Xavier Williams, a.k.a. A Zae Production//Courtesy of Xavier Williams

Chicago’s rap scene is undeniably hot. It’s been that way for quite some time. However, the music didn’t single-handedly turn the Second City into the most influential cultural hub for all things rap. Music videos had a lot to do with Chicago’s meteoric rise.

Ever since a young man from the projects, Duan Gaines (a.k.a. DGainz), picked up a camera and introduced the world to Chicago drill and its militia through YouTube in 2011, a new generation of Black kids from the hood saw music videos as their golden ticket to a better life. The freedom of the internet lowered the overhead – you no longer had to spend thousands of dollars on film school and camera equipment. With a cheap digital camera, access to Wi-Fi and a couple of YouTube tutorials, anyone with a natural eye for talent and good visuals could become a music video director.

We reached out to three of the most prominent video directors from Chicago: Xavier Williams (A Zae Productions), Kevin Wright (LVTR Kevin) and Azeez Alaka (Laka Films). Each one is responsible for creating game-changing visuals for some of the most pivotal tracks by Chicago rappers.

On what made you pick up a camera:

Xavier Williams, 26, South Side: I was at the crib, bored, and came across one of those movie makers [on the computer]. I started playing around with it. I had my little sister record me rapping other people’s songs to see if I could put a music video together. I [also] used to make videos of cartoons dancing to rap songs. I did one of SpongeBob SquarePants and “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” by Soulja Boy. I was 18 or 19 years old. It got 100,000 views on Myspace. It just kept going from there.

Kevin Wright, 23, Garfield Park: I never thought I’d be shooting videos. That wasn’t my intention at first. I started off drawing in grade schools, and won some awards. I got lazy with drawing and photos are like drawing, but doesn’t take as much time. One day, I was at Leaders 1354 and I had my camera. This man asked what I had my camera for. I told him I liked to take pictures. He invited me to his office, a small magazine company called Elevator Mag. They shot [music] videos. I saw what was going on and started doing my own thing, too. I was a junior in high school.

Azeez Alaka, 23, Hyde Park/Bronzeville: I used to do comedy videos around 2010 before the YouTube wave was big. I was in high school. One of the videos went viral. Then I decided to jump into parodies, and I started paying this dude to shoot my videos. I was a college student so I couldn’t keep paying him. I learned how to shoot videos. When I started shooting my own videos, my cousin’s friend started asking me to shoot his video. I kept telling him, “No.” Then, he said he has $50, and I shot his first music video in 2012. [In 2014], I started my [current] YouTube channel.

On what Chicago’s music scene was like when you shot your first music video:

Williams: At the time, King Louie was one of the biggest Chicago artists. So when he hit me up, I’m like, “Oh. This could be serious.” The first video I did for him was “My Niggas Remix” in 2011. It’s still on YouTube to this day. There was no budget. Nobody paid to rent anything. It was like, “We ‘gon use what we got. We ‘gon use my house.” After I did that, people was like, “Man. How much you charge?” And I’m like, “Wait. I can get paid for this?”

Wright: In 2013, Chief Keef was hot. Lil Durk was real hot. The directors that were shooting [their videos], like DGainz and Zae, were big on the Chicago scene already. They were the two main people that was doing every video. You had some directors that was doing stuff for Chance [the Rapper] and Vic Mensa that people really didn’t know about yet. So I taught my best friend Toinne how to take pictures. Our first year, it was me shooting and him helping and suggesting stuff. The first video I shot and edited was Tony Romiti’s “Nothing On Me.” It’s got 41 million views [on YouTube] right now. We shot it in Chicago on a street by Whitney Young. At the time, people were turning down our videos because we weren’t as good as Zae and DGainz. We had to find up-and-coming artists to work with, splitting $300 between me and Toinne – sometimes $100. We were shooting videos for free almost just so we could get our feet wet.

On the music video that took you to the next level:

Alaka: Ain’t shit special about “Drip From My Walk” [by Famous Dex]. We shot that video in 30 minutes. We shot at least 10 other videos in the same crib. When I dropped that video [in December 2015], it didn’t go viral that day. It’s something that went viral over time. I have no idea why. Dex and I were releasing so much shit. I didn’t know “Drip From My Walk” was going to be a hit. [We] were broke as fuck when that video dropped. When it picked up [months later], we flew to LA.

