With the endless proliferation of music videos in our post-digital era, creating one that feels as momentous as those from decades past (like the Hype Williams-directed “California Love” video, for example) is a nearly Sisyphean task.
Oladapo “Daps” Fagbenle has defied contemporary constraints with his video for Migos’ “T-Shirt.” Inspired by The Revenant, the wintery, fur-laden video now has nearly 68 million views on YouTube. Depending on whom you ask, it’s the best rap video of 2017.
Yet, this isn’t the Nigerian-born director’s first video with the Atlanta trio. He’s also directed and/or co-directed their videos for “Cocoon,” “Deadz,” “What the Price,” and Billboard chart mainstay “Bad & Boujee.”
He hasn’t, however, worked exclusively with American rappers. Daps, who spent much of his childhood in London, also directed the latest video (“Big for Your Boots”) for rising grime star Stormzy and has worked with Nigerian artists such as Patoranking.
We met with Daps at his home in Los Angeles to discuss his work with Migos and other artists from around the world, his Nigerian-British background, and more. Standing at 6′8″, the former NCAA basketball player often works standing up, his laptop placed on an elevated work stand.
Before our interview, he towers over his MacBook, reviewing footage for a video he’d finished less than an hour ago. The video is one of the several high-profile videos he mentions off the record. For now, know that you will probably recognize all of the artists in said videos. One of the videos may even top his work on “T-Shirt.”
How long did you live in Nigeria?
I lived there until I was three. Between the ages of three and six I was everywhere. I was back and forth between Nigeria and London. I lived in Nigeria more than once, England more than once. My first passport is literally a joke. For a three or four year-old, it looks someone (mimics someone rapidly stamping a passport). And then from six to 17, I was in London.
What do you remember about living in Nigeria?
Good food. Happy people. Crazy government. Great music. It really varied. There was good and bad.
Do you still have family members who live there?
Loads of family. Cousins, aunts, uncles, siblings.
How often do you go back?
Twice a year.
Do you think that any of your experiences in Nigeria influence your directorial work today?
Not necessarily visually, but just in terms of hard work and general hustle. Nigerians in general are very resourceful and adaptive. That whole mentality and spirit just stays with me.
Identity-wise, people of color, especially in Toronto and London, these are the people that are importing and exporting culture. It’s influencing culture. It’s not that my identity is shaping the cinematography, but it’s that fluidity to be able to work with Migos, Stormzy, and Davido.
It’s not that easy from someone from the U.S to grasp it. No offense, most Americans are very American. They’re like, “We’re American and this is America.” I’m not knocking that. It’s a great country. It’s got every climate in the world, every race in the world. But I feel like this conversation doesn’t really happen here because even when we state it you don’t get it.
You’ve worked with Nigerian artists like Patoranking and Davido. Do you feel compelled to help artists from your home country to reach larger audiences?
That’s definitely something that I want to do. Nigeria is making some of the best music in the world. It would be great to push those artists’ careers forward.
Where did you live in London?
North West London. Grahame Park. The jungle. I think it’s the biggest council estate in the UK. Someone told me it was the biggest in Europe. Grahame Park used to be called Hendon Aerodrome. It was a WWI and WWII airfield. What it turned into is ironic.
The first time an airplane ever took off on a night flight was from Grahame Park. The first time they used an airplane for mail, it took off from Grahame Park. All of the buildings and projects are named after WWII airplanes and pilots. That’s why the Royal Airforce Museum is in Grahame Park. It’s just funny that years later it turned into what it turned into.
Apart from having one of the largest project buildings in the world, what was the neighborhood like?
London is a weird place. In America, the economic and social class lines are more clear cut. You have your poor area, your rich area, your middle class area. In London, things are so jumbled up. You can have a really crappy area, and within that crappy area are expensive houses and middle class people. Or you could have a crappy area and next to it is a house that costs a million pounds.
The lines of class, economics, and race are so blurred. Whereas in America there’s more clear cut lines between wealth and race. There’s rich white neighborhoods, poor white neighborhoods, poor black neighborhoods—it’s sectioned off. In England, it’s mixed up.
