Mr. Boomtown: The DGB Interview

Nahala Johnson III aka Mr. Boomtown was born & raised in Port Arthur, Tx. In high school, he excelled in football and track. He earned a football scholarship to the University of Houston & earned All SWC Team honors. While there he fell in love with filmmaking. He began his career with the Dallas Cowboys production company. He took a leap of faith and left to begin directing music videos. He’s directed for Lil Wayne, Ludacris, Big Boi, Gucci Mane, Rick Ross, and many more. His feature film Candy just premiered on Amazon Prime.

The extremely talented director is known for having a unique style and a natural rapport with artists. His company Boomtown Productions became known for a distinctive style and an ability to manifest the best version of the artist’s vision.

When we got a chance to go over his career with him, he gave us insights into his filmmaking approach and his experiences working with the biggest artists in music history. He also discussed making music with Pimp C in high school, Stephen Jackson, Gucci Mane’s insane work ethic, and more.

When I first became familiar with your work from the Gucci Mane, Bun B, & Rick Ross videos, I noticed a level of creativity I had never seen before. From the camera angles to the backdrops it just had a fresh feel. How would you describe your creative process?

When I came into the game starting off, I can honestly say that I just did a lot of low-budget videos in Dallas. This was before I got anything on BET or any of that. I was emulating some of the looks I saw from the bigger directors of the time like Hype Williams, Lil X, Chris Robinson, and Benny Boom. All the directors I considered to be elite, they were shooting big-budget videos. I was shooting low-budget stuff, but I was trying to make it look like what I saw on BET. With that being said, as a director, you want to create your own style but most directors take something from other directors. The good ones emulate what they see and do it in their own style.

In the Myspace days, I began branding myself, without even realizing that was what I was doing. I had the cartoon intros to the videos, now everybody has that. I pressed up t-shirts in all different colors. I wanted everyone to know my face and my name. I wore those everywhere I went to in Houston and Dallas. Just creating a specific look. I love doing the shaky screens, it’s called the earthquake filter. I see a lot of the new directors using that now. I started doing that in the early 2000s. Another part of my style is the strobing effect between scenes, where it basically just blinks between a multitude of shots. At first, they were all just things I liked. Like the aerials, where I would do the upside-down shots of a city’s skyline. I wasn’t creating my own style but it got to a point that artists were asking me to use these things in their videos. I was just grinding, all this stuff fell into place. I just wanted to be in that elite class of directors. A few years later I was in that circle. I started getting nominations, awards, and the opportunity to work with some of the biggest artists in the history of music.

All this started out with you working for the Dallas Cowboys. What were you doing, making highlight tapes?

When I left college I moved back to Port Author. I got on with one of the local TV stations. I started off as a morning editor, but I already knew that I wanted to do music and movies. I would utilize the equipment they had. I took a camcorder out into Port Author and I was just interviewing cats in the hood. I made a documentary named Short texas from the UGK song. I would shoot and edit the documentary before I went to work. At this time I had to go to work at 4 am. I would get there at 2 or 3 am and go into the edit bays and do my own thing. I utilized what was accessible to me to hone my skills. From there I got hired by the Dallas Cowboys. I filmed the coaches show, Jerry Jones’s show and flew to the games to get sideline footage. I would run into guys I had played against in college. We still had a cool little repertoire and soon they started asking me to make highlight tapes for them. I would create them like music videos. The players would even tell me what song they wanted. I knew the level that I was going to end up at. I just had to hone my skills until I was ready. When I reached that point I left the Cowboys behind and took a leap of faith. A real leap, I had no safety net. I just had to start Boomtown Productions up.

Did you have much interaction with Jerry Jones?

I did. I worked with him every Wednesday and Thursday for the actual local shows. I shot footage at his house. Not every day. It was a huge complex. It had its own network, the Silverstar Network. So we had a whole set, right in the Cowboys facility. Jerry would come in and do his interviews. It was pretty cool. He cut the check but he wasn’t my direct boss. He would come in for his weekly show and just do what he had to do. He was a cool guy, he never big timed anybody. He was always kind to people. Upbeat, he’d laugh and talk with you while shaking your hand. Working for the Cowboys was a great experience.

What was your football career like? Did you have a good experience at the University of Houston?

Most definitely. Coming out of Lincoln High School in Port Arthur I thought I was going to go pro. That I was going to be this big-time linebacker. A lot of schools recruited me and I went to Houston. At that time they were a top 10 program in the nation. Andre Ware had just won the Heisman. David Klingler was our quarterback. They moved me to Defensive End, where I was a little undersized. I still made All-Conference. I also learned how political college sports can be. I realized that it wasn’t meant to be for me to go to the NFL.

At that time I also fell in love with filmmaking. I shot my first student film with all of my teammates. It was a story about a player who went to a school like ours, but he had been a D Boy. He went to school for football and just wanted to do the right thing. His old homeboys kept pulling him back and he actually gets killed at the end. We showed it at the athletic facility and so many people came that we had to do three showings. From then I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker.

