During the eighties, Hip Hop artists were given a platform to provide visual images for their songs with the music video. Some artists used this stage for mini-performances while it became a means to deliver messages for others. The Roots chose the latter with the release of their video, “What They Do” from their highly acclaimed album, Illadelph Halflife.
The song was one of first by The Roots to get substantial airtime on music video networks like MTV and BET. It became an instant classic but what made the video profound was the message that said The Roots didn’t follow suit despite industry standards.
The video, directed by Charles Stone III (Drumline, Paid In Full), was notable for a variety of reasons. In 1996, Hip Hop was reaching a new level of commercial success. And many rappers in the industry were writing songs about money, cars and women while the videos replicated that. So much so, these entities became a profoundly evident stereotype. The premier acts at the time continued with these standard practices while The Roots opted to go another route. Not known for fitting the conventional blueprint, the Philly natives created a clever parody of these constant themes in their video for “What They Do.”
The video opened with an avant-garde introduction that created the sarcastic structure it was built on. As the words, RAP VIDEO MANUAL…ENTER ARTIST’S NAME HERE:” came across the screen, the tone was set for the intelligent satire to begin.
Driving up to the rented Goldstein Estate in an almost broke down BMW, The Roots entered into the infamous money shot scene that consisted of the typical scantily clad females dancing poolside. Following the “automatic record sales” view, the “Big Willisms” frame included drinking champagne (which was really ginger-ale) while random people partied.
As the erudite wit of Stone and The Roots proceeded, each mockery of the ‘standard’ rap video continued. Black Thought and Raaphel Saadiq were seen riding around what looked like Times Square with no actual destination. We then flashed to Thought performing in a club like setting with a band that could barely entertain the token models in the crowd. “Video Look #7” had an abundance of individuals with no tangible reason followed by more arbitrary people running away from something but heading towards nothing. Two hours later, Raaphel and Thought were still cruising while the quintessential “randoms” clouded the screen with “no logos in the shot” shot.”
Continuing with the rap video manual, The Roots showcased everything from the typical celebrity cameos to the beat down shot. The video concluded with The Roots becoming bored with the futility of being commonplace as they yawned waiting for the video to end with the contradictory catch phrase, “KEEP IT REAL.”
The video became an instant favorite but it also caused some controversy. Nas went on Hot 97 calling The Roots hypocrites for making a video of this magnitude and then playing backup for Jay-Z for his MTV Unplugged performance. His stance was that Jay-Z fell into the category that fit the mold The Roots were calling out. Rather this was due to The Roots ruffling feathers with their blatant honesty or Nas going after anyone that supported Hov at time they were beefing remains a mystery. But Black Thought responded by saying the video was a Hip Hop take on a rock video that offered the same ideology. Ultimately, the video sparked many debates and put something on the consciousness of the Hip Hop community.
Even now, the video is still significant due to the not so subtle messages that showcased the mockery of the average rap video. “What They Do” covered all the necessities and on some level may have been a parody that was ahead of its time. It addressed the issue of the mainstream arena creating a formula that brought forth common themes that categorized the culture. The Roots were not necessarily right or wrong but the video was their looking glass into the current state of Hip Hop that had an insightful meaning.