When Jay-Z’s “On To The Next One” video premiered New Year’s Eve, the black-and-white clip, with its ominous images of animal horns, crucifixes, and skulls, sparked a barrage of conspiratorial questions. Was Jigga a Freemason? Was the clip backed by the all-powerful Illuminati? And just how in the hell did Jay get the new Jaguar XJ before it even hit the U.S.? Award-winning UK-based video director Sam Brown, the visionary behind clips for Corinne Bailey Rae (“Put Your Records On”), James Blunt (“You’re Beautiful”) and the Foo Fighters (“Wheels”), has the answers to all those questions and more. After all, the man directed Jay’s avant-garde statement. Brown goes on the record. ––Keith Murphy
VIBE: When you were first approached about directing Jay-Z’s “On To The Next One” did you feel you had to shoot the video differently considering it was hip-hop?
Sam Brown: It was important to ignore the fact that it was a hip-hop video, and simply make a video. It was going to be radical almost by default because the hip-hop video is an oddly conservative genre…it seems more stuck in its message than other types of music videos. But also, I wanted to make a video that appealed to hip-hop fans.
There’s been a lot of talk about Jay’s video containing Freemason imagery such as the horned animal head, an eagle and skull. What are your thoughts about such talk and why do you think music fans are so quick to believe a conspiracy narrative? I’m aware of the stir the video has caused and what people are saying. I think when you’re dealing in abstract imagery people are going to want to draw lines between things and make sense of it. However, I’ve always felt that the viewing public was, in general, extremely visually literate. They don’t always want or need things to be spelt out for them. One of the great things about music videos are they can be enjoyed purely visually—it doesn’t need to mean anything or make any sense. Conspiracy theory is another thing entirely, and seems to me to be about projecting pre-existing beliefs and desperately looking for things that confirm them. There is imagery in this video that is drawn from all over the place. None of it is owned by any one culture or belief system. You can connect anything if you try hard enough, and make it mean anything you want it to.
Were there any differences between filming the more low-key likes of the Corinne Bailey Rae and James Blunt and an in-your-face artist like Jay-Z?
I tend to approach all types of artists in the same way. I try not to have preconceived ideas of who an artist is, or what they’re going to like. Whoever they are it’s good to take chances with them, and to ignore what they’ve done before.
Did Jay come up with the avant-garde treatment for the video? If so, do you think he (or yourself) was aware of the talk that some of the imagery would ignite?
[To] tell the truth, I wouldn’t speak for Jay. I know he really liked the video. He strikes me as a very intelligent and forward-thinking person and I have huge respect for him and his label for wanting to bring something different. As the man says, he uses his cojones.
Touché. So what was the overall direction Jay was looking for?
He gave me a very loose brief, and made it clear that we should be progressive with the video. All the imagery was thought up by me and was a response to the track itself. For those interested, the idea is actually about a funeral for old imagery and ideas, hence all the gothic and oppressive stuff. I was also trying to contradict the excess of hip-hop videos by making something brutally simple and claustrophobic.
How were you able get the new Jaguar XJ before its commercial US release?
Jay-Z’s a very influential man.
You have also done television commercials. Is that how you got your start in the industry?
Actually I started in music videos and moved over into commercials. Budgets were plummeting in videos, and it was becoming very hard to do what I wanted to do creatively. [As for the future], I’m filming two commercials back to back, one in Buenos Aries and one back home. I hope to do another video after that if I can.
Has “On To The Next One” wet your appetite to direct more hip-hop videos?
Yes, I think so. But there would have to be a reason to do it, I guess. With Jay-Z, there was.