What else stands out to you about how you chose to execute the narrative of “One Love”?
Fab 5 Freddy: I tell you another interesting thing. There was a dude who was a protégé of mine who became a director himself. His name was Brian Black Levar. And Brian did a bunch of videos. Brian had came into the game as a PA on one of my shoots. I also directed the video for “Road to the Riches” by Kool G Rap & DJ Polo, which was the first video I felt that dealt with crack dealing. And this kid Black was a PA on that video, and we became good friends. He was my driver, he was my assistant so to speak/protégé. And he worked his way up on the game where he started working on other videos to where he became an AD, assistant director.
My man Black grew up in Bushwick, living close to this that and a third. But he was trying to do some things. And so I connected with his energy. He was intelligent but at the same time he was also street. So what happened was, I was in the process of putting together “One Love.” And in the middle of that process, getting the concept right, getting ready to shoot, Nas calls me up and says, yo, I gotta do a remix video for “The World Is Yours.” And he wanted me to do that too. And that was for a much lower budget. I said, you know what, I got a better idea. There’s this cat who’s been working with me, he’s like my main assistant. He’s totally capable. Get my man to do that. I sat with my man Black and I said, listen here’s what we’ll do. We’ll cast somebody and agree on who this cat is gonna be and you’ll use this cat in your concept, right? But what we’re gonna do is, somehow at the end of your concept dude has to get away. In the video he did for the remix to “The World Is Yours,” it ended with [a scene in which] they was in the crib and something was going on and the cops came and dude had to break out. And so the last thing you see is this dude running off down the street. That same dude was gonna be my main character, so to speak, in the narrative for “One Love.” How “One Love” starts out is you see this same kid running. He runs into the projects and Nas is peeping him out the window. And the cop is like, “Don’t move, motherfucker, I got you, right there!” And the kid is like, aw shit! And he gets busted. And that was Nas’ man that he was writing to [in the song]. That’s the first letter. “Yo, I just got a letter from my man Nas, yo.” So that was my whole little narrative story thing.
There’s a graffiti term we use to use called “a married couple” for when certain subway cars would never be separated. And I thought of the videos in that regard – to spur other video shows to play them both back to back. Back then we had [pay per view video channel] The Box, which was the big thing. You dial ’em up on The Box and see them both and shit. Dial the other one in and play them back to back, and you’re like, oh shit!
Then there’s also the scene with the kid and the girl who winds up accidentally getting shot.
Fab 5 Freddy: This was a funny story. [The woman who played that role in the video] was a cute Black girl who was on the downtown scene. I knew her from clubs and shit. And once again I’d auditioned a bunch of chicks, they weren’t right. I’m constantly in casting mode at that point anywhere I go, anywhere I am. I saw her somewhere, talked to her, had her come in and read. I just felt like she was gonna give me the performance I needed. So this is the chick [in the video] that’s cheating on her man, and the one who accidentally gets shot. That was based on the line, “Don’t bust up in the crowd, make the right man bleed.” Some people thought Nas said, “Make the White man bleed.” “The right,” as in not the wrong, “man bleed.” That scenario was woven into the concept.
That girl was not a hood chick, okay? So now when she comes into that location it was Queensbridge on a hot summer day – nahmean, whatever, dice games, basketball. Just an ill, ill project. And [we’re] trying to keep dudes under control and to be respectful or whatever, and they was lookin’ at her like, whatever. You nahmean? And I remember her constantly coming to me like [ adopts haughty accent ], “Fab, they’re saying this to me,” and blah blah blah. And I’m like, okay, just relax now, come on now, work with me. I’d be really trying to get her right. It was just like… [ laughs ] I remember that was really difficult, and I had to constantly stay with her and talk to her [and get her through] the whole shooting scene. Dudes was like, “Yo, she ain’t dead!” “Who dat bitch?” She’s getting all kinda [stuff] from the crowd, and [she’s] looking at me. And I’m like, baby please. Come on. I had to totally keep her on point and cool to get the performance.
I remember when she had to fall down and lay there on the ground so we could get the shots, it was very agonizing for her. There’s that great shot at the end [when her character] dies with her eyes open. And she had to lay there and have that look in her eyes: she got shot and she’s dead, eyes open type shit. But like half of fucking Queensbridge is standing around like, “Who that bitch, nigga?” “What the fuck?!?” “What’s up with that ho?” It was just crazy. And it was just like all these grimy ass cats that you really can’t check. You could just get dudes to be like, yo, stand here please. This is a ill crew, it’s some finesse shit. Even though Nas is their local kid blowing up. It still was that real shit, right there. God, I felt so bad for her. It was just like really the illest type of [environment] you’d wanna put somebody in and get a performance out of them. And she basically did it, but it was rough.
But the point I’m happy to report is honey caught the bug from that and pursued a career and she became an actress. I guess after enduring all that shit, which was agony, trust me [ laughs ] – the video comes out and it’s a big deal, and she’s the chick [in it]. It was several years later I would bump into her and she’d be like [ adopts haughty accent ], “Oh my god, Fab, I just can’t thank you [enough]. I’m doing this now and I’m in this theater program, and I’m doing readings,” and shit. It changed the course of her life.
And Illmatic , of course, changed the course of hip-hop. What else did you take from the experience of directing “One Love”?
Fab 5 Freddy: I was just happy to work with dude. He was just brilliant. Nas was such an inspiration. That song was just a great script to use, if you will. And my strong suit had often been being able to tell a story. And that was a great opportunity to do the narrative storytelling thing as it was based on that brilliant concept, the structure of the song – the letters he’s writing to his homies in jail. It was just like, dude, this is so dope.