Lil Pump never does interviews. Most of us haven't heard him say more than a few words on Instagram, but he's still managed to create a larger-than-life persona around his music.
A lot of that has to do with his colorful, over-the-top visuals. After walking around a schoolyard with a tiger in the "Gucci Gang" video, Pump pulled up in a Brink's truck for "ESSKEETIT" and rapped inside a money cyclone as wolves looked on from a distance.
Both of these videos were directed by Ben Griffin, founder of Prime Zero Productions. Griffin says Pump came to him with the core ideas for each video himself—things like the tiger, the school, the food fight, and the Brink's truck—and it was his job to run with those concepts and bring them to life. "I took those couple initial ideas he had and expanded on them," Griffin explains. "Like, how can we make this crazy? Okay, he'll pull up in a Brink's truck, but how can we make this over-the-top? What about a money cyclone spinning in the fuckin' air? I hadn't seen that before."
Part of Griffin's task is figuring out how to pull off Pump's wild ideas on a video set. So, did he cheat and create the famous "Gucci Gang" tiger shot using post-production wizardry, like so many people suspect? Nope. "He was really walking in the hallway with the tiger. That was real," Griffin laughs. Pump met with the tiger and its trainers ahead of time—and the tiger liked him—so they were able to do everything without resorting to trickery. "The animal thing is something that comes from Pump's mind," Griffin adds. "For both videos, he said he wanted an animal in it. So we made it happen."
Watch the new video for "ESSKEETIT" below and continue for our full conversation with Griffin.
How did you first get connected with Lil Pump?
I'm friends with the video commissioner over at Warner Bros. Out of the blue one night, he asked if I would be interested in doing the "Gucci Gang" video, and told me we needed to shoot it the next week. The crazy thing was, I had just been overseas in Prague and discovered that song for the first time on iTunes. I was listening to "Gucci Gang" every day, literally. So when he called me, I was like, "Fuck yeah, I want to do that video. That's like my favorite song right now."
He was really walking in the hallway with the tiger. That was real.
Where did the concept for the "Gucci Gang" video come from?
When the label came to me, the idea had already come from Pump. They told me, "Okay, he wants a tiger. And he wants to be in a school. And he wants a food fight." That was the directive I got. I was like, "Okay, that's kinda random, but we can probably make this cool." [Laughs]. So I put together a treatment based off of his ideas.
There was actually a lot more that I added to the video concept, originally, with some visual effects and animation and stuff. Once I got on set with him and his management, we talked over some of the other ideas that were in the treatment—but weren't in his original directive—and ended up scrapping a bunch of them. Then there was some stuff that got added that day, like the shots of him walking on the car and rapping with the colored lights. Literally, we were all just sitting there, and he was like, "Yo, I want to rap on this car." So I set up some colors outside and we did it. We kind of just made stuff happen that day, flying by the seat of our pants a little bit—around that basic structure of the school and the tiger and all that.
There has been a lot of talk about that tiger. How did you guys pull off those shots?
He was really walking in the hallway with the tiger. That was real. I had reached out to animal trainers out here in Los Angeles. They have animals that are trained for filming and all that. We didn't want to do it as a CG shot, so I was like, "Can this guy really walk with a tiger?"
They were like, "If he comes a day before the shoot and practices with the animal—and the animal likes him—you can do the shot. But if the animal gets antsy around him, you'll have to do a composite shot." So he went and did the training, and the animal was fine with him, so on the day of the shoot, that's really him walking down the hall with the tiger. Of course, the trainers were there making sure everything was good, but that was a real shot. It wasn't CG or green screen or anything. It's funny, though, a lot of people have been asking about that, and they don't think it's real. [Laughs]
The "Gucci Gang" video ended up getting its own shot-by-shot parody by SNL. What did you think about that from a director’s standpoint?
Yeah, that was really crazy. I actually knew it was coming out before it happened, because the director of photography for Saturday Night Live had DM'd me on Instagram and asked what lenses we used to shoot the video. They told me they were shooting a parody and wanted to use the same glass. I don't think they actually ended up using the same lenses, because the ones I used were kind of rare and I don't think they had them. But they made an effort to be as close as they could. That was something I never thought would happen. It was a really cool moment.
how can we make this over-the-top? What about a money cyclone spinning in the fuckin' air? I hadn't seen that before.
You guys just put out the “ESSKEETIT” video this week. Where'd that idea came from? What were you guys going for?