Did the city’s heterogeneity factor into any racial discrimination you might’ve faced?
I can’t really pinpoint a time where I really faced racial discrimination. Ever. A couple of people shouted slurs here and there. I’ve had a few fights. But I don’t recall the last time race affected my [upward mobility]. That happens a lot, but it hasn’t happened to me personally.
At the same time, I’m not necessarily the average cross-section of society. I didn’t grow up in a bad area in America. When I came here, I came here for basketball. I was an asset. I didn’t grow up in certain environments in America, and in England it’s already mixed.
When did you move to New Jersey?
I moved to New Jersey after college. I went to Campbell in North Carolina for four years for basketball, but I only played two years. I was injured and red-shirted twice. My freshman year I had chronic tendonitis and didn’t play. I played my sophomore year. Then I went home for the summer and blew my ACL out. So I sat out another year. I played my senior year, but it really wasn’t the same any more. I had two years of eligibility left, so I transferred to Bellarmine in Kentucky. I was there for two years and got my master’s degree there.
People in America that are on student visas are allowed to work for a year in the field of their degree after they graduate. My plan was to move to New York, or near there—thus New Jersey—and get a normal job while running the rap blog I was trying to start called Heavy Spitter. That was the goal. That was very far from what happened. Wait for the memoir.
Do you think living on three different continents has helped you in your career?
I might be wrong, but I don’t recall any other director that is touching people on three different continents and working with three different genres. Migos went number one in America, the album and the single. They’re hot in the streets and the club. Stormzy went number one in the U.K. That’s grime. Grime doesn’t go number one in the U.K. It just doesn’t. There are directors bigger than me, but who is touching three different places at once in several different genres? The scope is crazy.
You’ve said that you made music when you were younger. Did you always make rap music?
I used to make beats and rap all day.
Who were you listening to for inspiration?
It depends on what year. The first person I ever heard in my life was Snoop and Dogg Pound. After that, I went through my Mase and Bad Boy phase (laughs). Then I started listening to Dre, Ice Cube, and Tupac. After that, I went through my Lox phase—Jada, Styles, Sheek. I went through my Roc-A-Fella phase, my Nas phase. To cut a long story short, apart from key L.A. people, it was very New York heavy.
Why did you stop making music?
I never stopped. I still write right now. I just don’t put it out. But even in college, when I was in North Carolina, I put out mixtapes.
What was your rap name?
Daps. Back then it was Urban Child a.k.a. Daps. Then I dropped the Urban Child. I never stopped, but I didn’t necessarily focus on it.
Your brother, Luti Fagbenle, started Luti Media, the company that represents you and several other directors, including your mentor, Director X, in 2006. How did your brother get his start in producing and filmmaking?
The first video he ever made in his life was for me and my cousin in London. That was in 2003. Urban Child and Plato. The song was called “North West.” We shot it in North West [London] on the block. That was the first video he ever made. He made the beat, mixed it. He directed and DOPed. This is before digital, back when people were using mini-tapes. I was like 17.
At first, your brother kind of threw you into the role of producer. Are you glad he pushed you?
For sure. It was definitely a good look at the right time (laughs). Things were getting testy.
What was it about producing that no longer appealed to you, or why did you decide to get into directing?
Producing wasn’t creative enough for me. I’ve always been creative. As a kid, I used to design sneakers. I wanted to work for Nike. After that, I rapped. After that, I made beats. I’ve always been creative. Producing just wasn’t cutting it creatively.
You essentially apprenticed under Director X, who apprenticed under Hype Williams. Those are two of the biggest directors in rap video history. What does it mean to you to be a part of that lineage?
That’s the first time anyone’s presented it to me a lineage thing. I didn’t even think about it like that. I don’t really get caught up in the hype. No pun intended (laughs). It’s cool, I guess. I just think about getting the work done. It’s also fairly early in my career.
True. Though some people might argue that the “T-Shirt” video is the video of the year.
I might pull a Kanye if that doesn’t get a nod.
What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned working under Director X?
I was on set with X a handful of times. The biggest thing I learned was set control. That’s not a technical thing. It has nothing to do with the video. How is the client feeling? How is the artist feeling? Is everyone in good spirits? That affects how people work.
