The history of film dates all the way back to the late 19th Century. One of the first films was an experimental two-second film called the Roundhay Garden Scene, by Louis Le Prince back on October 14th, 1888. Since that monumental breakthrough, the art of filmmaking has captivated imaginative minds to construct countless masterpieces since the technology was introduced, redefined, and perfected.

Back in the 1980’s when MTV was still in its infancy, it gave birth to the ‘music video.’ And from there, it spawned a whole new generation of filmmakers/directors to show their skills to a broader audience.

In this fast-paced world, sometimes keeping up with the new trends can be difficult, but inventing your own trends can be far more rewarding. The life of the independent filmmaker can mirror the life of a starving artist—they’re basically one in the same. Both struggle to get their art seen or heard, but when it does happen, outcome is that of something they probably never dreamed of.

Film directors have always been one of the most unique people in the entertainment industry, their flare for the extraordinary, and endless imagination often reflects in their work, and helps brings projects to life—and Queens-born film director Rik Cordero is no exception to the rule.

Known for his unorthodox cinematic style, the 20-something of Filipino des Your browser does not support inline frames or is currently configured not to display inline frames. cent owns a degree in graphic design and has helped to set his own aforementioned trend by bringing his gritty authentic urban approach to mainstream media. His company, Three/21 Films was the brain child behind music videos, like; ‘Rising Up,’ ‘Birthday Girl,’ ‘Get Busy,’ and ’75 Bars (Black’s Reconstruction),’ all by The Roots. Not to mention ‘Latino’ and ‘Brooklyn Bullsh*t’ by Joell Ortiz, ‘Neva Have 2 Worry’ by Snoop Dogg, and his crown jewel—the ‘Blue Magic’ pre-release trailer for Jay-Z’s American Gangster album.

In a day and age where album sales have reached an all-time low, so have the budgets for videos, but with strategies like ‘guerilla filming,’ he’s been able to capture visions that equal those of the big-funded videos from the late 90’s and early 2000’s without the artists not having to recoup a fortune in the process.

On a 70-plus degree day in midtown New York, Rik sits atop the 13th floor in his office sitting behind a massive desk covered by two flat-screen computer monitors and a JVC Camcorder sitting on the edge. His office is covered in promotional posters for movies that his company has produced thus far. On the windowsill, you can find an imported bottle of vodka written in another language, a bottle of Patron, a bottle of Smirnoff Raspberry Vodka, and a skateboard all for decoration. Wearing a pair of blue jeans, gray and black sneakers, a plaid short-sleeved button down shirt opened up and displaying a fresh white t-shirt, with a massive tattoo of alien character from Alien 2 on his left forearm, the down-to-earth soft-spoken filmmaker talks about his humble beginnings and how the world is his own personal camera lens.

How did you first get into directing? Was it something you went to school for?

As kid, I used to steal my dad’s fifteen-pound VHS Camcorder, and I would shoot horror movies with my friends—just for fun. And eventually I went to college for computer graphics, and from there I started experimenting and shooting indie music videos and short films. I think my first serious attempt at filmmaking/storytelling was a feature film called Mend. It was about directing consumer drug advertising, and that was the most challenging thing at the time for me. It was like; making a feature film with no money—because I was working full time and stuff like that. So after that, everything else was pretty easy. [Laughing]

[Laughs] So when did you get your first big break? Like when did people start noticing your work?

Um, there were a couple of moments for the Hip-Hop community—I think the first one was for Joell Ortiz’s ‘Brooklyn Bullsh*t.’

Oh, you did that video too?

Yeah. That was the first video that really got a lot of attention from the independent side. When we shot that, it was actually two days before Joell’s album was supposed to drop on Koch [Records]. And I spoke to his manger Mike, and I said, “He needs to have some kind of vision or some kind of video to come out for his album to promote it; because there’s nothing.” So his manager was like, “Alright cool, lets shoot it during the weekend” and we did it. And from that, it got a really good response.

