J. Kevin Swain on Directing Tupac and Kanye and 40 Years of Music TV – Billboard

After greater than 40 years in music tv manufacturing, J. Kevin Swain nonetheless fondly seems to be again on the menial duties that launched his profession. In 1986, for instance, he was engaged on Showtime’s Motown docuseries — the primary documentary of his profession — when he was despatched out to get lunch for Aretha Franklin.

“’All that is is getting lunch and caring for errands,’” Swain says now, considering again to his function on the time, when he was simply joyful being surrounded by music’s best acts. “‘I can do that with a smile.’”

Now, having directed music movies for Tupac Shakur, labored numerous selection present and competition jobs and racked up 14 Soul Prepare Awards over the previous a number of many years, he’s cast a considerable profession as a producer and director in music tv.

There was little question in Swain’s thoughts that he wished to work in each music and tv since he was a toddler. Rising up in a family with all ladies, he by no means had management of the radio, however one night time his older sister took him to see Mad Canine & Englishmen — a live performance footage and documentary movie about Joe Cocker — at a drive-in theater in Inglewood and Swain knew he wished to belong in that house, no matter it seemed like.

He landed his first gig as a manufacturing assistant on The Redd Fox Present within the Eighties, shortly adopted by The Patti Labelle Present, the place he was tasked with doing all of the little issues for stars like Labelle, Luther Vandross, Cyndi Lauper and extra. It didn’t matter how small the duty was: Swain was joyful to be there.

So as to land his subsequent job, he referred to as his professor at UCLA at the least 30 occasions, he recollects, so he may work on the Grammy awards. “My entire focus was to work on the Grammys, as a result of there was a jazz celebration that had Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Williams, Sarah Vaughn, BB King, Stanley Clarksdale,” says Swain. “I spotted persistence is a phenomenal factor, significantly if you wish to do one thing with folks you actually admire.”

Swain had gotten the bug for the intersection of music and movie, particularly when it was stay. He moved onto his first documentary collection referred to as Motown for Showtime the place he labored on specials hosted by Stevie Marvel and Smokey Robinson that celebrated legendary acts like The Temptations, 4 Tops and Marvin Gaye and delivered Franklin her lunch. (The 2 would reunite years later when Swain directed the Queen of Soul in a documentary about Soul Prepare.)

Swain’s massive break arrived when he started working for Robert Townsend on HBO specials and have become an affiliate producer. He shortly garnered the nickname “the 82nd airborne,” because it was his job to repair issues. “That’s after I realized I loved the variability TV house and dealing with Black of us,” says Swain.

His tenacity landed him a job alongside Don Cornelius on the Soul Prepare Awards. In 1994, he fortunately remembers getting to provide the Dying Row Data phase the place Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg enter the stage in a low rider to carry out “Nuthin However a G Thang.”

“Don gave me as a lot rope as I wished to study and develop,” says Swain. “And typically I went too far out and he’d let me know.”

His work on the Soul Prepare Awards landed him connections all through the music business. Swain can recall the direct line from the awards to his intensive work with Tupac. Due to Soul Prepare, somebody gave him free tickets to see D’Angelo on the Home of Blues on Sundown in L.A., the place he bumped into Dr. Dre, who was curious if he nonetheless directed music movies. (Swain had launched his music video directing profession with Eazy-E for “We Need Eazy” after getting a name at 2 a.m. one night time to work with the rapper.)

Dre invited Swain over the subsequent day to start out work on a brand new video for “California Love (Remix)” that includes Tupac. Born and raised in South Central L.A., Swain understood the task of capturing the Golden State. Tupac and I “thrived on getting the work finished,” says Swain. “He was actual clear — ‘That is what we’re doing. That is what I want from you. I received’t have you ever lengthy.’”

Swain — who approaches tasks like a producer first, then a director — says he appreciates artists like Tupac who arrive with a plan. “Artists are busy,” he says. “Loads of occasions there may be mutual respect when artists know you’ve obtained their again.” To this present day, Swain is the director with essentially the most collaborations with Tupac.

Swain went on to work on music movies with Busta Rhymes, Bone Thugs-N-Concord, Outkast and extra. He has additionally been tapped to do direct reveals at festivals together with Coachella, Afropunk, the New Orleans Jazz Competition, Pharrell’s One thing within the Water and Tyler, the Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw. He has even captured Kanye West’s Sunday Service, which Swain thought of greater than a live performance occasion.

“It’s one factor to only shoot what it’s. It’s one other factor to know when the spirit is shifting,” Swain explains. “I advised my crew on the time, ‘This isn’t only a job. This isn’t a live performance. It is a reward and worship expertise.’”

In 2022, Swain stays busy. He lately directed docuseries Biography: Bobby Brown for A&E and Contained in the Black Field; shot footage of Macy Grey within the U.Ok.; directed for the New Version tour; and directed the Essence Fest Prime Time for Hulu. “These are jobs and they’re alternatives,” says Swain. “However they’re extra duties.”


What has modified within the business is: the variety of shops to obtain leisure. I grew up with NBC, ABC, CBS after which cable and now you might have platforms. Because the expertise has modified, it has given me extra alternatives to do what I really like.

If you’re developing: love the moments, cherish the moments.

The very best recommendation I ever obtained was: to maintain God first. It’s a tough enterprise and it’s wrought with ups and downs and twists and turns.

I’ve by no means had an issue with: profession safety. I’ve by no means thought, ‘That is it for me.’ By no means. That’s the great thing about doing a couple of factor. There’ll at all times be documentaries. There’ll at all times be commercials. There’ll at all times be stay music. There’ll at all times be televised leisure.

What’s by no means made sense to me is: concern, as a result of concern of failing is concern of making an attempt. In the event you don’t strive, then you definately fail.

I’m nonetheless studying: that I don’t know all the things.

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