The more technical thing I learned was that you can shoot the hell out of a scene. A video doesn’t need to be ten million scenes. Look at the Rihanna and Drake “Work” video. It’s in one room, and it’s quite entertaining. If you have the right set-up and ideas and you’re creative enough, you can get a video in one room.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into directing but lacks access to the necessary tools?
I didn’t have equipment. I still don’t have any. I don’t own any cameras. Nothing. I never have. Never will. You find a way. For me, it was obviously easier than it would be for the average person. I was already producing, so I had my contacts. I met directors, DOPs, editors, colorists. I did enough jobs under Luti Media that I could go to so-and-so for a favor or get a discount on this and that.
Still, nobody was looking at me for jobs. I had to pay for my own video of myself rapping [“Ian Wright”]. I had to pay for that out of my own pocket. I produced it, directed it—everything. Like I said, I had the resources on standby. But it was still my money. For someone who doesn’t have those contacts yet, I would say, “Stand next to the people you’re trying to emulate and learn from them.” Not only are you going to learn firsthand, which is more than you’re going to learn in school, you’re also going to network and gain contacts from the people on set.
Stand next to the flame, basically. Get warm (laughs).
What’s one of the most trying on set tasks?
Personality management—everyone’s different—and managing people’s wants. You have what the artist wants, what management wants, what the label wants, what the producer wants, what I want. It’s managing all of the expectations for several people at once. If you ain’t got the balls for it, you’re going to crack. Shit gets really tense on set sometimes. It’s not easy.
How have you developed the skillset to handle all of that?
My personality in general. When it comes down to it, no one is going to beat me up. So that’s that. Anything after that is a conversation (laughs). You’re either going to get mad or we’re going to figure things out.
People are struggling out here. This isn’t a job. I watch rappers rap and girls dance. This is cool. Other people are out here taking care of four kids and working two jobs. That’s real life. This isn’t real life, it’s fun. It’s a video, bro. It’s going on YouTube (laughs).
When deciding to take a job, do you have to like the music?
Something about the music has to inspire me.
How long did you sit with a song before you have a concept or the foundation for a treatment?
It depends on the song. Sometimes, I know within 10 seconds. Other times, I sit with it for like two or three days. Sometimes, the client gives you a brief and other times they give you none.
How are you able to achieve artistic/creative fulfillment with so many balls in the air?
P.P.P.P.P.—Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail. Have everything locked down to a T. If everyone signs off on what you’re going to do, you do everything in your power to make it happen. If something happens that’s outside your power, it’s outside your power. If it’s on you, you deal with it.
What do you do when you’re waiting several hours on set for an artist to arrive?
Shoot. Shoot cut aways, models, locations. Keep shooting.
A lot of music videos, and rap videos in particular, have a very distinctive way of depicting women. Your videos seem much less exploitative. Most of the women are fully clothed.
You can show beauty in different ways. If most rap videos look a certain way, and one of the main elements of rap videos are women, depicting them in a less sexualized light is also a way of differentiating myself.
Are there any film directors that you look to for inspiration?
I like Tarantino. He’s dope.
In other interviews, you’ve said that you’re working on writing for TV. Would you mind telling me what your show will be about?
I’ve got a few shows I’m working on. Nothing’s been contracted or anything, but the first one is based in London. It’s about inner city life in London. We follow a young man who’s engaged in certain activities that haven’t been shown on TV in a new way. I don’t want to get into it too tough. It’s going to be very, very real.
Do you have plans to do anything based on your life in Nigeria?
It would be good to a movie there. I think Nigeria has an opportunity to do a movie like Brazil did with City of God. The whole movie was in Portuguese and in the Favelas and they managed to create a cult classic. That hasn’t been done yet in Nigeria. There’s an opportunity for that, if it’s done right.
How did you first start working with Migos?
I directed a video for a singer named Niykee Heaton—“Bad Intentions”—and they were featured on that song. We shot that in L.A., and while we were on set they were like, “You should shoot our next video.” I thought it was Hollywood talk. Everyone says that.