Koch got behind it, and eventually it landed on BET’s Rap City a few months later. And the second video that really got people paying a lot of attention was the ‘Blue Magic’ trailer for Jay-Z. It was the first look for his American Gangster album. It was really raw and gritty, and it showed Jay from the street/Reasonable Doubt era, and I think a lot of people connected to it.

How did you get involved with the project? Was it just a case of you reaching out to them?

Kind of—with this game, really a lot of it is based on relationships. And you can’t really [Pauses] I found when you really stop trying to pitch yourself, is when people raise the demand. So for that one, we really didn’t even know that his album was coming out, and that we wanted to do a trailer for it. It was just like; we were there at the right time. And before that, we were just running around the Def Jam offices getting to know people and like the marketing staff. It was cool, and we were in the building when the idea came up, and the marketing and promo departments were like, “Lets shoot something” and we were just on the radar.

So was Jay already familiar with your work prior to you working on his project?

Um, yeah he was because we did a couple of videos for some of the artists on Def Jam. We did something for Hot Dollar, who was signed to Jermaine Dupri, and we did something for Memphis Bleek; and of course he saw that. So when we walked in, the first time I met him he was like, “I see you’re getting your name out there.” And at the time, the only things I really did were for the Internet, and just very small videos; and it was just funny to hear him say that, you know what I mean? So he co-signed the trailer, but the original one had him in it at the end. But he said something like, “Well with this kind of storyline, you wouldn’t want to show the ‘connect’ anyway.” [Laughing] I was like, “Okay, I’ll take it from the expert!” [Laughing] If he jumped in it, he would set a whole lot of careers on fire, you know? And at the time I don’t think he thought the world was ready, because once he jumps in there, its something else. But it’s the truth, and it’s the business, and you just have to pay your dues.

So was that the same process when you directed The Roots’ videos, because you basically did everything song that’s on their album right now. From ‘Birthday Girl’ which didn’t make the album to ‘Get Busy,’ ’75 Bars (Black’s Reconstruction)’ and ‘Rising Up.’ [Laughs]

[Laughing] Yeah it was just being there at the right time. Their manager, Richard Nichols called me up, and he was just like, “Yeah, so do you want to do a Roots video?” [Laughing] And then I was like, “REALLY?!” The funny thing is that I was gearing up to go to LA to shoot Snoop Dogg, because we had gotten that just recently. And then Richard called and said, “Do you want to do a video for The Roots?” It was pretty mind blowing—it was like, “How is this all happening?!”

So ?uestlove saw the video I did for Big Lou from Camden [New Jersey] called ‘Crack Head,’ and he liked it, so that’s what happened. A lot of these big artists; guys who have sold so many records over the years are seeing videos from other artists, like the newer guys that I shoot and they kind of want that. [Laughing] It’s cool because the new guys get exposure, and everyone is checking on the Internet, so that’s good.

Speaking of shooting, your style of shooting is a little non-traditional.


Would you say that’s helped or hurt you so far in your career?

Um, it’s a little bit of both, because as an artist you really don’t want to be put in a box— or even be seen as a novelty. I don’t want people to think I deliberately show gritty videos or low-budget videos just for the ‘novelty,’ because that’s not really it. I always approach a video utilizing as much as my resources as I can, you know? So in that sense, if I want to shoot a Joell Ortiz video, and there’s not a whole lot of money for it, I still want to do it, because I’m inspired by the song.

Has it hurt? I can’t say it’s really hurt, I think if anything I’m helping these artists and a lot of these guys who are signed to the majors an opportunity to shoot. Because a lot of these labels aren’t paying for their 35mm videos, and the videos I make aren’t straight-up ‘network videos’ or straight-up ‘Internet videos’ I just make music videos—and that’s it. I can’t go in there and say, “Okay, I’m gonna make this and design that so it can be played on MTV.” That’s not what we did with The Roots, and for some reason two of the videos hit BET, you know what I mean? And that’s with no edits! Just straight-up, “THIS IS IT!” [Laughs]

That must be a good feeling when they don’t edit anything.

IT’S A GREAT FEELING! Its just like, we made it for the fans, and the fans responded. And that’s what I really care about; I care about what the artists’ best interest is. It’s helping them and the labels are happy because they’re getting quality work from what they’re used to paying from back in the day, which was only about 5-6 years ago. It works out because its just like you’re updating your skills and adapting to the technology.

