Out for the Gusto

What A$AP Mob can teach Joe Swanberg

In the world of hip-hop, the most talented lyricists are, arguably, the most successful. Think Jay-Z, Eminem (“who’s the king of these rude, ludicrous, lucrative lyrics”). More recently, Kendrick Lamar and A$AP Rocky. These are artists of virtuosic talent for rhythm, rhyme, meter, imagery, even pathos—the building blocks of poetry—but they are also masterful self-promoters with carefully crafted personas who’ve managed to conflate art with publicity. And every step of the way they’ve been pushing the boundaries of the form, making hip-hop that would be unrecognizable to their precursors.

In the world of cinema, there are notable directors who have achieved both critical and commercial success while trading in experimental narrative and cinematographic techniques (see: Welles and Godard, whose names gained prestige even as their mid- and late-career works found smaller audiences, or Tarantino, whose 21st Century pastiches and homages lack the urgency of his early work). But they are largely exceptions to what we think of as the dichotomy between the hack conventionality of commercial movies and the supposedly raw innovation of independent cinema. There’s a problem with this dichotomy, though. Hollywood isn’t completely hack; it’s simply put most of its energy (and money) into entertainment and marketing—and in those realms, it’s unmatched. And independent film is not as raw and innovative as it would like us to believe (see: mumblecore’s lack of social and emotional stakes, its meandering plots, its substitution of wit for insight; Girls, its most affluent relative, netted six sharp episodes on HBO before it lost its edge).

There’s no point in trying to fix Hollywood from the top down. But independent film can and should be so much more than it is. What follows is an indictment, a call to action, and a list of preliminary (and perhaps fantastically absurd) suggestions for how independent film might infuse itself with the artistic swagger, the reckless ambition that has propelled hip-hop’s most talented auteurs from indie obscurity to commercial stardom.

 

Roll no less than 30 deep

Unlike other musical forms, hip-hop is inherently and blatantly collaborative. There are no solo hip-hop artists; there’s always a conversation at the center of the music—often between DJ and emcee (sometimes several emcees). But even when the producer and emcee are one and the same (see: Kanye West), there’s a conversation with historical precursors and contemporaries that happens through lyrical allusion and musical sampling. Hip-hop cannot exist in a vacuum. These qualities are what make hip-hop so vitally analogous to cinema, which may be the ultimate collaborative and referential art form. With an eye to how cinema might usefully evolve, it’s instructive to look at the evolution of collaboration in hip-hop.

It began with two turntables and a microphone. That is, one emcee and one DJ. From this, the clique or crew evolved with three- to four-man groups—like Run DMC. Then in 1993, the Wu-Tang Clan revolutionized hip-hop by both reimagining the collaborative nature of the art form and structuring it around an innovative business model. Under RZA’s direction, they formed what looked a lot like a corporation consisting of nine board members (emcees). Not only was it unheard of to have nine people rapping on a single track, but their business model involved a systematic takeover of the industry, starting with a smash collaborative album, branching out into solo projects for each member, then eventually expanding into a clothing line, a comic book, a video game. By 2000, RZA had gotten a foot in the film world by doing the soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog. In 2012, he directed his first feature, The Man with the Iron Fists, starring himself, Russell Crowe, and Lucy Liu.

Fast-forward to present day and you see Harlem’s A$AP Mob taking it a step further by, oddly enough, returning to the roots of hip-hop—which, after all, is not just a form of music. It’s a cultural movement that arose from the poverty and violence in the south Bronx of the 1970s, taking distinct form in what are known as the four pillars: DJing (turntablism), Emceeing (rapping), Graffiti, and Breakdancing. Rather than starting with a group of emcees and eventually branching out into other arenas, the A$AP Mob, from its inception, included emcees, DJs, music video directors, and fashion designers. They also have taken the clan mentality a step further than even Wu-Tang by putting their brand foremost (each member’s name begins with A$AP: A$AP Rocky, A$AP Ferg, A$AP Yams).

This mob mentality has its benefits. It allows the success of one member to spill over onto the other members. By dealing in several related art forms, it enriches them all and creates more opportunities for cross-promotion, enabling the artist to reach a broader audience and thus engage in a broader cultural discussion.

Axiom 1: Reaching a broader audience is a good thing. Yes, many things aimed at a broad audience are trash. But this does not logically imply that niche productions are not trash, nor that great works of art cannot also be designed to reach as wide an audience as possible. This was the genius of Shakespeare. And it’s something that hip-hop figured out a long time ago. The most ambitious works of art are not content speaking to a small audience.

