Award-winning film directors Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah never wanted to work on what Coodie calls the "regular video with the pool, the girls and the cars."
They had a different drive early on in their video-directing career, but one which presented them with a major challenge trying to get their feet wet.
"What we did was write something super-creative that we thought would be progressive and on the next level, but we never got those videos," Coodie said. "So we struck out a lot. If we were in it for the money, we could've done what seemed like really fun videos. But we just wanted to make a statement and tell a story that was progressive in the hip-hop realm."
Fortunately for the pair -- who directed ESPN's acclaimed 30-for-30 documentary "Benji," about fallen high school basketball star Ben Wilson -- Coodie knew Kanye West, who shared the same storytelling vision. They had met years earlier in a popular barbershop in their hometown of Chicago, when West was still a no-name.
In 2003, the stars aligned for West and Coodie & Chike, as they go by in their credits, when they all worked together on the rapper's first hit, "Through The Wire."
These days, Coodie, 41, and Chike, 34, are both living in New York City and they're spending a majority of their time working on their own online TV network, Creative Control, making videos for up-and-coming rapper Joey Badas$$ and helping to rebrand Ecko Unltd. Reflecting on their past success, Coodie spoke to ESPN Playbook on his top five picks from his videography.
Video: Kanye West, "Through The Wire" (2003)
Coodie says: We started with "Through The Wire," the first video that [Chike and I] produced together. That was [Kanye's] first video actually, and it was No. 1 on MTV for weeks. It was kind of crazy with that because me and Kanye had the idea; we just didn't know how to execute that idea.
I met Chike when he was working at MTV, so I knew that he could help us. I called him and was like, "Chike, man, we ain't got no money, but we have a great idea." And when I told him the idea, he was like, "Let's go. Let's figure it out." And that started the Coodie & Chike brand.
I had known Kanye and had been shooting him for a while, back in Chicago before he came to New York. He and Common used to come up to a barbershop in Chicago all the time. At the time, we used documentary footage of him in the video from Chicago, L.A. and New York. Kanye is super, super creative, so he definitely wanted that. It happened all organically. He was saying how he hated the three-quarter-inch screen. Back then, that was in all the videos. He was like, "We can do the whole video through Polaroids with documentary footage."
We came together and we built the bulletin board, me and Chike. When we edited it, we just made sure it told a story. We were actually sneaking into MTV, by the way, every night to work on the video. When Chike got off work, we would sneak in and try to use some of their equipment, but we just couldn't pull off the Polaroids. So we presented it to Damon Dash over at Roc-A-Fella and he was like, "Let's put this up, let's put this up." But we were like, "No, no. Let us do it the right way. Give us a little money so we could do it the right way," and he honored that. Kanye put up the money first and we made it happen, and it was history in the making.
Another thing real quick with "Through The Wire" is Chaka Khan wouldn't clear the sample, so we were like, "Kanye is from Chicago, and he was in a car accident and almost died." She was like, "No, I'm not creating no sample for that." Weeks later, I used to throw these barbecues every Sunday and Kanye would come, and John Legend, and we would just sit and eat. I used to make these "Coodie coladas." So Kanye brought Chaka Khan's son and I was like, "We've got to shoot this video," so we showed him the "Through The Wire" video. He was like, "Aw man, I've got to show my mom this and tell her we're trying to get this done." And I would say about two weeks later, she cleared the sample.
Video: Kanye West, "Slow Jamz" (2003)
Coodie says: The original video, we didn't direct it, but I was in it. It was my video debut. I'm just dancing in it at a house party. It's funny because "Through The Wire" was No. 1 on MTV for weeks with our name on it. People were calling me from Chicago like, "Man, I've seen the video." I was like, "Yeah, man, we put a lot of hard work into it." They were like, "Yeah, you were dancing with the girl." I'm like, "What?" They were talking about the "Slow Jamz" video.
We wound up shooting another video for "Slow Jamz" in Chicago because Kanye wasn't really feeling the one that they put out. We shot a whole another version, which came out great. He wanted to be different. If you look at it, it's similar to how all his other videos were. If you look at the remix version, it's fun, silly and just cool."