Wright: King Louie was somebody I always looked up to. I shot the “All That” video with him and Chi Hoover [in 2014]. I edited it the same day. So [Louie] was like, “dang.” He was messing with Zae and DGainz real heavy, but he saw us and was like, “I want y’all to shoot a video.” He gave me my shot. This song, “B.O.N,” ended up being his biggest song. Besides Chief Keef, he was the only Drill artists that [was played] on the radio. “B.O.N” was on the radio. After that video, that’s when I got my confidence. I really wanted to be a director. I wanted to be like DGainz or Elevator or Zae.

On politicians and critics blaming Drill and the accompanying music videos for the ongoing violence and degradation of Black life in Chicago:

Williams: If you’ve got two kids who live in the hood, and we go outside and shoot a video in the hood, what are we supposed to show you? This is their everyday life. They don’t live in the suburbs. This is how they really live. I’m showing you what’s going on at the time. We started that whole wave of pull-up videos. Now, they’ve got money. Now, you see them shooting videos in big cribs with a bunch of jewelry on. So I’m showing you what they’re doing now.

Alaka: If you want to blame somebody for all the guns in the videos, or the poverty, you’ve gotta get on the government’s ass. I still deal with people who say, “Oh. You misrepresent Chicago.” [Artists] are a product of their environment, and they’re just openly and expressively showing you. It may be influencing other kids, but without that music video, they’re [still] going to be influenced because of their neighborhoods. I saw my first gun when I was 12. This should be a wake-up call to the government to do some shit for our communities – not to look at us and say, “Oh. They’re savages.”

Wright: I feel like my job is to capture what’s real. With the music and culture in Chicago, I feel like I’d be doing wrong if I didn’t capture what was real. I don’t feel like I’m contributing [to the violence]. I’m documenting a point in time.

On how shooting videos without a budget changed the game for artists and videographers:

Alaka: [Back in the day], there were big-budget labels. Models used to get paid. Models ain’t getting paid now. Back then, [Labels] spent half a million on videos. Videographers were making a shitload of money. Nowadays, videographers ain’t getting paid. When you’re an independent [artist], you ain’t trying to spend a grand. I don’t fault these rappers. I wouldn’t pay a cameraman either. And if you’re not paying the cameraman, you’re for damn sure not renting cars and paying [models]. So there you go.

Williams: When we were shooting all of those Chief Keef and Lil Durk videos, there was no budget. It just so happened that the songs blew up. I went to grammar school with Durk so I had a relationship with him already. If we would have never did anything because we didn’t have a budget, we would have never blown up.

Wright: Chief Keef shooting a video in the house, and [getting] 100 million views, that really changed the game for directors. I never shot a Chief Keef video, but I [saw where things] were going. The cost of a video now is just having a camera. No budget, but you can still make a lucrative income off the video. [There are no] big budget videos unless you’re a super big artist or super big director. Chicago changed the game. Everybody else started doing the same type of [videos] in different cities.

Kevin Wright, a.k.a. LVTR Kevin//Courtesy of Kevin Wright

On how your style impacted the future of music videos in Chicago and beyond:

Wright: “B.O.N” started a whole wave. I shot the video in one spot – 79th. People love this video. I was shaking and flipping the camera around. Nobody else was doing that. Really, that’s the wrong way to shoot. With “B.O.N,” I wanted to give you a flavor of Chicago and how Louie dressed. Chicago is pivotal in the rap game and rap culture. That’s why Chicago artists get a lot of traffic.

On the challenges of being a music video director in Chicago:

Alaka: Chicago is hard. Security-wise, you worry about stuff. People in Chicago be on straight dummy. Gang banging is real. When I listen to songs, I probably listen to the first minute or so, and I approve the song. But the end of [this one] song was like, “Fuck all the dead homies,” and all this gang banging shit. I didn’t even get to that part [when I first listened to it]. At the shoot, [it’s like,] “What do I do?”