So what else does Three/21 Films have their hands on besides music videos?

Um, like I said our first major project was a feature film, called Mend, and in between music videos we’ve shot a lot of short films. Our big major project coming out next is another feature film called Inside A Change. And that’s produced by Three/21 Films/Fader Films. It’s about a kid that’s about to go to jail for six months on a minor offense, and before he goes away he wants to throw his mom a birthday party to bring his family together. It’s a very simple story inspired by some true events, and that’s kind of what interests me, and what I’m drawn to. I’m drawn to real human stories, I don’t want to do just ‘urban stories,’ and this one is really a universal message. It’s about family, and coming of age, and that’s really what I’m interested in.

Is there a story behind the name Three/21?

[Laughing] Um, it’s my birthday… [Laughing] That’s about it—yeah it’s very vain! [Laughing]

[Laughing] It’s all-good, part of my email address has some of my birthday in it too!

[Laughing] Yeah! Exactly!

[Laughs] For people like me who don’t really understand the meaning of ‘guerilla filming,’ what exactly is it? Is it sort of like ‘guerilla marketing’?

Um, kind of but now the lines are getting blurred between what’s ‘gorilla,’ and what’s ‘mainstream.’ But initial dissatisfaction with the industry or the filmmaking industry is the stranglehold that 35mm-based systems took in the Hip-Hop community. So I think that’s why a lot of the attitudes and a lot of the production methods were stagnate for such a long time, because everyone wanted to make the same video. “This is what it should look like.” And that kind of preciseness that you want to reach, doesn’t really work for artists or creative people.

You want to do something outside of the box, but if you’re constantly being afraid that it won’t get played then you’ll change your ideals and sacrifice or compromise certain things. So when we started utilizing ‘guerilla tactics’ in our earlier videos, it was because we had the Internet, we had the bloggers, and we had you guys really giving us a voice. It wasn’t that these videos would just disappear into nowhere, because people would want to see them, and everyone would start posting it. So it worked because there’s an outlet and a viewer ship for videos to get seen and they’re on 24/7. They won’t just get played in one time slot, and disappear forever…

Which usually happens…

Yeah exactly. They’re there, and so it was just about being consistent by delivering product-after-product. As long as there is good music and artists’ care about their craft, we support that.

Have you dealt with any types of headaches when it comes to guerilla filming?


[Laughs] What are some of the things you’ve gone through?

[Laughing] There’s so many! You really have to be built for this kind of thing. You have to be able to multi-task on a level that’s unbelievable. Filmmaking to me—and I’ve dabbled in a lot of the arts; kind of like a ‘Jack Of All Trades’ and ‘Master Of None’ kind of thing. I have such a respect for every kind of craft, whether it’s music, production, or MC’ing; there’s just a deep respect that I have for that. And filmmaking, I was just drawn to it because it had a little bit of everything. It was the music, it was the production, the lighting and photography, acting, and working with actors—just the psychology of it all.

Having done all that in the past, and being a DJ really made me a big fan of Hip-Hop. It kind of gave me the tools to really get through some difficult shoots. No matter how much you plan, or write-out a shot list or write a storyboard, once you’re on set—anything goes.

There’s no rules; it just how honest can you be. And how much can you and the artist come together and deliver something that the people will really feel in a small amount of time—a few hours at most. Especially in this game right now, you gotta shoot in the day, you know what I mean? [Laughs] So it’s all about: “How much can you do?” And we push the envelope, and we do things like not using a lot of light as a typical shoot would. But what do we gain from that? We gain something in the performance, and something in the shot, you know? We might have a little more time to work with the actor or the artist, and that’s the importance of it. Because in the end, the story and the performance is what’s going to sell, you know?

And people will forgive technical mistakes, unless you’re a technician. Then it’s like, “What the hell is up with that lighting?!” You know what I mean? [Laughs] But sometimes you have to look at the big picture and what the objective was. So it works out and being a music video director with only a handful of network videos really says something. It’s all about being really driven, and having due-diligence.

