The following is a work in progress and may not represent the final release.
The American Dream
Blinded by the darkness above my lying body, a search for stars had left me stunned in a world that looked down upon me. I resented this night in New York City where the silence of nothing spoke the truth to my lack of care; the odds favoured death over dreams. Staring into an ambiguous space wondering about my fate on this dangerous planet, I resurrected vivid memories of the day I had just experienced, callously considering what errors birthed my paranoia in the present.
Earlier that first morning in America Oliver was crouched on a grungy curb, squirting a water bottle as I squinted into the glorious sun. Oliver, originally from the south of England and myself from the antithetical north of the nation presented a paradigm of personalities. Little was spoken of the night before where we had arrived in New York late in the evening travelling three thousand miles from home. I had vague drunken memories of sprinting past pimps in Brooklyn to find an alleyway to urinate in and then returning to Manhattan to find Oliver passed out in the toilets of a bar. Eventually we both staggered and stumbled to find the floor of a nearby apartment, the same apartment which towered over the curb we now sat upon, with the sun lighting up street names that I never considered to read. This apartment hosted Oliver’s housemate from back in England who had, alongside his friend, rented a place in New York at the same time we had flown out to the city. In England Oliver’s housemate was a banker slash aspiring artist, in England I was artist slash bankrupt, he didn’t seem comfortable with us both taking up space in his idyllic pad and we weren’t too comfortable on the ground either so we decided not to talk about the simplicity of last night’s shelter as we readied for our debuting American daytime.
For myself and Oliver, getting ready meant going from horizontal to vertical, but for Oliver’s housemate and his friend, nine to five folk, they seemed to need to take hours. Eventually after waiting on that curb for the duration of a morning that seemed more wasted than the night before, our jumbled group of misfits finally trekked out of Manhattan.
Governors Island was our destination. A small island between Manhattan and Brooklyn, a former army base that trained the American Continental troops in 1776 as they defeated the British during the American war of Independence, resulting in the birth of the United States of America. I didn’t feel a traitor to my home country to be proudly stepping on these shores, I carried that same passion of independence against an often archaic British government. I admired the American constitution as a consistent design for freedom for all, and I applauded their first amendment that presents free speech to every American citizen. Whilst only a handful of British artists inspired me over the years, a legion of artists from America had gained my trust through exploiting the first amendment and in the process they had created their own poetic revolution; a culture that was proudly named ‘Hip-Hop’.
Like all powerful nations in history, the United States was founded on unrecognised manual labour and slavery. Slavery was not exclusive to the United States but racially motivated slavery was a scandalous trademark, with black people originally being recognised in American law as three fifths of a person. A country founded on the ideas of people all over the world having freedom against native rule, chose to discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, the darkest secret they kept. More than three hundred thousand American soldiers died to legally end slavery while fighting the American Civil War between 1861 and 1865 and just under one hundred years later, in 1964, after decades and decades of protests and uprisings, the United States of America passed the Civil Rights Act declaring that the future of the United States was one that welcomed all having equal opportunities.
When slavery was legal in the USA, it was illegal for a slave to learn to read or write, so that they could not communicate and understand the systems of oppression. It would eventually be reading and writing that would allow success for millions of children no longer to be discriminated against by their own country because they looked different to the people in charge. Five years after the Civil Rights Act, and two centuries beyond the battle of independence from Great Britain, Hip-Hop originated in New York City during the 1970s. The rebellion started in the urban areas of the USA, predominantly in the black regions that were still economically struggling and segregated. Using words as a democratic pursuit of change to newly empowered communities, a soundtrack of confidence and culture evolved throughout time, inspiring billions of people all around the world that we can narrate our own history in spite of the harsh past of our nations. Hip-Hop inspired me to travel to New York City in hope to find my own voice that was deemed unworthy of English influence.
Sailing across the Atlantic Ocean to Governors Island that fine afternoon to attend a Hip-Hop music festival, the Statue of Liberty stood proud on the shore, a beacon of hope to any generations’ struggle. We were however late to the party, arriving at the island all I could spot were logos of brands that had staked their claim to this land decades earlier, becoming corporate giants to our gullible travels. Some freedom – always trying to sell us what we could not afford.
The bass in the speakers blaring throughout the island drew me to the stage like a harmonically violent siren; the sounds of seduction, not of crime. We were comfortably innocuous in the crowd of Americans who towered over our unexciting British frames. As Oliver’s housemate and his friend left to visit a smaller stage, myself and Oliver joined the crowd at the back of the main stage; headline artists Cypress Hill indeed looked like they were on top of a hill. During the interval a man approached, he seemed to be the only person in the whole twenty thousand plus crowd who was smaller than us. Introducing himself as being from Chile, in broken English he said “do you want to go to the front?”. “Come with me” the Chilean ushered. I glanced at Oliver, both shrugging our shoulders in comical unison, we apologetically followed this nuisance, slyly slaloming through without raising a red flag. Walking through the crowd felt metaphorical to the absurd journey that stood before us in the following days. Urged on by a triumphant soundtrack of hope and cunning, echoing through the chatter of friends who didn’t recognise our cheek, by the end of one record we were now at the front. I dare not look back and show my face to the thousands we had just squeezed, but why did I need to look back anyway now. The Chilean did not stay long nor did he say much to us, but myself and Oliver stood there for hours. We didn’t need to drink, to eat, or anything else. I shared the same, slightly polluted air as the people I would identify as my Kings and Queen’s – being a peasant never felt more fun.
