Hype Williams taught me about the magic of the fisheye lens. The lens creates a field of vision, both magnified and distorted, giving even the most realistic surroundings a cartoonish pop. The director born Harold Williams was hardly the first to use a fisheye, but to a young boy wasting days watching music videos on the couch, he might as well have been the rap game Tex Avery.
As a child, Williams’ videos drew me in with their animated flair. Missy Elliott’s inflatable velour suit in “The Rain” and the giddy blue imp racing through the video for Busta Rhymes’ “Gimme Some More” popped under his watchful eye. As I grew older and could contextualize his sensibilities within hip-hop, I began to appreciate Williams’ eye for visuals in a completely different way. A music video could bring a song to life; a Hype Williams music video gave a song new life.
“I’m probably one of the last of the Mohicans that really focuses up on what something sounds like first, and then what it looks like second. I basically really focus up on what the song is, what it means to people, and try to create something visually that functions or serves as like a—helper.” —Hype Williams, Interview Magazine
My first memory of a Hype Williams production was the video for Busta Rhymes’ “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See.” Busta flows with double-dutch precision. His decision to theme the song’s video after the boisterous Eddie Murphy comedy Coming To America—which reportedly played regularly on the studio TV during the mixing of the song—was a matching of energies only the perfect director could control.
The set for the video is epic. Gold pillars stand tall in wide-open palace spaces, luxurious women in headdresses dancing in front of staircases, and elephants chasing Busta through halls with decidedly African art. As big as the visuals all appear, the fisheye lens and doubled frame rates keep the subject matter intimate. Busta, the dancers, and the animals bring us into their world, closing the gap between fantasy and reality. Williams didn’t just settle for repainting Busta as the King of Zamunda. Through his stylization, Busta’s “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See” received a visual helper complementing the record’s shuffle.
Dramatic flair has always draped across Williams’ work like tassels on a hoodie. He spent his early days tagging his name on walls and billboards across Queens. With the spray of an aerosol can, “HYPE” became his calling card. Soon after, Williams’ ambitions led him to study film at Adelphi University as a fan of directors like David Fincher and Mark Romanek. Before long, he created his own film company, Big Dog Films. Fronting a production company allowed Williams to merge the worlds of rap and film on a canvas bigger than the flashiest billboard in Queens Village.
Williams’ aesthetic became the norm in the late ‘90s. Every rapper wanted the glitzy look, and every rap fan wanted to get lost in any of Williams’ meticulously crafted worlds. He won MTV Video Music Awards for his work with TLC and Will Smith. Williams’ direction and blue-hued cinematography carried the DMX and Nas-starring crime thriller, Belly, creating one of the best film openings of all time. By the dawn of the millennium, Williams had become rap’s go-to video director. By the early 2000s, every emerging rapper was looking to him for the next concept.
The defining characteristic of Williams’ video style is his ability to work in tandem with artists to bring a singular vision to life. Letting the song speak does wonders for his versatility. As a freshman filmmaker, it helped Williams carry the Wu-Tang Clan’s gold-hued vision of Shaolin to life in the video for “Can It Be All So Simple.” In 2005, Kanye West’s “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” received a black-and-white treatment, filmed on the streets of Prague, with the ornate architecture befitting of the song’s stark take on the West African diamond trade. The video for Lil Wayne’s “6 Foot 7 Foot” features note-perfect riffs on the Christopher Nolan movie Inception and Wayne rapping in a general’s suit for no other reason than to say, “I’m the best rapper alive, please fuck with me.” Even with some of the same visual effects, no two videos look the same. Through Hype Williams’ lens, any idea was possible.
Williams’ videos are endlessly creative, but the 2010s saw his output drop significantly. A 2014 documentary film chronicling Kanye West’s Yeezus tour was announced but never released. He released more videos in the year 2015 than he did in ‘16, ‘17, and ‘18 combined. His video collaborations with Megan Thee Stallion—including a heavily advertised short film based around her breakout project Fever—have yet to see the light of day.
Hype Williams hasn’t educated us on why his output has slowed, but I don’t mind hearing from him less frequently. The man managed to keep his name alive through three different eras of the music video. After over 30 years in the game, Williams has little left to prove. We can see his influence everywhere; in the slanted angles and psychedelic color palette of J. Cole’s “ATM” video; in the fluid camera motion of Baby Keem’s “Orange Soda” video; in the zany antics of videos from directors like Reel Goats and Cole Bennett.
As much as I love today’s crop of video directors, many of whom are keeping the stylized rap video alive, there’s nothing quite like the originator. At the top of the year, Griselda released a Hype Williams-directed video for their single “Dr. Birds.” Westside Gunn, Conway, and Benny are already a reasonably stylized clique on their own, but seeing a director match their love of excess hit rap fans of a certain age right in the feels. Blotches of paint and golden guns glint across the black-and-white background while the group mean-mugs in front of Williams’ camera, rejuvenating each other on the cusps of their second acts.
There isn’t a fisheye lens in sight, but, man, we can still feel the Hype.