Wright: It’s only so much you can do in the city. If you notice, everybody who gets big in the city gotta leave at some point because of how crazy the city is. I [don’t] even consider myself a Chicago director because I’m bigger than that right now. I’m working with people from everywhere. I’m shooting R&B videos. I’m shooting documentaries. You see somebody like me, Zae or DGainz, and it’s inspiration. We made other kids want to be directors. This is the only thing [other than basketball] that’s paved the way. It feels bigger than Chicago. It’s more [about] a kid from Chicago having an impact on the culture.

Williams: I live in Atlanta now and we scout locations. You ‘gon go through hell trying to pull together a big-budget video in Chicago. [There aren’t] a lot of places where you can rent cars easily. I’m shooting $50,000 Red cameras. In Atlanta, there are like 20 strip clubs. In Chicago, there are like two. In Atlanta, I can get 20 different girls who haven’t been [in other videos]. I can get a helicopter. I can get Bentleys [and] Rolls-Royces. I can go get some animals. In Chicago, everybody’s shooting the same damn videos.

On how the lack of resources didn’t stop you from pursuing your dream:

Wright: Nobody gave us nothing. We really had to hustle. I tell kids to save your money and invest in what you got going on. That’s what my mama told me. If I want to do it, I’ve gotta invest in myself. I probably had a $500 camera – like, a Canon T3i – when I was shooting Louie’s videos. It’s really not about the camera. You’ve gotta have an eye. I get a lot of DMs from people with technical questions about using the camera and editing, but I learned through trial and error. I went from a [Canon] T3i to a [Canon] 5D to a Sony a7S II, and now I have the opportunity to use all types of equipment because I can [afford to] buy it or rent it.

Williams: I’m self-taught. I didn’t go to school for this. Most of the things I’ve learned have been on accident. Looking at King Louie’s “My Niggas Remix,” I was trying to make the flares go to the beat, but it was all off. I didn’t know how to do it, but that King Louie video looked good in 2011. My first camera was my mama’s little digital camera that she used to take pictures of us for graduations and birthdays. Eventually, I got a job at Walgreens. I paid half and my parents paid the other half [so I could] upgrade to an $800 camera.

On being unafraid of the grind, which helps grow your business:

Alaka: It’s really hard to be a business owner because you’ve gotta be a go getter. You’ve got to show these people [that] this is what I’m trying to do, and you’ve got to go out of your way to do it. You [become] a manager. With [Famous] Dex, I had his Instagram password for a long time. I put him on the first plane he’d ever been on. When me and Lil Bibby shot, [the shoot] was from 2:30 AM to 5 AM. People don’t understand you’re getting called at midnight to come to the studio.

Azeez Alaka, a.k.a. Laka Films, with rapper Famous Dex//Courtesy of Azeez Alaka

On how to choose the right artist to build and work with:

Williams: As of now, because I have so much going on, I can’t waste time shooting a video for someone who doesn’t have a budget. I [have a team], and I have to pay [my team.] So if you don’t have a budget, I’ll have to pay them out of my pocket. Back in the day, when it was just me pulling up, I’d look out [for an artist] if I was cool with them. King Louie had a buzz in Chicago so that made sense for me. Now, if I’m bigger than [the artist], it doesn’t make sense for me to give you a free video. If you go on their YouTube [channel], and you see that they’re only getting 1,000 views, it’s not even worth it.

Alaka: I’m already thinking about the next wave. You’ve got to be thinking ahead. People don’t understand that you can die out. Once you get to 50,000 subscribers, you would think you couldn’t [die out], but then you realize you’ve always gotta hustle. When your artist gets on, you realize that more and more people are now after your one and only artist. So you either compete, find a new artist or fall off. Videographers are having rapper careers. Rappers can be hot for a year or two, and then fall off the face of the earth.

On the ongoing importance of music videos to the culture:

Wright: Without a music video, you would never see an artist or fall in love with an artist. When you find some good music, you want to see what the person looks like. You want to see a person’s style.

Williams: How could you see what’s going on without a visual? You can always hear someone talk about it, but it’s like, “I wonder if they really be standing outside? I wonder if he keeps a gun in his hand?” The video makes the world believe you.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated Xavier Woods from Englewood/Richton Park instead of Xavier Williams from the South Side. This piece has been updated to reflect this.