Director X talks Drake, Kardinal Offishall and how far Canadian hip-hop has come

In this Q&A, the director shares his insights on the past 30 years of hip-hop, his role in shaping the culture and fighting for recognition.

The director shares his insights on the past 30 years of hip-hop and his role in shaping the culture

An image of Director X a.k.a. Julien Lutz wearing a black suit, black shirt, silver chain and black-rimmed sunglasses.
Director X is a powerhouse director, known for creating iconic music videos for the likes of Drake, Jay-Z, Rihanna, Rosalia, Kendrick Lamar and more. CBC Music chatted with him about the past 30 years of Canadian hip-hop. (Jeremy Chan/Getty Images; graphic by CBC Music)

Director X, a.k.a. Julien Lutz, has played a major role in shaping Canadian hip-hop over the years. As much as it's a genre of music, hip-hop is also a culture, and style, fashion, dance and visual representation are just as integral to its core as the music. 

Lutz's visual motifs, narrative choices and striking imagery have made him one of the most sought after music video directors in hip-hop and outside of it. His most well-known video remains the James Turrell-inspired multi-coloured visual odyssey he created for Drake's 2016 hit "Hotline Bling," but he's also directed videos for Jay-Z, Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar, Sean Paul, Future, the Black Eyed Peas and more. 

Growing up around Toronto in the 1980s and '90s, he witnessed the nascency of Canadian hip-hop culture. From seeing Maestro Fresh Wes take over the charts when he was in high school to having a first-hand contribution to hip-hop aesthetics with his peers Kardinal Offishall, Jully Black and Choclair in the '90s — he had a front row seat to the fledgling days of Canadian hip-hop. Nowadays, he's become a frequent collaborator of one of the most famous hip-hop artists in the world, Drake, whose level of success was unfathomable when Lutz was starting out. It's a whole new world for the genre's recognition in this country. 

Watch Director X dive into the music videos that inspired him and changed the trajectory of his career  

CBC Music caught up with Director X to talk about his earliest work, how Canadian hip-hop has evolved, Drake's superstardom, curating the music for his new show Robyn Hood and how he feels he has visually shaped the landscape of Canadian hip-hop. Read the interview below.

How would you describe Canadian hip-hop in its early days? 

Hip-hop was trying to find itself. Toronto wasn't on the map. Back then, when you went somewhere and said, "Oh, I'm from Toronto," the reply would be, "Are there Black people in Toronto?" So, a lot of that early hip-hop didn't want to embrace the city. You had a lot of artists that would act like they were from New York. 

We had Maestro [to look to], and he actually said, "I'm from this city." He didn't wave the flag crazy, but he spoke about being from Toronto. And even in some of those lyrics, it was a bit of a defense: "It's who you are, not the way you went/ We all originate from the same descent" is a lyric trying to say just because I didn't end up in America doesn't mean I'm invalid in the culture. I was in high school when Maestro came out and it felt important, it felt big for us to have a good, solid hip-hop record that we generally enjoyed. We loved it and the music video played all the time. And the music video looked good. A lot of time our hip-hop videos didn't look so good. We felt like something was happening here in Canada.

Then my generation came along — Kardinal, Saukrates, Choclair, Jully Black, the Rascalz — we were the first ones to really say, "No, we're from Toronto and we talk this way, this is our slang. This is our city."

Working with Kardi and Choclair on some of their earliest music videos, it's fair to say that you had a hand in shaping that landscape — at least visually. 

The first video that I co-directed was Choclair and Jully Black's "What it Takes." I decided to do the performance on Toronto Island, looking back at the city with the CN Tower in the background, and for Canadian hip-hop you just didn't do that. Like I said, we didn't call attention to the city. A lot of people shot their music videos down in the warehouse district, which is now Liberty Village; they'd go down there because the director wanted it to feel street and rough. 

Watch Director X's first ever music video

So for us to go to the island, dress up in the flyest clothes (we were wearing Nautica outfits) and we're dancing in front of the CN Tower — that was a big deal. There was a generation of kids that saw that. Then, you know, Kardinal dropped "BaKardi Slang." I was in the States directing music videos and came back and we did "Northern Touch," so the visuals started to change. The country started to recognize the whole thing. There was just a lot happening that my generation was the beginning of: some people were crossing the border, "BaKardi Slang," "Ol' Time Killin'" and "Let's Ride" were getting played on BET, things were looking cool. My generation was a big wave in the "we're from Toronto" moment. And now look, it's not even a question. You have to tell kids that this was once a mindset, that waving your Toronto flag was not always something people did.