Lost in time listening to the same records I had spent days and days listening to back home, the musician Lauryn Hill performed her song ‘Ex-Factor’, a record about heartbreak and isolation, irrelevant during this moment of kin being serenaded in unison, even the artist couldn’t help but smile as an accompanying electric guitar shone solo. The sound sent shivers down my spine, my mind confused this joy for the cold and it dawned on me that it was now dark; when the Kings and Queens go back to their palaces, we have nowhere to sleep tonight.
After Lauryn Hill left the stage, there was only one artist left to perform. Looking back to the crowd for the first time, I realised I could not see them, all I could see were outlines; silhouettes seemingly stretching for miles. The bass of the music got darker, the tone of the night got darker and out of the darkness stepped the New York rap artist Nas to perform his album ‘Illmatic’, highly regarded as the most important Hip-Hop soundtrack of all time, a record he released twenty years previous.
Hearing Illmatic performed live was trivially historic to any Hip-Hop fan but in this scenario deafening in its realism. Nas stood in front of a stage that was theatrically designed to mirror the ghetto, from boxed into the projects to cardboard boxes, a safer reality for a man who now stood as a multi-millionaire after surviving the truth of his poetry. Opening with his anthem ‘New York State of Mind’ he raps “I never sleep cos sleep is the cousin of death, beyonds the walls of intelligence life is defined, I think of crime when I’m in a New York state of mind”. I had heard these lines over and over again but I still had failed to truly listen to them. Despite the warnings of the “city that never sleeps, full of villains and creeps”, when this was over in under an hour, the lights would turn off from the stage, and all that would be left would be me and the blackness. I ended this eventual moment with an ironic cheer, mostly I just wanted to hear my own voice because I had a suspicion that I wouldn’t be able to use it much in the hours that followed. As we were ultimately escorted to leave the festival it was only ten at night, we didn’t know where to go but knowing that statistically someone was going to be murdered on the streets of New York City that evening, well wherever we went to, we didn’t want to go there.
At the end of the festival we caught up with Oliver’s housemate at the exit, only for him to predictably shun us and say that he didn’t want to give us shelter on his floor. I stubbornly did not want to beg a suit, neither did Oliver, so we split towards our dark destiny.
When you are in New York with nowhere to be you predictably find yourself in Times Square – what safety it feels to be in the lights of huge advertisements that dare not shut off for one minute in fear that people realise we don’t need their products, nor their false idols. As dull as it was, it was safe for that reason, an obvious place to sleep, only there was an old white man in a suit watching from atop. The old man’s job was to stop people from falling asleep, halting them from desecrating their great temple of wealth with the notion that some of the little people had nowhere to sleep in the cold outside the vacant warm expensive buildings that teased us. This truly was the old guard of America.
I sat tired amongst the satire, we left but not before we eavesdropped the big apple’s religious discussions that harked upon the streets on our exit. At three in the morning religious followers were preaching with passion within incongruous purgatory, where God had been replaced by the worship of the giant faces on the advertisements and the only faith people had were of the back ingredients of a product.
New York is a neon normality, an effulgent effort, yet walking slowly in the wrong direction for the wrong amount of time and the murky places are hosted by the shady characters who shine their gold teeth in the sunlight and in the grime they growl a grimace. The same person trying to sell you rap on one corner of town, will try to sell you crack on the other corner. Politely refuse music in the mainstream and you have a different taste, politely refuse drugs in the gutter and you are in the wrong place.
‘Can you be lost in a place where you have no destination?’, I asked myself as we stepped through the cracks of plethora. New York started to look absent, it began to feel deserted as we ventured behind the scenes. We wandered past the old building of ‘Studio 54’, the once infamous hotspot nightclub of the 1970s; the bright lights that characters from all over the world looked to shine in, were now replaced by dull streetlamps and silence. There didn’t seem to be a place for us to even charm our way into, no hope for the democracy of a dream which had seduced me within the montage of sex, drugs and rock and roll. I wasn’t sure if I was seeking a place to sleep or if I was searching for an adventure, either way I began to become disheartened.
The next dismay of New York was the ‘Bad Boy’ record label offices. I knew the name Bad Boy from lavish, vibrant Hip-Hop music videos, yet here I stood before an unlit stone building that had little shape in the shade. I would love to have known where my idols were this evening but they weren’t in New York, not like how we were in New York, not anymore. We had now been walking for hours and seen only a handful of people, none of them famous. There was one light left on however, across the road, and we headed in that direction like wise men seeking a star. The light revealed a 99 cents a slice pizza shop; stock had changed dramatically over the years. With my stomach now choosing to wake up, well at least some part of me had had some sleep, we paced over to the takeaway and walked in where we were the only customers. Oliver and I ordered a slice of pizza each and sat on the floor as all the chairs were stacked on the tables.