Of contemporary independent filmmakers, few have pushed the mob mentality further than Joe Swanberg, who has not only made nearly 20 feature films in eight years (more on that later), but who has done so with an expansive group of collaborators (Greta Gerwig, Andrew Bujalski, Mark Duplass, Kate Lyn Sheil, Kris Swanberg, David Lowery, Amy Semeitz) many of whom, like Swanberg, are polymath filmmakers themselves, often photographing, editing, writing, and acting for one another.

But even Swanberg isn’t taking full advantage of the artistic and commercial benefits of the mob mentality. It’s not uncommon for hip-hop records to have multiple production credits, as different producers and DJs make the music for different songs. It’s much more common, in fact, than the auteur model. On top of this, it’s hard to find a hip-hop album without guest verses from other rappers. With collaboration so rampant, the difficult task is often getting an album to sound coherent; though Jay-Z’s Black Album credits 15 different producers, his vocal presence is forceful enough to give the album a sense of unity; The Wu-Tang Clan’s 36 Chambers features nine wildly different rappers, but is held together by the RZA’s consistently spare, menacing, and gritty production.

What would this level of collaboration look like in the world of cinema? Imagine a directorial guest verse: perhaps your film would benefit artistically if a certain scene were directed by someone else—especially a scene meant to contrast tonally with the rest of the film. (Hitchcock nearly went that far in collaborating with Dalí—who was not technically a director—on the dream sequence in Spellbound. But just imagine Ethan Coen guest-directing a scene in a young filmmaker’s debut!). As Ted Hope suggests in his “Ruminations on Collaboration,” why not re-edit a friend’s short film? Add some new scenes of your own. Make it better or, more importantly, different. This creates a dialogue that is both artistically fascinating and designed to draw the interest of an already extant fan base.

And as cinema, even more so than hip-hop, is an amalgam of related art forms, cross-promotion opportunities are everywhere. Work with a musician for your score, with a fashion designer for your wardrobe. The more agency you give these people to design something that both serves the film and can stand alone, the more free publicity you get as they promote their album or clothing line. This is already happening to some extent. Think Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead scoring P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and The Master; or in reverse order, think Tom Ford, the fashion designer—whom Jay-Z wrote an entire song about on his new record—directing A Single Man (and killing the costume design).

The other critical way that hip-hop collectives have tapped into that extant fan base is through the forcefulness of their branding. It’s not enough to have a group of frequent collaborators. Forget “Brought to you by the director of…” or “from the makers of…” It’s so much more effective to simply have a brand (Wu-Tang; A$AP) that introduces each project. Court 13, a self-described “Independent Filmmaking Army” was the collective behind Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. That alone should show that such branding techniques in no way compromise the artistic integrity of the work itself. That said, it is Zeitlin who we popularly connect with Beasts, not Court 13. In other words, they didn’t go far enough with claiming their collective.

And yet I suspect that contemporary filmmakers will still be hesitant to embrace such blatant self-promotional tactics, as if it were for some reason uncouth or crass to brand one’s work, whether as part of a collective or not, preferring to wear commercial failure as a badge of pride. That’s because contemporary independent filmmakers, by and large, are too demure, too meek to buck shots at weak auteurs, to declare themselves directorial deities. And that’s a problem.

 

I got money stacks bigger than you

If you’re not trying to be the greatest in hip-hop, you’re not doing it right. You’re either the king, or you’re garbage. Once you’ve accepted that dichotomy, it’s easy to see that your greatness is tied intrinsically to the shittiness of your rivals. Because I’m the king, you are therefore garbage. The aggression of this logical relationship is at the heart of hip-hop, and it’s a large part of why hip-hop has been so commercially successful.

Axiom 2: Aggression is central to all great art. From Caravaggio’s provocative upending of religious iconography, showing the rear ends and dirty feet of beggars in a painting of the Madonna, to Godard’s shocking use of jump cuts in Breathless. Anything sufficiently ambitious necessarily attacks the traditional, the conventional. This is another way of expressing Harold Bloom’s claim in the Anxiety of Influence that a poet’s precursors are barriers to his or her own originality, that they must be overthrown, which itself is a formulation that draws on Romanticism’s contempt for the derivative.

Many directors have harshly criticized their contemporaries. Welles said he couldn’t take Godard seriously as a thinker, that his message “could be written on the head of a pin.” Kevin Smith called P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia “a constant reminder that a bloated sense of self-importance is the most unattractive quality in a person or their work.” David Gordon Green said Kevin Smith “created a Special Olympics for film.” As for what Lars von Trier, the Kanye West of film, said about Nazism and his compatriot Suzanne Bier? You can look it up on Indiewire.

Jabs thrown in interviews are fun (the above examples aggregated from Flavorwire), but they lack the artistic, critical, and commercial thrust of the hip-hop dis track. There’s nothing else quite like it in any other art form. It is at once a negative critical review of a piece of art and an example of a superior piece of art. The task of the dissing emcee is to lay out and analyze his enemy’s flaws (in many ways—as a gangster, a lover, a father even—but primarily as a wordsmith) and to do so in a rap verse that demonstrates the disser’s lyrical supremacy. This technique is most effective when orchestrated at the macro level to help construct a narrative that exists beyond the bounds of the individual songs.

