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frequencies

by josh kun

Speculative video

IN HYPE WILLIAMS'S Casino-inspired video for Nas's "Street Dreams," Nas wears a bright pink suit against the crisp blue of Las Vegas desert sky and the baked brown of Las Vegas desert sand. Once Nas hits the casino floor, and the lens is rushed by the light blast of a glitter gulch interior, the pink suit has been replaced by a yellow one. Even in the casino, it is the brightest thing in the room.

Watch any of Williams's music videos on his new DVD collection The Videos with the sound off and what you hear is what you see: the visual music of color. Where there is white, it is blinding and glowing. Where there is black, it is deep and reflective. There are few grays or beiges. Williams's palette tends toward the extreme, and as he tells us in his DVD commentary, he relies on experimental film stocks, aviation tests, and high-speed chemical tests to take him there. Williams's first video, the Wu-Tang Clan's "Can It All Be So Simple" (shot in 1994 for what is now a paltry $20,000), was his initial stab at crafting the visual equivalent to a ghetto fabulous hip-hop life. But when he went to portray a night in the New York projects, he used such glowing reds that he came up with something that went far beyond bling-bling surface glimmer, something more like ghetto gothic or ghetto gorgeous. Williams shot raindrops hitting the hoods of black Land Cruisers so that they looked like jewels sparkling in the sun. It was the blueprint for the videos he would later make for the Bad Boy label, videos like Mase's "Feel So Good," which found the rapper in shiny green jackets and pants, bouncing his shoulders and dancing on slick streets in front of towering Vegas hotels and extravagant casino plaza light shows.

By putting black artists in front of big things – Jay-Z's "Big Pimpin" Caribbean yacht, R-Kelly's "Half on a Baby" empty mansion – Williams made black life look and feel big, larger than any black life that music-video America had ever seen. In turn, he helped make hip-hop big, his videos giving hip-hop the visual language that it needed (and that MTV could get excited about) to become the new staple of the American pop appetite. As Williams himself notes, his way of hip-hop seeing – the fish-eye lenses, the cartoonish facial close-ups, the stuttering cyborg bodies – is now the way TRL sees, with the Britneys and 'N Syncs all peeping bug-eyed and head-cocked into the lens like Missy in her inflatable "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)" bubble suit.

But his trademark fish-eye rush into the face of an artist – LL Cool J and Busta Rhymes look into the lens like they're checking pores in a high-magnification mirror – is not purely an aesthetic move. On the DVD, Williams acknowledges that he rejects rap music's quest for realism in favor of an otherworldly visual hip-hop surrealism that, while never managing to feel removed from life on the block, can always imagine alternate ways of being. He talks about his videos the way sci-fi writers talk about their novels, as "speculative fictions." Williams distorts his visuals because black reality is distorted, because, as he puts it, that's what hip-hop is, "young people distortin' their realities."

In a story he wrote in 1996, "Rhythm Travel," Amiri Baraka suggested that all black art in America is a kind of science fiction, all of it an attempt to see new worlds outside of realties distorted from the very start by racism and slavery. His characters talk about black music as a form of space and time travel – "You can Dis Appear and Re Appear wherever and whenever that music is played" – so that getting inside a song is getting inside gravity, allowing yourself to ride "the scatting comet" en route to a somewhere that is other than here.

The anthology "Rhythm Travel" appears in, Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, sets up the rich legacy that Williams's music-video traveling – his own attempts at making his artists Dis and Re Appear in the space of their songs – comes out of. Busta Rhymes's "Put Your Hands Where Your Eyes Can See" is a perfect Dark Matter video: Busta as a time-traveling futuristic primitive in Day-Glo body paint, a Coming to America royal African who connects the African past to the digital future without leaving the palace grounds.

In his contribution to Dark Matter, DJ Spooky follows Baraka in writing about black music as a technology of reinvention, a "synthetic theater of all possibilities." He also quotes critic Greg Tate: "the only black history and black mythology the hip-hop generation is going to identify with is the history they invent for themselves." Williams's music videos are his way of visualizing this sonic theater of possibility, fantasizing about what music looks like in order to invent histories and mythologies that will help tell hip-hop's next generation who they are.

E-mail Josh Kun at jksfbg@aol.com.