Spotlight: J. Kevin Swain on Directing Tupac, Get Aretha Lunch and 40 Years of Music TV

After more than 40 years in music television production, J. Kevin Swain still looks back fondly on the menial tasks that started his career. In 1986, for example, he worked at Showtime’s Motown documentary – the first documentary of his career – when he was sent out to get lunch Aretha Franklin.

“All this stuff is getting lunch and running errands,” Swain says now, thinking back to his role at the time, when he was just happy to be surrounded by music’s biggest acts. “‘I can do this with a smile’.”

Now has directed music videos for Tupac ShakurWorking countless variety show and festival jobs and winning 14 Soul Train Awards over the past decades, he has carved out a significant career as a producer and director in music television.

There was no doubt in Swain’s mind that he wanted to work in both music and television since he was a child. Growing up in an all-female household, he never had control of the radio, but one night his older sister took him to see Mad dogs and Englishmen — a concert recording and documentary about Joe Cocker — at a drive-in theater in Inglewood, and Swain knew he wanted to belong in that space, no matter what it looked like.

He landed his first gig as a production assistant at Save the Fox Show in the 1980s, quickly followed by The Patti Labelle Showwhere he was tasked with making all the little things for stars like Labels, Luther Vandross, Cyndi Lauper and more. It didn’t matter how small the task was: Swain was happy to be there.

To get his next job, he called his professor at UCLA at least 30 times, he recalls, so he could work on the Grammys. “My whole focus was working at the Grammys, because there was a jazz celebration that had Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Williams, Sarah Vaughn, BB king, Stanley Clarksdale,” says Swain. “I realized that persistence is a beautiful thing, especially if you want to do something with people you really admire.”

Swain had gotten the bug for the intersection of music and film, especially when he was live. He went on to his first documentary series called Motown to Showtime, where he worked on specials hosted by Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson which celebrated legendary acts such as The temptations, Four Peaks and Marvin Gaye and delivered Franklin his lunch. (The two would reunite years later when Swain directed the Queen of Soul in a documentary about Soul Train.)

Swain’s big break came when he began working for Robert Townsend on HBO specials and became an associate producer. He quickly earned the nickname “the 82nd Airborne” as it was his job to solve problems. “That’s when I realized I enjoyed the diverse space of television and working with black people,” says Swain.

His tenacity earned him a job on the side Don Cornelius at the Soul Train Awards. In 1994, he fondly recalls producing the Death Row Records segment where Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg enter the stage in a low rider to perform “Nuthin But a G Thang.”

“Don gave me as much rope as I wanted to learn and grow,” says Swain. “And sometimes I went too far and he told me.”

His work on the Soul Train Awards gave him connections throughout the music industry. Swain remembers the direct line from the awards to his extensive work with Tupac. Because of Soul Train, someone gave him free tickets to see D’Angelo at the House of Blues on Sunset in LA, where he ran into Dr. Dre, who was curious if he still directed music videos. (Swain had launched his music video directing career with Eazy-E for “We Want Eazy” after getting a call at 2 a night to work with the rapper.)

Dre invited Swain the next day to begin work on a new video for “California Love (Remix)” featuring Tupac. Born and raised in South Central LA, Swain understood the task of conquering the Golden State. Tupac and I “thrived on getting the job done,” says Swain. “He was really clear — ‘This is what we’re doing.’ This is what I need from you. I don’t want you long.'”

Swain — who approaches projects as a producer first, a director second — says he appreciates artists like Tupac arriving with a plan. “The artists are busy,” he says. “A lot of times there’s mutual respect when artists know you have their back.” To this day, Swain is the director with the most collaborations with Tupac.

Swain continued to work on music videos with Busta rhymes, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Outcast and more. He has also been tapped to do live shows at festivals including Coachella, Afropunk, the New Orleans Jazz Festival, Pharrell‘s Something in the Water and Tyler, the creator‘s Camp Flog Gnaw. He even caught Kanye WesIt is the Sunday service that Swain considered more than a concert event.

“It’s one thing to just shoot what it is. It’s another thing to know when the spirit is moving,” explains Swain. “I told my crew at the time, ‘This is not just a job. This is not a concert. This is a praise and worship experience.’

In 2022, Swain remains busy. He has recently directed docu-series Biography: Bobby Brown to A&E and Inside the black box; shot footage of Macy Gray in Great Britain; directed to New edition tour and instructed Essence Fest Prime Time for Hulu. “These are jobs and they are opportunities,” Swain says. “But they are more of a liability.”

SPOTLIGHT:

What has changed in the industry is: the number of outlets to receive entertainment. I grew up with NBC, ABC, CBS and then cable and now you have platforms. As technology has changed, it has given me more opportunities to do what I love.

When you come up: love moments, cherish moments.

The best advice I ever got was: to keep God first. It’s a tough business, and it’s wrought with ups and downs and twists and turns.

I have never had problems with: career security. I never thought, ‘This is it for me.’ Never. That’s the beauty of doing more than one thing. There will always be documentaries. There will always be advertisements. There will always be live music. There will always be TV entertainment.

What has never made sense to me is: fear because fear of failure is fear of trying. If you don’t try, you fail.

I’m still learning: that I don’t know everything.

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