When word first spread that Rihanna's video for the song "Work" was being shot in Toronto at renowned West Indian restaurant the Real Jerk, the news captured social media attention, leading the video’s shooting location to trend on Twitter for hours.
The man at the centre of all the kerfuffle, Toronto native Director X, reacted as you would expect: too busy being focused on the job to pay any mind to the excitement the shoot was generating. "That's just noise," he says over the phone from Los Angeles, of the outside attention. "It's nice and it's cool that people were excited about the project, but I'm old-school. I've been doing this almost 20 years."
Released a few weeks after Rihanna's Anti album, Director X's "Work" video (along with a companion clip by Tim Erem) has helped to maintain the high profile of the song, which is the number 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 for the fourth consecutive week.
Ontario-born Director X, born Julien Lutz, mentored early on under the auspices of music video auteur Hype Williams and has since directed visual clips for some of the biggest music stars and songs in the world within the last two decades. Even if you don't know his name, you've almost definitely seen his work.
Starting out under the name Little X, which Lutz began using during his days as a spoken-word poet, he has directed videos for hit songs by Justin Bieber (“Boyfriend”), Usher ("Yeah!"), Nelly Furtado ("Promiscuous"), Nelly ("Hot in Herre"), Nicki Minaj ("Your Love"), Kendrick Lamar ("King Kunta") and Drake ("Hotline Bling," "Started from the Bottom"), just to name a few.
He also has videos for City and Colour, John Mayer, David Guetta, Alicia Keys, Maestro, Korn, Jay Z and Kanye West on his resumé.
While he’s regularly making videos with internationally known music stars on major labels, it’s worth remembering that Director X cut his teeth on videos with independent artists in Canada's under-the-radar hip-hop scene during the late 1990s. His first video, for which he snagged a co-director credit, was Choclair's 1997 video for his Juno Award-winning release "What It Takes," which proved to be a groundbreaking work for Toronto’s hip-hop scene.
"What made 'What it Takes' so special, was it was the first [hip-hop] video from Toronto to really say we're from Toronto and we're proud of it," says Director X. "We went out to Toronto Island with our city as a backdrop and that was really the first time anyone had done that shot. Toronto hip-hop was not waving the flag of Toronto [before that]."
"In that generation, the Choclairs, the Kardinal Offishalls and myself, it wasn’t like it was a plan, it just was the way it evolved. We were the generation that started saying, 'This is where we were from, this is how we talk, this is where we’re from, this is our city. We don’t care, this is us,' and that video was part of that."
Director X would go on to direct other key videos that helped to raise the visibility and prominence of hip-hop in Canada, including Rascalz’ "Northern Touch" (1998), Choclair's "Let's Ride" (1999) and Kardinal Offishall’s "Ol' Time Killin’" (2001).
Since that timeframe, Toronto’s hip-hop scene has gained international recognition, and Drake is a very big reason for that. Director X has worked with Drake as a main artist or featured performer in several videos now — including Rihanna's "Work" — and has seen their creative relationship develop over the years.
He credits Drake’s post-production attention to video detail as an important component of their collaborations. "Drake has developed just knowing more and more about what he wants with each time we move forward," says Director X. "The only video that we did that wasn't his idea was actually 'Hotline Bling,' but even at the edit, he knew what he was looking for."
"There's a few people that really step into the process knowing what they want or having the vision and being involved," he continues. "If you don’t go to the edit, or if you don’t get super involved, no one thinks nothing of it. But when I’ve worked with an artist who gets involved like that, those are the ones that win."
Director X also worked early on with Drake’s "Work" headlining co-star Rihanna, as he directed her first Toronto-shot video for the song "Pon de Replay" back in 2006.
"She has a creative team so you’re working with them as well as working with her, so it’s definitely a collaboration. They are not just letting anything go," he says.
Despite the fact Director X was working with two internationally famous superstars, with their teams having significant creative input, Director X ensured that the restaurant sign for the Real Jerk was prominently featured in the video’s first shot, ensuring Toronto was well represented.
"I love the fact that the Real Jerk is the first shot in the video," says Director X. "It’s just amazing. I love that they’re getting press. I love that their sales are up. I love everything that comes with it. Their sales have jumped 20 per cent, I read online." While Director X admits he may have had ulterior motives ("Free food for life!"), he was intent on relaying an authentic cultural experience.
"[The Real Jerk] fit what we were looking for. I didn’t want it to be like a regular nightclub," he says. "I wanted you to get some sense that it was a restaurant so I had to get that kitchen shot in there. I just wanted to get that part of the West Indian experience out there where we all know, every West Indian neighbourhood has some restaurant that has enough room to have a dance floor. They’re not a nightclub, but they can throw a party. They can have a vibe. So, I wanted to get that part of our experience out into the world."
Despite the best of intentions, things can get lost in translation. Following the unfortunate labelling of the dancehall-influenced "Work" as "tropical house," some have labelled the dancing in the video "twerking," when it is actually what is referred to in West Indian culture as wining.
"We forget that as West Indians not everyone knows our culture," says Director X, who is of Trinidadian and Swiss descent, and has a history of incorporating dance into his videos. "To us, it’s wining, know what I’m saying? It is what it is. Or [some people are saying] it’s a reggae record. It’s not like Rihanna’s record is like a full-on dancehall record. It's a record with dancehall flavour, so yeah, people who aren't up on all the ins and outs of the whole thing confuse it. No surprise there."
Still, Director X is committed to conveying an authentic cultural experience when he can through the music. "When it comes to the islands stuff, what I really want to get, is that part of the experience that part of our life out. So in the Sean Paul [video for “Get Busy”] the basement party thing, it’s part of the experience. The father coming down and kicking everybody out and all that. That's how it goes, so to bring that to people is an extra kick."
Director X is quick to assert, however, that he does not force these moments in his videos. "I would never put my own feelings of nostalgia or a nod and a wink to my community or my city above what’s right for the actual project, but when it comes together like that, it’s a great thing."
At the end of the day, for Director X, it’s just work. "It’s a part of the game and all these extra benefits about showing people about our culture, our city and all these other things — those are just add-ons."
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