (The Game, Common, French Montana), Hannah Lux Davis (Nicki Minaj, Ariana Grande, Lil Wayne) and the collective Aplusfilmz (Snoop Dogg, Schoolboy Q, SZA and that Terrace Martin "Velvet Portrait" film). Though the directors come from a variety of backgrounds, Kaysen tries to keep the focus on those "not necessarily typical of Hollywood or Madison Avenue."
"We strive to highlight the hustlers who kind of make it all work," he says. "That’s one beautiful thing about hip-hop — it’s an art form where you take something out of nothing, and we see that a lot in the stories of kids that had a passion for the culture, picked up a camera, hustled and were able to make their own relationships turn into a successful career."
Although Music Video Night is sponsored by New York–based magazine and hip-hop brand Mass Appeal, Kaysen, who clearly has some of that hustle himself, wrangles most of the guests on his own. “I literally hit people up out of the blue," says the Northern California native, who hosts the night under his own hip-hop alias, John Brown. "A lot of these directors, while most of them are repped by agents and have different layers of management, they’re all really down to earth. They love to show their work and tell their story."
On the night Future's "Use Me" gets screened, the guest is Calmatic, a director from South L.A. who works frequently with The Internet, Anderson .Paak and OverDoz. With Kaysen playing the role of talk-show host ("Anything you want to say about this one?"), Calmatic presents five of his videos in chronological order, beginning with an early, no-budget Kendrick Lamar video bursting at the frame with raw talent (on the part of both director and rapper) and culminating in a video for Anderson .Paak's "Come Down" with cinematography and costumes as elaborate as anything in a Baz Luhrmann film.
“We definitely try to show the trajectory of their evolution as directors and how they’ve evolved," Kaysen says, "and also how their relationship with the artists have developed.”
After "Come Down," Calmatic spends about 20 minutes fielding questions from the audience, about everything from creative collaboration and storytelling to budgets, location scouting and where to score free color-correction software. "It was cool to actually see my quote-unquote fan base," he says later of the experience. "When you [direct] music videos, it's kind of confusing, because you don't know if the reaction is to your actual product or to the artist. To see people fill up a room and to have people come to you and give you compliments and ask you questions afterward — it kinda gives you a little bit of validation."
Calmatic likens Music Video Night to an Inside the Actors Studio or a Red Bull Music Academy for video directors — both a way to give the best people in his field a long-overdue spotlight and an educational opportunity for aspiring content creators. "I always thought, man, how come music video directors never get put on a platform like this?" he says. "Me coming up, if I were able to go to an artist talk for Director X or Hype Williams or Paul Hunter, that probably would've changed my life back then."
Kaysen sees an educational component to Music Video Night, too. “We’re trying to build this up and maybe get it to a place where we can even make it an academic resource. A way for young filmmakers to get training or equipment or guidance.” He also hopes eventually to host Music Video Nights in multiple cities and livestream each event.
In August, to celebrate Music Video Night's one-year anniversary, Kaysen and his team will take a step in that direction when they present the first Music Video Night outside L.A. at the Brooklyn Museum, with New York–based director Eif Rivera (50 Cent, Future, Wyclef). "This will be an opportunity for us to showcase some of that New York aesthetic and also focus specifically on the Caribbean influence in the culture," Kaysen says. "That’s kind of actually the theme of the museum in August, right before Afropunk Fest.”
Back home, Music Video Night has grown so popular that it's been moved to Delicious Pizza's backyard space to increase capacity. Clearly, the event has struck a chord with young hip-hop fans.
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“I have a lot of love for the culture and just wanted to try to create an event that took some of this culture that we see online to an offline space," Kaysen says. “I think it’s interesting, finding new ways to experience music.”
Music Video Night returns to Delicious Pizza on Thursday, June 29, at 7:30 p.m. with guest director Jason Goldwatch. The event is free and all-ages. More info at musicvideonight.com.