Hype Williams Has the Best Nostalgia Account on Instagram

Julian Kimble

Strong images scream at you, and Busta Rhymes is, among other things, loud. His style and aura command attention—a quality director Hype Williams emphasized in their first collaboration, the rapper’s video for “Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check.” This set photo, which features Rhymes squatting in a room that matches his teal and white outfit, highlights something the video doesn’t quite reveal: his magnetic presence, without motion or sound. Williams’s vision is so vast that even pictures of his work stand out nearly 25 years later.

And no matter the medium, Williams always had the vision. Over the past three decades, the Queens, New York, native graduated from graffiti artist to legendary music video director, photographer, and filmmaker. His perspective, ambitious and audacious, made him one of the most gifted visual artists of his generation. Those qualities, along with the prolific rate at which he built his resume, made him the premier music video director for hip-hop and R&B artists right as the music video grew into a mature art form. Williams took a marketing asset and refashioned it as high art. The bigger the budget, the bigger the idea, whether adapting Busta Rhymes’s animated personality into a live-action cartoon on acid or 1998’s Belly, his lone feature film—a narrative mess, but an undeniable fever-dream visual masterpiece from its opening scene on. Considering how transformative Williams’s portfolio was from the mid-1990s through the early 2000s, it makes sense that the most influential video director of his time’s work would translate exceptionally well to the dominant visual platform of the current moment: Instagram.

Williams’s earliest posts date back to 2015, appearing sporadically thereafter with little intent or purpose. But last fall, he reopened his vault to much delight. Unsurprisingly, it’s a goldmine—the best nostalgia account on the platform, to be specific. There are stray observations—like the lighting in a Watchmen poster reminding him of Belly—along with digitized versions of the Thierry Le Goués photos that appear in the film. But mostly, there are career-defining moments: He rocketed Missy Elliott, in full Mega Man attire, onto a remote planet, crucified Nas and Diddy, and transported Ma$e to Las Vegas, a city of excess, during the peak of Bad Boy’s shiny-suit extravagance. The Instagram reinvigoration is the latest arc in a storied career that gave hip-hop and R&B videos groundbreaking flair as the genres ballooned into what is now pop music, globally. Williams’s account serves as a reminder that he was already thinking a century ahead in 1995.

Nostalgia is a security blanket and a cheat code on Instagram. There are numerous accounts celebrating it because there’s perhaps no easier way to rack up likes than bombarding people with stolen moments from a past they either have fond memories of, or wish they did. Williams’s is exceptional. Not only was he present for so many iconic moments—he created a number of them.

The ‘90s saw music video directors ascend from invisibility into the spotlight. Networks like MTV and BET began adding their names to the lower-left credits graphic, bringing them out of anonymity. Williams, however, didn’t need this to identify his work: You knew he was responsible almost immediately. Slow-motion sequences, wide-framed low and high-angle shots, and the infamous fisheye lens were among his aesthetic trademarks. His work was already a portal into his mind, but the behind-the-scenes photos on his Instagram feed deconstructs his approach, removing the mystique. In addition to the photos, many of which were taken by director of photography Luis Perez, Williams also shares memories about the experiences. The effect is a free masterclass in providing new insight into moments of cultural significance.

An image from the set of Brandy’s vibrant 1995 video for “Sittin’ Up in My Room” captures the singer, then just a teenager a year into her music career. “Back then her mom and dad entrusted me with shooting their superstar baby!” Williams writes. “Really embraced me as a young up and coming visualist!!! Earlier that year, Williams directed the video for Brandy’s “I Wanna Be Down” remix, which, as he points out, pays homage to the monochromatic video he shot for Craig Mack’s “Flava in Ya Ear” remix. Williams notes that Queen Latifah “hated” the look her stylist presented, so she wore his DKNY jacket instead. In a picture of Williams and Mariah Carey from the set of her and Jermaine Dupri’s “Sweetheart” video, he reveals segments were shot at the brand new Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

Beyond the snapshots of his resume, Williams’s Instagram includes BTS photos from his actual life. Pictures from Diddy’s famed Gatsby-esque White Parties in the Hamptons feature Williams, Jay-Z and Damon Dash during friendlier times, and, of course, Diddy himself. These were gatherings of the elite, so there are party photos of Diddy and then-girlfriend Jennifer Lopez posing with Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, and shots of Williams and Kimora Lee in Paris to film Usher’s “Nice & Slow” video in 1997. And there are several candids of Williams and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes in Honduras a year before her death in 2002. Some show Williams photographing Left Eye for a book that was never released, but he says he hopes the world will finally see it before next year.

These shots, and their accompanying details, show Williams wasn’t just a hired gun who artists sought out to make them look cool in 35mm. Williams and his subjects became stars simultaneously, and their collaborations helped strong-arm popular culture as both Rap City and Total Request Live flourished. Williams’s most grandiose videos affirmed hip-hop and R&B’s success as the new millennium approached. Partying with Ferris Bueller and Carrie Bradshaw at events hosted by Diddy or shooting Usher and Lee in Paris were a testament to the music’s growing reach at a pivotal time.

Williams worked with artists he genuinely believed in. Sadly, his Instagram also serves as a memorial to stars who have passed away: In addition to Left Eye, 2Pac, the Notorious B.I.G., and Aaliyah are frozen as symbols of eternal youth and unrealized potential. A shot from the set of “California Love” recalls the time Williams turned 2Pac’s Death Row Records coming out party into dystopian West Coast bacchanal. An image from Biggie’s “One More Chance” remix video shoot includes a story: While Diddy was directing it, he was across town editing Usher’s “Think of You.” Aaliyah, meanwhile, is a constant presence. She’s hiding from the camera, at hotel parties with Williams and fellow cool girl Kidada Jones, and struck by rays of light in his first photoshoot: a project for Interview. The images, and the context, underscore the impact of their work together, even during a very small window of time.

Aaliyah died in a plane crash after filming the Williams-helmed video for “Rock the Boat” in 2001. Williams’s output slowed in the following years, and dramatic shifts across the entertainment industry shrank his once-massive budgets. At the same time, videos became oversaturated with the techniques he pioneered. He experienced a resurgence during the middle of the decade, utilizing a split-screen letterbox method that he eventually abandoned because, as he told MTV in 2006, his approach was imitated so often that it went “beyond being flattering.” There’s a reason his Instagram account looks so familiar: the originals he shares there were widely and frequently copied elsewhere.

Interviews are rare for Williams these days. He’s received a few lifetime achievement awards, but his contributions still feel somehow underappreciated. With no website and 50 tweets in total since 2010, his digital presence was virtually non-existent until he jump-started his Instagram. So much of Williams’s catalog predates the digital era, but his account ensures that it’s preserved somewhere besides YouTube or Tumblr.

Black culture has always been popular culture, but hip-hop wasn’t always embraced in the same manner. Hype Williams helped enact that shift, giving hip-hop and R&B videos style back when they were mere vessels for music. Pyrotechnics were one of his signatures on set—and off of it, he helped an entire culture blow up all over the world. At a time when entire brands are dedicated to chronicling hip-hop culture, Williams’s Instagram is an archive of Black history. And who better than him to keep a record? He literally made it.

Originally Appeared on GQ

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