Next thing I know, they were in Spain while I was in London. I DMed Takeoff, “I heard you’re coming to London. You good?” It was just general convo. He was like, “Hold on for [my manager].” Their manager was like, “We need a video in two days.” We shot “Cocoon.” We shot it in North London. After that, it was go time.
Did you write the treatment for “T-Shirt,” or did they come to you with the idea?
Initially, I had a different idea for “T-Shirt”; it was based in Atlanta. Quavo had the idea to do a Mr. Freeze-themed video à la the Batman and Robin movie. I started writing the treatment and I was like, “How are we going to pull this off? How are we going to get the costumes for it? It’s quite difficult to recreate the ice cavern.” If you fall short of a recreation, you look silly. I was like, “You know what? Let’s stick with the whole ice theme. White. Snow. Fur.” From his initial suggestion, I moved the video specifically into The Revenant theme.
Where did you shoot the video?
Lake Tahoe, California. Last December. It was beautiful up there.
What was the fur budget?
(laughs) Some of them were made, some of them were rented, and some were real.
Have you received any complaints from PETA?
Before I went to Lake Tahoe, I specifically Googled “PETA The Revenant” to see if anything came up. I didn’t see anything, so I said, “Fuck it. I’m shooting this.” If anything happened, I was ready to pull the race card. It was at the top of the deck.
For the “Deadz” video, whose idea was it to have dead presidents in open coffins?
Does he often come up with ideas for the group?
Yeah. The igloo in “T-Shirt” was his idea. I wanted a tipi. In “Bad and Boujee,” the Cup of Noodles in the diner was his idea. Rapping on the billboard was his idea.
Did your life change after Donald Glover shouted out Migos during the Golden Globes?
My life didn’t change per se, but it was all part of the frenzy. The timing was nuts. “Bad and Boujee” went viral—crazy memes and all that. It was already number two on the charts. It was going to go number one either way, it was just a question of when. Donald Glover took it to white pop America, I think. It took them to the other side.
But the timing of it changed things for me. “Bad and Boujee” was number two and gaining traction, Donald Glover said what he said, “Bad and Boujee” went to number one, and then “T-Shirt” dropped. It was just a Migos hurricane. Stand next to the heat, bro. Get warm. (laughs)
Do you think the “T-Shirt” video will be your calling card for a while?
It’s funny. To me, it’s a really crazy video. But you ask other people and people love “Deadz,” “Bad and Boujee”—I like that other people like different videos. For me, “T-Shirt” was just… for “Bad and Boujee,” even though it was fresh, we’ve seen rappers in those environments. “Deadz,” we might have seen something semi-similar. But “T-Shirt” is very unique. You can’t put every rapper in those costumes. Most rappers would look silly. But Migos’ aura and charisma… they were able to do something that rap, and trap specifically, hasn’t done before.
Somebody even went on IMDB and changed the director of The Revenant to “Daps and Quavo” (laughs). Funny, man.
A lot of your videos deal in pretty stark juxtaposition. Are those juxtapositions purely visual, or do you always consider the political implications? I’m thinking particularly of the Stormzy video.
That was visual. I chose those looks for a reason, but there was no political intent.
Why do you think you’ve been able to do all of this so early in your career?
I’m not from here. I’ve traveled. I’m a worldly and cultured person. Me being nomadic and from Nigeria, which is actually an ex-colony of England, has fostered my ability to know [the music of various places intimately]. I know Nigerian music. I know British music. I know American music. I’ve lived in all three places. I eat the food, I talk to people. I’m in the shits. Wherever I go in America, I’m in the shits. That makes me varied. A lot of people don’t get it.
Nigerian culture isn’t popular world culture. English culture isn’t popular world culture. It’s easier for someone else that’s not American to come to America and create American content because that’s worldwide culture. That’s why an actor from another country can come to America and take on an American role. But for an American to go another country where they’ve never been and create content would be difficult.
Do you think we’ll ever reach a point where people do not have to leave places like Nigeria or London to achieve worldwide success?
I don’t know. America has a firm grip on entertainment and pop culture. Is that going to change? There are artists right now that don’t leave their home countries and are doing extremely well. They sell out stadiums. It’s just the viewpoint.