Music Video Director Parris Mayhew ("Slam," "Black No. 1")

by Greg Prato

After inadvertently making the first slam-dancing video for his band Cro-Mags, Parris Mayhew got the call to direct "Slam" by Onyx and videos for Anthrax, Run-DMC, Type O Negative and many others.

Sometimes, things that shape our life paths happen totally by accident. Case in point: Parris Mayhew.

As the original guitarist and co-founding member of the hardcore-metal trailblazers Cro-Mags, Mayhew co-wrote the group's classic 1986 debut album, The Age Of Quarrel. And as he explains below, it was assembling the life-on-the-road video for the track "We Gotta Know" that started his career as a music video director, which would eventually lead to working with the likes of Anthrax, Run-DMC, Onyx, Biohazard, and Type O Negative throughout the '90s.

Nowadays, Mayhew primarily works on TV and film sets, including serving as the A-camera operator on Isle Of The Dead, plus Evil, Blue Bloods, The Americans, Mozart In The Jungle, and The Good Fight, among other titles. But recently, he has started directing music videos again, including striking visuals for his recently launched all-instrumental project, Aggros.

When Mayhew spoke with Songfacts, he was up for discussing his best-known clips, as well as his most recent work.
Cro-Mags – "We Gotta Know"

My dad had bought me an old Bolex film camera, like the military thing, the ones that they take out on the battlefields. It could get dropped and picked up, and it would still work. He bought it at a police auction and gave it to me as a gift. I brought it on tour with me, and I just started shooting everything that I saw.

Being on tour was an extraordinary experience and I just wanted to document it the way people do it now with their iPhones. So I shot as much film as I could afford, because a rule of thumb back then, a 100-foot roll, which this camera held, was like 100 bucks. And then another 100 bucks to develop it.

I shot everything that I thought was interesting, and fortunately, I was in an interesting band. At some point in the middle of my tour, I ran into my brother, who was doing television production in Nashville, but on a small scale. He had access to a very simple cuts-only video editing facility. He said to me, "What are you going to do with this footage? Let's make a music video right now!"

We went in, and we didn't have the money for a proper film-to-tape transfer, so he projected the film on the wall and we videotaped it off the wall with a camcorder. And then we used that video to edit – we edited the whole thing that way in basically two days. I took that VHS of it, which looked real low-budget, and edited it to the way people know the video now.

Mayhew with Rob ThomasMayhew with Rob Thomas
I took it to the record label, and basically said, "Hey. If I wanted to make a music video, what would I do?" And they gave me the whole record company speech talking about budget and blah blah blah. I said, "Yeah, OK. What if a band wanted to do their own video?" Well, then it becomes more complicated, because there's money involved. And I'm like, "What if I already made one?" I took it out of my pocket and handed it to him!

He was headed out the door to go to some music conference in Paris, France, so he took the tape and left. He came back about a week later and tells me this story about how in this music convention, they have booths and tables to represent all the labels. They had a TV and a VCR there, and he said he grabbed the tape and threw it in to watch it himself, and it drew a crowd.

He said that crowd stayed in front of that monitor all weekend, the entire length of the convention, because people had never seen slam-dancing. They'd never seen a behind-the-scenes music video, you know, in the tour bus, backstage. That wasn't the thing at the time. It got on regular rotation on MTV Europe and South America, and it got onto 120 Minutes here, and then Headbangers Ball.

When an artist appeared on Headbangers Ball, they were given one video to play that they could choose, and Anthrax played "We Gotta Know." And I think Wendy O. Williams did it too, and like four or five other people. It became part of the rotation on Headbangers Ball, which is tremendous. And that basically put me on the map as a director, even though I didn't realize it.


Anthrax - "Belly Of The Beast"

The next thing you know, Scott Ian from Anthrax calls me up, and he's like, "Hey, can you make a video just like that for us?" And I said, "Sure!" He said, "OK. We're about to go on tour. I'm going to send you the itinerary and you pick eight days that you want to come where you think it would be good places to shoot." And he sends me a European itinerary, which was fantastic. I said, "OK. We'll land in Milan, and we'll leave in Berlin" – or something like that.

I only remember that we landed in Milan because when we landed in the airport, there were all these soldiers in the airport – something that I wasn't used to seeing – with machine guns. And when we got off the plane with all this camera equipment, it was all stacked up in this big pile. These soldiers came up with these machine guns and were like, "Where are your carnets?" It was like, "Carnet? I don't know what a carnet is."1

In the middle of explaining to me what a "carnet" was, his eyes spotted that we had lanyards attached to the handles of all the cases that said "ANTHRAX." He was like, "Anthrax?! You're with Anthrax?!" I'm like, "Yeah. We're doing a video for Anthrax." And then he started yelling stuff in Italian, and all the soldiers came running up and picked up all the cases and carried them out to the sidewalk for us, loaded them in the van, and sent us on our way.

