Executive producer at Popp Rok on almost becoming a lawyer, cutting his teeth in the golden days of HSI, and his close relationship with Drake and Director X
Taj Critchlow is a man of many talents. He’s an event producer, a creative marketing consultant, talent manager and lifestyle specialist. But he’s perhaps known best for being a film and television producer, something he practices as partner and executive producer of Toronto production company Popp Rok.
His working life was almost starkly different to that though. He was studying to become a lawyer - and killing it - when his school friend Director X phoned him. X - who’s now the founder of Popp Rok, director of countless big-name music videos, close collaborator of Drake and Taj’s right hand man - was interning for music video legend Hype Williams, and finally got his break as a director. He invited Taj to move to New York City and work with him at HSI Productions - which repped stacks of high-profile music video players at the time - to be his executive assistant.
Fast forward and the pair have worked with an endless list of the biggest names in the business. Diddy, Jay-Z, Ceelo Green, Jamie Foxx, Alicia Keys, Russell Peters, Usher, LeBron James, Tyrese Gibson. They produced Drake’s ‘Hotline Bling’ and, more recently, Popp Rok’s super exciting young director Karena Evans, aged just 22, helmed the Canadian artist’s equally viral ‘God’s Plan’ promo.
We could go on. Instead, we’ll let Taj tell you all himself. LBB’s Addison Capper grabbed him for a chat.
LBB> You moved to New York to first work with Director X as his executive assistant - how did your relationship first come about before that?
Taj> I met X at summer school when I was 17, he was 16. I was the class clown and he was the socially awkward, introverted guy at the back, working on art in math class. So I met him before he was a director. The first piece that he ever showed me was of his neighbourhood friends lynching him and hanging him on a basketball net. It was fucked up! But it was crazy, it was hilarious.
Fast forward and X got an internship at Much Music, which is the Canadian version of MTV. He got that internship by sending in a poetry video. He used to be a slam poet, talking about the black man’s struggle and so on. But the video featured our crew - I used to be a hip hop dancer, that’s how we all came about. We had a group that met out of high school; I was a dancer, X did the graphic design. But from day one me and X always had a partnership, we always stuck together even though we were in a group of five. We always had a synergy of working, of understanding each other and putting things together.
I actually went to university to be a lawyer - I got a BA in criminology and was studying for my LSAT [Law School Admission Test]. While I was in university, X was interning for Hype Williams - he’s the godfather, he’s done music videos for everyone from Missy Elliot to Busta Rhymes, Janet Jackson, the list goes on. While I was learning the criminal justice system, X was doing grunt work for Hype Williams. But then when I graduated school, that’s when X finally popped off and he shot the music video for Redman’s ‘I’ll Bee Dat’.
He called me and said, ‘look dude, I know you’re supposed to go to law school, but you’ve always been a creative guy and wanted to work in the entertainment business… I think it would be a waste’. And he invited me to go and work with him in New York as his executive assistant.
LBB> What did you say?
Taj> Well at first I thought, ‘fuck man this is my best friend’. You know how weird it is to work with your best friend? You’re always told to never cross friendship with business. So I was a little hesitant about that. But what I loved was that I’d be able to be with my friend in New York City, I’d get to learn the business and I’d get to be in a whole new environment. So I took his offer. I was his executive assistant and we both worked at HSI Productions.
It was the Death Star of production companies, the alpha omega. We had Hype Williams, Paul Hunter, Diane Martel, Sam Bayer, Jospeh Kahn, David LaChapelle. It was the who’s who! I was around all of these guys in my early 20s. That’s where I learned how to multitask, how to hustle, but most importantly how to run a premium production company on that level. If you think about all of the alumni that came out of HSI - Paul Hunter and Kerstin Emhoff, who run Prettybird now, me and X at Popp Rok. Stavros [Merjos, HSI’s founder] created this amazing platform from where we just sprung out. It was such a well-greased machine and these guys were no fucking joke.
LBB> What did your family say when you told them you were dropping out of law school to move to New York and work for a production company?
