When Lionel C. Martin’s career as a music video director began in the 1980s, he was still mostly known as “Vid Kid,” the co-host of “Video Music Box”—the New York City public access show that gave fans a place to watch hip-hop videos before “Yo! MTV Raps” was even on the air. Martin started the production company Creative Concepts with “Video Music Box”’s Ralph McDaniels and ended up directing scores of videos that his show and others would go on play. Starting with Cold Chillin’ artists like Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, and Roxanne Shanté, he went on to team with classic rap acts including EPMD, 3rd Bass, MC Lyte, and Public Enemy. In 1990 he directed the video for “Poison”, the first single from Bell Biv DeVoe, which surprisingly turned into a smash, it’s popularity enduring from middle school dances of the day to this summer’s Pitch Perfect 2 riff off.
From there Martin went in an even more R&B direction, handling the rest of the videos from BBD, as well as all the ones for acts attached to group member Michael Bivens’s Biv 10 management and record label, like Boyz II Men, Another Bad Creation, and MC Brains. (For a look at pre-“Community” Yvette Nicole Brown, check out the East Coast Family’s “1-4-All-4-1”). Other R&B and pop clips followed, leading to Martin’s 1997 debut feature film, How to Be a Player. Here he describes how “Poison” became a key transition point in his career.
Pitchfork: How did you get the “Poison” video?
Lionel C. Martin: Back then I was in New York and I was a hip-hop kid. R&B and pop were the furthest things I was interested in. I got call from this guy Hiriam Hicks who wanted me to do a video for Bell Biv DeVoe. I remember asking my receptionist, “Who is Bell Biv DeVoe?” She said it was the guys from New Edition who started a group after Bobby [Brown] left. I went to MCA Records to meet Hiriam, who was their manager at the time, and the group. They were all sitting around this TV set and they were watching Bobby Brown’s video. I don’t think they looked at Bobby as their competition, but I think they looked at Bobby as, “We have to be at least this good.”
Pitchfork: It wasn’t obvious to me when I was a kid growing up, but watching the video now, it’s much clearer that it’s stylistically a hip-hop video for what was considered an R&B group. At the time, most R&B videos were much more polished looking.
LCM: Later, when Michael [Bivens] and I became close friends, he said, “Do you know why we contacted you to do the video? Because you were the hip-hop nigga. We didn’t want to come soft.” I had done tons of videos for Kool G. Rap, who the song samples.
Pitchfork: Did you anticipate the success the video went on to have?
LCM: No, I didn’t. I knew it was a good song and I had never heard anything like that before. That’s why I definitely wanted to do it. I know it sounds a little arrogant, but being a hip-hop guy, if I didn’t like it, I would have said, “Nah.” But it just had such a cool little vibe to it. When they told me their whole concept for their music [“Hip-hop smoothed out on the R&B tip, with a pop feel appeal to it”], I wasn’t even sure what they were talking about, but it just seemed like something really different. It was the biggest video at that stage in my career, budget-wise. Hip-hop videos at that time, they didn’t spend that much money. To get the combination of a pop/hip-hop video was good for me and it opened a lot of doors once I did that.
Pitchfork: When you started to do more R&B videos off of the success of “Poison”, did they always want you to put that hip-hop edge in it?
LCM: At the time, it was New Jack Swing and Teddy Riley coming along. They felt all the R&B stuff would be a lot cooler if it had a little rap feel to it. The R&B artists started to come out of the suits. They started to dress and give themselves some of the hip-hop vibe.
Pitchfork: After doing all the Bell Biv DeVoe videos, how did you come to do all of the videos for Bivens’s other projects?
LCM: I vibed well with the whole group, as far as when we came up with concepts, but Michael seemed to be very creative and a visionary type of individual. He developed a deal with Motown. The first group he brought to them was Boyz II Men, and when it was time to start to do videos, he called me up. It was almost a no brainer.
Pitchfork: After Boyz II Men you did Another Bad Creation. How was it wrangling them?
LCM: They weren’t wild, but they had a little attitude. [Bivens] had already started to develop an image for them. He gave them their nicknames and the way they dressed and danced. The group looked at him like a mentor. It wasn’t like Mike had to convince them, they were just looking at him like, “Whatever this guy says, we’ll do whatever he wants.” I never had problems with them, the only thing was that they were young. I remember shooting the videos, and my hours were kind of crazy. The youngest, I think his name was Dave, I remember him keeping on falling asleep. I felt so bad. A P.A. came over to me and said, “You’re losing him.” I said, “Get this bag of ice, put it on his face.” It was kind of mean, but it did the trick, it got him up for that last shot.
Pitchfork: How would you and Bivens collaborate on concepts?
LCM: For example, with “Motown Philly” he came with the clothes and said he wanted to do something at a park and wanted to do something with choreography. Then I did the whole birthday cake thing. Him in the bathroom for his rap, that was my idea. It was just great chemistry. He knew where to fill in where I might be lacking, and I filled in where he was lacking. I haven’t talked to him for a while, so I’m not sure what he’s even doing now.
Pitchfork: After your run with Biv 10, did you start doing less hip-hop?
LCM: When you look at your career, there are moments. When I did Public Enemy’s “Night of the Living Baseheads”, that was a big thing. Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend”, that was a moment. Working Bell Biv DeVoe became a sensation. MCA asked me to do a lot of videos for them because the BBD stuff was so incredible. I went to MCA and Mike was in another room in another meeting, He passed by and he said, “Lionel, what are you doing here?” And I said, “Oh, they want me to do this group called Jodeci.” I remember he sort of went, “No, no, no. Lionel is our guy.” The record company looked at me like, “What’s going on?” He was loyal to me, as far as giving me all the work, but as a director who wanted to be creative and wanted to do as much as possible to play with my craft, of course I did the Jodeci. I remember when I went to Jodeci, they were liking the Boyz II Men stuff, and I was like, “No, I’m going to give you your own unique vibe, your own unique look.” That created a relationship with Diddy, and Diddy was like the equivalent of Bivens to Boyz II Men. Then him and I were able to develop a bond and a friendship, which led to another direction. A lot of R&B artists came to me. Then people like NSYNC and Backstreet Boys, the white boy bands, when they came along, they approached me because they liked what I did for the BBDs, the Jodecis, the TLCs. They wanted that flavor.
Pitchfork: You ended up doing videos for Bobby Brown. Was that a similar issue with Bivens as you doing a video for Jodeci?
LCM: Mike realized Jodeci was a totally different group. Jodeci was not competition for Boyz II Men. I don’t think there was any bad blood because I still did videos [for Bivens] after that. Bobby Brown was a whole different story. Bobby Brown is Bobby Brown, he just approached me. I worked with him on “Word to the Mother” before “Humpin’ Around”. Bobby is charismatic and I developed a good friendship and a good vibe with him. I did the Ralph Tresvant stuff, too. With Mike, when it was one of the guys from the New Edition family, there was no conflict.
Pitchfork: Did you get the feeling that Mike recommended you to them?
LCM: No, they knew me and they knew my work. Everybody started hiring me after the BBD videos. As far as recommending, I got the opportunity to do Whitney Houston [for “My Name is Not Susan”], and I had to meet her somewhere in Ohio. We talked and we were trying to vibe and feel each other out to see what I had going on. I had heard some stories about her, that she was kind of tough, but I remember her at one point telling me, “You know why you’re doing this video, right? Because of my man.” And I was like, “Who is your man?” And she was like, “Bobby Brown.” At that point, there was no Whitney and Bobby. No one even knew. So Bobby looked out.