We shot the "Belly Of The Beast" video for Anthrax over eight days in front of the Berlin Wall, the Colosseum in Rome. It was a great experience.

Anthrax played a big role in facilitating my career as a filmmaker because they were the first ones that gave me a shot. They could have gotten anybody to do the video and they asked me, personally. It was a great experience. They were great to work for, awesome people.

Then, after they got the edit of the video that they really liked, they said, "Have you ever done a concert film?" And of course, I'd never done anything. But he said, "We're about to do this big show at Irvine Meadows. We want to do a big, eight-camera shoot." And I said, "Absolutely I can do it." So that was my first big project [1991's Live Noize].

It was odd, because there was a bunch of slam-dancing in it, and there was slam-dancing in the Cro-Mags video, and then after we finished this concert film, I was now officially a director. But even when you think you've made your bones in a professional way, the reasons why you get your jobs are oftentimes unusual, and my next job was to do Onyx: "Slam."


Onyx - "Slam"

I got the job primarily because there was slam-dancing in my videos! And in their wisdom, sitting at the record company, they didn't think, "We need a great cinematographer or director." They needed somebody who understood slam-dancing! But I had already proven myself a little bit making those other videos.

So, I got called in to do "Slam," and I had this meeting with Lyor Cohen up at Def Jam, and he gave me this crazy song and asked me to write a treatment – and I did. They loved the treatment, we shot the video, and it became the longest-running #1 on MTV ever. It was #1 on Yo! MTV Raps for about six months before it went to MTV's Most Wanted, where it was #1 there I think another five months or something ridiculous like that. It was the song of the year. And that launched my career as a hip-hop music video director.

How exactly did Parris become a director?

"It was necessity. It's like so many of the things that I do artistically. I'm looking at my computer now, and I have my Aggros album cover and CD jacket all laid out on my computer screen in Adobe Illustrator, which I did not know how to use until I started working on my album cover. Because I just kept having to deal with the idea of having to call the artist and saying, "I need you to move this over a fraction of an inch," like, 36 times a day. It wasn't practical for me. I'm a very hands-on person, so I just watched a bunch of tutorials, immersed myself in it, and I did my album covers and CD jacket. The same kind of thing happened with the music video thing."
Run-DMC - "Ooh, Whatcha Gonna Do"

Run-DMC came about because of the Onyx "Slam" video. Onyx was managed by Jam Master Jay of Run-DMC. I got close to Jay when I did two Onyx videos – "Slam" and "Shifty" – so when it came time to do the next Run-DMC video, I was his natural choice. And we did this single, "Ooh, Whatcha Gonna Do" off the Down With The King album.

That was the first time so far that an artist came to me with a concept. They said something like, "We want to strip away all the showbiz – the gold chains and 'It's Tricky.'" They just wanted to shoot a video in the hood, at the park where they grew up, with all their friends. Eating and barbecuing and doing this whole thing.


Biohazard - "Punishment"

I knew the guys from Biohazard because they had formed Biohazard at a Cro-Mags show. They were at a Cro-Mags show, looking at us on stage, turned to each other and said, "We have to start a band like this!"

We approached the first video as we approached going after the Type O Negative video ["Black No. 1"]. We knew this was the band's only chance... or it always appeared that way. We thought, "What can we do to elevate this band to get them more on a launch pad?" But the amount of money they had wasn't enough to get somebody to do the right kind of video to put them in the same league as bands like Metallica.

So me and Drew Stone put our heads together and figured out ways to make these videos. Drew and I forfeited our fees on the Type O Negative video to make it the best it could be. We saw it as an investment in the future: The best work we do will lead to more work.

So, we did that first video for Biohazard, "Punishment," as a two-day shoot with 150 extras. We pulled no stops on doing that video, and it cost $10,000 to make. I look back now and I can't even believe it. I still look at it today, and there's so much fire and it looks great. It looks like Biohazard.

Mayhew in the video for "City Kids" by his band Aggros

Type O Negative - "Black No. 1"

One of the main reasons why I got the video was because of many conversations I had with Pete Steele for years about wanting to project to the world what I saw when I heard Type O Negative. I thought if people could understand them the way I did, that they would be a huge band. That was pretty much the way I approached every music video: I never really had a method. I never said, "Here's my template. I do music videos in a certain way." I would listen to a song and see where it would take me. I'd close my eyes and listen to the song over and over, and any idea I got I would try to put on the screen.

The Type O Negative one was a very easy one for me. I'd just been reading Interview With The Vampire... you must get the Tom Cruise movie out of your head because I didn't have that in my head at the time. I was just reading this very dark, very descriptive encounter that this college kid has interviewing a vampire. It's such a great premise for a story, and the book [by Anne Rice] was amazing.

