Posted by Glenn Lazzaro for his series “Adventures in Television”
National Video Center, New York City, 1985.
In the early ’80s when hip hop & rap were first noticed by the mainstream, most of the music videos were dance tracks and for the most part, devoid of political messages. Then Kurtis Blow released the single “America” and all that changed. It was a political rant about everything that was happening during the Reaganomics-Cold War-Anti-Russian era in America. Claude Borenzweig, then working at Polygram Records, was editing & directing internal projects when he got the chance to direct the “America” music video. Claude came up with the idea of a classroom filled with kids where Kurtis would teach them the “real” history of America. David Brownstein and Len Epand produced the shoot for Claude on the main stage at National Video. They shot on videotape using the giant, old-school studio cameras that were usually used to shoot “Sexually Speaking with Doctor Ruth.”
Claude did a rough cut using the classroom footage he directed, and a second cut using stock footage that we would combine in the edit. As usual, we went into the edit room over the weekend so we’d have all the time and equipment we needed. We needed time because we had no edit list, no After Effects, no digital storage, no tracking marks. Just an old Ampex ADO and lots of “crossed fingers” that we’d match the motion between the camera moves and the composited footage. Sometimes it matched. Most times it didn’t.
Needless to say, the special effects seem crude compared to what is possible today. But at the time they were considered state-of-art. We also used the then very popular technique of running the footage thru a black & white monitor to distort it.
Claude hadn’t shot any footage for the Pledge Of Allegiance section of the song, so I was enlisted to lie under the title camera and lip-sync the part. Yes, that’s my ’80s mustache you see inserted into the blackboard starting at 18 seconds in.
Shortly after we finished the video, I worked with Frank Zappa on a week’s worth of programming called “Porn Wars” for the music show “Night Flight.” Zappa would appear at the PMRC Senate hearings in Washington during the day, then come to National Video in New York to tape his segments for “Night Flight.” One night I showed him “America.” He was really excited that the rap world was finally getting political and asked for a VHS copy. I was very proud.
Bonus: Article about Claude and the shoot in Optic Music Magazine