J. Cole may not be reserved with his honest and open lyrics, but when it comes to his personal 24/7, he’s not as quick to dish on that part of his being. That all changed in December with the release of a four-part miniseries highlighting his inner musical workings. In a recent open letter he shared with fans on Twitter, Cole considered his musical talents a gift and a curse. “The gift is that I’m not wasting your time and energy by flooding your timeline and headlines with the bullsh*t…,” he wrote. “The curse is that you don’t ever really get to peek behind the curtain…… until now.” Director Scott Lazer peeled back that firm curtain and captured a different side of Cole that his fans only dreamed about seeing one day with the consecutive rollout of the miniseries leading up to HBO’s Jan. 9 premiere of “Forest Hills Drive: Homecoming.”
Lazer graduated in 2011 with a degree in journalism from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., but swiftly learned he had a passion for being behind the lens instead of behind the pen. He landed his first major film project within his hometown of Charlotte, N.C., nearly three hours west of Cole’s esteemed Fayetteville. With the Democratic National Convention in town, Lazer and one of his creative partners shot around 100 short films that showcased various artists, inventors or institutions that highlighted Charlotte’s uniqueness, and later sold their work that became a part of the DNC host committee’s campaign. But he quickly hit a ceiling and saw the level of creativity he wanted to reach would be an uphill battle if he stayed within his stomping grounds. He decided to make that 2,500 mile move to Los Angeles where he came into contact with the Dreamville collective.
Lazer hit the “on” switch and first shot Cole’s “F**k Money, Spread Love” tour during his promotional run for the platinum album 2014 Forest Hills Drive. “Initially I thought it was going to be another 8-10 minute short film about the rollout of the album, but Cole’s manager, Ibrahim Hamad, challenged me to go a little deeper and make something broader,” he says. That “something” turned into a first-hand look that follows Cole on the road and in the studio for his third studio album all the way to his crowning concert in his birthplace. With a Canon C300 camera and a Rode NTG-3 microphone, Lazer traveled the globe for over a year with the “No Role Modelz” rapper and Dreamville, capturing bro moments and introspective occurrences, which most likely filled up his memory card, guestimating maybe four or five hours a day worth of material. “Everything up until this point has been short form for the most part,” he says, “and having the time in a story to develop characters and grow with characters, because as indicated by the length of Cole’s hair throughout the series there’s literally growth (laughs), amongst the characters and it was cool to be able to do that.”
The videographer also spoke about his HBO partnership into existence. Lazer recounts a few times where he was gathering footage of crowds outside of Cole’s shows. A few bystanders would pose the question “What are you shooting for?” to which Lazer would reply “very entirely jokingly, ‘Oh it’s for HBO. I was totally kidding and now it’s actually on HBO which is wild.”
All organic everything. Here, Lazer discusses how he made Cole feel like a natural in front of the lens, adapting to an artist’s lifestyle, and which big time singer he would like to make his next muse.
VIBE: What type of collaborator is J. Cole?
Scott Lazer: He’s an amazing collaborator. It’s really fun being creative with him. From the first time we started working together we made cool stuff and it has just developed. I started working with him a year and a half ago, summer before last, and it’s been a very organic relationship with just, “What do you think about this?” “Here’s an idea for something, do you want to do it?” “Yeah sounds like a good idea,” or “No try something else.” He’s a “Yes, and…” kind of collaborator as opposed to a “Yes, but…” if that makes sense. That’s a great thing when it comes to creative relationships.
What was it like being around the Dreamville collective?
They’re very tight. It’s a family-like environment. Everyone looks out for each other. We were on the road for a long time, most of this year , and I was on the road at the end of last year , for almost seven weeks straight flying to different places. On the bus it was okay because you can stretch out, go into your bunk and sleep for a while. Whenever we were going places by plane, and I’m 6’4 so flying is uncomfortable for me, but when I first joined them in New York we went to Boston, and I remember we woke up in Boston early, flew to Minneapolis, did a listening there, and then after that flew to Chicago all in the same day. We hit like three cities in one day. It was like that for a while so it was a little grueling. I got to know them very well and that was cool. There was a certain necessity almost. I think we fell into a rhythm just because of the close proximity.