But in the beginning of the book, he encounters this person who thinks they're a vampire, and he's interviewing him in the back of this dark room, and the only thing that is lighting up the room is this lightbulb over the table. The vampire is sitting recessed very far back in the shadows, and it is only when this vampire leans into the light that there's this primal fear with just the sight of the vampire. I remember that being such a striking image to me, so I pitched that to Pete.

After I delivered the video, Pete called me immediately and left a voicemail, and it was pure gratitude. He said, "I would have made this video funny, out of insecurity. I would have gone out of my way to hide behind the joke and try to make the video stupid. You just showed me as what you see, and I'm so proud of what I see that I can't even tell you." That was the best part of it.


Em - "Say What You Mean"

The thing that was very different about Em is, her mom is her manager. They were spending their own money. So, they call me up and say, "We have this amount of money. It's coming out of our bank account. We want you to make a music video."

When a record label is giving me $100,000 it doesn't really mean that much to me, because it's some corporation. But when an artist and her mom are saying, "We're going to give you this money," it was kind of a daunting thing.

It's a beautiful song, and I starting coming up with these ideas that I had no idea how to shoot. But I wrote the treatment out, sent it to them, and they said, "Do that." And one of the ideas was, she is in bed and it's raining, and all the raindrops are on the glass, and she gets out of bed and walks over to a real close-up, and when she gets close, she looks into all the beads of water on the window, and her reflection is in all the beads of water, singing the chorus back at her. So, she's singing the verse in the close-up, but her reflection is singing the back-up vocals.

Em tells Songfacts:

"I love Parris and the video we did together, we really connected and he's a wonderful person."

"It's somber, it's mysterious, but most of all it's intuitive and it's strength in the renewal of letting your voice be heard for once," she adds. "I will not tolerate half effort. I will not tolerate lies, disrespect, carelessness in my space. Enter with the right energy or leave. That's a theme I carry on into my latest music as well."



Aggros - "Chaos Magic"

I hadn't done a record in quite a long time, and I think I was being maybe a little hesitant about putting something out after all that time. So I thought I would put it in a context that distanced it from myself personally and put it in this story idea. I would make a music video for the song because I wanted to establish the look of a TV show2. So, say I sent somebody my treatment and I'd like to send them a music video to say, "This is the look of the show."

I wanted it to look like my memories of my youth, the way New York City looked to me in my memories. This orange, sodium-vapored, dark city that New York City used to be. I started hunting around for locations that looked like the New York of my youth, and it was really difficult. The city was full of these horrible LED street lights. These exposed bulbs. Every time you looked up, the light was so bright.

I was struggling to find a place, and I was riding my bike across the Williamsburg Bridge, which I had thought about shooting on 100 times, but the bridge is always so packed. But there we were in the middle of the pandemic and the bridge was a ghost town. There was nobody up there after 11:00 at night. Nobody. Zero. So I went up there on my bike, and they started retrofitting the bridge with LEDs, so half the bridge is sodium-vapor lit, half are these LEDs. I was like, "This is the only place that I remember [resembling the NYC of Parris' youth]."

So I enlisted a friend of mine during the pandemic and we go up there to shoot some test stuff, and all of it wound up in the video. I loaded up this cart with three guitars, a camera, lights, sandbags, stands. It's piled like eight-feet high, and me and this guy are pushing this up the bridge – it's like a half a mile up the bridge, uphill! By the time we got up there, we were exhausted. We'd shoot for a couple of hours, and then I'd be so exhausted that we'd roll it back down the hill, put it in the car, and I would start editing that footage.

But I also shot myself in the foot. I had this idea that I wanted a train in every shot, and at that point during the pandemic, the trains were running like once every half an hour. And the train only goes by for about 10 seconds. So I was only getting 10-second shots every half hour – for five hours. I had to go back to the bridge 22 nights! I shot Onyx's "Slam" in two days.

Once I had "Chaos Magic" done, it was no longer this utilitarian endeavor to display the look of the TV show, and I became a recording artist again overnight. I put out this video, and the next day people were treating me like I had been playing music all this time again.

August 17, 2022

For more Parris, visit:
facebook.com/parris.mayhew
instagram.com/the_aggros
youtube.com/theaggros
wildfire-nyc.com

Further Reading:
Director Mark Pellington ("Jeremy," "Best Of You")
Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath
Riki Rachtman Rates The Best Metal Videos of the '90s
Matt Pinfied on the Best Alt-Rock Videos of the '90s

Footnotes:

  • 1] A carnet is a document needed to bring equipment into Italy and to ensure that it's brought back out, not sold there. (back)
  • 2] Which Parris described as "a story about a band to facilitate the use of the music." (back)

More Song Writing

Comments: 1

  • Jean-michel from NycParris is an artist, in the real sense of the word... Whatever medium he chooses to work with, music or video, he uses his sensibility to tell the story that's been going through his head. Aggros is bound to be a great project, both musically and visually, and I hope it can reach an audience way beyond the hardcore scene one...
see more comments

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