Out for the count, on the floor of this takeaway I started to close my bloodshot, beat up eyes. Halfway to black I caught one of the workers looking at me as he was sweeping the floor, nodding over to me sympathetically, perhaps even with empathy. This was the real America, it was immigrants coming over and fighting the end in this city of great prestige. I did not have enough money to buy the whole pizza that night, but I had enough for a slice. This wasn’t a place where dreams happened overnight, but we were eating, we were surviving.
I was woken up after a brief nap, they were closing the shop and so we now had to go back on the streets. I don’t know how long we had hustled rest for, but it was still dark so not long enough. Now I was really tired, succumbed to the taunt of sleep, and as soon as we left that takeaway we knew we were going to have to find a place to lay our head for a few hours, and that meant broadcasting ourselves to the luring streets of New York.
Across the road there was a park, Central Park, another famed reference in New York city history. During the day I could imagine a beautiful site of smiles, the cool of dripping ice cream, the presence of a variety of colourful creatures under the warm air. At night the prism became a prison, notorious for a high murder and crime rate. I was in a hallucinogenic state and can’t recall what happened next, only that I was now inside Central Park somehow, despite the city locking it down at night, survival overrules systems. We were too exhausted to travel deep into the two and a half mile park so we found shelter under trees. I rested my bag on my neck like a pillow, Oliver did the same with his. The mechanical metal of a camera within didn’t have the same poise of feathers but if I was to wake up and my camera was to have gone, it would have felt like a knife to my heart regardless. If anyone wanted the only thing valuable I had, they would have to go through me first. Logic dictated I had nothing in New York: in my mind, as long as I had my camera, I had a chance. My camera was my secret weapon in life, I could shoot my way out of any struggle but it wouldn’t protect me from the weapons of the criminals that lurched somewhere in the mysterious surroundings.
Praying that I was not the prey in this concrete jungle, I shut my eyes in final acceptance of the shut city, hoping this wouldn’t be the fade to black on my story that had yet to start. Two unfamiliar young British filmmakers who had entertained eight million people with their stories back in England, were now two souls amongst the eight million populace hiding from the strangers of the night.
What I dreamt about that night I could not recall.
Rapid Eye Movements
As I awoke to the sounds of drilling drowning the birds chirping I looked over to Oliver with an overwhelming smile, neither of us were complaining about the insects crawling around us that we could see in the daylight. We weren’t the ants that we had felt in those dramatic tricks of the night, we were yet again larger than life characters that had another day to chase success in New York City. Before pursuing aspirations however the first agenda of the day was finding a place to sleep for the night, we didn’t want to double down on death.
Voyaging back to the skyscrapers with haste, the Manhattan metropolis in the morning was magical, just like I had dreamt of as a boy in England. Every person we passed on the street urged a swagger of power, thousands of people darted our mutual path in merely an hour as the heartbeat of the city spoke triumphantly amongst the bellowing traffic and reverbing hollers of the slang. Returning to the part of Manhattan where Oliver’s housemate was staying, we showed him a photo of us sleeping on the streets and sarcastically guilted him for not allowing us a place to sleep. Oliver’s housemate’s friend reluctantly revealed he had friends from back home staying in another part of Manhattan and they had a spare room. I did not linger hope but as the day continued the friends returned a call to reveal they were open to letting us stay with them. I still doubted the legitimacy of this idea, thinking that once they had met myself and Oliver, and realised we were not from their grown up worlds of actual jobs and actual money, that they would find an excuse to have us thrown out to the city like stray wolves once more.
Arriving at a cosy flat in a booming area we were introduced to Dave and Marissa, the friends of the housemates’ friend. I did not wish to feel like I was taking advantage of the kindness of others, I only wanted to be of mutual interest so I didn’t hide back who I was, or why I was in New York, nor did Oliver. I respected the couple’s calm demeanour immediately and they returned the compliment, quickly offering us a settee and a spare bedroom for a couple of days. Oliver was to have the bedroom the first night because he had a video shoot the following day. Always the hustler, Oliver asked Dave and Marissa if he could shoot a scene for his new music video in their flat. They agreed, which left me concerned knowing how out of control a music video can become, I didn’t want to go back to Central Park.
