For ‘Old Town Road’ video director Calmatic, the ride begins in South L.A.
This time last year, Los Angeles director Charles “Calmatic” Kidd II was upset that he didn’t receive an MTV video of the year nomination for his wildly ambitious video for singer Anderson .Paak’'s “Bubblin.” He recalls thinking that the system was rigged, and that the nominations merely reflected a song’s popularity, not the quality of the music video.
But now, after directing the music video for the most popular song of the year, “Old Town Road,” by Lil Nas X featuring Billy Ray Cyrus — which made history as the longest No. 1 song in Billboard Hot 100 chart history, at 19 weeks, and has earned eight MTV VMA nominations including video of the year and best direction — his opinion has changed.
“Now I’m the person I was mad at last year,” Calmatic, 31, said ahead of the awards show airing Monday. “It’s interesting how quickly things can change. Last year was a humbling experience, but hopefully this year things will be different.”
Still, Calmatic’s circumstance was unique. He was commissioned to direct the music video well before “Old Town Road” had become a viral sensation — it now has nearly 300 million YouTube streams — and he’d initially felt the way that many other people did on their first time hearing the trap infused/offbeat country single.
“Is this a joke?” he recalls asking his manager. But after doing more research on the 20-year-old Atlanta artist, Calmatic realized how much of an effect the song could have.
As he worked on the treatment for what was originally two music videos — one for the original version of the song and another for the remix with Cyrus — he watched the single skyrocket into popularity over the next couple of months. He further recognized the song’s potential when it was removed from Billboard’s country chart and sparked controversy.
The five-minute video, which was shot in Los Angeles, features a star-studded cast including comedian Chris Rock (a role for which Will Smith was originally cast until he pulled out to perform at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival with his son), Long Beach rapper Vince Staples and superstar EDM DJ Diplo. The video depicts Lil Nas X‘s character escaping from Chris Rock‘s character with stolen cash, but being chased into a portal by another character that brings him into a modern world — a blend of country and hip-hop in the ‘hood of Los Angeles.
“He was very encouraging and knew exactly what he wanted and what his vision was,” Lil Nas X said of Calmatic. “[When I first saw the video], I thought it was amazing and like a movie. I didn’t know what to expect, [but] it came out looking outstanding.”
Growing up in South L.A., Calmatic, who calls himself an L.A. historian, was immersed in hip-hop culture. Back in 2007, he recalls a wave of his peers becoming rappers. He began making music and evolved into producing beats. But after spending so much time in studio sessions with friends, he decided to pick up another valuable skill.
He’d been interested in computers since age 10, when he’d spent most of his free time in after-school and summer programs at the Al Wooten Jr. Youth Center in South L.A. After high school, he made Myspace pages and built websites for his friends who made music. This led him to start a photography and graphic design business — creating fliers and album covers for local artists and businesses.
When Calmatic’s family home was robbed in 2010, he used the renters insurance to upgrade his equipment with a Canon 7D digital camera. He used it to shoot his first music video for a local artist named Picaso.
Calmatic quickly became known for his signature styles, providing comic relief in the middle of his videos and making his subjects larger than life, as he did in the video “Pasadena” by hip-hop quartet Overdoz, in which members’ eyes pop out of their heads as if they were cartoon characters. With every visual, he strives to “keep the audience on their toes,” he said.
He also includes his hometown in all his videos. He brought soul singer Leon Bridges to Jesse Owens Park in South L.A., a place he frequented with his dad in his youth. For the “Old Town Road” video, he duplicated the Slauson Super Mall, an L.A. staple, for a scene where Lil Nas X gets a new outfit.
In addition to shooting music videos, he began making documentaries about people in his neighborhood. He traced the early careers of several local artists such as Anderson .Paak, Leimert Park rapper Dom Kennedy and late lyricist Nipsey Hussle.
Of all the videos Calmatic has shot over his 10-year career, which include the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Khalid and Lizzo, he said directing the “Old Town Road” video involved the most creative freedom he’s been given since his early days of shooting projects for his friends.
“As I was shooting the video, there were so many moments where I was like, ‘I cannot believe they’re letting me do this,’” he said.
Those moments include a last-minute change to have Lil Nas X’s first interaction in the modern world be a dance battle instead of a gun battle. Calmatic credits his 24-year-old sister, Chanel, for the new direction. Lil Nas X liked the idea and even gave Calmatic pointers on how to make the video work better for the internet.
“[Lil Nas X] didn’t have a lot of ideas, but he knew how to take ideas I had and translate them to the current culture,” Calmatic said. “He knew what the internet would react to. He would say, let’s do [a scene] like this because we can make it a GIF and it will go viral.”
Though this is Calmatic’s largest project to date, his family and friends recognize that this is only the beginning.
“Everything that he’s been trying to do just culminated in that video,” his childhood best friend, Trenton Williams, said.
At the beginning of the “Old Town Road” video, Rock is chasing Lil Nas X but suddenly stops after an epiphany, and he says to his men, “When you see a black man on a horse going that fast, you just gotta let him fly.” Not only is this a theme for Lil Nas X’s journey, but also for Calmatic, who recognized that this opportunity would allow him to continue doing the work he loves. Calmatic recently began directing content for brands like Target and Sprite, and he plans to start directing for film and TV soon.
He later posted a photo with Lil Nas X on Instagram with the caption “Black history” because with a black director, a black leading artist and a predominantly black cast, he knew it was an important moment for his culture.
“It just further proves that black people can do anything, and we’ve been doing things,” Calmatic said. “When MTV does ‘I Love the 2010s,’ they’re going to end the decade talking about ‘Old Town Road’ and they’re going to show this video.”
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