It's a sweltering afternoon in the impoverished Miami district of Overtown. In the nearly treeless neighborhood, cracked sidewalks typically remain vacant this blistering time of day, but today they're brimming with hundreds of enthusiastic residents.
DJ Khaled — with a little help from hip-hop celebrity friends Busta Rhymes, Trick Daddy, Rick Ross, and Fat Joe — is shooting a video for his new club banger, "I'm So Hood." Six surrounding streets overflow with dancers, rope jumpers, and a variety of charismatic extras. A sweet vintage Chevy Impala with 26-inch chrome rims awaits the arrival of Trick and Busta.
Standing at the center of this makeshift urban circus is the video's director, Gil Green. Sporting a Miami Hurricanes football jersey, he looks much like a real-life quarterback.
"It's meant to represent a visual history of Miami's hood culture, and of course we are having a block party," the 29-year-old says of the video's story line. "As a director, I'm interested in developing stories.... Everybody knows that sex sells, but I don't want to exploit women, and I'm not interested in doing eye candy videos."
By now most viewers are familiar with the run-of-the-mill urban video formula. And because of this, even mainstream acts like gangsta rapper 50 Cent are ready for a visual change, and turning to Green and his alternative approach. While his profile has been steadily growing over the past six years, Green has become one of hip-hop's most in-demand video producers, recently crafting clips for Akon, Rick Ross, and Three 6 Mafia, among many others.
The first industry kudos came in 2003, when the notorious Source Hip-Hop Music Awards show presented Green a coveted Best Video prize for his work on Lil Jon's "I Don't Give A." Then he scored a 2004 MTV VMA nomination for Elephant Man's dancehall stomper "Pon di River." And just this past August, Green snagged Video of the Year at the second annual Ozone Magazine Awards for DJ Khaled's "We Taking Over."
"Gil is the best!" says Khaled, a fellow local whose latest album, We the Best, has garnered praise from no less than the New York Times. "His videos play like motion pictures, and he knows exactly how to represent a song on film — not to mention he's from Miami and represents 305 to the fullest."
Rewind two days before his Overtown video shoots. The tall and athletic Green sits in the lobby of a South Beach hotel. It's been raining all afternoon, and ill-equipped beachgoers are scrambling for a dry spot along Collins Avenue. Wearing a white polo shirt and khaki Bermuda shorts, Green considers the aesthetic significance of hip-hop videos.
"Music can be very visual," he says. "You can hear a crunk song, but you don't understand it until you see people dancing to it. The music video helps out because you can see and hopefully appreciate the way the dance is done."
A 1993 Coral Gables Senior High graduate, Green caught the hip-hop bug at an early age. While still in high school, in 1990, he became a DJ for a South Miami collective known as Back Live. He performed with the group until graduation, when he left to attend NYU's prestigious film school.
There, as an assignment for a class, Green decided to make a music video for Back Live. "I took two $2500 student loans to finance the video," he recalls. "I even sold my Toyota Camry because I needed extra money to edit it, and back then technology was different."
The result, "1000 MCs," was shot in a train yard in the Bronx. A loving ode to old-school hip-hop, the video featured all of its elements, from graffiti to break dancing to Zulu Nation philosophy. Much to Green's surprise, it became an independent phenomenon.
"The video made it into Yo! MTV Raps, BET, and it was one of the top 10 most requested videos on The Box cable music channel," Green says. "After that, I felt that we could do anything!" The video's success was a revelation; he chose to put music making aside and fully concentrate on filmmaking.
Still, the film industry is not an easy one to crack, and he spent the remainder of the Nineties working as a production assistant for various film crews around New York. A chance video shoot back in Miami finally gave Green his break.
A well-known urban music video director, Nick Quested, was in town scouting for locations and needed someone to show him around Miami's various sprawling neighborhoods. He asked Green for help and, impressed by his abilities, hired him as a concept writer for the videos.
Working with Quested brought Green into contact with then-up-and-coming group Three 6 Mafia, for which Green directed the 2001 underground short Choices. The seven-minute film portrayed the group's hard dealings in its southern Memphis neighborhood.
"That film opened a lot of doors for me," Green says. "Rick Ross saw it, and four years later, when he had the song 'Hustlin',' he called me up to direct his video. To this day Rick Ross says that's the most real hood movie that he's seen."
Even so, Green's work is not only about hip-hop. A lifelong passion for Caribbean rhythms has resulted in gigs with many dancehall and reggaeton artists. Number one among them is the reigning king of roots reggae, the angelically voiced Sizzla, whose video "Thank U Moma" Green directed gratis. "I told Sizzla's record company to give me whatever money they had, and me and my crew of six people went to Jamaica and stayed in a single hotel room to film it," he says.
Despite its shoestring budget, the clip looks amazingly lush and luxurious. Green's camera follows Sizzla around the emerald mountains and valleys of Jamaica as the famed bobo dread, dressed in a bright red rasta tunic, encounters various family members and friends.
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"Sizzla is a very prolific artist, so it's hard for him to get proper funding for his various singles," Green says. "So I'm very proud of 'Thank U Moma.'" As thanks, Sizzla later invited Green to join him at his Jamaican commune.
Now, having created more than 70 music videos over the past six years, Green is thinking about his next move. Like many video directors before him, such as Don Letts and Michel Gondry, he wants to make full-length feature films. He has already established a film production company in Los Angeles.
Still, Green spends half of his time here. "There's not much flavor in L.A.," he says, "but that's where I need to be for the film script that I'm developing, which is about growing up in this melting pot of cultures that is Miami."
As for his ongoing projects with the hip-hop glitterati, Green wants to continue directing his fellow Miamians. "Working with them feels good, 'cause I remember these guys back then when it was just coming up and DJ Khaled was working on the pirate stations," he says. "We created our own subculture that started with Miami bass and Luke Campbell, and today we are seeing the results."