With trust that revealed them as Northerners not New Yorkers, Dave and Marissa went out to party with friends, leaving both myself and Oliver alone in their apartment. Oliver went to get some sleep in a bed, while I happily took the settee. After a few hours of recharging I called Jesse, the manager of Mook, a New York Hip-Hop artist that I was going to work with later on this trip; the reason why I had arrived in America with such belief that my life was going to change. Mook was famed for battle rap, a part of Hip-Hop where artists would stand on street corners using words that gestured a jester of any challenger to their throne. Mook had reached global fame through the internet watching his grainy, grey battles and was now signed to an iconic record label called Ruff Ryders records. Ruff Ryders in the 1990s were a staple of East Coast America who had started making outcast street music that sold tens of millions of copies, moving from low budget videos in the streets of New York, to massively expensive studio lot music videos in the process. Mook was getting ready for his debut on the label featuring a deluge of commercial artists who were heavily renowned names to me, while Mook balanced his credibility as a spokesperson for the streets in what was the latest tale in the age old debate on whether capitalism was stifling or aiding the journey of the street artist.
Although we had spoken for the past few weeks over email, I called Jesse up for an initial introduction in reality, as I paced a frantic gait throughout the apartment, nervous to talk to an actual New Yorker for the first time.
“Hi Jesse, it’s Nick who is shooting the video with Mook. I’m in New York now so just wanted to set a date because you said to call you when I’m in the city”. Jesse replied “Sorry what did you say? You want to shoot a video with Mook?”. I stuttered “Oh, I’ve been speaking to you for a few weeks now over the internet, you just said to call when I’m in town”. Jesse paused for a moment, “Sometimes Mook is on my email, he may have been the one emailing you. The label is handling all his releases so it’s not simple for us to shoot a video right now”.
My heart sank, suddenly the stresses of the night before seemed incidental. Oliver walked into the room, sensing something was wrong. Jesse then said “Look if Mook likes your stuff then we’ll see what we can do, but I can’t promise anything, I’ll have a record in your inbox in the next five minutes, let me know what you think”. Jesse put the phone down abruptly. Five minutes passed, nothing. Ten minutes passed, nothing. With Ruff Ryders involved in leading his career, they already knew one hundred of me, I didn’t know one of them, I wasn’t convinced I would hear from Jesse again. Fifteen minutes had passed and then the sound of the email hitting my inbox zapped new life into me like a resuscitator trying to bring the rhythm of the heart back; my finger on the pulse I clicked the link. I turned to Oliver and under my breath uttered “It’s called Love Thru The Speakers’’, Oliver grinned in disbelief, my face was stone, I expected to shoot something cerebral with Mook with our stage the concrete heart of the city, not the hypothetical heart of the man. I pressed play and howled a sarcastic and almost maniacal laugh for the duration of the song; sure this moment was absurd in its surprise but at least it was happening, I was listening to a record that I had a chance of shooting in New York City. I didn’t mind the record but I just wasn’t looking for love at that moment in time, spending nights on the cold streets makes your heart cold. Convincing myself that any video in New York was more important to my career than a great video back home, I called back and said “okay cool, I can work with this, let’s set it up.” Jesse replied “we’ll try to see what we can do. We’ll be in touch”. I wasn’t upbeat that they were going to be and I got on the internet to look for other musicians to work with in New York with just a couple of days’ notice. I found nothing and then eventually went to sleep, this night was tougher to sleep in than the previous. The night before I had hope that if I survived death, I would see success, now I was confident I wasn’t going to die that night, but I certainly was not as sure that success was going to happen for me in New York City.
As people returned to work in the skyscrapers, Monday saw Oliver and I stood outside St Patrick’s cathedral as the light hit the windows of the cathedral like a beam from heaven itself. An SUV car as black as the night rolled up across the road, the windows tinted with overcast, a contrast to the golden sun which spurred us for the third consecutive morning. Oliver walked over to the car, I followed respectfully behind. The darkened windows lowered to shine light on Gangster Gibbs who didn’t look at us, instead he was wiping down his sunglasses. In the other seat, the driving seat, sat Archie, his hands on the steering wheel to say that if he didn’t like what Oliver had to say in that moment, he would happily drive off.
Gangster Gibbs was the pseudonym of Freddie Gibbs, a next generation Hip-Hop artist from Gary, Indiana. Located just 40 kilometers from America’s murder capital of Chicago, the city of Gary was founded in 1906 by United States Steel Company. Originally a population of around sixteen thousand people, the steel industry provided jobs to immigrants and by 1960, the population of the city was 178,000. In the heart of the cold steel the twentieth century musical idol Michael Jackson would be one of those numbers born in the city in 1958 and he would go onto inspiring billions with soundtracks to the second half of the century. As Michael Jackson found fame with lighting up stages all over the world, the American steel industry declined, and the population in Gary when we stood outside of Freddie’s car that day, was now less than half at 80,000 people. One in a third of the houses in Gary are abandoned and to combat the mass unemployment and poverty with the decline of the American steel industry, the residents turned to a different type of steel, the metal of the gun. In 1994 Gary, Indiana was ranked as the most dangerous place in the United States of America; at that time Freddie Gibbs would have been a fourteen year old boy, writing rhymes to survive a world of tragedy. Freddie had performed at the festival that we had attended on the Saturday, he had been on the smaller stages but according to many leading American publications, it wouldn’t be long before Freddie would be on the main stages. Where Michael Jackson’s music reflected lyrics of hope, Freddie’s focused on the complex opposite. So much can change in the American mind within one generation.
