Film: Can He Beat the Rap? Hype Williams's Dazzling Videos for the Likes of Tupac Shakur and Missy Elliott Have Reinvented the Genre. Now He's Made His First Feature

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Pop video is to film as checkers is to chess, as Christian Slater is to Jack Nicholson, and as Chris Moyles is to Howard Stern. When Barry Norman came down from the mountain carrying this particular tablet of stone, Hype (real name Harold) Williams jumped out from behind a burning bush, wrestled Barry to the ground and smashed the tablet into a thousand pieces with a single snap of his clapperboard. Uncharitably described in Armond White's Tupac Shakur biography, Rebel For The Hell Of It, as "the hip-hop video director specialising in Hollywood knock-offs", Williams has actually reversed the traditional subordinate relationship of pop video to film. While Hollywood has become ever more dependent on soundtrack-led marketing strategies, Williams has turned the supposedly debased creative environment of the promotional clip into the launch pad for some of the most startling and audacious cinematography of recent years. From Missy Elliott's giant inflatable suit to Tupac Shakur's Californian revision of Hieronymous Bosch, the images Williams has come up with have been as enduring as anything on the big screen in the same period.

Watching MTV over the last few years (something Williams himself never does, preferring to spend time with his six-month-old daughter, rather than keeping an eye on how every video-maker and their dog is trying to rip him off), the transformation he has effected has been spectacular. A few years back, your standard R'n'B or hip-hop video would feature a small party scene and some low-rent booty shaking with the odd cutaway to the rapper and his mates hanging around in a car park looking shifty. The hackneyed phrase "production values" doesn't really cover it - Williams's videos are sci-fi cornucopias choreographed by the black Busby Berkeley; a Dino De Laurentiis docusoap of the last days of the Roman empire. From mainstream stars such as Mariah Carey, Usher and Brandy to hip-hop crossover mogul Puff Daddy and the edgier talents of Busta Rhymes and The Wu-Tang Clan, Williams' svelte and startling visualisations span a broad musical spectrum, but it's his work in the hip-hop field that has had the most dramatic effect. In almost single-handedly making rap - currently the dominant sector of the American music industry - a visual as well as an audio medium, Williams has paved the way for a potentially seismic shift in US showbusiness. Hype's seven-figure video budgets might embody clout on an unprecedented scale but can Belly, his first venture into full- length movie-making, escape the standard criticism of video directors' feature debuts - that they're just a collection of promo clips stuck together? A stocky, soft-spoken, nappy-headed individual in Rough Ryderz T- shirt and very wide jeans, Williams is not in the best of moods. There was congestion on the roads which delayed his taxi. This hardly rates as an outrage in central London at nine o'clock on a weekday morning, but for someone who is used to stopping traffic as a matter of course, the long-term psychological damage could be considerable. The relationship between the music and film industries is notoriously complex, and transferring a power-base from one to the other is always harder than people expect. For all its stellar cast- list - the leading roles are taken by multi-platinum rappers DMX, Method Man and Nas, and Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins of global R'n'B megastars TLC - Belly is still a relatively low-budget film, enterprisingly released in the UK by a smallish independent company more used to handling French and Canadian arthouse imports. …