I was shooting Cole, and I intentionally put the camera in his face quickly because I wanted him to get used to it and not feel like he had to hold anything back. That’s evident in a lot of the series. The overarching narrative of the piece is this was a benchmark year for Cole. He reached a new level, just from a scale standpoint. His tour was huge. His albums sold more than any of the other albums. It was a real level up for him this year. The stories that we’re telling in this series is not a biopic. He’s got a long career ahead of him, I’m sure. It really zeroes in on just this last year which was transformative for him. That’s what I liked about it, a peek into a very specific time in his career. The overarching narrative is these guys—meaning the Dreamville staff and all of the people involved with it—were all having to level up and deal with higher stakes. It’s about them dealing with that, and it gets stressful. The first episode is really an introduction to Cole if you don’t know him, or if you do know him it’s a more closer look at the kind of person he is. If you don’t know him, it gives you a very clear idea of who he is, where his head is at, and how he was thinking about this project. It’s the project that sort of bookends the series. It’s really about these guys having to deal with a newfound level of even greater success.
How’d the conversation with HBO happen? What was you reaction to the news?
I wasn’t really involved in that. I was all focused on creative, so I can’t speak to that process, but I was thrilled. It’s weird because I remember when I was shooting on the road, and it’s a big camera, but people would ask, “What are you shooting for?” And I would say very entirely jokingly, “Oh, it’s for HBO.” I was totally kidding and now it’s actually on HBO which is wild. It hasn’t really sunk in yet. I’ve never done anything on HBO, but it’s appropriate that it’s on HBO because it’s very much modeled off their Boxing 24/7 series which I love and have watched many of. You see the fighter in training camp and then you watch the main event. It’s the same format. You see the process to the album and the tour and then you finally get to see the show in the end.
Did you have to adapt to an artist’s lifestyle? Any late nights in the studio and insane traveling schedules?
I was thinking about that recently. While we were shooting, it was probably one o’clock in the morning and Cole stays up late working. He works a lot and I wanted to shoot as much as possible. I remember when he was mixing the album in the studio in the first episode. That’s one example of many where at some point I had to say to myself, “I’m committing to shooting this guy until he goes to sleep.” And it worked out because in that instance I got the footage of him riding home on his bike which is in the first episode, but it was also the same shoot where we shot the music video that became the “Intro.” It wasn’t any of the same footage, but it was the same time and that was at 5:30 in the morning in Manhattan. I love that video, I love that it’s in the series too, but I really love that video. That was another example of a very organic, fun thing that Cole and I did together.
I directed that and the “Apparently” music video in Atlanta, then we flew to London. There was a lot of positive energy at the “Apparently” shoot. Cole wanted to see something. He kept at it like, “I got to see something man, let me see a cut.” I was in the hotel room working. We had a day off and I worked all day. I got a cut together for him and I showed it to him late at midnight. I met him at a diner, showed it to him, and he wasn’t feeling it. I remember saying to him, “Look man, if you’re down to do this I’m willing to sit with you and edit this thing until you’re happy with it.” And we did. We were up until eight in the morning. But it was fun. It was me, him and Ib for a while. Ib went to sleep and then it was just me and Cole for a long time, too. It was positive creative energy. We finished it and got it to a place where he was said, “Alright, this looks great. We’re down with how this is feeling.” Cole was so excited he said, “What else can we do?” I said, “What do you mean?” I can’t remember if he suggested to pull up the bike stuff or what, but he gave me two songs off the album and one song was the “Intro.” I remember taking the music for the “Intro” and putting it into a sequence in my editing software and dropping one clip of him riding the bike. We watched the raw footage, and we immediately thought it fit the mood and tone of the song, and the symbolism of him riding his bike in Manhattan in the wee hours of the morning matched really well with the visual of the song. That was totally spur of the moment. We cut two music videos in a night. It’s one of the more fun, creative experiences I’ve ever had.
From behind the lens, what’s something unique that you learned about Cole?
The thing that’s always been so inspiring to me about getting to know him and spend time around him is his work ethic is really unlike anyone else I’ve ever seen. He’s constantly working. He’s always making music or doing something. It’s like he almost can’t contain himself sometimes. I think that, among many other things, is what sets him apart from a lot of other artists. He’s constantly doing it. He gives his work a lot of attention and he puts a lot of himself into it. Granted I haven’t hung out with a lot of rappers or musicians at his level, but I’ve known a lot of creative people and he goes really hard all of the time. It’s inspiring. I remember feeling lazy around him because he would always be doing sh*t and it motivated me to go hard while I was filming.
There were a lot of intimate moments that you gained access to. Describe that experience.
The fans are a big part of the concert special and in an interview with one of them after the show this girl was crying hysterically, sobbing. I was filming her and she was talking to me, but she was crying hard. After she finished talking I didn’t want to walk away so I gave her a hug (laughs). His fans—and again, I haven’t been around an artist while they’ve been on tour like this before—I don’t really have anything to compare it to and I’m sure lots of artists, especially artists of Cole’s caliber have meaningful and deep connections with their fans, but it was cool to see people have that and express that.
