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How I Made It: NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest Winner

It’s a Saturday night. The deadline for NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Contest is Monday. And it’s starting to look like this plan is not going to come together.

Field (R. Field if you insist on anything as formal as a first and last name), is the director of Blackball Universe, a multimedia creative collective in Oakland, California, that happens to be home base for Xavier Dphrepaulezz, aka Fantastic Negrito. It is creative. It is collective. It is, that particular Saturday in January 2015, chaos.

“Some of the band didn’t make it. Then the person filming wasn’t available,” Field said. “We’re, like, scheduling conflicts. The guy that we wanted to shoot it wasn’t available. We’re running short on time. The artist”— this is what Field calls Fantastic Negrito — “had an emergency at home.”

Here’s Field’s edited and condensed account of one very long night of amateur filmmaking that ended in the NPR Tiny Desk Concert Contest-winning entry. It started when everyone was trying to leave.


Field, the director of Blackball Universe, stands in the freight elevator that was home to Fantastic Negrito's Tiny Desk Concert Contest video
R. Field, the director of Blackball Universe, stands in the freight elevator that was home to Fantastic Negrito’s Tiny Desk Concert Contest video

I had to trick them a little bit, to be honest with you.

All the band members were here: We had a bassist, a guitarist and a drummer. I said, “Can we just take some pictures to shoot you guys in the elevator to see how it comes out?” So they all came downstairs into the freight elevator.

We couldn’t fit a keyboard player in the elevator, we couldn’t fit the electrical instruments in there, so we just went straight acoustic. We used a cajone instead of a drum kit.

I brought some lights from downstairs that we use for photo shoots. I brought them up because I wanted some shadows into it; I didn’t want everyone to be brightly lit.

I used the iPad and said, “Let’s just do a take, you know? We’re already here.” Everyone in the band was joking like, “Oh, Field thinks he’s a director now. OK.”

It’s the Tiny Desk that this all goes to. These are the people making the decision about the contest winner. I watched the Tiny Desk concerts. They liked eclectic but they liked raw, scaled down.

I felt very strongly about the visual being raw and dark. If you have an edgy friend and they take you somewhere, maybe you don’t know where you’re going but they always know the cool shit.

I’ve got a real strong cool meter and I’ll put it up against whoever.

So instead of putting a desk there, we had a big metal slab on top of this plastic desk thing to make it a desk. But I know how much energy the artist has, and I wanted to kind of condense that energy, so I pushed the desk to be closer against the elevator so he didn’t have any wiggle room, to kind of bottle it, to contain it, you know?

I know this artist on the street with a guitar. People on dates stop just to listen to him because his music is powerful.

He’s rehearsing, getting warmed up. They decide to do the take.

I’m not a cameraman. I’ve never filmed anything, really. I work more and more on the business, so this felt this was my time to do some of my ideas I wanted to implement. With the time crunch, there was not a committee. This was it.

So I had the lighting going. The drummer, I wanted it to be a little provocative, like, “Who’s this chick, what’s she doing?” But I didn’t want it being a bright light on her, so I set the light so it was a shadow of her. Then the Chilean guitar player, I said, “You lean against the wall, put your leg up like you’re just kicking back.”

For everybody out there who says the video looks sort of awkward and unprofessional because it’s a little jittery, I could’ve used the tripod but I purposely didn’t want to do that because I wanted it to be clunky. The music was raw, the setting was raw, so the look should be raw.

I’m crouched down this whole time. I’m not a croucher, I’m not somebody who does yoga, so I’m struggling a little bit. I get up, and when he’s singing the hook, I know the melody, I know the rhythm. I start coming in closer to him.  When the song gets to the end, when he’s really gonna pour it on, I want people to be drawn to that. That’s why the camera moves closer to him.

Xavier was exhausted vocally from what he had been doing all day, before he recorded that, but he pulled it off because he’s a champ and that’s what champs do. But it didn’t even matter because it was powerful. The piece was powerful. If you look at his eyes at the end of it, that’s a dude that can’t be denied.

We have to cut the video at the end right there with him looking like, “What? This is it.” That’s why we end it there.

I know this sounds like some B.S. but it’s the truth.

After that one, I was like, “Great, we got that.” This is it. Xavier, being the perfectionist, was all, “Let’s do another.” I’m already knowing this is the magic. We don’t need anything else, but he’s a perfectionist.

We did a couple more just to be mindful, but I already knew that was it.

There’s all these little nuances that created this sort of picture. It might not have been the prettiest picture, the glossiest picture, but it was riveting. That’s what we created there at the end, was a piece of art.

 

Sending it off

I knew vocally and songwise that he has the goods. My goal was that they would like it enough to take it as one of the picks of the day, the people at NPR. My fear was that they might get so many submissions that they might overlook ours.

My goal at the outset was to get enough views that we were getting some awareness. Nobody ever heard of us. I’m watching the videos that were submitted, they got a couple of thousand views. I’m like, a couple thousand views? Nobody’s ever heard of us. A couple thousand views would be huge in our book.

I let my emotions get so carried away that I was betting, I was actually betting that we would win. I felt so confident in what I was looking at. I bet $100. If you’d asked me twice, I probably wouldn’t bet like that.

When we did win, it was very, very, very satisfying. That’s all I can say. I’ve never won anything. I’ve never contended for anything. This was a very, very special thing for all of us.

I won the $100, yeah. I put it back into the collective. That’s what I do. I believe in things, and I invest in things I believe in.

Winning

It was validation. It was validation for all those times where we’re playing on the street, or at venues where there are 30 people but they love us to death. … It just felt like when you open a can of soda and the gas comes out, that’s how I felt.

It definitely was the appreciation factor that somebody like NPR, who I consider to be real tastemakers, not in it for the commercial viability but for the aesthetic they believe in. I love Bob Boilen. He’s the man.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this artist would do his thing, but without NPR it would’ve taken aeons longer. NPR’s our godfather. We owe them a lot of gratitude, and it’s not like we’re in business with someone we didn’t already love and respect.

I think we’re getting it because of what we believed in and worked on, our world got better. And we’re able to add light to what other people are doing.

• R. Field is director of Blackball Universe, a collective, and Handle All Business Negrito.