The mid-to-late 90s ushered in an era of opulence in hip hop. While Sean “Puffy” Combs gets most of the credit for taking hip hop into the “Shiny Suit” era, he was far from the only artist making music and videos that exhibited lifestyle goals more than lifestyle. And just as there was no shortage of artists ballin’ on wax, there was no shortage of artists taking aim at those who perpetrated a fraud. From De La Soul’s “Stakes Is High,” to skits on albums from like Wyclef Jean’s The Carnival, it was open season on faking the funk.
The Roots video for “What They Do” leveled that whole game up. The record and it’s anti-phony (a single from their third album, Illadelph Halflife) message was dope—smooth doesn’t even begin to describe the Raphael Saadiq-assisted record—but that video-assist put The Roots right square in the discussion, hardbody.
The video bills itself as a “Rap Video Manual” that any random rapper could use in order to fake it ‘til you make it. There are shots of models, houses nobody lives in, cars they can’t afford, “Big Willie-isms” which includes lots of champagne and shots of women in bed doing...women in bed things while Black Thought is fully dressed like it’s winter in Philly. There is also the R&B club scene shot. A shot in Times Square. It takes aim at all of the tropes rappers were using at the time in songs and video.
Where the video really earned my respect was that it didn’t let the “real” rappers off the hook either, complete with project rooftop shots, expensive cars in the projects, the infamous scenes of dudes running from...something? My favorite is the “ferocious pitbull shot” of a scared pitbull. I especially loved the video shot of just driving in the car going nowhere.
Pretty much any rapper who made a video in the mid-’90s could have taken this video personal, from Nas to Jay to, hell, all of New York. And especially Puffy. But also the Mobb Deeps and again, the “real” rappers. I don’t know how much heat The Roots took from this, or if there were ever any donnybrooks because of it, but they earned my respect, making a video that truly took the mid-to-late 90s, put in a bottle and then threw it at hip-hop.
Interestingly, there’s a version of the video with no sub-titles which might be the biggest troll ever because if you just watch the video without listening to the lyrics, it looks like Just Another 90s Hip Hop Video, until you get to the end where the model doing late 90s twerking catches a butt cramp and everybody looks bored. I love it. Salute.
Never do what they do.