How has it been like to work with people like Jay, Snoop, Bleek, Joell, and The Roots? Have you ever been working with them, and you’re like, “Damn!” “I’m standing next to Jay-Z!” [Laughs]

Of course, every single time, it’s nerve racking. It’s like, “What do I say?!” And it’s only when they actually bring something up that you did. For every artist, if you’re among the greats, legends, or those that are really nice with their craft—you have to think about what brought you there. Of course there’s the initial “AWE” and “What am I doing here?” But what is it that brought you there? And I always try to pinpoint that first like, “Okay, that’s what they saw, and that’s what they see in me.”

After that, you kind of just let it flow—my style of direction isn’t to delegate orders or to yell. I’m real soft-spoken, and I was always told to that you have to be an asshole to direct people. No, you don’t. You just have to be honest with who you are, and give everything you can to that artist for that moment. So it’s my job as the director to make that environment the best environment that is can be, so they can be themselves.

Do you have any particular process or methods you go through when you’re doing a project?

Um, I always speak to the artist first before we do anything. I don’t just jump in, and say things like, “Do this, do that, do this, do that!” It’s all about: “Why am I here?” “Why are [you] here?” “Why are [these] people here?” “What’s going on with the song?” And that’s the initial process before shooting. Just to figure out, what are we all doing here? [Laughs] And what are we trying to accomplish. Because it’s really a group effort, you know? I feel really blessed to be surrounded by talented and an unorthodox group of individuals who can make things happen in every format by any means necessary.

Are you and the artist usually on the same page during a shoot? Do you always see his or her vision on how they want to video to come to fruition?

Um, yeah sometimes—not every time. There are some videos that haven’t been finished because the artist didn’t know what they wanted, or felt like what was captured wasn’t what they wanted, and it’s disappointing. To be honest, a lot of those videos are from the newer guys. I feel like I didn’t accomplish what I wanted to accomplish, and they didn’t either. The ones that really hit are the ones where the artist just left us alone to do what we have to do. There’s only a handful…

That actually let you do what you do?

Yeah. Like The Roots let us run wild…

Well they all came out good, especially ‘75 Bars (Black’s Reconstruction)…

Those guys have been around for a long time, and they know what they need in order to have a good video. You have to be inspired by something; you can’t tell someone how to have inspiration. You just have to let the person…

Run wild?

Yeah, you have to let them run wild… [Laughs] It worked the first time, so after that The Roots were like, “OKAY COOL!” [Laughing]

[Laughs] So do you think there’s any reason why we’re starting to see a lot more videos go straight to media outlets like YouTube and what-have-you, as opposed to the usual stops like the TRL’s and the 106 & Park’s?

Because it’s an easy way to get your stuff seen, it’s the Internet. If you have somewhat of a buzz or a name, people will see it. It’s a great thing, I think it’s really given the artist a chance to get their product out to the masses, and for the independents it’s great too. The important thing is to understand the structure of that end as well as the mainstream end. Where do we meet in the middle? And how can we all benefit from it? Basically, yeah we can shoot, and put up a video every single day, but is it worth it? Just cause you can do something…

Doesn’t necessarily mean that you should…

Yeah, exactly! [Laughing] That’s just the name of the game, just being consistent and having a quick turnaround time. And just doing the best that you can with the resources that you have. There are a lot of guys that have been around for a while that are really challenging themselves, and being inventive. And that’s great, because I love to see that stuff. It just makes me want to work harder, and create art—like the whole filmmaking thing, and not just music videos. The kids have been accustomed to the average MTV or BET video for such a long time, that a lot of the critical or negative responses were always about the budget.

