Tupac

#TBT: Director J. Kevin Swain on Working With Tupac on His Most Iconic Videos

The director tells EBONY what it was like to work with one of the rap industry's biggest legends

by Erickka Sy Savané, April 20, 2017

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Tupac

The late actor/rapper/poet Tupac Shakur is one of those legendary figures that never dies. Every few years there’s a new Tupac siting and just last month a man was arrested in Los Angeles using the name Tupac Amari Shakur, sending fans who believe he’s still alive into a frenzy. Needless to say, the guy was a phony, but people can wish. Now, with Pac’s recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, and ‘All Eyez On Me’- the movie based on his life set to release in a few months- all eyes are once again on Tupac.

Given fans’ insatiable appetite for anything that can give insight into the life of the artist who has sold over 75 million records worldwide, EBONY decided to speak to Grammy and Emmy-nominated director J. Kevin Swain who worked with Tupac on a record six music videos in the year leading to his death. ‘California Love (Remix),’  ‘How Do You Want It?’ ‘To Live And Die In LA,’ ‘I Ain’t Mad At Ya,’ and Tupac’s last recorded performance at the legendary House Of Blues on Sunset, are just a few of their classic collabos.

Here Swain drops the deets on what it was like working with the icon, as well as rarely discussed happenings behind-the-scenes of our favorite Tupac videos.

EBONY: How did your first video with Tupac come about?

Kevin Swain: I was at the House Of Blues at a D’Angelo concert in LA, when I ran into Dr. Dre. I did his first video with Eazy E, “We Want Eazy,” but I had been working in New York for a few years. So he asked me to come by the house the next day because he had something for Tupac. The song was “California Love,” the remix, and being a South Central native I immediately understood the feeling. They wanted something that showed a newly-released-from-jail Tupac having a good time, so we went for a simple backyard boogie and them rolling around the streets of LA in a drop top ‘64. Being a LA native, this video is probably the most special to me. “It’s all good from Diego To The Bay!”

EBONY: What can you tell us about “I Ain’t Mad At Ya,” and the eerie similarities with how he died? Did he seem to know what was ahead?

Swain: The concept for this video was Tupac’s from top to bottom. We had long talks about who we thought would be in heaven. He said the first person should be Redd Foxx and then Marvin Gaye. It’s interesting because of all the videos we shot, Tupac did the most acting in this one. When he and actor Bokeem Woodbine left the club they were in character. As for the aftermath a few months later it was really interesting that he died that way, and in a black BMW that was just like the one in the video. But there was no indication that he knew anything was coming or that it was foreboding in any way. He never said he thought he would die this way. He was most appreciative of this video, and really thanked me for it.

EBONY: What was it like to work with Tupac?

Swain: He was great to work with. What I appreciated most was his professionalism. He knew his task and took care of business every single time.

EBONY: You worked with him on a record six videos that final year of his life, why do you think he trusted you?

Swain: First, it started from my relationship with Dre, NWA and Eazy. He knew I knew LA. In addition to that, I think we understood each other. We had a professional relationship where it was clear that I was there to work, and he was too. We didn’t waste time; we didn’t waste money. Tupac was a professional actor so he understood how many takes we needed to do and he knew that if he called me it would happen without a whole lot of sweat.

Tupac
On the ‘I Ain’t Mad At Ya’ video set. Photo Credit: J. Kevin Swain

EBONY: People talk about how his production output was crazy, can you speak on that?

Swain: Absolutely. He could do a video on Tues. and it could be on air by Friday. “How Do You Want It?” came about when Jimmy Lovine called me saying that Tupac needed a performance video, and it was finished 48 hours later. We had 24 hours prep time, and we shot maybe three hours, which was typical of the amount of time you would have with him. “To Live And Die In LA” was also prepped in 24 hours. He was shooting the movie Gridlock’d during the day and shooting the video at night. We have so much unused footage from that time that I could cut new versions.

EBONY: Will you do new versions?

Swain: I would love to do updated versions of “To Live And Die In L.A”, and “California Love.” The images have changed in LA, but the message stays the same. I’m developing a documentary about my work with Tupac.

EBONY: What is something you think people may not know about him?

Swain: He was kind and generous. He wanted you to be comfortable, well fed, and happy around him. He was very hospitable.

EBONY: Can you tell us about one of his most controversial videos, “Hit ‘Em Up?”

Swain: I don’t like to talk about that one because it brings up all the bad blood that was going on between East Coast and West Coast at the time. He was really angry on that one. In the original version that we shot he had anger in his soul. That video was 100 percent his idea. He knew exactly what he wanted. I was there to say “action” and “cut.”

EBONY: Today, how do you reflect on your time working with Tupac?

Swain: Tupac getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was an honor. I hope there’s a better appreciation for his art now. I’m happy to have been part of his life.


Erickka Sy Savané T is a freelance writer and married mom of two young girls. For more of her work, visit ErickkaSySavane.com or follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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