The legendary music video director specialized his craft to a fault, but stayed active thanks to his lasting relationships.
If you watched MTV in 1999, the words “Hype Williams Presents…” were fixtures on the screen. The esteemed director’s hip-hop music videos dominated the late 90s and early 2000s. Williams was ubiquitous. His videos had more airtime than Stephen A. Smith now gets on ESPN! Viewers knew the signature style they would get in his four-minute videos: the fish-eye lens, low angles, pyrotechnics, letterboxes, and the shiny suits. It was afrofuturism that thrived in an era when directors had free reign.
During this peak, longtime music exec Lyor Cohen warned Hype that the music industry’s “bull market” wouldn’t last forever. Cohen was right. Napster came through, crushed the buildings, and the industry was never the same. Record labels, who once paid Hype tons of money, cut budgets for extravagant videos. MTV and BET changed their business model to air more unscripted content. It all trickled down to Hype, whose relevance and hyper-specialization was tied to that era of decadence.
Hype took a tremendous hit, but never lost it all. He still made memorable videos for some of hip-hop’s biggest names in the 2000s and 2010s. But some of his fellow directors have since reached new heights. The director’s career is a snapshot of the risks of specializing in a particular format, but it’s also a lesson on how strong relationships can stall the onset of disruption.
The risk of specialization
In Hype’s heyday, music videos were a marketing expense. Each video was a four-minute ad that record labels spent money on to increase album sales. But these “ads” weren’t “sold” in a traditional sense. Instead, they were featured programming on MTV, BET, and VH1. From the inception of MTV in 1981 to the music industry’s peak in 1999, revenue from recorded music doubled (even after accounting for inflation).
The successful relationship between music videos and album sales increased the willingness to spend more money on out-of-this-world productions. The five-minute music video for Michael and Janet Jackson’s 1995 song “Scream” would cost nearly $12 million in today’s dollars. That’s a few million dollars short of what it now costs to make an entire episode for Game of Thrones.
It was a great time for music video directors like F. Gary Gray, Hype Williams, and others. But Gray approached the craft differently than Hype. Music was Gray’s gateway into films. His first music video was Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day.” That video’s visual storytelling style progressed into directing Friday, and years later Straight Outta Compton and The Fate of the Furious. Gray’s 90s music videos are less revered than Hype’s, but his skills were far more transferable. The health of his business was less dependent on the record label’s endless marketing budgets and MTV’s machine.
Meanwhile, Hype’s skills were tailor-made for cable TV. It limited his transferability. Belly—Hype’s 1998 debut film—is more known for its iconic opening scene and impressive visuals. But it was not a good movie. At all. (don’t bother @ me, you got better things to do.)
But Williams’ success still spawned a number of known protégé’s who, for better or worse, followed his footsteps. Directors Benny Boom and Director X modeled their craft after Hype’s signature style. They both made epic and memorable hip-hop music videos, but their film efforts have yet to impress. Boom directed the ambitious but forgettable Tupac Shakur biopic All Eyez On Me. As expected, the film’s music scenes were good, but the storytelling left Pac fans wanting more.
Relationships can help stall disruption
Music videos weren’t the same after Napster, and didn’t come back until recently. At the time, Hype’s output had declined dramatically. He took a temporary hiatus from directing after Aaliyah’s death in 2001. But when he returned, he was forced to adjust his methods since budgets for videos decreased and competition increased. Fortunately for Hype, his relationships with Diddy, Jay Z, and others helped him stay active.
Relationships are a common defense tactic for incumbents to stall impending disruption. For instance, Nest’s smart home thermostats once seemed bound to put Honeywell—the industry incumbent—out of business. But Honeywell’s relationships with general contractors and distributors is one of the several reasons it has still maintained market share.
Here’s an excerpt on disruption from a 2016 study by Deloitte:
“Pre-existing relationships with prospective users or an existing user base may be an advantage, provided those relationships have established a positive reputation in the market yet are not so tied up in a product or service that users won’t be able to believe the incumbent could offer a platform that could create value for everyone rather than just push its own product.”
Let’s apply this to Hype. He had to prove that he could also create quality videos on a reasonable budget (which he eventually did). That’s why he got still called to do projects for Lil’ Wayne, Jay Z, and Beyonce.
There’s also a bit of luck that came with his relationship building. Had Hype invested less time in the groups whose artists had a generational impact—like Roc-a-Fella and Bad Boy—and more time on others that faded in relevancy—like Ruff Ryders and Murder Inc.—his directing career would have taken an even stronger hit in the industry’s downturn. The comparison may seem laughable now, but DMX had his moment as hip-hop’s biggest rapper, and Ja Rule wasn’t far behind. There’s a risk-reward element that worked in Hype’s favor.
The challenge still exists today
There’s a lot to learn from Hype’s career. But unfortunately, hip-hop is on the verge of repeating some of the same missteps.
For example, a number of rappers are hell bent on mastering SoundCloud and Instagram. Both services can easily alter their direction in a way that makes life harder for artists. These services can also fade away just as fast as they became popular. The same is true for artists who prioritize playlist placement. Sure, the added exposure will boost streams. But what if Spotify ever makes changes to RapCaviar?
Today, thought leaders in various industries push the importance of not relying on a sole platform. A few months ago, Gary Vee released an article called the “79 / 21 rule.” He emphasized the risks of solely relying on one platform.
Here’s a segment from the article:
Right now, my 79-80% is spent on Instagram because it’s the most popular. I’m going the hardest on it.
And I spend 20-21% of my time on platforms like LinkedIn, Snapchat, Tik Tok, YouTube, and other stuff. Within that 20%, there are some platforms that get higher priority – LinkedIn is something I’m very, very bullish on right now so I’m spending a lot of time on it. Tik Tok is something I’m really excited about too.
The “79 / 21” rule is about diversifying attention. It’s not just about social media.
The overall narrative is true, but those examples still face the same challenge. Snapchat, Tik Tok, YouTube, and LinkedIn all ride the same peak wave of consumer tech. It would be like Hype Williams claiming he was “diversified” because his videos were on MTV, VH1, BET, and other cable channels. It doesn’t solve the underlying problem.
True diversification requires taking a step back and thinking outside the confines of platforms. Hype Williams is a director. He mastered a specific product (music videos) for a platform (MTV) that served a specific era in the music industry (the late 90s). But as a director, his broader skills could have been refined for other forms of video content as well.
In 2010, Hype Williams wrote the screenplay for Kanye West’s 35-minute feature film for “Runaway.” It was branded as a music video, but it was actually a visual album for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The video is the most Kanye thing ever. Extra as hell. But it’s the type of visual album that would now land Beyonce an eight-figure deal on Netflix or HBO.
And as Beyonce’s moves get copied by the rest of the industry, and streaming services pay top dollar for visual albums, more of this content will get made. It’s the perfect nexus for Hype, whose music videos often paid homage to iconic films, like Coming to America, Mad Max, and Inception.
Certainly, Netflix’s marketing and content budget—like the record labels of twenty years ago— won’t last forever. But the goal for creators is to apply existing skills to the current wave, then easily pivot when the landscape changes. If platforms themselves become the central focus, then what will we have learned from the past?
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