Taj> My mom wanted to kill me. She was like, ‘what the fuck are you doing?’ I didn’t just graduate in criminology, I made the national Dean’s List, heads were enquiring about me for law schools. I had a lot of things going on for myself. And especially coming from a West Indian family - my mom is from Jamaica. You know how our parents are: ‘Get a real job!’ For our parents it’s about becoming a doctor, becoming a lawyer, becoming a dentist. When I told them I was going to work in New York City in the entertainment business to shoot music videos, she looked at me like I was an idiot. But after 10 or 15 years, she got it.
Just the other day I brought her to the premiere of Superfly, the feature we did with Joel Silver. When she saw my name on the screen as executive producer, she said, ‘oh so that’s why you messed up law school!’
LBB> You guys are back in Toronto now - after working in New York for many years, how do you find running a company like Popp Rok from Toronto? How do you see the local creative scene?
Taj> It’s similar to you guys in the UK. If you build something, they will come. We’re two kids from Toronto, Ontario, Canada, that went to New York City, penetrated this industry and worked with some of the biggest artists in the business, from Nelly, Usher and Diddy to Jay-Z - the list goes on. But let’s be honest, Canada was always an industry that no one cared about unless it was validated by the Americans. I don’t know why, but it’s always been that kind of thing. So I said to X, even though we’ve been blessed to have done and to still be doing all these great things on an international level, it’s important for us to create a platform to cultivate storytellers from Toronto.
LBB> So then, what makes Popp Rok unique?
Taj> I’m a creative first. Even though I’m the day-to-day guy and I can talk numbers, when I’m sitting with my director I can talk creative. And then the blessing of having someone like X as an EP is that he can sit down with a director and talk frame-by-frame and mentor them. Karena Evans, for example, who’s fucking killing it right now, when she started interning for us at our former production company Creative Soul (that’s where we produced Hotline Bling) she was 18. When you get so many blessings, you’ve gotta give back. Karena was one of those blessings.
The reason we decided to mentor Karena was because she showed us a music video that she did for literally next to nothing. It was made for 700 bucks, but when you watch it you can see the craft, you can see the artistry. I was blown away. There’s a lot of talent around but I saw a whole different animal in Karena. She’s only 22 now and she’s handling multimillion-dollar music videos. But this is the reason we created a production company like Popp Rok, because we know there’s such an abundance of talent in our city. Instead of people going to New York City or LA, there is a guy [X] in Toronto who’s had major success on an international level. I always say that there’s more work than there is directors, so it’s our job to train our directors for war. And that’s what X and I do.
Another thing that I love about Popp Rok is that we represent diversity. Let’s be honest, how many black executive producers do you speak to?
LBB> Not very many at all.
Taj> Exactly. Out of Toronto or even the whole country, I might be the only one. The majority of the stuff that we’re putting out deals with culture. All of the biggest brands are cultural brands - adidas, Nike, Apple - but we don’t have a representation in those offices. It’s crazy. But that’s a whole other conversation for another time!
LBB> What do you look for when signing new directors at Popp Rok?
Taj> It’s a combination of things but the bottom line is artistry. I grew up in the golden age of music video directors. I want my MTV generation kid. I grew up on Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, Michael Jackson, David Fincher videos, George Michael’s ‘Freedom’ - music videos were movies. If you look at John Landis’ ‘Thriller’ video, that still stands to this day. It’s timeless. Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Mark Romanek - these guys are the OGs. So when I look for directors today, I want artistry, sophistication with framing and editing style, craft. I want to feel something. I want some kind of emotional connection to the art too. If you think about your favourite music or movies, there’s always an emotional connection. When you’re selling a product or a song, everything has to have an emotional element to it. When you’re storytelling, if you can make me laugh, cry, angry, sad, high, that’s what’s important.
LBB> Do you have a favourite music video?
Taj> If I had to choose one it’d be Thriller. If you watch it now, it still stands. Cinematics, costume design, choreography, makeup, everything. That video is perfect. That’s my all-time great.
