Director X Talks Creating Rihanna’s ‘Work’ Video and Putting West Indian Culture on Full Display
“We’re a proud culture and we love people to be a part of it … there’s always a part of us that’s proud to put ourselves on display.”
Rihanna‘s new “Work” video featuring Drake is a transformative piece, fully embodying the chart-topping dancehall track with a captivating spirit as it transports viewers to a late night West Indian party that’ll feel worlds away for many. But for veteran music director Director X (real name Julien Christian Lutz) — who helmed the track’s first of two videos — it’s true to real life in his native Toronto.
Director X’s first collaboration with Rihanna was on the Barbadian singer’s 2005 debut single “Pon de Replay,” a far more polished pop piece that introduced Riri for the first time. Teaming up again — with X’s frequent collaborator Drake onboard, X told Billboardthe biggest difference between the pop star of then and today is, simply, “She’s a woman now.”
From Rihanna’s freestyle dance moves to the iconic location, Director X offers the lowdown on “Work” below.
Who chose the West Indian restaurant The Real Jerk, a Toronto mainstay, for the video? What’s it like there — is it like the Miss Lily’s in New York?
Miss Lily’s would be the perfect comparison. That’s the new location; the Real Jerk used to be much closer to downtown. It had this big two-story building on Broadview and Queens, and the side had that picture of the sun with the sunglasses. The only other building that had that kind of notoriety was Sam the Record Man, it was that kind of place. Everyone knew that place, everyone loved that place. When they lost their lease, the neighborhood got really upset about it; it’s a real piece of classic Toronto. And now, it’s back again. Now, it’s the place where they shot the “Work” video.
We were looking for a place and it was like, OK we going to do a club — are we going turn a place into a club? We wanted to make it feel like a real West Indian thing and one of the obstacles was every West Indian neighborhood, or let’s say population, has a restaurant that is a restaurant but also you can throw a party in it. It’s not a nightclub but if they so wish to, they can throw a party, they’ve got a bar, and that’s what the Real Jerk has — it’s exactly the same situation. So we took that. And it’s got the vibe already, like, that corrugated metal, the artwork, all the stuff that’s up on those walls that you see the kids interacting around, the colored windows — that’s already there. We took what they had done and just expanded upon it.
You directed Rihanna’s “Pon De Replay” — what is the biggest difference in the Rih you work with now versus then?
She’s a woman now. Back then, it was Def Jam and this first kid making a video. She wasn’t part of the system then. I remember shooting that video and shooting the performance shots at the end of the day and it was like, “Oh, OK. This is something. I get it — there’s something here.” And now, she’s a very strong, independent woman [with] impressive growth. You know when you see someone grow up? Like this has been a good transformation, this has been a good piece of growth.
She was 17. It was her first video, so of course, the record label is right in the mix, dealing with things but after a couple hits and 100 million records sold, she’s running her own show now, she doesn’t need help from anybody, she has a team around her that she has built and they make it happen.
The second video for “Work” directed by Tim Erem calls to mind Drake’s “Hotline Bling” video, which you directed. Was that coincidental or intentional?
That was just a coincidence in palate. And, you know, no one gets to own colored lights. That was the look they went for and it’s all good.
You have helmed reggae and dancehall visuals before from the likes of Kardinal Offishall to Mavado. What’s key to conjuring the right island vibes?
I’m a West Indian. I’m from Toronto and you know Drake is. My mother’s from Trinidad. The whole city, there’s really West Indians all over the place. It’s just part of what it means to live and grow up there. That’s why Drake gets it. And then Rihanna herself is West Indian. We’re a proud culture and we love people to be a part of it and we’re also a worldwide culture so there’s always a part of us that’s proud to put ourselves on display.
Were Rihanna’s moves freestyled?
This is just what happens when you get a bunch of West Indians in a room and play a record like “Work,” no one has to tell anything about doing anything. You say “action” and everyone fills in the blanks by themselves — they just go.
What’s your favorite part of the video?
“Work” was a lot of fun. Everyone on set was excited to be there. It was all dancers — everyone just really in the culture. I think my favorite moment on set is you see that moment Rihanna is dancing with that guy in all black? It’s the only time she’s dancing with someone who’s not Drake. He was dancing and she was like, “Oh yeah,” and she walked up to him, which is just West Indian culture. You can be dancing and a girl will come up and have a dance with you and that’s it. It is is a dance — it doesn’t mean anything more than the dance that it is in the moment. So on a level of her being a part of that fun, my dude actually being so good that it got her to step out to him and what it means to the two of them — that it’s just a dance, there are all kinds of levels that I enjoy about it but of all the moments I think that it was it when Riddla earned his dance from Rihanna. And I’ve known these kids since Sean Paul, so that’s not just some guy, I’ve known him for over a decade.