Video: Kanye West, "Jesus Walks" (2004)
Coodie says: [Kanye] did three versions of that video, and we worked on the third one after he did the first two, which were really big-budget. Back when we were working on "Through The Wire," we were thinking about "Jesus Walks" and having Jesus walk with him. We tried to get Dave Chappelle to play it, but he didn't want to, so we got Danny Joe Sorge to play Jesus.
The story to that is I'm leaving a club at about 4 in the morning in New York, and I look at my phone and it's Kanye calling me. I'm like, "What do you want?" He was like, "Coodie, I'm really not getting that soul out of those two videos I did for 'Jesus Walks.'" He's like, "We need to go ahead and shoot our version of 'Jesus Walks.'" I'm like, "OK, so when do you want to shoot?" He was like, "Sunday." Mind you, this is Friday morning. One thing about Kanye is he doesn't want somebody to say "can't." I was like, "We got to shoot in Chicago," and he was like, "Cool."
So later that morning, we got on the phone to figure out tickets, a crew and getting film. We were going to shoot on 16mm film. Kanye didn't call us back until after 7 p.m. that night, and by the time he called us back, all the places were closed in New York. So we had to call L.A., and luckily they had what we needed. They had to ship out the footage to Chicago, we had to get our tickets, fly to Chicago in the morning Saturday, go location scouting, teach the kids how to do the "Jesus Walks" dance and then find Jesus.
We wound up shooting Sunday. When we premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, [Kanye] presented all three of the videos, and Damon Dash and The New York Times said that our video was the best out of three.
Video: Gil Scott-Heron, "Me And The Devil" (2010)
Coodie says: It's funny, because the label from London called to write a treatment. We wrote so many treatments and then did the video. That's when HD video came out, and you could change lenses. So we weren't going to write a treatment; we were just going to shoot the video, put it together and if they wanted the video, then they would just have to buy it from us.
Me and Chike, and this other director, Michael Eaton, we just went out on Halloween and shot the video. What was funny about it is that we had no media passes, so we printed out big, huge TMZ ID badges as if we were media. Chike went on the computer to work on them and then printed them out. We made them super huge, and that was supposed to be a joke. When we got out to the Halloween parade in New York, you couldn't get through; it was barricaded. But the police saw them and they're like, "They're media," and they told us to go in, so we were in the parade. I always say that Jesus directs our videos. Everything just happens, and the video always comes out really nice.
The reception for the video was great. I forgot the name of the agency, but they do a convention in Germany and they had us on Skype talking about the video. We were in Los Angeles and we were Skyping into the auditorium, and they asked us questions about the video and the Erykah Badu video ["Window Seat"].
Video: Erykah Badu, "Window Seat" (2010)
Coodie says: That was one of my favorite videos. We went to the grassy knolls where President Kennedy got shot, and she got butt naked. We were honored to do the video, and there was a big fuss afterward because there were kids out there. We actually went through the mayor. But she was saying the body is beautiful and she had a message. That alone was something else.
It was her idea to do it. She was inspired by [the music duo] Matt and Kim. She wanted to inspire other artists to bring herself free of everything. It was the whole thing about how the media and people are trying to assassinate your character. That was her whole message, and it came off.
Me and Chike went back and forth about who was going to shoot it. I'm like, "Gimme the rock. Let me shoot this one." It was one take. We couldn't retake it. As soon as we finished, she jumped in the van and we got out of there. Actually, nobody said anything until the video came out.
It wasn't challenging at all to shoot; we just added some color correction and put some grain on there. Overall, it was real fast. We were prepared to leave. We had bail money, just in case and everything. I would say we were out there 10 minutes. She drove her ’67 Lincoln and she got out. What was funny is when we were on our way there, the car broke down. We had to get it fixed.
This was guerrilla filmmaking at its best. We didn't have a permit. The mayor called us afterward and talked about it. But we went out there in the middle of the day and just did it, and it worked out.