“Four Letters” Video Shoot

Originally posted: February 18, 2008

The “Four Letters” video shoot was incredibly stressful.  I don’t want to give too much away because I don’t want to ruin the video for anyone, but I will say it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.  I knew I had to do it, though.  The song is so personal, but it deals with something that affects everyone yet no one wants to talk about.  There’s good reason for that, but the world does need more conversation about domestic violence and abusive relationships if we’re going to do anything about it.  Every time I hear the song, my heart is broken all over again because it brings me back to that time when someone I loved was going through horrible things and I felt so helpless.  Performing it is torture — I’ve blacked out on stage because it’s so painful to me.  This weekend, I had to do the song hundreds of times.

On Friday, I had to perform it over and over while walking between Queens and Manhattan.  The director, Benedict Hadley, did a great job with it, but understand that part of doing that job is making sure he gets all the shots he needs.  It was freezing on that bridge.  I had no jacket on.  I had to walk it repeatedly while saying the song.

Then he strapped the camera to the hood of the BMW and had me driving over the bridge into midtown Manhattan.  That camera was big, and was staring me right in the face through the windshield.  I could hardly see the road.  He was slouched in the backseat giving me instructions like, “Make a U-turn here” while terrified pedestrians were trying not to get hit and drivers of other vehicles were honking horns and cursing me out.  While this was happening, he had the song blasting at FULL volume (don’t ask me why he needed it so loud) in the car stereo, with Joanna Hughes, the actress we casted to play the girl, sobbing loudly in the back seat.  Then he had the nerve to tell me, “Don’t lose focus on the song, man — keep your energy up.”  I was thinking, “Motherfucker, I’m trying not to die.”  I was also trying to hold tears back, while Joanna was letting them flow.  Before the shoot, she mentioned the pressure of having to cry on command when the director tells you to.  We had a conversation about her character and she really got into the role.  By the time she had to cry, she had no problem doing it because of the gravity of the song.  She said she usually thinks sad thoughts.  This time, all she had to do was listen to the words.  Benedict was loving it.  “That’s great, guys,” he was saying.  I asked him if it was emotional enough, and he said, “Oh yeah,” in that “Are you kidding me?” tone.  I definitely wasn’t acting, and I’m not even sure how much Joanna was.

It was intense.  After we finished the car scene, Benedict, Joanna, and I just broke into uncontrollable laughter.  There was nothing funny, either.  We were just overwhelmed with emotion, and with the scene finally over, we opted to release it by being manic instead of depressed.

I went home and almost had a nervous breakdown.

My mom was out to dinner with a friend.  I called her and rushed her back.  I’m not going to front.  I needed my mother.  She said she heard how my voice sounded and got scared.  We watched some TV, and I went to sleep.  She asked me if I was going to be able to finish the rest of the shoot, and suggested that I get through it by telling myself it’s just a song.  I said, “I can’t do that.  It isn’t just a song.”

Arriving in Philadelphia, PA for day two

On Saturday morning, I met up with EJ and Timid and we drove to Philadelphia for the second day of shooting.  It was EJ’s first time in Philly, so he immediately bought a cheesesteak.  We met up with Benedict and the crew, and followed them to the location of the next scene.  It was inside a house in the hood.  They were still prepping the set and waiting for the extras to arrive, so they had us waiting at another house across the street that was owned by Erick Sermon’s cousin Andrew.  Analyze met up with us at the house.  We spent most of the day waiting, which is draining in itself.  The area was so bad that Andrew Sermon insisted on escorting us around the corner to KFC to get some food.  I’m used to metal detectors in movie theaters and Analyze is from Flatbush so he’s seen things, but even we couldn’t believe how grimey this was.  There was 6-inch bulletproof glass separating the cashiers from the customers, and the chicken was transferred to you in a VAULT that had a mechanism where you couldn’t open the door on your side until the door on their side was closed.  EJ said, “It’s pretty bad around here, huh?”  Andrew said, “Let me put it like this.  This part of Philly is called Death Row.”