As for the filmmaking art itself, it’s probably less than a hundred years old. It came up in a Hollywood system where the accounts were huge, you needed a lot of people, and you needed to spend a lot of money in order to create art. But when you have music and paintings, and that stuff has been around for centuries—cavemen could write on walls and people felt a certain way from looking at it. You don’t question things like that. When you hear a great song, you don’t say things like, “Did he use a $50,000.00 keyboard?” “They must have recorded that in a $1,000,000,000.00 studio because that sounds so good.” You don’t think about that stuff…

You just think like, “Damn that’s hot!” [Laughs]

[Laughs] Right! You just think like, “That’s a hot song!” And the Hip-Hop music video game is just one art form of it. Right now the kids are all concerned about SoundScans and budgets. Like why? If that’s the first concern you have when you’re about to turn something on, then you’ve already lost your openness to try and take something in. I don’t think everyone is going to like every video, and that’s just the way it is, but you have to have an open mind. You have to open your mind and find inspiration if you’re an aspiring artist in everything that you see.

So who inspires you on a directorial level?

Um, there’s a lot. Growing up it was Robert Rodriguez, he did Sin City and he did Grindhouse with [Quentin] Tarantino. He has his own studio in Texas; ‘Troublemaker Studios,’ and he’s a guy that does the shooting, the directing, the edits, and the scores…

He does it all?

He does it all, and it’s just so amazing, and so is his story. He has a book out called Rebel Without A Crew and I remembering reading that, and it was just so inspiring. It was all about being in the right place at the right time, but also developing his skills and challenging himself.

I also like Steven Soderbergh who did Traffic and the Ocean’s Eleven series, just the similar kind of story. He’s really independent, he shoots, operates the camera, and just all of that stuff. I like guys who are really resourceful, like Spike Jonze is another favorite of mine. Everyone was doing a certain kind of music video, and he came with something different at the moment that he could. As for Hip-Hop, Chris Robinson is really a favorite of mine. He has a lot of great narrative elements to his videos…

He did ATL right?

Yeah, he did ATL. These are guys who’ve been in the game for a long time, and it’s a different time now, especially with a different budget level than what people are accustomed to. I think people are more drawn to commercial work than other things, and they have other avenues that they can explore. But I love the music, and I grew up on the music, and that always comes first. I care about it so much, that I can’t abandon these artists that I grew up on and just leave it, you know what I mean? That part of me is so passionate, that I’ll always find a way to deliver something real to it, because I care about it. If I didn’t care, this is not the business I would be in. [Laughing] It’s a struggle, but it’s a lot of fun.

Speaking of the artists, besides people like Jay-Z, Memphis Bleek, The Roots, and Snoop Dogg, you also worked with a lot of up-and-comers/under the radar artists.


Do you work with up-and-comers/under the radar artists by choice or coincidence?

It’s a little of both. I’ll get a really cool record, and write something to it, those are really the best ones. Sometimes we’re commissioned, and it’s a job. But if I’m not crazy about the song, then I have to find something about it. Like, “What is it?” “Is it the song?” “Is it the person?” “Is it the person’s story?” It’s like, “What is it that I can find for these few weeks to create something that feels real.” And not something that just a ‘job’ and that I was forced to contrive. Like something that I was just hired to do, it’s pretty much the same thing.

But as for the newer guys, they’re not seasoned yet, and like I said my style is very nonchalant. [Laughs] So I’ll help you if you need help, but if you got it, then let it roll. Because if I already put a limit on what is going to be in the scene, then it’s just going to be that. It’s all about getting from point-A to point-B. It’s great, I love working with actors and artists.

Speaking of actors and artists, is the transition hard going from a music video director to a film director? Or is it all in the same?

It’s all in the same for me. I think for me just being a fan of music, and because it’s one of the fastest ways to deal with emotion, it’s very easy to get there for the artist and me for a music video. Whatever inspired them to say those lyrics and create that song is the same for me. Because I have to feel that song inside in order to make something. I can’t just hear it. “Do I listen to lyrics, or do I just skim through it?”

[Laughs] Classic Jay-Z line right there…

Yeah you know. I got to listen to it. And that’s really it. The videos that we do are all narrative-based, and we really try to tell a story in most of them. It’s not just putting people in front of a white wall and making them dance around. [Laughs] And those are cool, I love those videos, but it’s far more challenging for me to figure out the psychology of it all. Just working with artists who have no idea on what the process is, and you have no idea if you even respect you or know about your work. [Laughs] But it’s all about getting them to do this one thing…