But as an honorary mention, ‘This Is America’ [directed by Hiro Murai for Childish Gambino] blew a hole in my head. It’s a true depiction of Trump’s America and that, to me, is the truest, realest, most authentic piece of art out right now.
LBB> You’ve worked with countless big names over the years on big projects - are there any that you’re particularly proud of?
Taj> Of course anything with Drake - he’s hometown talent, we love him and, between X and Karena, we’ve done some of our best work with him. ‘Started From The Bottom’ meant a lot to me because for a long time Toronto wasn’t regarded as a contender in the entertainment business. There was a huge, amazing feeling of solidarity when we shot that for Drake. It felt like we’d arrived on a whole other level.
Another music video we did like that was Ol’ Time Killin’ for Kardinal Offishall. Director X shot it and it was before the Drake and The Weeknd era of now. We’re of Caribbean descent and that video was pretty much a soundbite of who we are as black Canadians and what we represent from a cultural place. Sean Paul’s ‘Gimme The Light’ was another that represented culture. We shot all of those Sean Paul videos - Temperature, Get Busy - in Toronto and I’m proud of that too because it represented my city.
But this is the whole meaning behind Popp Rok. The ‘Popp’ is us understanding pop culture. We are truly popular culture storytellers. The ‘Rok’ is our firm belief and grounded understanding of that culture. And a further extension of that is Popp Rok as the new pop art - we’re an extension of artists like Warhol, we’re creating work that disrupts.
When we did ‘Hotline Bling’, that didn’t only disrupt music videos, it disrupted culture. Everybody was memeing it, editing it - it became a part of pop culture. It’s similar to what happened with Karena’s ‘God’s Plan’ video - there are lots of artists now giving money and things away. In hip hop it’s often about who has the biggest dick in the room or the most money, but Drake went against that and gave it away. He wanted to help and empower people. You’ve got the biggest superstar in the world giving back, and now we’re seeing others giving back. I’m proud of what the video did virally, but more so for being there in Miami and seeing how these people’s lives changed as Drake walked up to them unannounced and gave them a car or money for a scholarship or groceries. There was a person that came out of that grocery store crying, saying they didn’t know how they were going to feed their family, and we changed their life that day. So it’s one thing to impact culture but it’s another to impact lives.
LBB> It’s interesting. It’s important for brands to stand for something like that too, but they have to be careful that they do things for the right reasons, not just for the sake of it. And I think what Drake did came across in the right way and for the right reasons.
Taj> He did it out of heart. It was a genius idea. Mostly all of Drake’s videos are his ideas, we work with him to execute them. But this idea for God’s Plan was revolutionary - I’ve been in this business for 20-25 years and I’ve never seen anything like that or done anything that felt so good. And it came from a real place. It could easily have gone so wrong and come across as contrived and fake. But, especially with everything that’s happening in the world right now, things like this are more important than ever.
LBB> When you’re not shooting, working or prepping, what do you get up to to keep yourself inspired?
Taj> Because I truly love what I do, I watch a lot of movies. I watch other music videos because, outside of the fact that I produce them, I still love the genre. I’m always trying to watch what’s coming out over here, Europe, everywhere.
But then also, playing video games. I need a release too! Sometimes it can get a bit crazy out there so my release is just playing Rainbow Six and offing a lot of motherfuckers online. I don’t watch ball games, I don’t go to the strip club, I go online and I fuck motherfuckers up.
And staying curious, staying hungry. Once I fall out of love with something, I can’t do it. The reason I’ve stayed doing what I do for 25 years is because I truly love storytelling. Spielberg, Fincher, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott… the list goes on, those are the people that keep me in this game. We’re slowly transitioning to film and television too. X is currently shooting a series for Netflix, Karena just finished shooting a presentation pilot for a premium network called Starz. Yes, Popp Rok is known for music videos and commercials but pay attention because we’re going to evolve into feature films and documentaries, branded content, alternative short films.
We’re here to tell stories if they’re 30 seconds or 90 minutes. And we’re ready to fucking roll.
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