What was the hardest or toughest scene to shoot? Did you have to push Cole at any point?
I never pushed him like that because I don’t think that would yield a positive outcome. I very much tried to be as relaxed and observant as possible and not try to push him in any direction. The only thing I would ever do is ask him questions. Even in the first episode when he was talking about the mastering process, I asked him questions, but I cut my voice out of it because I wanted it to be his point of view. If either I was just curious about it or I thought there was a potential storytelling opportunity with him just explaining how he was feeling about something, I would ask him and he was always game to tell me or to say something. He never said, “I don’t want to talk about it.” The only thing is sometimes he would want space. A lot of the times I would go with him into his dressing room after the show because he and Ib would talk about the show and sometimes there were funny moments. But one time I went back into his dressing room at the Staples Center and it was him and a few people around and there was nothing really going on. I wasn’t getting anything good and Cole looked at me and said, “Alright, Scott, I think you’re good here.” I said, “Alright, catch you later!” (laughs). There were a few moments that I was calling attention to myself because of the camera and he wanted his time. Of course, he deserves that.
“Filmmaking is all about drama, that’s one thing that it can be. It can also be informative which is what this series is.” —Scott L.
Did you have any “pinch me” moments when you looked back on the film?
It was pretty wild. I watched the first episode on HBO Now, and it wasn’t so much when I was watching it then, because we had to do a lot of preparation for the series and part of that preparation was adding the HBO click-on and click-off
. When I added that to what we had to deliver, because you had to deliver it in a certain way, that was pretty trippy. I said, “Whoa! This was really going on HBO.”
How does this music doc differ than others? A lot of people on social media said this visual got it right in terms of the content, how it’s displayed, or the storyline. How’d you get it right?
I think that there was a lot of mutual respect between myself and all the characters that were involved, and a level of trust that makes for interesting commentary. I followed my gut with a lot of this. I started to get an idea of what I thought it could look like the more I got into it. Once we were in Act III of the tour, I had a pretty clear idea of what sort of story I wanted to tell overall, but it was listening and I find that a lot of documentary filmmaking is having a balance of an idea of something you want to do, but also being open and observant enough to change course accordingly. There were definitely moments throughout the process where I needed to readjust what I was doing for the sake of the film. The first episode is all of Cole’s point of view, you can think of it as the first act of the story, introducing the audience to the protagonist which is J. Cole. The second part, which is the second act, you get introduced to all of these characters and you come to understand what his objective is which is to tour this album and hope that it’s successful.
If there was a dramatic question it would be he’s released an album, he’s going on tour, is it going to work? I think the likelihood was pretty high so it wasn’t, “Is it all going to fall apart?” And although there are dramatic moments throughout the series, less so much in the first episode which is more of an intro to Cole, but they’re not like corny, not live or die things. It’s things are going wrong and they have to fix them or they don’t have enough time. Conflict with the elements like time or other characters. Not trying to over dramatize it may be what people are reacting to. Filmmaking is all about drama, that’s one thing that it can be. It can also be informative which is what this series is, educational and inspiring. But with this I adopted the Maysles Brothers movies. Gimmie Shelter, the Rolling Stones documentary from the sixties, was a big influence on this series. A lot of what the Maysles Brothers did so well was let things happen and then decide how to construct that into a story once you’re done.
That’s interesting you mentioned Gimmie Shelter because I was going to ask if you watched any other music docs for research.
Definitely Gimmie Shelter was a big inspiration. There’s actually a shot in the second episode that was directly influenced by it. This is something that I did initiate, something that I put in the scene. Throughout the Gimmie Shelter documentary, Mick Jagger is watching footage of himself and commenting on it. I always thought that was really interesting. There was a moment in Act II of the tour in the second episode of the series where Cole is not happy with how the lighting looks. He wanted to see what it looked like so I pulled up what I shot on my computer and gave it to his creative director Adam [Rodney] and they reviewed it together. It’s Cole looking at himself on the laptop of the performance and critiquing it. That’s totally, absolutely an influence from Gimmie Shelter which was cool, I was excited to do that, a little nerdy doc moment. Mick Jagger and J. Cole were talking about different things, but the act of them watching themselves was what was interesting about it.
Is this a gateway to doing more film?
