Some time in the last few years, rap videos stopped looking like rap videos. The tropes that arose in the 90s to become genre clichés—green screens, rented cars, beautiful models, gaudy jewelry, perhaps an elaborate but vague action movie plot—gave way to something simpler. Take 2017's first major viral rap video, "Pull Up Wit Ah Stick" by Atlanta rapper Sahbabii. The video shows dozens of people, Sahbabii included, mugging for the camera and throwing up middle fingers. Guns are everywhere. None of it looks planned or staged.
"Pull Up Wit Ah Stick" immediately calls to mind Chicago rapper Chief Keef. Keef's early videos depicted him and his friends smoking weed and brandishing guns with no overarching narrative. They were simple, but they completely changed the visual side of rap, creating a template that has since become a standard for videos around the world. Chief Keef showed that rappers didn't need lots of money or the eyes of gatekeepers like MTV and BET to have a hit video. All they needed to do was press record.
"It was just a bunch of them jumping around in a living room," says director Fetti Films, describing Chief Keef's 2012 "I Don't Like" video. "It was like: I could make a video, why not?" Fetti answered that question by shooting Bobby Shmurda's "Hot Nigga" video in Brooklyn in 2014, and it eventually landed the rapper a record deal. The same unstaged look spread across the country, giving viewers a lens into the rough 'hoods of Baton Rouge, Louisiana; the street corners of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn; and the little-seen world of Broward County, Florida, from their computer screens.
"A lot of the time I wanted to make more conceptual [videos], but that never really worked with those guys," chuckles the Chicago music video director DGainz. "[Chief Keef and GBE] don't really follow rules; it was just run and gun, point, shoot, and see whatever happens." The style that he and Keef helped establish was created out of necessity: Keef was on house arrest, which limited the locations where they could film. Those constraints bred innovation. "I Don't Like," perhaps the purest example of the style, showed Keef, Lil Reese, Young Chop, and all their friends shirtless and turning up in a living room. The video couldn't have been simpler, but it got millions of plays, catching the eyes of record labels and tastemakers like Kanye West precisely due to its intimacy.
"It made music videos accessible to people like us: People who couldn't afford [an expensive] budget." says Laka Films, a prolific director from Chicago, who is best known for his work with rapper Famous Dex. Laka started shooting after Keef's rise, and he understood from the beginning that flooding the market with videos was a better strategy than waiting months between shoots. "If we came with big budgets, and every time [we] had to book models, to do a treatment, we couldn't push our videos like that," he says. Since the introduction of MTV in the 80s, videos have existed as expensive promotional material for singles and albums. Now, they increasingly are replacing those albums as the medium through which people listen to music, and, competing against the second-by-second updates on Instagram and Twitter feeds, they have pivoted toward more accurately reflecting artists' lives.
Part of that shift can be traced to Soulja Boy, whose videos depicted him and his friends playing jokes on each other, stunting in the freshest clothes, and trying to entertain themselves as much as their viewers. Soulja Boy provided a model for self-promotion that can still be seen today, both from artists themselves and in viral dance videos, which sometimes become more popular than the official releases.
"Soulja Boy's videos were more dancing and fun," says Mr. 2-17, a director, producer, and rapper from Atlanta who has shot many such dance videos, highlighting moves like Hit Dem Folks and Yeet. He contrasts that look with the style Keef and DGainz introduced: "Chief Keef was more urban, gritty, and really talking about what was going on in Chicago."
"I kind of categorized them as documentary videos," says Daniel Hall, a former Atlanta music video director, looking back his some of his earlier work. "There was no treatment, there was no shot list, there was no, like, specific direction other than: We're gonna go to the artist's environment, and we're just gonna fucking roll the cameras." Hall shot numerous videos for artists like 2 Chainz, Big K.R.I.T., Future, and Young Jeezy before shifting toward advertising. One of his most striking videos is "Bussin'," the debut video from Atlanta rapper Trouble. It opens with Trouble surrounded by guns in broad daylight, a cleaner take on the look Keef would later use. Hall noted that "Bussin'"—along with Pill's 2009 video "Trap Goin Ham" and Waka Flocka Flame's "Hard In The Paint"—proved that this style could be just as if not more compelling than the label-funded excess of traditional videos, casting a light on communities where rappers actually lived.
The director traces the style back to Juvenile's "Ha" video, which depicted a day of ordinary life in New Orleans's Magnolia Projects rather than the extravagant images of helicopters and speed boats Juvenile's label Cash Money would later be known for. "All these videos [are an] updated version of that," he says.
"[There's] a poverty down here, and so a lot of people can relate to the struggle," says David G, a Baton Rouge director who got started doing tour video work with Kevin Gates. "And everyone down here is just trying to make it out." Although he cites Boosie Badazz as a greater influence on his own personal style, David G's realistic displays of Baton Rouge rapper NBA Youngboy's life in the gun-filled videos of "38 Baby" and "Murder" are within the same directorial tradition as Keef's videos. These kinds of videos put real faces and blocks to the lyrics on record, letting viewers evaluate a less staged image of the artist themselves, for better or worse.
"Honestly, [Keef's style] got a lot of attention because it created fear," says Laka Films. "A lot of people in Chicago or a lot of people in the suburbs don't see this type of community." The images of a dangerous lifestyle generated concern and debate among onlookers, making Chief Keef a mainstream figure in Chicago political discussions. But they also, as Laka notes, forced attention on communities that were often underserved and overlooked. Kids from those communities could take representation into their own hands with little more than a camera and a YouTube account. Not only were they able to push back against the broad strokes of what people might see on the news, they were launching viable careers for themselves. Chief Keef didn't invent the models of documentary-style videos or of viral YouTube fame, but he brought them together more effectively than anyone before him, spawning an entirely new kind of artistic narrative and changing the look of rap in the process.
"Nobody ever showed that lifestyle, and it was like a reality show to people," says DGainz, looking back on what he started. "You'd hear about how bad Chicago is, but nobody shined a light on that side of the culture."
David Turner is a writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.