I didn’t get the sense of an ego to Freddie’s dislike to be with us that morning, I detected that Freddie’s life had been one of mistrust. After a minute or two of discussions that I overlooked from afar, the car drove off. Oliver returned and now my face mirrored how he was when he overheard my call to Mook’s manager. “They’re just finding a place to park.” Oliver assured me. We waited for five minutes, nothing yet again. It seemed so easy to communicate with these Americans when they saw our music videos but the minute they heard our different accents or saw what we looked like, they seemingly got cold feet. No music video directors from England had ever independently negotiated American productions by just flying into New York before and there was a reason for this we were quickly finding out.
As I gawked awkwardly at the triumphant architecture of the cathedral, Oliver was quiet, perhaps nervous too. Like I, he also had sacrificed to be here for his career. We both were so assured in England but America was abstract. The cathedral I was looking at was standing strong above us, awarding people faith since 1878, yet we were ghosts of time, every miracle of chance vanishing before our own eyes.
To my amazement I looked behind me and saw Freddie walking up with Archie. They really had just been finding somewhere to park, and of course in New York on a Monday morning, that was a far more complicated procedure than shooting a music video. Alongside Freddie and Archie was a big man in shades, he was about the size of both Freddie and Archie put together. The big man said little, only that he was Freddie’s bodyguard. Never had anyone we had worked with before brought a bodyguard to the shoot, perhaps Freddie was living a life too close to his vocals of frustration.
None of us spoke to each other for the first couple of hours of the shoot, the only words that were said were Oliver’s concise direction to signify action and Freddie spitting the same sixteen bars repeatedly, flawlessly while he stopped to puff a cigarette during takes. “Acetone, hard to leave that crack alone, government got these heroin addicts strung out on the methadone” were lyrics taken from the record Oliver was shooting the video for called ‘Lord Giveth Lord Taketh Away’. The song embodied the lack of hope that was left in the black community that had seen many millionaires made while neighbourhoods kept rotting in crime and drugs with lack of legal enterprise. Gary, Indiana was filled with derelict schools and so Freddie had to use the vocabulary of the streets to compose a better life, he was in New York just like we were, he was there to be someone.
Freddie and his entourage were keeping apart from me, they would have happily done all day I could tell, they were here for Oliver’s skills and that was all, but I had learnt enough from Freddie’s music that I trusted we were kindred. After a couple of hours passed I broke the silence with a joke, I don’t remember what it was but it removed the tension from the shoot. Freddie’s bodyguard then introduced himself as Dominican H. When Freddie and Oliver returned down from their scenes of darkness and saw me and Dominican laughing, they both looked comically puzzled and as we walked back to the apartment we were staying at, we were now finally all talking like we had known each other a lot longer than a couple of hours.
Archie like myself and Oliver was caucasian but he talked slicker than any white guy in England. As we crossed over the roads around Manhattan, I estimated these were the same streets we walked that mysterious Saturday night but I didn’t recognise anything. “Why are you guys over in America? Europe is where everything is happening right now.”, were the first words Archie said to me, I imagined this was a question he wanted to know from the moment he received an email from Oliver. “New York is the dream for everyone in England.” I replied, feeling presumptuous to speak on behalf of a nation, but looking around me, we had nothing like this back home and so I couldn’t imagine a sane person not seeing this as an upgrade. Archie bluntly replied “Stay in England.”
As we entered Dave and Marissa’s apartment I was concerned they may be intimidated by the scene. I didn’t imagine either of them had heard a Freddie Gibbs track before. Already crowded into a decent sized apartment, Freddie called a couple of friends to come and hang out on the video shoot. I didn’t want us to upset Dave and Marissa and then be on the streets of New York for another night so I began to get slightly nervous. As one of Freddie’s friends told stories of gangs with machetes approaching him when he was in England, I was cringing inside. I didn’t want this lovely British couple to be troubled with who they were hosting in the home that we had been accepted into the day previous. As much fun as it was to be on set in New York with a special musician, I was counting down the minutes for the shoot to finish because I didn’t know if Freddie had more friends coming. We had been kicked out of many places back in Newcastle due to our antics on video shoots, we could not afford to alienate ourselves this time.