Cole mentions it in that letter, and Ib mentions it as well of this being Dreamville Films. There are a lot of projects we’re looking to do in the future which I’m excited about. This was the foray into that world with Cole, and all of the people at Dreamville are curious and eager to do creative things. I’m excited to do more of that stuff with them in the future because Cole and a lot of others in Dreamville have great ideas for film projects beyond documentaries.
In Cole’s letter, he said he doesn’t share much outside of the music. How’d you bring that personal aspect out to capture it on film?
I don’t know if I thought of that consciously. I just shot and listened and what you see is what went down. The only thing I was conscious about was getting him used to the camera. I can talk to him, I’m pretty good at having a conversation with most people, and I was a fan beforehand so I had lots of questions for him. I was glad I had the access to pose those questions to him directly. I would think he probably saw a genuine interest and curiosity in what he was doing and probably felt comfortable explaining or telling me how he thought about things on camera.
— J. Cole (@JColeNC) December 16, 2015
Are there any other artists you’d like to work with?
Rihanna, she’s got so much great stuff going for her. I love her music, visually she’s exciting, she’s willing to take risks. She’s a huge artist of course. I don’t even know what I would do with her. I would do doc stuff for her, music videos, anything. I just really love everything about her brand and her art. There’s still stuff going on. It’s been hard for me to think beyond this project. I’m excited for once everything is done, it’s up, people watch it and be able to move past it because I’ve been working on this project for over a year and it’s been my primary focus for over a year. I’ve never done that besides that Charlotte video project and even then I was doing a lot of different things too because we were hustling and just trying to make work for ourselves. Aside from those two BJ the Chicago Kid videos, and one video I did for Bas and maybe one or two other things, this was all I was really working on and I prefer that honestly. I like to be able to sit with my work for a while and marinate in it.
What’s one thing you learned about yourself?
I don’t know if this answers the question, but I think I became a much better filmmaker in this year. It was really the first time I had the opportunity to do something long form. Everything up until this point has been short form for the most part, and having the time in a story to develop characters and grow with characters because as indicated by the length of Cole’s hair throughout the series there’s literally growth (laughs), amongst the characters and it was cool to be able to do that. That’s why I was into the series idea because Cole’s obviously constant, but there’s other characters you see in the episodes. In the first you see Ib, he’s a character throughout, and there are others throughout that you get to check-in with in a later episode. There are some interesting people that are incredibly talented that are part of Cole’s team, part of Dreamville. I’m glad those people get to be recognized. They do a lot of great work that all contributes to what we know of as J. Cole. He does a lot on his own, don’t get me wrong, but he can’t do it all by himself. There’s some really talented people there.
Out of all the parts of the miniseries, do you have a favorite episode?
I think the last one has the most emotional impact. I think that’s the episode that anyone can watch and feel something towards. The first four are a little bit more niche in that they’re for people who are Cole fans, hip hop fans, music fans. But favorite episode… I don’t know. I more or less did them in order. We did one, two, three, five, and then four. That was the order in completion. I kind of felt like every time we finished one I said, “It’s the best one so far.” I said that for every one we finished so it’s hard to say. They all have their own thing going on, and there are parts from some of them that I really like. For instance the first episode, the scene where he’s at Forest Hills, there are shots of people, fans listening to the album with headphones, and then there’s some interviews with them after. My instinct was to play the interviews under the people listening to it so it would happen at the same time, but something about watching the fans listen and you can hear a little bit of the music leaking through the headphones or you hear them breathing. There was something really fascinating about it to me. I just made a fat scene of that and there was of course one of the best moments in the whole series when the two kids are laying on the bed listening to the music. When I shot that that I was like ‘Oh my God, that was so hilarious,’ it took everything in me to not crack up laughing in that instance. I thought it was a strange creative choice but it was really exciting to me. I said, “I should’ve done it this way but I did it that way and I’m much more happier that I did it that way.” Instances like that made me really excited about it from my own creative storytelling. I chose to do that and it worked.
As a Cole fan, I’m excited about people getting access to Cole that they’ve never had before. This is the first long form film in a way. It’s continuous or it’s chronological, the episodes they go forward in time. I play around in time a little bit. Even in the first episode it’s not entirely chronological but it’s non-linear technically. I’m excited for Cole fans to get that access that they maybe never had before, but I’m also excited for people to judge it as quality films that I hope other artists can use as a blueprint for showcasing themselves or their work in the future. Almost like a formula, and different artists and directors will do it differently of course, but it’s an unorthodox way of doing it and that’s exciting being able to do something that’s not normal in many ways like where it’s going and how it’s done and who it is.