D.Willz "Watermelon" (2011)
As any contemporary hip-hop artist will attest, having a great song in an already packed marketplace just isn't enough anymore. Even giving away free digital copies of your new album or mixtape isn't guaranteed to grab the short attention span of today's jaded, ever fickle hip-hop fan. Sometimes that great new song needs an equally great, eye-catching video to stand out & get noticed. Such is the case with the refreshingly unique Raremink directed video for Oakland rapper D. Willz' infectious rap song "Watermelon" - the latest, but most successful, in a string of catchy rap songs that the East Bay artist has released over the past several years. And as you can tell from watching the "Watermelon" clip above, the video breaks damn near every rule in the what-is-expected of a rap music video; especially one from an Oakland rapper. But in so doing it magically manages to transcend all genres and styles by making a fun, instantly appealing clip that, not surprisingly, went viral: registering close to half a million YouTube views. It also clocked up views on various other online video channels as well as on TV: at first on In Demand and later on music video channels such as mtvU where the creative video also won mtvU's Freshman 5 contest, based on popularity with viewers, and on MTV regular where it got into rotation on MTV Jams and AMTV. Radio airplay actually came last in a sequence switcheroo that is a true sign of the times since traditionally radio airplay came first, not online play. Not these days.
Recently I caught up with both D. Willz, who performs at the New Parish in his hometown this Friday Sept 9th, and his "Watermelon' video's producers, the sibling duo of Raremink to talk about the making of their video. The first thing I learned from talking with the Berkeley based brother duo of Finley Wise and Morgan Wise, who run the small but creative Raremink production company, was that for a long while it looked like their "Watermelon" video would never see the light of day. I also learned that, even though it premiered online six months ago, that it was already a year old at that stage. Shot in March of 2010 "Watermelon" was put on the back burner by D.Willz' then management not liking it (it was "not street enough" they believed). I also learned that, despite its high quality glossy look, that the brothers Wise incredibly made it for next to nothing by national TV standards. "Our final budget was about $4000 which is really a small drop in the bucket in the larger scale view of the film and video world," said Finley. His brother Morgan added that they actually could have even done it for less money but, "We wanted to have high cinema quality lenses," he said adding, "And of course we had to have a steady cam."
Having "a crew that worked for a very reduced rate" plus local, non professional, non union actors also helped keep the costs low. But budget-restrictions or not, these actors still had to put in time and do their homework before shooting could begin; learning D.Willz' lyrics by heart so that they could perfectly mouth them. And as for the actual shoot, said Finley, "We shot in Pescadero, CA which is about an hour and 20 minutes south on the coast from the Bay Area. It's a little organic farm called Blue House Farm that Morgan found. It's run by these really cool young organic farmers. And we went and met with the guys and they let us rent the property for really cheap and were awesome to work with." He also noted, since watermelons are not harvested on Blue House, that they had to bring in watermelons to stage that aspect of the video.
Considering the blatant sexually suggestive lyrics of D.Willz' song, the accompanying "Watermelon" video in the average rap music video director's hands would have been closer to what has become to be expected of today's rap videos - subservient half naked women gyrating like strippers and/or mean-mugging rappers staring down the camera in a strip club or ghetto street setting. "We didn't want to do anything like women dancing in the club or the artist rapping [directly] into the camera, and bottles of champagne everywhere," said Finley. "You know, whatever the cliche images you usually see are. Instead we thought it would be fun to show the harvesting of watermelons on a farm in California and, in doing so, show [that] D.Willz is a different kind of rapper - one who doesn't take himself and the whole rap game too seriously." On the topic of the rapper's uniqueness his brother Morgan added that, "D. Willz' approach to music is pretty different for the genre. If you listen closely to his music you will notice a lot of innate humor. And it was our job to convey that through this video and in a healthy way."
It was upon suggestion of the song's music producer Mark Kragen that they included the karaoke style text to the video. "We were breaking a lot of rules in the first place like having non rappers rap the lyrics for the artist so we thought it would be fun and in the same non traditional vein of the tongue-in-check nature to add some karaoke sing along style lyrics," said Finley with his brother Morgan giving, "Props to Gabe Schwartz, the digital effects guy - a motion graphics artist, for putting that together, that animated overlay and who also worked for really cheap." Truly the video was a labor of love for everyone involved; but one that luckily turned out to be good for everyones' resume too.
As is usually the case the first one to benefit from a popular music video, before its producers and tech staff, is the artist. And in this case D.Willz is as pleasantly surprised as anyone to the video's runaway success. "The response to it was more than I ever expected and it was so fast after it went up on YouTube," said D.Willz. "And then it got picked up by MTV after winning the mtvU contest and then radio stations started to pick up on it and it's been spreading like wildfire ever since." I've always wondered if an artist ever reads the comments online about their videos so I asked D.Willz if he did? "I'm always looking to see how many views we got and the comments," he laughed, noting that. "They come right to my phone" directly from his D.WillzTV YouTube channel So does he read all the comments? "A lot of them. Some of them are funny, what people have to say. And of course there's the haters but I don't worry about them."
D.WIllz buckles in watermelon in outtake clip that both previews the video & showcases his humor
From talking with D.Willz for just a short time you can tell the guy is witty, talented, and most savvy; savvy enough to know that you have to be open-minded & willing to take chances to get ahead. So when the brothers Wise presented him the unusual storyboard for "Watermelon" - one in which he, the main rapper in the song, allows three different, totally atypical looking other guys rap his verses and then he himself only makes a small cameo (towards the end part of video driving the truck to sell the watermelons roadside) in his own video. "They presented it to me and I liked it and I said, Let's roll with it," recalled D.Willz with a little chuckle.
From a marketing stance perhaps what's most interesting about the success of "Watermelon" is how the online play of the video led the way for the song. "Now the Internet is the real powerhouse, and it's totally switched the game," noted D.Willz emphasizing that nowadays it's almost essential to have a good video for a single to help it stand out from the crowd. I asked him if he had to chose between just one - a mixtape or a video - which would he chose? "A video,"he answered without missing a beat. "Mixtapes and all is cool but at the end of the day a video has a stronger impact with more of a focal point and you can touch more ground with it. With a song, people are sweating the market with mixtapes. And peoples' attention spans are short."