Narrative is at its most riveting (and thus most commercially successful) when it contains high conflict, high stakes. Both film and hip-hop trade in narrative, but unlike hip-hop, filmmakers have yet to really utilize in their marketing the meta-narratives that exist around the creation of the art. Beef sells records. Prodigy of Mobb Deep even claims that the most famous beef in hip-hop history, between 2Pac and Biggie, was started by 2Pac purely for commercial reasons. Whether or not that’s true, the feud made them both rich, and spawned an East Coast/West Coast war that led to murders on both sides. Think about that for a second. Lyrical insults on a record leading to actual (or at least suspected) gangland assassinations. Can you imagine David O’Russell’s crew gunning down Steve McQueen over something he told the Hollywood Reporter?

It’s one thing to be aggressive in your ambition, overturning traditional cinematic modes. It’s quite another to be provocative in a way that proclaims your greatness, that highlights your contemporaries’ weaknesses, through and beyond the medium of your art.

Kendrick Lamar, one of contemporary hip-hop’s top contenders for most skilled emcee, caused a stir last year with a guest verse on Big Sean’s song, “Control.” In his verse, Lamar, who hails from Compton, the epicenter of West Coast hip-hop, calls himself the King of New York. That line alone spawned hundreds of blogs, tweets, YouTube responses, and interviews with other rappers. How the hell can a Compton emcee claim to be King of New York? By having the balls to name names, to show a deep understanding of how aggression operates in hip-hop, and to do it all through masterful lyricism. Later in the verse, after calling out a slew of his contemporaries, including Big Sean and Jay Electronica, who both have verses on the very same song, he says:

I got love for you all but I’m tryna murder you niggas
Trying to make sure your core fans never heard of you niggas
They don’t wanna hear not one more noun or verb from you niggas

Kendrick Lamar understands that in the world of hip-hop, there’s only one goal worth striving for: To make music so damn good that you effectively kill the careers of your friends. Imagine how vital independent cinema could be if it embraced that level of aggressive ambition, making ballsy films that not only strive to outdo their competition, but that critically dissect the competition at the same time. The homage shot can be flipped on its head and used to denigrate one’s hack contemporaries. Characters can even shit-talk someone else’s film in dialogue—as obnoxiously meta as that might seem.

Starting this kind of directorial beef forces you to make your film so irreproachably well-crafted and ambitious that haters can’t say shit. It can only improve the health of independent film.

 

I’m not a businessman; I’m a business, man

In the early 2000s, relatively unknown rapper Lil Wayne rose to prominence by releasing a series of mixtapes available for free download. It didn’t matter that these mixtapes were hastily produced, with Wayne often rapping over other artists’ beats. His fanbase expanded rapidly and it built enormous hype for his official releases. After the success of Tha Carter and Tha Carter II, Wayne kicked his tactic into overdrive, not only releasing a near constant stream of new material, but appearing as a guest feature on dozens of popular songs. Anticipation for Tha Carter III reached a fever pitch, and when it finally debuted in 2008, it sold over a million copies in its first week.

Many contemporary emcees have been following this model to great success. But the model Wayne made famous was in the era before YouTube. It’s no longer sufficient to put out song after song. No one understands this better than Macklemore, who vaulted to fame in 2012 after uploading three minutes and fifty-three seconds of video to YouTube. The video for “Thrift Shop” now has over 448 million views.

The hustle is central to the ethos of hip-hop. Many of the most notable emcees in its 30-year history sold drugs before escaping the hood by spitting rhymes (“If I wasn’t in the rap game / I’d probably have a key knee deep in the crack game”). And whether today’s rappers come from a background of street hustling or not, that image of the hustler has become mythic, and rappers have become purveyors of the modern day Horatio Alger myth; the attitudes associated with the hustler (ingenuity and ruthless self-promotion) are in the DNA of the art form, whether you’re looking at gangsta rap or socially conscious indie hip-hop.

The most successful rappers, though, realize that the music is not the product they are selling. It’s not even the music video. They are the product. The South African rap duo Die Antwoord has taken this to the extreme. Their public personas (tattooed, missing teeth, ghetto accents, clearly uneducated, focused on little more than sex and money) are fabrications. In their prior incarnation, MaxNormal.tv, rapper Ninja wore a suit, spoke with a different accent, and acted like a motivational speaker, rapping over PowerPoint slides. But even outside their official music videos (Die Antwoord, too, rose to fame by releasing an album for free and making a popular YouTube video), they appear “in character” during interviews and backstage tour videos. I put “in character” in quotes because they have committed to their characters so hardcore as to become them. They are not simply rappers; they are performance artists who make hip-hop (a claim they would vehemently deny). Their product is not the music, it’s the people they’ve built themselves into around that music. And the product is astonishing, especially as it appears in Harmony Korine’s short film “Umshini Wam” (starring Die Antwoord), which premiered at SXSW in 2011. Look it up.

