Wolf Tracks

Award-winning director Coodie Simmons talks his career, working with Kanye, and Creative Control

Michael Loccisano/Getty Images North America

Michael Loccisano/Getty Images North America

Matthew Bradford, Business Manager

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In the last 13 years, few directors have been as innovative or groundbreaking as Chicago native Coodie Simmons. Simmons got his start as Kanye West’s videographer and directed videos for 3 different singles off West’s debut album, The College Dropout, and has created documentaries for ESPN’s 30 for 30 series and BET. He has also directed or filmed music videos for artists like West, Erykah Badu, John Legend, Mos Def, Christina Aguilera, Pitbull, Rick Ross, Wale, and more.

Simmons’ work has earned him awards including the 2004 Source Award for video of the year for his work directing the video Kanye’s Through the Wire and an NAACP Image Award for directing the BET documentary, Muhammed Ali: The People’s Champ.

In 2007, he launched production company Creative Control with Chike Ozah that directed music videos for songs Jesus Walks by West, Window Seat by Badu, and Old School Love by Lupe Fiasco and Ed Sheeran as well as the 30 for 30 documentary Benji for ESPN.

Simmons recently caught up with Wolf Tracks reporter Matthew Bradford and discussed his career, his work with Chike, and Kanye West.

MB: “What inspired you to create the 30 for 30 documentary Benji for ESPN?”

CS: “It was a story that was dear and close to me because I’m from Chicago. I was in 7th grade when Benji Wilson passed away. He got shot and killed and I just remember how as tragic as it was, it was like a peace that happened in Chicago. It was almost like nobody wanted to touch nobody, everybody wanted to be cool, and you know just touched so many people that after that happened. I could go wherever I wanted to in Chicago, thankfully. So we wanted to create that same feeling of peace when we did the film because I felt like if I can make the thugs cry, then they’ll think twice about when they pull out the gun or even carrying a gun. That’s something that Billy Moore (Wilson’s killer), if he could have just reached out and grabbed that bullet when he fired that gun, wished so bad that he could’ve just did that, or not have the gun because it destroyed lives, even his for the moment. But now Billy Moore is out talking to kids, doing God’s duty, so that’s a great thing.”

MB: “What inspired you to make the BET documentary Muhammed Ali: The People’s Champ?”

CS: “We were actually working on two projects at the time when BET came to us about that Muhammad Ali project. It was like, ‘Man, what can we tell that hasn’t already been told?’ Me and my partner Chike were like, ‘Oh we never told how his life impacted us.’ So that’s how we wanted to tell the story and God just started putting everything in place. I met the first girl we interviewed at this event and next thing I know I asked, ‘Do you know anything about Muhammad Ali?’ She was like ‘Yeah I just read a book on him’ and I was like, ‘Do you want to get interviewed for the documentary?’ She was like ‘Yeah, bet,’ so she was our first interview. During the interview she was like, ‘Can I say something directly to him?’ I’m like sure so now we’re going to have everybody talk directly to him and then when we interviewed Tyreese, he told us the story on how he went to Muhammad’s house and he looked in the room and Muhammad was in the room watching old film of himself. So it just took shape like God put everything together to make the story what it was and the fact that me and Chike were both reading The Alchemist at the time so it was like a story with life lessons so that’s the approach we took and fortunately we won the NAACP Image Award so that was a blessing.”

MB: What made you want to start your company Creative Control with Chike?

CS: “Well I was filming Kanye since he was in Chicago and I realized he was going to be huge. This dude right here is charismatic, loves the camera, super talented, like this man is going to be huge. I should do a new hoop dreams type documentary on him. I’m like I should do one on Kanye to see what he’d do because whatever he wanted to do, he was going to exceed at it and I’ll tell the story. People were like this dude is going to win Grammys one day. So long story short, he won a lot of Grammys. When Kanye moved to New York, I was like I got to get to New York. MTV wanted to do a ‘You Hear It First’ on Kanye. They knew I had all this footage so they brought me in to help produce it with this girl named Yasmine Richard.

After we were putting stuff together she was like, ‘I want to introduce you to a lot of the people here at MTV,’ and she took me down and one of the first people I met was Chike. He was doing on-air design and directing openings for ‘Making the Band.’ We were cool for a long time and then when Kanye had the car accident in L.A. and I went out there and me and him came up with the idea for ‘Through the Wire.’ I said ‘Let’s make our video look like Polaroids.’ So we put documentary footage in the polaroid but then we didn’t really know how to make it happen. So I said let me hit Chike and see if he’s down. I called Chike and I was like ‘Chike we don’t have no money but we have a good idea.’

He jumped right on board and there it is, ‘Through the Wire.’ That was our first video and we won the Best Video Source Award and went onto do the third version of ‘Jesus Walks,’ which was a fluke because the powers that be already blackballed us so that’s why we didn’t do the first two. Kanye didn’t like the first two ‘Jesus Walks’ videos and he spent a lot of money on those videos. We had the idea for the video we did do before we even did ‘Through the Wire,’ before the accident or anything. I tried to get Dave Chappelle play Jesus but he said he didn’t want to do it.

That was the last video Chike and I did for Kanye, but we went on to do a lot. We have one documentary coming out right now called ‘The First to Do It’ and it’s about the first African American in the NBA, Earl Lloyd, which is being put out November 2nd in Regal Theaters. We’re also starting to work on an Ernie Barnes documentary. Ernie Barnes was a painter in Good Times, painted the Sugar Shack Marvin Gaye album cover, became the first black painter to paint for the Olympics in 1984, and is also inducted to the NFL Hall of Fame as a painter.”

MB: “When was the first time you met Kanye?”

CS: “The very first time was actually in a barber shop called Mellow Swing. We would come up there with No I.D. who had a studio and my guy Brandon and Dave who made it a barber shop. When they made it a barber shop Kanye would come up with me and there he came up with H to the Izzo (which sampled Jackson 5 and became a single for Jay-Z’s The Blueprint) before it was H to the Izzo. I was like ‘Who is this!’ because I’m a Michael Jackson fan and I was like ‘Man! Who are you?’ It was a great sample.”

MB: “What work did you do in Asia with Kanye and Kid Cudi?”

CS: “He was doing his regular visit to the factory with Adidas and I was just there documenting his journey.”

MB: “Do you know if he has any new music coming out before the end of the year?”

CS: “I don’t know for certain, but he’s been working. He’s been working.”

Coming Dec 31st! #EVERYBODYWINS #GODisGREAT

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Award-winning director Coodie Simmons talks his career, working with Kanye, and Creative Control