What do you think your influence has been on Canadian hip-hop culture?

I've shaped the hip-hop landscape across the board. Being from Toronto, I've definitely had a hand in what's happened here, but the visuals that I've made for the culture have had an influence on music videos worldwide. Bringing Sean Paul to Toronto, shooting "Gimme the Light" here and having this blend of American influence, West Indian roots, all wrapped up together in Toronto dance culture, exploded reggae music back into the forefront. My influence on the culture here, even if it's just some kid at home, looking at the TV or watching Much Music, and seeing a video I directed for Usher. And then knowing the guy who made that is from this city. It can happen, it's not an impossible dream. For us growing up in my generation, maybe something could happen in Canada, but getting into the States and doing it, no one had done that. So I was the first one really to be stateside working in the industry for real, working on big records, working with proper major artists. And the whole city, really, the whole country could look at me and say yeah, it can happen.

Being that I'm not an emcee and I don't make music, I was not infringing on anyone's dream. No one looked at me and felt a little pang of, "Man, that should be me." They looked at it and said, "Oh, that's our boy."

Watch the video for "King Kunta" directed by Director X  

You've worked with Saukrates, K-os, Drake, Kardi, Choclair, etc., but you've also worked with some American heavyweights like Jay-Z, Ghostface Killah, Kendrick Lamar, Busta Rhymes and more. Is there anything that you think is singular about Canadian hip-hop?

You can't pull it out of the music, but when you see them, it's in the group around them. They're as multicultural as Canada is. It's a bunch of West Indian kids and then there's a couple African kids, and then there's some Lebanese guy, and then there's some Italian kid, and then there's a Filipino kid. The whole team around them is what the city is, right? Then the music becomes influenced by that. You can hear it in Drake's music, you can hear it in the Weeknd's music; it's varied, it has a long range because the people around them contributing to the music come from such different places. It's a testament to the power of people from different places, living together, not beside each other, but living together, making friends, you know, trading culture. 

What was it like witnessing the genre's rise, from the days where recognition from the Canadian mainstream was hard to come by, to the current moment where a Toronto-born rapper is the face of the genre worldwide? 

It is wild to see Toronto be on the forefront of music. Again, we have Drake, who in the hip-hop world, just tied with Michael Jackson for No. 1s. We have the Weeknd, whose tour in South America is significantly changing the economy of countries [Colombia]. So, two artists from this city that have shaped music, like we basically have Michael Jackson and Prince coming out of this place. It's wild to see. Again I came up in the generation where it was impossible. Your family looked at you like you were throwing your life away, trying to make any kind of moves in the entertainment industry, to now, where it's like, "Hey, could you be as big as Drake?" It's amazing that we're here.

Watch the video for Director X's most popular music video, Drake's "Hotline Bling"

You hand-selected Tia Banks, SLM and Bouff for the soundtrack of your new show Robyn Hood — is that, for you, a way of nurturing the artists of tomorrow? 

The show is a modern retelling of Robin Hood, and in the original the merry men made music and I had to acknowledge that in this modern retelling, so they're a rap group. 

For the three rappers in the group I wanted to pull talent from Canada, so Tia Banks is Robyn, SLM is Much [inspired by the character Much the Miller's Son] and Bouff is Alan A. Dale. A big part of hip-hop is where you're from and I've been repping Toronto for a long time, so pulling from our talent pool to voice these characters in a production that's all Canadian was important.

So this was your first time having such a hands-on role in the music making, from selecting artists to curating the soundtrack. Can you describe how you wanted the music to sound? What was your vision?

My approach to the music for the show was to separate it from your subconscious thoughts of hip-hop, current hip-hop. What happens in a lot of music-driven television is the records [created for the show] are just never really as good as what you hear [in the real world]. 

So, I pulled influences from Brazilian baile funk because I wanted something that felt like hip-hop, but wasn't so close that your brain started going: "This doesn't sound as good as the songs [I listen to]." It doesn't distract you from the show or make you say, "What is this?" It's just a different kind of sound. I thought, "They live in New Nottingham, they live in a fictional town so let me fictionalize the music a bit."

Where do you see the future of Canadian hip-hop as a whole heading?

Where's it all going for Canadian hip-hop? Who knows! The door is wide open now. The barrier to entry is gone. When I was a kid, you had to get signed. There was a system to getting your music on television or on the radio. And there were gatekeepers. Drake and the Weeknd self-released their first mixtapes, just putting them out and the world said, "I love this."  So anything's possible now. I can't even predict it. Let's see where it all goes. I'm excited to see what's next. Can we have another worldwide megastar come out of the city? Maybe. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.