Vivien Goldman has lived a life way cooler and more interesting than you or we ever, ever, ever will. A Londoner who’s lived in Paris and now resides in Nueva York, her official website‘s bio lists her as a “writer, educator, broadcaster, and cult post-punk musician.” To be more specific, she’s interviewed numerous legends in the glory days of NME, filmed documentaries in apartheid-era Soweto, developed programming for the BBC, was down (as in worked and hung out) with Fela, appeared alongside Jean-Michel Basquiat on the album Anti-NY, recorded and self-released “Launderette” with John Lydon and Public Image Ltd. (later picked up by legendary NY downtown indie 99 Records; eventually sampled by Madlib), penned Bob Marley’s first biography as well as The Book of Exodus: The Making and Meaning of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Album of the Century, is a regular contributor to npr.com, and is now the Adjunct Professor of Punk and Reggae at NYU’s Tisch School’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music.
She also happens to have directed and produced what we consider to be one of the greatest hip-hop music videos of all-time, Eric B. & Rakim’s “I Ain’t No Joke.” We recently caught up with Vivien and asked her to share her memories of the making of this most golden of Golden Era hip-hop clips.
How did you come to direct this particular music video?
Vivien Goldman: I came out of punk and guerilla filmmaking. I [started working with] the BBC when I had a little production company called Spellbound Pictures. It was the dawn of independent television and video. And I was just trying my luck in it with a more experienced guy called Mick Sawyer. And we set up a production company and we made documentaries. We shot in South Africa for the BBC when apartheid was still in force, shooting guerilla style in Soweto illegally. The biggest thing we did was a series, a very revolutionary music series called Big World Café that fused global pop with [artists like] Phil Collins and Tina Turner. The Beautiful South started on that show. So that was I guess the biggest thing we did. But we also always did these music videos. We did some early reggae videos in England like Tippa Irie’s “Hello Darling,” which they probably don’t know over here, but was big on the charts over in England. [For “I Ain’t No Joke”] I was hired by a woman who was the commissioning editor for video at Island Records who had seen my reel. I just bopped in there from the UK with a history of working with Island. It was when I was sort of flirting with living in America. I was hanging out a lot in New York.
What was your approach as far as how and where to shoot?
Vivien Goldman: It was a low budget video. Me and Mick were documentary makers and journalistic types so we were used to it. I said to Eric B. & Rakim: “Well, what do you guys kind of do in the course of the day, what’s your favorite hangout? We’d like to make it come alive with you performing in this unusual place where you really hang out instead of just in a theatre or a club.” And they said, well, we mostly hang out in the playground. So: well, let’s just go there. So we went to this playground. I guess it’s what you’d call in hip-hop, keeping it real. And that’s what we were about.
In the playground scene, [because] Rakim’s a very powerful performer [it was simple to] just to keep the camera on him. I think in these days where everything is cut very fast isn’t it funny how this video is very slow, but still it has a power. [Rakim]’s sort of gripping to look at, and you really flow with him and the words. Obviously that mural [we shot] must have been there or right by [the location]. [One member of their crew] just happened to be wearing [the T-shirt with the slogan: “Bless the mic of the Gods”] so we shot it. In our documentary type way we were trying to capture little bits of reality.
But at the same time there was not much movement. The lads [in their crew] were sort of stolid, as much as you see them on the climbing frame. And there was one who was kind of jumpy and perky and lively. And I said, “Oi, you over there!” [laughs] “Can you do me a favor, will you do a bit of dancing for us?” And I didn’t know, but it was Flavor Flav. And he gave this great, crazy dance, much like he would go on to do for audiences around the world. And that’s sort of how innocent it all was. And [Flav] always says that’s the first time he was filmed.
So it wasn’t actually planned for Flavor Flav to appear in the video? That’s pretty crazy considering he wound up being such a presence.
Vivien Goldman: Flavor was just hanging out because that’s what he did. [He and Eric B. & Rakim] were obviously like what we would call “bred’ren.” And I didn’t even get the feeling particularly that he was there for the shoot or anything. Maybe because he had nothing else on that afternoon. But it wasn’t like it was a big thing. He was just naturally a live wire, and a terrific mover [laughs] with just a very distinctive aura. I still remember looking at everybody else: nicely turned out, well pressed, with their Kangols all fluffed. But Flav had that different sort of energy jumping out of him. I literally just picked him out of the crowd because it was sizzling off of him. And he was funny. So he was a perfect foil. I regard it as a stroke of luck that made the video, in a way. Not to diminish in any way Rakim’s performance, which recalls Linton Kwesi Johnson to me. [He’s one of those] people who just doesn’t need to smile to ingratiate their words.
There’s a quality to this video that’s still so cool and unpretentious, and in turn so reflective of the group’s music. Even just how Eric B. & Rakim drive right up to the store on 125th Street, get out of the car and start performing.
Vivien Goldman: What’s remarkable and amusing about it when I look back on it is how easy it was to do. We were outside of an electronics shop in Harlem, and I probably went around there the day before [the shoot] and said, oh, is it okay if we shoot this video? [When we went to do the shoot] we managed to hold a parking spot in front of the shop [for Eric B. & Rakim to drive up]. It was all so new, and it was very, very unpretentious. It was just the reverse of today when everything is so regulated and you can’t even see the artist. We weren’t stopped by the police. We just pulled up [and began] shooting. We didn’t get any clearances or permits or anything.
As you see it’s really verité in Harlem. It was a lovely day. A crowd gathered around. It’s not like you had to send flyers around to people saying, oh, there’s a secret video shoot. No, people were just walking down the street and everybody stopped, and as you can see everybody had a great time. It’s so natural. I guess that’s what’s so beautiful about it. [Our shooters] did a really good job. And [the editor] Pete Shelton is just very rhythmically refined as an editor. (Not long before he had done the Grace Jones One Man Show.) And that’s how it got that sort of trademark [style of] quick visual stabs like rimshots. And obviously it still has some appeal because we’re talking about it now.
What were the guys like to work with?
Vivien Goldman: Eric B. was very reserved and unto himself, a laid back person. I remember [Rakim] as just being pretty serious and workmanlike throughout. I don’t remember that we all like “went down the pub” at the end of it or anything. We didn’t sort of hang out for ages afterwards. But I think everyone felt it was a job well done because the day went very smoothly.
You can obviously boast some none-too shabby achievements in your career. But how fortunate do you feel to have contributed something like this to this particular era of hip-hop in New York?
Vivien Goldman: I don’t think you could do a [video] like this now, which is why I got quite emotional when I saw it [again]. It was like, wow, we were so free then and we didn’t know it. It was a very exciting time musically in New York. I’ll never forget there was one roof party I went to on Houston Street. And they were playing that Public Enemy record with that siren, and I was just rooted to the spot. It was a really hot, almost tropical night. And I was just like, I’ve just got to stay here, I’ve got to be here. This electricity… it was like the epicenter of the world at that moment.
Contact Vivien Goldman at: firstname.lastname@example.org