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Lights, camera, . . .
New local action by PE, Sage Francis, and Mr. Lif

As any regular MTV viewer knows, hip-hop videos are extravagant affairs filled with gyrating dancers, luxury automobiles, and copious bottles of Crystal. But that wasnít the case at a rap-video shoot that took place in Roxbury back on June 8. It was a decidedly more down-home affair. No limos. No scantily clad groupies. And definitely no champagne.

While family, friends, and business associates swigged bottled water and munched on fruit in the midday sun, the film crew toiled away in a tall, square-shaped brick warehouse with no windows. A smoke machine and flickering lights provided the only special effects; a male trio performed dance steps along with the rattling beat. In front, two MCs ó one small and jovial, one large and commanding ó lip-synched their upcoming single for a battery of cameras. In the back of the room, a compact man with a wispy beard nodded in time to the insistent beat, mouthing along with the rhymes and directing the action with a series of swift hand gestures.

The group were the legendary agit-prop hip-hop trio Public Enemy, in Boston for a whirlwind three-day video shoot that culminated with a rare and relatively intimate live performance at the Middle East on June 9. Since the Hub isnít exactly a mecca for hip-hop video shoots, you might be wondering what it was that brought Chuck D., Flavor Flav, and Professor Griff to a dusty warehouse in Roxbury.

The answer is simple: Robert Patton-Spruill, a local filmmaker with two feature films to his credit and a thriving independent film-production company, FilmShack, thatís based in Roxbury. The two parties originally came together on Patton-Spruillís debut film, Squeeze, for which PE frontman Chuck D served as a musical adviser. Soon after, Patton-Spruill returned the favor by directing videos for various PE side projects, and thatís what led to his latest involvement with the group: directing the video for the lead-off single, "Give the Peeps What They Need," from their forthcoming Revolverlution, which is due July 23 on Slam Jamz/Koch.

For Patton-Spruill, the video wasnít only a chance for some great exposure but an opportunity to work with one of his musical heroes: "Iím a PE fan from way back," he admits in between bites of a roast-beef sandwich. "I remember their first song, ĎShe Watch Channel Zero,í was like a mantra for me in film school. I used to edit found footage along with that track."

The feelings on PEís side appear to be mutual. For a group who have long taken a maverick-outsider stance, first as fiercely political rabble rousers and now as DIY Internet-friendly entrepreneurs, working with a Hollywood outsider like Patton-Spruill is a chance to show that they donít just talk the talk. "Robert knows the hip-hop ethic, especially the classic grassroots aspect of it," says Chuck D during a break in the shooting. "Heís not trying to be in New York or LA, heís doing it from Boston. Heís trying to build it from brick one instead of taking part of some purchase or merger. And thatís what itís all about."

For anyone whoís never seen a video shoot, be advised that it is a tedious affair. The fast-paced Technicolor fantasy that will be delivered to MTV and BET when all the filming and editing is done bears little or no resemblance to the behind-the-scenes reality.

After the warehouse door slams shut, Public Enemy arrange themselves in front of a semicircle of cameras. Professor Griff and the S1Ws, all wearing their trademark flak jackets and combat boots, stand in the background. Flavor Flav, still accessorizing with a giant clock around his neck, and Chuck D, clothed in a black warm-up suit, stand front and center. Then Flavor Flavís cell phone rings. He chats for a while, unmindful of the 20 or so folks waiting for him to stop. "We about to shoot this shot," he says into the phone in his distinctive rasp. "Iíll hit you up later. I promise. I wonít do you like I did yesterday."

Production assistants hit the smoke machines and dim the lights and the shoot begins. An African drum rhythm pumps out of the monitors and Chuck D walks in small circles around the floor: "Itís so hard being black," he mouths, hands held upward. "Itís hard, itís insane." Then the real beat kicks in, a fierce track studded with spiky guitar squeals and a rattling funk loop. Professor Griff leads the S1Ws in a series of choreographed martial-arts moves. Flavor plays the clown, mugging for the camera and wiggling his thin frame to the beat. And Chuck D mouths the words to a fresh and vibrant track that is at once recognizable as PE: thereís an inspirational chorus ó "Give the peeps what they need, before you give íem what they want" ó and the verses mention H. Rap Brown and Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Then they perform it again. And again. And again. And again, until every person in the room has memorized Chuck Dís hand motions and Professor Griffís kung-fu moves. And thatís just in the hour before lunch. When shooting breaks, some five hours later, Patton-Spruill and his Filmshack crew will have heard "Give the Peeps What They Need" countless times. Between takes, Flavor Flavís raspy laugh and crude jokes keep the mood lively, but even that canít disguise the fact that this is mundane work.

