by Robyn Kurth
On Ras Kassa’s MySpace page he refers to himself as “Ras Kassa the Guru,” which is a pretty accurate description based on Kassa’s significant contributions to the music video scene in his native Jamaica. Kassa is a self-taught creative director, editor, writer, producer, cinematographer, musician and painter who has distinguished himself in television, commercials and home DVDs. As a director, Kassa first gained international attention when he directed Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley’s reggae track, “Welcome to Jamrock,” a gritty depiction of the streets of Trenchtown, Jamaica that received major airplay on mainstream stations around the world and a number of music video nominations and awards.
Never one to limit himself to one genre of music, Kassa has also directed music video for country music legend Willie Nelson. Currently represented by Karma Kollective in Culver City, CA, Kassa founded Guru Films earlier this year in Kingston, Jamaica as a production company and entire movement within the Jamaican filmmaking industry. MVWire recently spoke with Ras Kassa about how he broke into the music video industry, and how his Jamaican roots influence his directorial style.
MVWire: How did you get your start?
Ras Kassa: I got my start through music, I was in a band and … you know I play roots – rock – reggae with a kind of Rage Against the Machine vibe, so I used to play guitar and sing lead vocals in the band. This guy called Trevor Bailie invited us to come by the studio a few times and we started practicing (studio) engineering. Trevor was one of the first people to make a music video in Jamaica. So people started calling him up to make videos and he was like, “Yo guys, I am going to get back some cameras and get this going.” All right, cool. From there this cat called Kevin Lee was doing his thing and…I just wanted to help him out on set and did almost everything except the make-up. So, I was preparing myself.
I used to work a lot on sets, before I came up front. X is my friend and he taught me a lot. I worked with Francis Lawrence, Paul Hunter, Marcus Rayboy—a lot of cats that are top name. Back in the day they use to come to Jamaica and shoot a lot.
MVW: What’s the scene like in Jamaica?
RK: Shooting videos is a new thing in this country. Our music and our culture is more than a beautiful image. There is no Jamaican that you know that make it big in the US as a recording artist and they not try to bring that Jamaican vibe across. The culture is very important to making videos down here for reggae music anywhere. Gentleman is from Germany and he makes reggae music and is just like every artist in Jamaica. Where it can’t look too glossy they don’t want it to look too plastic…they don’t want it to come across like they are RICH. Of course everybody wants a pretty car and pretty girls but they want to keep it real. That is a big thing to me because I see myself like somebody that preserves a visual culture.
When I started in this game we were two cats that really make videos and it was a different style. Our film school was watching MTV and watching everything on TV: car commercials, comic books, and fashion magazines. Before I got into video I used to work with this still photographer William Richards (Fuji, Snoop Dogg…) he is from Jamaica but based in New York. Composing a shot is something that I really get into. Back in high school I paint and draw…. I take all those examples and put it into motion. My dream was to have a music video on MTV TRL, so I did that. I was the first director that lived in the Caribbean. When we were viewed on TRL that was a big thing for us and the region because we don’t make it to TRL. Plus shooting on film is something that we don’t get to do too much because our music does not make that kind of money, we don’t have the facilities in Jamaica.
MVW: The difference between a major label artist and local video?
RK: When you have a Caribbean artist that is great big they are going to go to X as the director because he got that Sean Paul hit. That was that, it was fresh and cool but that’s not the culture or the root of what dancehall (music) is about. America still has not seen the real roots of dancehall. Let’s say a Sean Paul video his next album he shoot this big dance in Jamaica called Pasa Pasa that go on from 11:00 at night until 10:00 in the morning (with) people dancing in the street, that’s the real deal. When I did that video “Welcome to Jamrock” that was another video that went places, not to TRL but it went places—and that video was like $500,000 Jamaican dollars, which is like $10,000 US dollars.
That actually got me two Willie Nelson videos…that’s crazy. I would love to make a video for Jay-Z or Naz, Kanye or somebody like that but even if I don’t, being in the Caribbean I made two music videos for Willie Nelson—that’s huge. Come on, I am just a Jamaican….I’m on CMT, you know what I mean? The country music set up—that is a whole different vibe.
MVW: They just saw your work and contacted you?
RK: Jamrock was out and Chris Blackwell (who produced Bob Marley, U2, etc.) from back in the day. He was the producer of the Willie Nelson album; they were hanging out and wanted to make a video. Chris suggested making the video in Jamaica and mentioned my name; they saw Jamrock and were impressed. Christy Barber from Top Gun contacted Yamani and said they wanted to make the video with me. We got the track and still did not believe it and I was like, “All right,” so I wrote the treatment and sent it, they loved it. They said, “OK, we are going to send you another track,” I was like, “Yeah, right”…and the sent me ANOTHER Track (laughing).
Actually my original concept for “Welcome to Jamrock” is actually something that I am turning into a feature film right now. I am in the process of writing that and I am not going to say too much, right now. I have a couple of people waiting on that based on the synopsis that they read. I am not trying to make a Rude Boy shoot ‘em up kind of film, people expect that from Jamaica. I want to make it documentary style, which is the style I love, to keep it real.
MVW: What is it like shooting music videos in Jamaica?
RK: (If only) Behind The Music or Access Granted or one of those shows could come to Jamaica and cover us shooting a local artist on a limited budget—say, $10,000—and come and see all the things that we go through, and then when it get up on the screen… You can’t say this guy John Brown who makes big hip-hop R&B videos is much better, it’s that he gets the budget to make those videos on film and he shoots on film every day. We can do it as well…that’s my point with this right now, using music videos as a skateboard to feature films.
MVW: … and your most popular video to date?
RK: “Welcome to Jamrock”… it is like a version of City Of God Jamaican style, raw, real like you never seen it before. Whatever you see right there… that is the real deal. That video created a lot of vibe in Jamaica as well… like the tourist board—they were saying this video should not represent Jamaica and I am saying what are you talking about, this is a political song, this is talking about issues – this is not a song saying come to Jamaica “Feel All Right” and some fucking hotel. This is a song that is saying, “Yo, this is what (Jamaica) is doing with the money, this is what our country is going through and what the people have to endure.” We have to tell it like it is. This song brought back the knowledge into the street. Where we shot that video is in Trenchtown. (When) Bob Marley came to Kingstown, he stayed in Trenchtown and that is where we shot the video.
MVW: Are there any new projects you are working on right now?
RK: I just shot this video “Rise In Love” for Alaine, she is a reggae artist. I just used our surroundings, a flower garden that looks like a jungle and took her out to the pier where the concrete goes all the way to the beach in the ocean and shot day for night in the evening.
MVW: You never have to hire an art director, just shoot outside!
RK: The culture is an outdoor culture, going to dance outdoors (rather) than going to a club so much. Making music videos in… Jamaica, Trindad, Aruba, it’s a whole different level.