After an hour inside, Oliver then decided to take the shoot outside where he casually walked into the cellar of a restaurant to capture something quickly before anyone with a cleaver arrived. One of Freddie’s friends answered a phone call as I stood opposite, I had been speaking to him for the past hour about all sorts of things, but when I heard his voice reverb through a speaker, I recognised his voice immediately. When he put the phone down I asked him “Are you Termanology?”. The man replied “yeah” with humility. I was a fan of his music back in England, but I had never seen a picture of him before, I had only heard his album. I shamefully got more excited in his presence and asked to get a video drop with him for a behind the scenes of the music video I was filming. I asked if we could cross the road away from the noise. As we crossed over and I set the shot, I saw that behind us was a poster for his new album coming out. I would learn that Freddie’s other friend was the producer Statik Selektah. These were East Coast heavyweights and future legends, they weren’t here to party at all, they were there because it was their job to be there. I now didn’t want the day to end and just like that, it did. Oliver returned, wrapped. I didn’t say much to Freddie all day out of respect for not interfering with Oliver’s job but I finally asked if I could interview him quickly for my behind the scenes. At first Freddie wasn’t too keen because he had a few drinks but Archie assured him it would be good for his profile in England. At the time very few people in the UK knew him, he had never been and he spoke so passionately in the interview about wanting to come over, he sought solitude in Europe like I did in America, we all just wanted to be away from the pain of familiarity in the struggle. After the Freddie interview in which he opened mockingly with an Irish accent referring to himself as ‘Freddie McGibbs’, perhaps after I told him my surname was Irish, I realised these guys had real character beyond what I had heard on the record. I asked them what they were doing now, they said they were going to a radio show, I replied that we were only in New York for a short time and we wanted to see the real New York. Dominican H laughed at me and said “you can’t go where we go, you better off staying here.” I felt offended and disappointed with that notion, I felt like maybe they didn’t like us at all. I would later learn quite the contrary, H did like me with that advice, a year later Freddie would return to New York and be caught in a drive by shooting. Fortunately he and his entourage survived and the years that followed Freddie would eventually come to the UK and sell out many shows.
As the day ended in New York, I was truly happy for Oliver, he had his moment of history, and I got to experience a day I had dreamt about, the American dream was still alive with us all. I didn’t know what the future brought, but I didn’t care, I was finally living in the moment. Freddie, Archie and H invited us into a bar, Dave and Marissa had already left to go to a pool party in Queens, they actually were truly cool people, I seemed to be wrong about everything and everyone, perhaps I was the only square in this circle. As Oliver and I got very drunk on margaritas that we were treated to by those who had little trust in us in the morning, I couldn’t stop smiling now that I didn’t need to pretend to be tough anymore. I gazed over at a neon ‘Newcastle Brown Ale’ beer logo light that lit up the whole wall of the bar, and I smiled even more.
The British Nightmare
Six months before New York, a man dressed for the office stepped across a residential street in Newcastle, the most northern city of England. A city plagued by the decline of an industrial revolution, Newcastle had traded molting metal to instead become a melting pot of creativity for people who had nothing to lose, distant to England’s rich southern bureaucracy hundreds of miles away. Wearing a casual suit jacket, clutching a folder, the man arrived at a large house tucked away from the main road. The man knocked on the door, which woke me from my daze on the bottom of this particular house’s floor. Jumping up, I pulled my baggy jeans up at the same time, a practiced choreography, and I shouted to Oliver who was upstairs. Jogging over to the door I opened with a friendly smile that hid that I had forgotten about our meeting.
I led the man up the stairs of the house, which we had theatrically named Studio 13, and I knocked on Oliver’s bedroom door, hoping he had heard my calls from before. Oliver was sitting by his computer, wearing a dressing gown, smoking a shisha pipe, the glaze in his eyes said he had just woken up also. Neither of us had brushed our teeth, showered, shaved or even put on clean clothes like British gentlemen were traditionally supposed to do on a weekday morning; if anyone asked we would blame the bad smell on the elephant in the room, we certainly didn’t look like anyone who should be arranging any meetings. Broaching Oliver’s territory I led the suited man over to the other side of the room, stepping over empty bottles of brandy that decorated the red rug swallowing the floor, and I assured the man to perch on the edge of a broken bed, all the while trying not to knock over the twenty something pizza boxes that were ceremoniously stacked like our own leaning tower of pizza.
Among all the temporary rubbish were two words written on a white board in black permanent marker with bold exclamation – ‘Urban Kingdom’. It was of rare privilege for anyone to step into our home-base while wearing anything remotely hinting to a suit and the man allowed that luxury was named Ryan. A web designer who mostly handled comfortable hotels as clients, we had convinced Ryan to become part of Urban Kingdom, a new website we were working on that we intended to change everything in Britain. In a country where we were told that the only way to have a chance of legacy was to be born into privileged bloodlines, Urban Kingdom was inspiring people in the concrete urban areas that we could build paths of power no matter how difficult our journey.
Ryan sat in silence as we began our Urban Kingdom board meeting. As Oliver continued to comically smoke on the shisha I started to recall the plans of our launch, I began by telling Ryan about a recent trip to London, where Oliver had just finished making Urban Kingdom’s first music video.
