VHS Raps: TIME SPENT Interview

When thinking about hip-hop videos, what usually comes to mind? I tend to think of flashy cars, hundred dollar bills, guns, and big booty bitches. These elements feed into the rap game agenda of doing it big, but shouldn’t an artist’s most impressive tool be their own tongue?

TIME SPENT, created by graphic designer Ronin Wood and filmmaker Matthew Thompson, takes what we commonly associate with hip-hop videos and turns it on its head. Equipped with a VHS camera, a natural location, and an original verse by the artist being filmed, TIME SPENT composes music videos that allow viewers to appreciate their favorite underground rappers totally unfiltered.

“NO BEAT, NO HOOK, NO CUTS” are the terms by which TIME SPENT operates. Here rap artists are put to the test, and the product performs as a cast of hip-hop preservation. Their music videos as mentioned have no beat, and are shot in one full take, the only editing being done is when Ronin incorporates the typography directly onto the VHS tape.

Shooting friends of FRANK such as such as Chapman at Moon Lab Studios and Chippy Nonstop getting her nails done at a salon, these dynamic portraits present hip-hop as something fresh and smothered in gritty realism. So hold on guys, and prepare to have your rap palette refined.

You guys shoot all of your videos on VHS, but why use such a dated medium?
Matthew Thompson: There’s a very specific video that we are referencing, but the type of camera we used was never a thought. Essentially we were in the spot where Ronin wanted to make a music video for an artist he was working for in Virginia. I hated rap videos and didn’t want anything to do with them because they are so boring and too formulaic.

When we met with the artist we shot with, he liked the idea of cutting it down and actually helped us develop the first TIME SPENT manifesto of no beat, no hook, and no cut. We were pretty stuck on using the camera because it was such a bitch to use. We had to plug it into walls. One of our original rules included using a 100-foot extension cord so we always had to look for outlets. We have a mini unreleased documentary where it’s literally just us walking around in Baltimore plugging the camera into open outlets and it never working.

Ronin Wood: I think one of the reasons why the camera stuck is that we told artists you can’t have a beat, you can’t have a hook, and you have to do this in one take. If Matt was holding a 5D with an autofocus that took beautiful HD shots with a nice lens it would be cheating, because he’s just holding it. But if he’s using a VHS camera it’s a challenge to him to create a compelling image. So they’re being limited, and we’re being limited. It’s about every end being limited down to its purest form. The VHS camera is documentation; you can’t get fancy with it.

What is special about the verses artists deliver for TIME SPENT besides them being unreleased or written exclusively for the project?
RW: This is different; it’s almost a different delivery style. The first video we did was Zaiah Burke, a 757 rapper back from where we grew up. His delivery style since then has defined our other videos. It’s usually slowed down, and there’s a lot more pause between words, but some artists we shoot respond very differently.

MT: It’s like they are listening to their song in their head with music. So the delivery is more like singing. Tom Cruz's video and Chapman’s video are very vocal. You can hear a beat sitting behind them.

So, the performances are shot without edits or cuts. How much difficulty does this present? Have you ever been able to shoot a video in one perfect take?
RW: Yeah, Leopard Opera which is our fourth video. It’s shot in a streetwear boutique store in Baltimore.

MT: I couldn’t believe we did that in one take. We were walking backwards into a shop and shooting, somehow we got all the way through without me tripping over t-shirt tables or the camera wire. We got that entire shot and then the cashier was like, “Yo I rap too, can we work together?’ And then we shot a video with him and his friend.

RW: Yeah, OG Dutchmaster and Butch Dawson, great rap names.

MT: Oftentimes it’s several takes. One artist was working on his verse in the car and just didn’t know it yet. So it was 15 takes of him learning that song for the first time, which was interesting. It doesn’t bother me at all, to get the video done right it’s so worthwhile.

What has been your favorite place to film and whose video was it?
MT: We think every video we did has been the best video of all time. It’s also experience; we befriend everyone we work with. It’s rarely just a meet and shoot and leave kind of thing. With HY we hung out at his house, drank beer, played with his MPC, made music for an hour and then we just shot a video. That was one of the most fun things we have done with an artist.

In your manifesto you describe TIME SPENT as a challenge for artists; you are testing their abilities. Is this tactic a commentary on current hip-hop?
MT: Yes and no. There’s no limitation to what they say. So the commentary is not on lyrics. Ronin has a good analogy about the beats on music and how much he could be drawn into a song just because of how good the beat is.

RW: It’s like Waka Flocka—what does he sound like without a beat? I googled it and I like it, but I like any rap song with a good beat. Chief Keef is incredible, he’s so good, but I don’t know what he’s like without a beat. I was listening to a Big Sean song the other day and I was thinking, “Man, this beat’s incredible,” and I got so uncomfortable I turned it off. It was his song “MILF.” There have been a couple articles written about how bad it is because it’s one of the most anti-feminist songs ever heard. It’s not even funny, I can’t even ironically be like, “yeah women!" It’s just really inappropriate and if it weren’t for TIME SPENT I wouldn’t have noticed that and would have just laughed it off.

Location is obviously key; some of your videos are shot in NYC and some in places like Baltimore and Virginia. What is being done here in showcasing these niches of underground hip-hop?
RW: Every city has its own sound to it. In New York it’s a lot weirder, there’s a lot more weird art stuff. There’s a bigger queer rap scene here, which I try not to consider a genre. You have more artsy rappers in New York like from Chapman, to Kitty, to J Boogie—they’re from completely different spectrums as artists, but they’re all weird. In Baltimore you have rappers making all their own beats, people in the Baltimore rap scene are much more DIY-based.

MT: Virginia is prone to the started-from-the-bottom mentality that hip-hop has as a style formula. If you don’t come from nothing, then you’re lacking a certain type of credit. Like when gangster rap came around it was all about street credit, what gang you were apart of or what jail you’d been in. If you didn’t start from nothing and you’re not self-made, or if you’re not always doing something, then you’re really not doing anything. It’s all about making it super huge.

How do you view these videos as one cohesive piece?
RW: TIME SPENT videos work together as a whole because the typography leads you in and out. The text wobbles into the video, the video plays and then the text wobbles out and then the next video starts.

What’s unique about the videos is for instance, Kitty has really devoted fans and they love her. To some of her fans the video was nothing more than her rapping without a beat and they were eating it up. They may never see another one of our videos and that’s okay, because they were able to get a portrait of this artist on their own. So, I think that’s one thing that I really like, it works as whole, but then it can also be a single video.

What’s next for TIME SPENT?
RW: The next thing for TIME SPENT is exactly the same thing it will always be. Let’s say Jay Z wanted to do a video with us, we would shoot him the exact same way we shot our good friends Rapdragons.

MT: In an ideal world we would start traveling for videos. It’s a legacy project. There is no completion date. I hope we’re doing it when we’re 50, still meeting new people and traveling, and maybe by then have enough of a following that it just happens naturally.

More from FRANK:

VHS Obsessed: Adjust Your Tracking Interview

Zaven Najjar Transforms Rap Lyrics Into Minimalist Film Posters