He reached out to my producer about the video with a list of initial things he wanted. He was like, "Okay, I want to pull up to the house in a Brink's truck and a Wraith, and I want some snow by the pool." There were a few other things that ended up not making it, but I took those couple initial ideas he had and expanded on them. Like, how can we make this crazy? Okay, he'll pull up in a Brink's truck, but how can we make this over-the-top? What about a money cyclone spinning in the fuckin' air? I hadn't seen that before. I'd seen Brink's trucks in videos, but I hadn't seen a cyclone of money, you know? I was trying to think of ways to differentiate it. I'd never seen snow in the house, so we tried that—just stuff that would make the video fun, upbeat, and match the record. We wanted to do stuff people hadn't seen before.
The video looks like it would be a ton of fun to make. What was that day on set like?
Anyone who makes videos like this—you do it because it's something you love to do. Days like this are really fun. You get to do these really fun things in cool places and just make stuff that's awesome. They're like play sets. It's always great when you have the money and freedom to do that type of stuff. You don't always have that, and with this video we kind of did. The whole day was just fun from top to bottom. It was just one of those days where the vibe was good and everyone was enjoying themselves.
A lot of Lil Pump’s appeal comes from his persona. He’s almost like a cartoon character in some ways, and he’s been really smart about playing that up—going along with the Harvard memes and everything. How did you go about trying capture that in these videos?
Something I really wanted to play up was the colorfulness of him and his music. You can see that in both videos. Everything is just bright and colorful and poppin'. We tried to play up the animated aspects of everything, too. That's sort of where the money cyclone came from, just over-the-top stuff. And things like having the girl's eyes gone with X's on them—really playing up the animated element of his music and everything. That's stuff that I like to do anyway, but it doesn't necessarily fit with everyone's music or persona.
With whatever I do, I just want it to fit the music. I felt like what we did with these last two videos really fit the music. A lot of this comes from Pump, too. If you go back to "Gucci Gang," the whole outline of that was his. I helped bring the flair and the color and the look to it. The same thing happened with this one. We worked together on the ideas and what he wanted to do. He has an idea of what he wants, then it's my job to take that to the next level and put it out in the biggest, flashiest way we can.
You’ve worked with E-40 on a bunch of different videos and now you’ve done two videos in a row with Lil Pump. Is that how you prefer to work (developing ongoing relationships with artists)?
Yeah, that's definitely how I prefer to work. I look at it like this: If someone likes what you do and they like working with you, they'll come back. If they don't come back, it says something about what you're doing. Also, the more you work with people, the better you understand each other, and the more freedom they let you have to do you. The first time you may work with someone, they might be double-checking everything and unsure of you, but once you deliver for them, they'll trust you. I think that's the great thing about working with repeat clients: They allow you to have that freedom to do what you do best, instead of boxing you in.
the animal thing is something that comes from Pump's mind. For both videos, he said he wanted an animal in it. So we made it happen, and I think it was a good decision.
In both videos you’ve done with Pump, you’ve featured animals prominently. I’m assuming those animals aren’t easy work with. Why it worth it? What do you think they bring to the videos?
It is difficult. But of course, me as the director, I'm interacting with the animal trainer—and the animal trainer is really the one working with the animal. But in a way, it does become difficult. Even the trainers can only control the animal so much. You may not get the whole shot you want. You've kind of got to take what you can get. As long as the animal is willing to tolerate it, you're fine, but as soon as they're not willing to, you've got to cut it. In that way, it is difficult, but I think it adds to the video. It's something you don't see often, and again, the animal thing is something that comes from Pump's mind. For both videos, he said he wanted an animal in it. So we made it happen. I think it was a good decision.
Going back a little, can you talk about your background and how you first got started making music videos?
I'm originally from the Bay Area and I started making videos up there around eight years ago. I worked with a lot of independent artists in the Bay, before eventually hooking up with E-40. I've been doing a lot of his videos, ever since 2011 or so. Then I moved down to LA around five years ago and started doing videos down here. I've always kind of run my own production company, so once I came down here, I started representing different directors and producing videos of all genres. That's the short version, anyway.
Why did you want to start a production company, instead of just sticking with your role as a director?
I've always been into artistic things, but I've also been into business, too. I always knew that they were both important—especially in entertainment. A lot of times I've seen artists get screwed over, or they'll stay struggling artists. I never wanted to be that. I always wanted to make sure my business side was as strong as my artistic side and I knew the best way to do that would be to control the business end. I always knew I didn't want to sign with another production company. I wanted to represent not only myself, but also represent other people and be able to facilitate other artists to do what they want to do.
In the beginning, when I was first doing it, it seemed crazy. But I kept at it, and it worked. Part of that is just changing with the times. When I started this, it was during a time when music video budgets were very depressed and small. There were a lot of people who were used to having million dollar budgets, who didn't have it any more and they didn't know what to do. So I figured out ways to do everything digitally, cut costs, and make things work. I did it on a small level first, then it ended up working out on a bigger level.