Sniffing out the next big thing in OC's hip-hop scene can be a tough proposition, even for the Weekly's most dedicated boom bap bloodhounds. It makes it slightly harder when some of the most talented prospects aren't really even old enough to do bar or club gigs yet–save for the occasional opening slot for a headliner at the Observatory. But even though rappers like Phora, Pecks and Sage One may not be of age just yet (Pecks was just 18 when he shot with Maldonado, Phora was 17), they've managed to crank out some surprisingly worthy music videos with the help of a director who is just as green. Gabriel Maldonado, a music video director out of Huntington Beach, is a sophomore at Orange Coast College. He's a quiet, unassuming guy–though his knack with a camera speaks for itself.
His passion lies in capturing the gritty street tales and everyday humanity of these young artists. Shooting most of his videos guerrilla style in the rougher OC neighborhoods where most of his subjects grew up, Maldonado is a quick study in the music video game and is coming along at a time when there are plenty of talented unknowns looking for a way to market their music to the YouTube masses. We recently tracked down Maldonado to discuss his first video shoots, the key to maintaining quality and creativity on a tight budget.
OC Weekly (Nate Jackson): How did you get into directing videos?
Gabriel Maldonado: My godmother works for ABC as a broadcasting engineer. From a young age, she always used to take me to the theater and I'd watch movies with her and that's pretty much how I spent my weekends. And in high school, I had a lot of friends who skateboarded and had friends do videos for them. I never skated so I didn't have a skateboard to really follow them around on. So I ventured into shooting bands or artists and it was hard to find bands who would trust me to shoot. Then I met a guy who introduced me to Phora before he had become as big as he is today. The first video I ever shot was from him and then it pretty much went on from there.
When did you actually start shooting?
I bought my first camera sophomore year of high school, it was a Nikon D5100. That was the camera I started doing Phora's music videos on ["All Day” was the first video he ever shot]. And once I started getting serious about my music videos I ended up selling it to upgrade. I went without a camera for a year because I wanted to make sure if I save for a camera, I want to make sure it's gonna be something different that's gonna last me a few years.
A lot of your videos are centered around the community vibe of the artists' family and friends. With these videos, does a lot of what you get just depend on who just happens to be there that day when you decide to shoot it?
I try to stay away from green screens and studio stuff. I like stuff that just happens out of nowhere. I like stuff where you can just grab that moment that will never happen again. The big goal for me is to finish my first short film in January. And in all the films I watch I really like that sense of gritty realness, like KIDS or Larry Clark films.
Do you have any big influences when it comes to music video directors?
I'm not sure who direct's Pusha T's videos but those are always amazing as far as the mainstream level. Alex Nazari is a director I really like as well, who's directed Meek Mill and YG's videos. He has that realness to all his videos.
Did you naturally gravitate to filming rap videos or were there other styles that you tried first?
It's always been rap videos for me. I grew up listening to a lot of R&B and stuff but when I got into middle school, hip-hop was it for me.
As a director, what's your approach to dealing with young rappers your age who haven't done a video before?
When the cameras start rolling I just tell them to be themselves and I'm having the same experience with them as they're having with me. The vibe that I give them, makes them feel more comfortable, I'm easy to talk to and I tell them what I want and ask them to give me the best they can do to show me that. Then I also let them just do stuff they want to do, so it looks natural. I don't want it to look like they're acting.
Are you usually just shooting guerilla style or do you actually get permits for your shoots?
I have an idea of what I want before we start but for the most part, we just grab whatever we can. I just really like that style and I think I'm always gonna be like that, even when I get to be on more of a bigger level.
Out of all the videos you've done so far, is their one you're most proud of?
I'd have to say the video for Peck's song "Dirtball,” just because that was the first video were I went all out and tried different things and I went crazy with capturing the depth of field and some cool stuff that was I was iffy about doing because I didn't see it in a lot of music videos. And the video I just dd for him, "Don't Hurt” is getting a lot more hits on YouTube right now, but the "Dirtball” video really made me the happiest.
Any advice to young video directors like yourself?
Keep in mind that it's going to be a bumpy road and there are going to be set backs and if you think you're gonna have none, you're setting yourself up for failure. For all the kids coming out of high school who choose to do this, just keep practicing, practice is everything, you don't need to go to film school. I think college is great and all, but personal experience in the field is a lot more valuable for people who know at least a little bit about film they should go out and do it and don't be afraid to stand out and be yourself and stay humble. You could be working with the next Wu-Tang group or the next Kendrick Lamar.