In independent cinema, there are a few directors who’ve embraced the mixtape model, releasing content quite often. Joe Swanberg, as mentioned earlier, has been releasing nearly two films a year for much of the last decade. He’s been able to do this by keeping his budgets low, making improvisation central to his “scripts,” and collaborating with the same artists over and over. Of course, constant narrative proliferation isn’t all that innovative; one need only look back at the serialization of Dickens’ novels. What we haven’t seen yet, though, is an independent director who combines high volume with the level of self-packaging Die Antwoord has employed in hip-hop.

The conflation of art and publicity via ingenious marketing tactics has happened almost exclusively in Hollywood—because it’s expensive. Guy Pearce appeared in a fictional Ted Talk set in the year 2023 to promote Prometheus. Human-shaped remote control planes flew the skies of New York City to promote the superhero movie Chronicle. After acquiring The Blair Witch Project for $1.1 million, Artisan Entertainment spent $25 million to market it as a documentary, creating a website and posting rumors in online forums.

Joaquin Phoenix flirted with the Die Antwoord model, blurring the line between art and publicity, when he announced on Letterman that he was retiring from acting to take up hip-hop. People thought he’d lost it, until he revealed a year and a half later that he’d been in character to promote I’m Still Here. Sacha Baron Cohen has made a career of appearing publicly as the characters from his films and we find him hilarious—because he’s promoting comedies. Yet Phoenix was renounced as a mad man for appearing in public as a character from a drama. The visceral public reaction to Phoenix’s “performance” shows just how powerful and shocking it can be to break the conventions that separate art from marketing.

Axiom 3: The boundaries of art are artificial; genre distinctions are conveniences that can and should be broken when doing so is artistically (and commercially) profitable. We tend to think of the cover design of a book as a separate art distinct from the writing of the text. But the best covers are seamless extensions of the narrative. The famed cover of the first edition of The Great Gatsby (a woman’s eyes and mouth floating in a blue night sky) was completed before the book and Fitzgerald loved it so much he incorporated it into the novel. It transcended its marketing origins.

So, what can an independent filmmaker do to blur the line between art and marketing, to defy the genre constrictions of film, allowing the art to creep beyond the borders of the reel? Build hype by releasing outtakes and screen tests before the movie. Ask your fan base to participate, to vote on which version of a scene to include in the final cut. Offer a small cash reward for a contest to design a movie poster. (Hiring a designer gets you one person spreading word about your film; a contest gets dozens—or hundreds—of people talking.) Get a PA to blog the on-set drama. Invent on-set drama. At the Q&A after your film release, have the actors answer questions in character. Maybe a character in your film is reading my forthcoming novel (and maybe a character in my novel is watching your film—fictional worlds linked through a conduit of real-world publicity). Don’t make a trailer for your film; make an anti-trailer for your rival’s shitty film. Call out a director and start a beef. Or call up a director and orchestrate a beef.

Plenty of hip-hop artists have gotten rich making music on their own terms, and they’ve done so by pushing their work—and the marketing of that work—to the edge of reason and ingenuity. They’ve ignored the definitions and distinctions that don’t serve their ascendency. No tactic is off limits. Independent film has a long way to go to catch up.

In any art form, a healthy ecosystem involves a class of artists making avant-garde work that pushes boundaries at the expense of not being very commercially viable, as well as a class of artists who learn from the experimental and find a way to make it digestible to as large an audience as possible. The smaller the audience, the closer art is to masturbation. What we have in the current cinematic landscape is a gulf between the independent, experimental work and the hackneyed commercial work. The corpus callosum has been severed. Hollywood has figured out how to be profitable without needing to learn from the avant-garde. And the avant-garde has decided it doesn’t give a shit about reaching a wide audience. What sorts of films can we expect from filmmakers who lack the ambition to make brilliant, edgy work that also manages to appeal to a wide audience? Man up, independent cinema. Set your goals higher. Stop at nothing until the world knows your name and haters fear throwing rocks at the throne.

Art by Marisa Reisel
Andrew Bujalski as A$AP Rocky
Aaron Katz as A$AP Rellie
Lynn Shelton as A$AP Yams
David Lowery as A$AP Ferg
Greta Gerwig as ODB
Joe Swanberg as RZA
Jay Duplass as Ghostface Killah
Mark Duplass as GZA

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