It’s an average Saturday in downtown Los Angeles: The streets are clogged with one-way traffic. Shopkeepers sweep their storefronts and beckon passersby with deals on cheap gold watches and wholesale denim. Pedestrians zigzag across the sidewalks to avoid the gaze of hustlers, the bark of street-corner evangelists and the stop-go swarm of bargain shoppers. Past the historic core and into the industrial district, a crowd of guys in hoodies and women in skin-tight dresses and even skinnier jeans has been waiting to get into an unmarked club in an alleyway off Seventh and Alameda for more than an hour. Impatience ripples through the line; forget that it’s 4 in the afternoon — they really want to get into this club.
Some of the more aggressive women try pushing their way to the front of the line, making desperate calls on their cell phones as they cram against the metal barricade, trying to get the attention of the completely unimpressed bouncer guarding the entrance. Their maneuvers are interrupted as a black Town Car pulls up to the entrance. The car doors open and slam shut as Chris “Cage” Palko, Shia LaBeouf and F. Sean Martin are hurried through the mob and toward the club entrance. Heads turn, jaws drop, the VIPs are quickly ushered inside and the door closes behind the crowd.
“Cut!” a man shouts. “Back to one! This time I don’t want anyone on their cell phones.”
The crowd disperses, wardrobe and set decorators quickly move in, and Cage, LaBeouf and Martin stumble out of the building, laughing.
Fliers and newspapers stenciled with Weathermen logos plaster the dingy, brown-stained exterior of the makeshift club, and the intoxicating scent of spray paint and glue hangs thick in the afternoon air. The alleyway borders the American Apparel warehouse parking lot and is the second location on day one of the “I Never Knew You” music-video shoot, the first single off rapper Cage’s upcoming album, Depart From Me, and the directorial debut for actor LaBeouf.
On set is a who’s who of Cardboard City — a collective of artists, actors and musicians, including some of hip-hop label Definitive Jux’s finest. Besides Cage and LaBeouf, there are El-P, Aesop Rock, Yak Ballz, Chauncey, F. Sean Martin and Alex Pardee, who have all turned out to support their friends, and all of whom have cameos in the video. Inside jokes run high among the tight-knit group. Aesop glances up at the American Apparel building, laughing that he only made the trek down from San Francisco for free underwear.
Cage stands, hands in pockets, intently examining the scene on the playback monitor with LaBeouf, while the video’s other lead actors, Scarlett Kapella and Dan Byrd, relax in a trailer.
Off camera, I stand with Def Jux label head El-P, who shares his opinion of Cage’s video concept: “It’s a loneliness motif … someone projecting beauty and life-saving attributes onto a girl that he doesn’t know. He follows her as though she’s headed somewhere that’s better than his life. That’s kind of what the song is about, the idea that there is some sort of saving grace in a stranger, the twisted perspective of thinking that someone you don’t even know was put there as destiny for you, to save you and draw you out of your miserable life. Cage is an observer to the story.”
Back at the monitor, LaBeouf takes off his baseball hat, flips it with the hand that’s not in a cast (the result of extensive hand surgery the actor has undergone since his July 2008 car accident), and jogs over to hug his mother, who has arrived on set.
“The whole [narrative] is being imagined as I’m performing in the club, so this is all in my head,” Cage explains. “The idea of the song is you’re sitting on a curb, you’re bummed out and suddenly the girl of your dreams walks around the corner and completely changes your life. You’re so taken by this woman, you just start following her. It’s obsession.”
Cage says that there were a lot of potential singles on the record, but they went with “the more powerful song rather than the catchiest one. It’s interesting to throw an emotional curve ball at everyone. There’s a really sad vibe, and there’s also a really angry vibe.”
In person, Cage is reserved, shy even, though there is a flicker of madness behind his eyes, a wisdom acquired from years spent overcoming physical abuse, drug use and the psychological turmoil that inevitably followed, chillingly explored in his previous two albums, Movies for the Blind and Hell’s Winter.
“When I’m writing a song I go into a weird depression cocoon, and when I come out I’m not a beautiful butterfly; I come out a fucked-up, tattered moth,” he continues, half-smiling. “But I desperately want to not feel this way, so I put it all out there. I want to play shows. I want to throw tantrums onstage and just let it all out, hence the title of the album, Depart From Me.”
I mention how Pitchfork Media leaked “I Never Knew You” in February, ahead of its scheduled release. Cage pauses and smirks, “Saboteurs. Whenever something like that happens, I think sabotage.” He holds my gaze, squinting against the sun. Trust is important with Cage, and having his closest collaborators as his closest friends certainly helps. He explains how LaBeouf came to direct this video, the beginning of a bigger partnership that will result in a feature film about Cage’s life, starring the young actor.
“When I’m collaborating with someone, there’s a lot of trust involved. [It’s that way] with Shia…. The thing with Shia started off business, and then a friendship developed from it. He followed me around on tour with a camera in 2005, which is interesting because he’d never be able to do that again now, you know? He filmed a documentary on me to get the movie going, to get his team behind what he was trying to do and educate them on the story.”
Cage recalls how LaBeouf would often wake him from a dead sleep to further his character study and gather background information for the upcoming biopic. “I’d get phone calls at 4 in the morning and Shia would be, like, ‘Did I wake you up?’ I’d say, ‘Oh, yeah, but it’s cool,’ and he’d go, ‘All right, tell me about your dad,’ the things people usually don’t talk about. With me and Shia becoming closer … I took my guard down. Anything he wanted to know, I went there.”
LaBeouf showed his Cardboard City colors in 2007 when he threw up the crew’s CC hand sign during his first Saturday Night Live hosting gig. Seemingly overnight, everyone wanted to know more about Cage and LaBeouf’s friendship and the status of the biopic.
At first glance, LaBeouf and Cage seem unlikely friends — the New York–based indie rapper and the Echo Park–raised child actor turned Hollywood star and tabloid target. The trust factor Cage emphasizes is also important for LaBeouf, and there is a protectiveness between them that reveals two friends who both know what it is like to live under media scrutiny.
“So,” LaBeouf says to me when we meet at the video wrap party at West Hollywood’s Bar Lubitsch, “are you going to be good to my boy?”
I attempt to properly introduce myself before he cuts me off.
“I know who you are,” he says all matter-of-fact as we sit over cocktails on the bar’s smoking patio, overgrown with ivy.
With the “I Never Knew You” shoot finished, I ask LaBeouf how he’s feeling. Suddenly, the new director’s wildcard enthusiasm for his venture with Cage emerges.
“I’m 22 and I’m directing my favorite rapper’s music video,” LaBeouf says excitedly. “This shit is better than riding unicorns.”
The video for “I Never Knew You” premieres May 18 on MTV2. Depart From Me will be released on July 7 on Definitive Jux.