This particular video was for a record called ‘Paranormal Activity Remix’, a release by a musician called Krept who had united a host of independent London based rap musicians to correlate spoof horror with the true tragedy of a life trapped in a ghetto. Krept was a man around our age, perhaps just a year or so younger, building prominence around South London as part of a rap duo called Krept & Konan. Oliver had worked with Krept & Konan previously on the music video ‘Heart of a Lion’ featuring Wretch 32, who at the time was on crossover success with his song ‘Traktor’ reaching number 5 on the UK music charts a year before. Oliver had shot the majority of Heart of a Lion in the house of which I was sleeping on the floor of this morning of the meeting. The very comfortable video featured scenes of friends of ours, and even Oliver’s own mother played the role of the leading actress. Nobody in London seemed to blink at the lack of professionalism in that particular video and when Oliver realised how much influence he had as director over a straight edged industry in London, he decided to throw the game a curveball on his next release, his Urban Kingdom debut. Oliver’s boldness was growing as he upgraded from the safe introductory video with Krept & Konan to an idea I couldn’t quite believe when he told me for the first time, I replied “They will never go for any of that”. To my puzzlement they did, and now Oliver had the rather insane task of bringing his creation to life. I packed my bags to travel down to London to join him on set, there was no way I was missing this madness.
We had ventured to London with Miles, a set designer with a tangent for the bizarre tasks. I first met Miles when he enquired with Oliver about documenting his own construction of a twenty foot horse made out of foam which he would park outside a prominent Newcastle art gallery. I remember travelling from Miles’ house at 5am in the morning, nervously watching this gigantic horse’s head scrape the foot of the motorway bridges. Miles owed us for this absurd experience and so Oliver had enlisted his help to hand-make an electric chair for the Paranormal music video. While myself, Oliver and Miles took the coach down to London, our friend XTN drove the electric chair down in the back of his car. XTN was never without a smile but if you ever did see him frowning, his wide frame and bold head depicted him as a stereotypical gangster. In those moments of the lonely five hour drive down from his home in Middlesbrough with just music to keep him company, XTN’s beam dropped and his expensive four by four car was pulled over by the police, for them to find an electric chair and a saw in his boot. Not the only time that weekend one of us would have to convince the police we weren’t serial killers.
Our location for the weekend was an old burnt out school deep into the secrets of South London. We had no permit but we knew nobody cared about the people in the decay, so we were free to dream crazy. In the darkness deep in the abandoned building our camera lights became torches lighting litter flooding the ground, the moment the batteries ran out we were all back to the dark to which we did not matter. As the shoot began I swaggered around the set swigging a bottle of cider, not for the taste but as a show to confuse the musicians of the capital that had been sold that champagne was the drink of success. As expensive trainers stepped in dust, the dirt brought back carefree memories of kids playing around in poverty, dreaming of becoming the superhero. Now we were all playing grown-up, pretending like we knew what we were doing in areas that nobody had ever inspired before; the buildings that other people neglected, we would broadcast them for the world to see. A musician named Yungen stepped up to perform his scene while wearing a doctor’s fancy dress costume; the record labels marketed Yungen as a soft musician, they would have been horrified to see him scrape a pair of scissors across his baby face as we all sat laughing – the lunatics had taken over the asylum. When we turned around after Oliver yelled cut we saw two people looking over us who were not in our group, two police officers. They stuttered that they had to check the premises for people doing drugs. We looked like we were doing drugs, but this was drugs from the brain. Each artist had broken all conventional rules of health and safety on set, ranging from grime artist Ghetts doing pull ups on withered pipes that had spiders dropping down from them, to veteran rap artist Dubz breaking a mirror and scratching the fragments onto wooden tables in rusted rooms. Oliver’s vision had come to life with plaudits of creativity from artists who refused to be a cliche to their demographic. We had all been young reckless boys once, fearlessly playing in danger without knowing, and that weekend, over a two day period, we were again liberated from expectation of the concrete.
Upon returning from filming in the hidden rooms of the dark building, in the still daylight we saw a man muttering to himself, sitting in our electric chair, sipping a can of lager as if nothing was peculiar. Creases on his eyes showed a man of long struggle, creases by his mouth spoke that he did not care. Earlier that morning, before shooting, we had seen a young child with ash on his face, standing triumphantly on the roof. We didn’t have our cameras ready to film so I cannot confirm what we all saw was truly real. I questioned what wildness goes on in these buildings every weekend when no cameras are around, happy to leave the part of London with no name and return to the city with lit signposts.
Sitting in a small chicken shop in South London a couple of hours after the shoot finished, us visual artists were having cheap food for our cheap pockets. Krept and Konan walked past the window, we nonchalantly waved at each other, acting like I hadn’t just seen Krept playing with a saw pretending to cut off his own head, acting like I hadn’t just seen Konan in an electric chair foaming at the mouth while rapping. Whether we were being crazy in an abandoned building or behaving normal on the streets, we were all acting.
When Oliver returned to Newcastle he was fuelled by his ability to create madness in this world that the television was hiding in the shadows. He had now organised two Urban Kingdom site exclusive videos with an artist named Mic Righteous, a Hip-Hop musician who was raised in a broken down seaside town in south of England called Margate. On the internet Mic had found audiences ten times larger than his hometown population while preaching a brutal honesty; we were all realising however that the internet wasn’t a sterling currency for us who spoke our truths and that our reality was still rebel. Mic drove all the way from Margate to Newcastle to shoot the videos, his beaten car out of action by the time he arrived at the other end of the country. ‘Give My All’ was the name of the first music video, with Mic venting his passion for his craft in a performance in the living room of Studio 13, a place haunted by the traces of our own passion that past year. Oliver juxtaposed the images of dedication to craft, with dismal images of aged materialism and vanity in the world around us.
