In today's music world, a video can be as important as the song.
Consider “Gangnam Style.” Without the horsey-dance and the images of the clever, slightly chubby singer known as Psy, would the song have ever become a ubiquitous international anthem?
For most of the 2000s, many musicians and videographers worried that the music video was a dying art form. The cable TV channels that made videos mainstream throughout the '80s and '90s stopped showing them altogether in favor of reality- based programming.
Although budgets haven't rebounded to their million-dollar-plus levels, the advent of YouTube as a primary means of video media consumption has brought music videos back into the limelight. One local artist's latest video, in fact, is about to take center stage this week at South by Southwest, or SXSW, in Austin, Texas, one of the premier music and film festivals in the world.
For a filmmaker, finding a musician and a song to create a video for can be difficult.
In 2009, West Ashley native Taylor Engel was a film student at the University of South Carolina.
He and his brother, Blake, had made a documentary about their uncle, a Holocaust survivor, and another short film about an out-of-work magician and found themselves ready to try their hand at a music video.
“I was itching to do something creative,” Engel recalls. “I'd been looking around and couldn't find any music that I really liked, or I'd meet with artists that had very specific ideas of what they wanted their video to be.”
That is, until he met North Charleston-based rapper Matt Bostick (aka Righchus). The Charleston County School of the Arts graduate and USC theater student had been rhyming since childhood and was making a name for himself around the state through his recordings with James Island producer Benjamin “Max” Berry.
Although he wasn't a hip-hop fan at the time, Engel was drawn to the genre by its history of music videos and the possibility of creating a video that went beyond the norm of people dancing in a club and showing off money and scantily clad women.
“Righchus is very open,” Engel said. “He wanted to do something different, and he really gave me freedom.”
The result of that effort is “Ridin', ” a 3½ minute video recorded in a decked-out Columbia warehouse, using a single take with a Steadicam video camera.
Engel submitted “Ridin' ” to BET, where it was posted and highlighted on the website, but the video got as much attention for its $42 budget as anything else. Nonetheless, it holds its ground with the collection of videos Righchus has since compiled.
The most notable of those is “Stroker's Row,” which will be screened three times this week at SXSW. Made for just under $200, the video features light painting, a photographic technique that Engel spent a month of consecutive all-nighters perfecting to translate to video. Check it out at www.strokersrow.com.
“Stroker's Row” is one of 20 music videos chosen from around the world to be shown at SXSW. Engel, Righchus and camera operator Josh Bishop will be in attendance with the hopes of drawing attention to their work.
Engel guesses that “Stroker's Row” will be the lowest-budget video among the group, but he's confident it can make a big impact.
Righchus grew up in the North Charleston neighborhoods of Accabee and Forest Hills, where free time was spent hanging out with friends and family in front yards. One area road had a name that people struggled to pronounce and came to be known as “Stroker's Row.”
“It was this abandoned road where we would chill out, play, skate, whatever we'd be doing,” explains Righchus, who earned his nickname at age 7 (with the prefix Lil' before it) when he began rapping with boys twice his age.
He first released “Stroker's Row” on his 2012 mix tape, “Black Cradles,” but he plans to use it as the title track of an upcoming full-length record. The track's lyrics deal with many of the relationship difficulties that lend themselves to songwriting, peppered with a pinch of rapper's bravado. “Consequences when you play the part, when you're cursed to be the king of hearts,” echoes the chorus.
Righchus saw the song as an opportunity to demonstrate his maturation from the “college, fun, craziness” of his previous songs to “a more laid-back, more conscious adult me.” Fortunately, that was in line with director Engel's vision for his career and the “Stroker's Row” video.
After “Ridin' ” and graduating from USC, Engel moved to Los Angeles to pursue his dream of professional filmmaking. He soon was joined by Bishop, along with brother Blake and fellow USC grad Dale Fagan, who serves as the producer for many of his videos and is a co-owner of the Engels' production company, Movable Type Pictures.
The individual careers of the S.C. team quickly took off. Engel and Bishop collaborated on commercials for eHarmony and the Samsung Galaxy Tab, while Fagan was hired by MGM. Engel landed a job directing a Snoop Dogg (now Snoop Lion) video, “High off the Fame,” in addition to work with Old Navy and Max Mara.
When it came time to create the next Righchus video, however, the team sacrificed sleep and free time away from their day jobs to put countless unpaid hours into what Engel calls “a passion project.”
“When I first heard 'Stroker's Row,' what struck me were these great cymbal crashes in the song,” Engel said. “Righchus is rapping about memories of previous relationships, and I thought it would be great to see those memories exploding in some way.”
Engel came up with the idea of having Righchus draw the profile of a woman with a light in the dark, using his special effects skills to take what is typically a photographer's trick using a long shutter exposure and translating it to video. Righchus flew from Charleston to L.A. for two days, where the team set up in Engel's apartment between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. two nights in a row, with its view across the valley and the Hollywood Hills.
“It was the least prepared I've ever been for a video,” Engel admits. “Sometimes I'll do months and months of testing, but this really came together last minute. I thought we might have some money that we didn't get, and then we didn't have a location, so when it came time to do it, we really only had about a day, and I wasn't sure how I was going to pull off the light painting.”
Using still photography test shots to gauge their video takes, “Stroker's Row” came to life on a prayer, thanks to Engel's ability to translate a still photography format into fluid motion on video.
The filmmaker said he's often more satisfied with the result of his lower budget work than the full-production projects. “The Snoop Dogg video had this huge budget — it was more money than I'd ever seen — but I felt like I made some mistakes,” Engel said. “With all that money comes restrictions, in a way, and you have to answer to more people, so it gets harder to have true creative freedom. The restriction of not having money can actually inspire you because without the production value, it's got to stand out in a different way.”
Righchus put his faith in Engel's ability to make his music stand out, recognizing the importance of a visual aspect to his song in the YouTube era. “If you have a song and you don't have a video, the song doesn't exist,” states Righchus. “It only takes one video to really take an artist far, and I think 'Stroker's Row' is that video.”
Righchus soon plans to leave his day job as a supply tech at the Medical University of South Carolina to focus completely on music.
He's working out the details of a national distribution deal for his upcoming full-length record, complete with a name change from Righchus to Matt Monday. If all goes as planned, he's optimistic his talents will be appreciated far beyond his North Charleston hometown. “I don't want to leave Charleston, though,” he clarifies, explaining that even with his manager in Atlanta and a team scattered between New York and L.A., he's been able to make it work from home, so far.
Likewise, Engel hopes to keep up ties to Charleston.
A veteran of the “Army Wives” set and an extra on the film “The Notebook” before moving to Hollywood, he commends South Carolina's film industry tax incentives, but worries that if they are not continued, the state will lose film business to more welcoming places.
Sometime soon, Engel hopes to begin work on a feature film he's been planning, and he's heavily considering filming close to home. “My dream is always to, at some point, come back to Charleston,” he said. “It's such an underrated city to film in.”
“Stroker's Row” ultimately was filmed in Engel's apartment, not just because of the view, but because of the difficulty of finding anywhere else to shoot in L.A., where everyone expects payment and the law is full of complicated regulations.
“What I miss about South Carolina is that you can go up to a local business owner and ask to shoot in their business, and they're thrilled,” Engel said. “I don't think it's bad that people from Charleston go to L.A. to get that experience because we can bring that back. All that any production in L.A. cares about is taxes, and Charleston can really compete.”