EJ’s first Philly cheesesteak

When Benedict finally let us into the house we’d be shooting in, he once again had the song looping over and over at full volume.  The extras were at the house, and they were telling me, “I really like the song.”  I replied, “Thanks, but I don’t know how many more times I could stomach it.”  Benedict pulled me aside and said after conversing with the crew, they decided it’d be best if I had a few drinks before continuing.  All they had was some nasty cans of Steel Reserve and asked if I needed something stronger.  I said, “Nah, I think I can work with this.”  After a few of those, I was able to get myself through the shoot.  One of the most powerful scenes in the video was being shot upstairs while I was supposed to wait downstairs.  Timid turned to me and said, “Let’s go check this out,” so we started making our way up the steps.  Benedict was at the top of the staircase with the camera and shouted out, “What the HELL?!  You guys totally ruined my shot.”  Timid said, “What?  We’re not even in front of the camera,” and Ben said, “Wide angle lens, bro.”  So we had to go back down without seeing how that shot came out.  I’ll be seeing it for the first time with the rest of y’all.

Pizon waiting patiently on set

What’s going on upstairs?

Eventually I got to do my parts, we wrapped, and the extras left.  Analyze went home.  It was almost 3 AM, and Timid, EJ, and Joanna thought it was a perfectly sane idea to sleep on the chairs we were sitting on in the living room.  I had a call time of 6 AM on Sunday to resume shooting, and I was drunk off malt liquor.  I told them I needed a hotel room.  Benedict said, “Hotels in Philly can be pricey.  What’s the budget?”  I said, “The budget is anything with a bed.  $10,000.  Let’s do this.”  I told them I was getting a hotel room whether they were coming with me or not.  Timid, EJ, and Joanna jumped up with the quickness and followed me out the door.  They wouldn’t let me drive, but they let me punch in the commands on the GPS to find the nearest hotel.  Joanna was telling me, “This is CRAZY.”  I said, “No, expecting me to sleep on a chair in the condition I’m in and get right up and be ready to work again is crazy.”  Timid and I reserved the room at the front desk, then went and opened the back door to sneak EJ and Joanna in.  The alarm went off two hours later, and I thought I was good to go.  That is, until I stumbled to the bathroom and turned the light on.

I crashed.

I’m not sure if that is classified as a hangover or not, since it was only a few hours later.  I think I was still drunk at that time.  Whatever the case, the room started spinning a million miles an hour and I fell down.  Somehow I managed not to throw up, but I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.  I was hoping Ben would still be sleeping and I’d be able to buy myself more time.  Don’t ask me how, but I reached into my pocket, called him, and asked if he was up.  He said, “Of course.  I’m driving to the location right now.  You gonna be there?”  I sighed and said, “……yes.”  There was no way I was driving, so Timid drove me to the scene while EJ and Joanna stayed at the hotel.  The sun wasn’t even up yet, and we were filming this scene outside.  “Change into this, please,” said Ben as he handed me my wardrobe for the day.  “Lose the jacket.”  No sleep, still drunk or hungover, emotionally exhausted, physically defeated, spiritually crushed, in the cold with no coat before sunrise.  “Now rap.”

I don’t know whether it’ll make its way into the video, but I was fully shedding tears this time.  Whatever energy that’s required to suppress them was long gone.  Whether or not it was the director’s intention, by the third day, he unquestionably succeeded in breaking me down.

I’m back in New York now.  All I had the strength to do today was write this and eat some French toast.  I’m glad it’s over, and I can’t wait to see it.  I always said “Four Letters” was a story that needed to be seen, and if there was only one more thing I could do in my career it would be to do a video for that song.  I did it, and I did it the right way.  There was some pressure to release “Homegirls” as my single for Rawkus, but it just wouldn’t be right.  I had to do this.

Although, I must admit:  that video would have been much more fun to shoot.


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