Sitting down during a lunch break at the soul-food restaurant Mississippiís next door, Patton-Spruill explains the videomaking process. "Things like this are made in the editing room, so you just want to have a lot of options. The more times we do it, the easier it is in editing." He pauses. "It doesnít matter what you shoot, it only matters what you show. I shoot everything."

The end product, a three-minute video, will be edited down from between 18,000 and 30,000 feet of film, Patton-Spruill estimates, not only from Saturdayís shoot but from filming the day before at various record stores and radio stations, and also from the groupís live performances the following day at the River Rave and the Middle East. On Monday, after two 19-hour days, Patton-Spruill finally gets a chance to reflect: "It was fantastic. Flawless. Essentially. Sorta. We had a great time. I think it came out great." His voice drifts off. "Iím just really, really tired."

AS HIS MONIKER implies, Rhode Island rapper Sage Francis exhibits serious wisdom on his new Personal Journals (Anticon), a soul-baring trip through the less glamorous side of the hip-hop nation: broken homes, decaying relationships, and off-key covers of Bob Segerís "Turn the Page." It wasnít always this way, however. Discovering the party raps and boastful lyrics of the Fat Boys and Run-DMC in fourth grade, Francis dedicated himself to the art of battle rhyming. "For many years I was hardcore East Coast rap to the bones," he explains. "I just wanted to fit that mold. I was a 13-year-old white kid with above-average rap skills ó I couldnít believe that no one cashed in on me."

Major labels never did come knocking, but along the way Francis developed a style somewhere between the street-corner vérité of New York rappers like Nas and the literary approach of the spoken-word movement. Blame an eye-opening performance by poet and slam champ Patricia Smith for turning him around. "She just blew my mind," he remembers. "It influenced me to look outside my little box of hip-hop. I started attending spoken-word events, and I found a crowd who would really appreciate me."

Soon after, Francis began combining his hip-hop skills with theatrical, literary, and conceptual ideas learned from the spoken-word scene. He also started winning both MC freestyle battles and slam poetry championships, and that marked him as the rare artist capable of bridging the gap between b-boy braggadocio and sincere reflection. After putting out a couple of self-released albums, he hooked up with the idiosyncratic Anticon crew, a movement/label determined to craft hip-hop that reflects the lives of the white, disaffected, and weird, not only the young, gifted, and black.

Personal Journals bears the fruits of this affiliation, with Anticon beatmakers Sixtoo and Jel matching Francisís lyrical logorrhea with dusty beats and gothic grooves. Those expecting feel-good jams will be disappointed: Francis brings his lyrics-by-the-pound approach to tales of suburban anomie and psychological reflection while spewing out striking metaphors and chin-scratching one-liners ("Iíve got multiple personalities and my inner children are runaways") thatíll have you hitting the rewind button. "I canít feel good about myself if I feel like Iím doing stuff thatís already been done," he says. "I donít want to be so off-the-wall that itís not hip-hop, so Iím still doing traditional rhyming." He pauses. "But in a few years, who knows?"

ITíS BEEN A LONG TIME coming, but Mr. Lifís eagerly awaited debut studio full-length will definitely be out this year ó in September, to be specific. Whatís more, a stopgap EP, Emergency Rations (Definitive Jux), is on its way (it hits stores this Tuesday, June 25) to satisfy impatient fans. A buzz is already building around the first single, "Home of the Brave," a scathing postĖSeptember 11 commentary that takes George W. to task. Deeper on the disc, a pair of dusty funk beats by local producer/DJ/MC Edan push Lif to tighten up his gnarled flow, and the El-P-produced cut, "I Phantom," is an arresting, sonic beatdown that lingers like a bad dream ó itís a claustrophobic meditation on the alienating and depressing nature of 9-to-5 day jobs. Lif will celebrate the release of Emergency Rations with an all-ages show on July 10 at Axis that will feature guest spots by Aesop Rock, Fakts-One, and others.

Issue Date: June 20 - 27, 2002
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