The second video arranged with Mic allowed Oliver to once more continue his fantastical approach to aggression. Being filmed in another abandoned building, Oliver mixed a metaphorical mesh of a metal machete Mic was holding, with the decay of the destroyed north. Every swoosh of the machete blade sliced like the process of cutting a video. While we created works of sardonic fiction, I was starting to realise that there was a much darker world developing away from the cameras. On the hunt to purchase a machete as a prop for the video, it was easier to buy one in the city of Newcastle than it was to buy a battery for our cameras. One Saturday morning we walked into the very friendly Grainger Market and five minutes later we walked out with a sword that could kill any person we walked past in that moment. London was also starting to spiral out of control with knife crime; young gang members in the city started stabbing other children and boasting, for the hopes of moving towards a notorious music career that had become lost in translation. Major labels in America were signing legitimate gang members and investing millions into marketing murder because after all, that was just the same as the news to which they dealt with, and this was influencing young people who would attempt to kill each other at the prospect of fame, money and a way out of their environment. The Paranormal Activity video was clearly a caricature of supposed horrors of urban lifestyle, the second Mic video however went perhaps too close to the bone and upon reflection we cut that from our video release schedule and I started to write what would be my debut music video for Urban Kingdom, a music video for a record by Fem Fel called ‘Gone Nuts’.
Fem Fel was a London based artist who grew up in a gang and started rapping in a prison cell to focus on something productive on his release. The record I shot the video to was a commentary on how children from privileged backgrounds are listening to records of people from underprivileged backgrounds and they are trying to emulate the struggle without understanding the true pain. While I shot performances with Fem Fel in London, I wanted to tell the narrative of a young kid and knew the right bairn in Newcastle.
I had seen a gang of youths around the streets of Newcastle, and they were led by a young boy called Terra T. The kids never seemed to be in school but they had no harm to them. Terra T knew of me and Oliver because he was an aspiring rap musician in the city, filled with charisma and a natural laidback demeanour, which I believed would translate into a sensitive and daring performance on my video, he had never acted before but I knew enough about rap music to know everyone was acting, and rightly so. I received Terra’s parents permission because he was a minor, while he signed the letter Terrance. The final scene of our video, shot in the yard of Studio 13, would end with Terra’s character becoming a rap musician, showing a knife to the camera alongside his gang, while his very young scene girlfriend is in a cemetery weeping. This was a direct shot of mine to a rival video platform in London that had just been censored online for having real gangsters showing knives in their videos.
After the Gone Nuts video I was about to get ready to direct my second video, Urban Kingdom’s grand launch video ‘Gossiping’. This video featured Swiss from a legendary British rap group named ‘So Solid Crew’ that I recall watching on the television when I was a young boy. Swiss was working with Wretch 32, Sway and Giggs to create an anthem by four of the most successful rap musicians to ever come from England and my video was due to be a deafening attack on the mainstream music industry and the celebrity of which the urban artist was becoming. Hustling the profile of the recent breakthrough successes of my upcoming collaborators I had arranged a three hundred and fifty thousand pound Rolls Royce Phantom for use in the video, for completely free. I had set aside one thousand pound of my own money to invest in the video and that was everything I had left.
While our scene was emerging in fiction, it was struggling to escape fact and so were some of the artists. The feature artist Giggs was arrested the week of the video shoot and thus the video fell through. With one final trip to London we held meetings about new videos with people who were friends of friends, for our own network in the capital was limited. In one meeting someone in the room told us stories about how their gang had pulled a gun out on someone that night before, I sensed it was starting to become difficult to differentiate between fact and fiction and I was becoming very wary of the legacy we may be leaving as artists but also as people. Music did not plant the violence of ghetto communities, it merely narrated it’s struggle but as everyone started to make music as the one hope of escaping poverty it was becoming difficult to gauge who was working to escape and who was working to trap.
I explained all our updates that day in Studio 13 during our meeting with Ryan who was sitting there politely in his suit, likely wondering what on earth he had signed up to. I then ended the Urban Kingdom board meeting with the words “so without our big launch video we have decided to go to America to create some videos for our launch coming up”.
One thousand pounds doesn’t get you far making media in the home of billion dollar corporations, but myself and Oliver had planned a way to stretch a trip across seventeen days throughout the East Coast. New York was going to be difficult to start but after that, then the fun was really going to happen.
THANK YOU FOR READING THIS EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT FROM NICK DONNELLY’S BOOK ‘ARTISTOCRAZY’ DUE FOR RELEASE FINAL QUARTER 2021.
The book further examines Nick’s career from life beginning living in race riots and struggling at school, to directing at Abbey Road, making music videos for records that inspired artists such as Jay-Z, and how he collaborated with Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees, Olympic Champions, Grammy winners and many more.