Hard to believe but this month marks 21 years since the release of Gang Starr’s sophomore album, Step In the Arena. The LP’s lead single, and some would argue, the definitive Gang Starr song, “Just To Get a Rep,” neatly encapsulates all the group’s signature musical elements (e.g. Guru’s detailed street narrative with a conscience; DJ Premier’s peerless production and precisely dispensed scratch hooks). But nearly as important to the record’s success with hip-hop devotees upon its release was its accompanying video. Inventively directed by Yo! MTV Raps host Fab 5 Freddy, shot in stark black and white, and prominently featuring several Gang Starr Foundation members, the “Just To Get a Rep” music video is perhaps the ideal visual rendering of the song imaginable. Ever the gentleman, Fab 5 Freddy (who we previously spoke with about his groundbreaking work on BDP’s “My Philosophy” music video) recalls the making of this classic music video. Along the way, Fab talks no-budget shooting constraints and casting concerns, Williamsburg before the hipstaz took over, and how Guru and Premier captured the essence of a BK street institution: the stick up kid.
What stands out to you about this particular video?
Fab 5 Freddy: I guess a lot of what I feel is my best work had a strong narrative. I tell a story. Not just [show an artist] running around performing in the obligatory video fantasy world. I would find a way to pull a narrative out. And “Just to get a Rep” that was kinda like [that]. Just that real grimy street shit that I grew up around. I was very confident that I could tell this story dictated very clearly by the script, meaning the song. At that time [in hip-hop] the West Coast had got really strong. They was coming hard. So gangsta rap was beginning to become this big, impactful thing, and many of the West Coast artists had a lock on how [street subject matter] was seen. I felt like New York had gotten a little bit soft at that particular time when I did the video. And I wanted to show, like, yo, this is real street shit here – let me show you. But the thing about that video was the budget was mad low for that time. I think I barely had 20 grand.
How familiar were you with Gang Starr to that point?
Fab 5 Freddy: I had known Guru and Premier when they were hanging around [on the downtown club circuit]. “Amazon,” “Milky Way” – those were the types of clubs that were going on then. They were on that scene waiting for their shit to really pop off and blow up. I guess “Manifest” had come out, which was the first single, which everybody loved. But they were still like kind of up and coming. So I knew those dudes from just being around – and [I also knew] Patrick Moxey, who managed them.
[Gang Starr] had been on Wild Pitch Records. Wild Pitch had got at me numerous times [to direct videos] and they had a lot of acts that I liked. But I couldn’t find a way to work! I got a [professional film] crew [to pay], and to do something effective and to make a few dollars it was almost impossible. Wild Pitch had great acts and they squandered so much of what they had because they were so fuckin’ cheap. And they would eventually lose a lot of those acts. [Step In the Arena] was Gang Starr’s first album after Wild Pitch [for Chrysalis Records], “Just To Get a Rep” – the first single from the album. But even then they had a dumb low budget. But that song was just something where I said, man, I gotta do this. And we went in. Cats did it on a reduced rate because the budget was so low. But [since some of them] had did a few other jobs with me and dug the work, everybody cut their rate. So it was the most raw dog low budget joint I had done up to that point.
What besides the low budget was the biggest challenge?
Fab 5 Freddy: When we had the first meeting I told them, dude, the key thing is casting. We gotta get the right kind of dudes. And in [doing previous] casting sessions I had learned that all these wannabe actor cats show up – a lot of times pretty boy GQ looking dudes, and they were never right. And so I knew this was gonna be the problem. And I remember Preemo and Guru and them were like, “Nah, man. We got these dudes for you. Here are these dudes in our crew.” So I remember meeting them, and it was like Lil’ Dap, fuckin’ Jeru. Now, none of these dudes had come out [with their own records] yet. So I looked at these niggas, and I’m like, yeah! They were all down with the whole gang Starr clique with what they was doing. I think LIl’ Dap might have been down with the Decepticons – some ill Brooklyn gang at the time. They was young, grimy dudes and shit. So I was like, okay, yeah, all these dudes got the right look.
It was so dope to see the video a year or two later as Group Home came out, as Jeru came out with “Come Clean.” And dudes would begin to be like, “Oh shit… that’s the dude in the video!” That was what was so dope about Gang Starr – how they developed this little clique and had all these grimy motherfuckers around them, and they did look out. A lot of those cats got put on.
Where was this filmed?
Fab 5 Freddy: Right there at the Brooklyn side of the Williamsburg Bridge, practically under it. In and around Williamsburg, right off of Broadway.