Before college, you didn’t just play football. You also made songs with Pimp C. Do you ever regret not staying home and pursuing a rap career?

No. Football was always my first love and my main passion until I got into filmmaking. I grew up playing since the first grade. I played straight through until college. I was born and bred for it.

I did fall in love with the rap game in its heyday too. Early, like 1985. In 8th grade, around our neighborhood, we started this group called the Shoeshine Boyz. Big Mitch was in that group. There was a bunch of us, like a little Wu-Tang Clan. We were in middle school doing our thing. Beatboxing and rapping, battling cats, doing shows, everything. Our parents were behind it. When I went to high school I met Pimp.

By then I’m heavy into football. I made varsity in the 9th grade. I didn’t meet Pimp until I was a junior and he was a freshman. I was in a group named the Hardy Boys then, and he had heard our music. Our parents were behind it, they took us to a recording studio and we actually pressed up our music, which was unheard of at the time. Shit was expensive but we actually put our music on vinyl. I was really into it but in the 9th grade I was getting big and the coaches wanted me to play for the varsity team. Music became a side hustle and football became everything.

When I met Pimp I was already getting recruited heavily at the time. I was getting a lot of letters. At the time the music thing was something to do in my free time. I loved making beats so one of my classmates introduced me to Pimp. His stepdad was the band teacher at our high school. When we met I went to his house and he had all these drum machines and keyboards. I was in heaven. I really liked producing better than rapping. I liked to rap, but I loved to produce. We made a song together and got really cool. I would hang out with him over there on the weekends and listen to a lot of old school records. Pimp got a lot of his style from those records, that soulful UGK feel. His stepfather’s record collection was phenomenal.

Big Mitch talks about his record collection too.

Mitch remembers everything. He really remembers everything. The funny thing about it, I went to the “Big Pimpin” shoot with Pimp. He flew me out to Atlanta, he was staying in Stone Mountain. I got there and he tried to get me a bunch of work, this was while I was trying to get on in the video game. Def Jam called and said that they had to finish the video in Miami. We all drove to Miami and went to the shoot and hung out. I remember in the hotel room Pimp and I kind of got into an argument about when we were young. Every time Pimp and I would talk he would want to talk about growing up. With him, it was always about the music. He’d call me Boomer. He said, “Boomer, you were always into the football shit and we had a group.” I asked him what group we had? I really couldn’t remember. I was so into football and I spent the summers at my sister in San Diego’s house. We asked Mitch and Mitch verified it. Me, Pimp, & Mitch had a group. Mitch told me I just put them on the backburner for football. I didn’t even remember, I thought Pimp was bullshitting. I had to call Mitch after Pimp and I had our conversation. I didn’t even realize that we were a group. I thought we were just making some music and putting tapes out. I wasn’t too serious because football was my number one thing, you know what I’m saying?

I can dig it. Football was probably more realistic at that point. I don’t imagine that there were a lot of record company A & R’s coming to Port Arthur at that time.

Very realistic. At this time the south wasn’t really getting love. This was the late eighties. Rap-A-Lot had just started up. Everything we heard on the radio was coming from New York and L.A. The south wasn’t on yet. My mind was focused on football, but I loved music. I remember in my freshman year of college when UGK popped. They came out with “Tell Me Something Good” and I was amazed. They really did it. I was proud of them. When I saw the NFL wasn’t going to happen for me and what they were doing, I knew that I could make music videos and then become a filmmaker. I always talked to Pimp about it. Even before they gave me a shot I would stay in his ear about shooting a video for UGK when the time came.

In a few of your interviews, I heard you mention that you and Pimp had unfulfilled plans. What were those?

While he was locked up I was trying hard to crack the wall and get into the industry. There were very few directors doing rap videos. You’d see the same ten names or so. It’s not like today where there are a lot of people doing it because of technology. We had to shoot on film and it was expensive. The labels would really have to believe in you since it was a major investment. I would write to him and tell him about my frustrations trying to break into the majors. I was mostly directing local artists in Houston and Dallas. Even the video commissioner at Rap-A-Lot who I was pretty cool with wouldn’t give me a shot. Pimp would tell me to stay strong. He never told me that when he got out he would do a video with me. He did tell me he heard that I was doing my thing. When he got out we hung out together. One day he called me out of the blue and told me that he had a video for me and that the budget was $80,000. Now keep in mind at the time the most I’d ever had for a video was $10,000. He told me he just wanted to be riding in the drop-top in Port Arthur, have a bunch of girls, and act a fool with it. He wanted to do half of it in Houston and half of it in Port Arthur. I got the treatment together and we shot it. It was amazing. It’s a classic video. That was my first video that actually got onto BET & MTV. UGK was really doing their thing. At that time I was grinding. I had a house in Dallas and a townhouse in Houston. I was always on that highway. I was driving to Houston and Pimp was on the phone with me. We were talking about videos and he told me that I was going to be their main director going forward. I told him you just don’t know how long I’ve been waiting for you to say that. I’d wanted to be their go-to guy for a long time. I was super excited. I shot some videos in Dallas and then I had a big video shoot in Miami. While I was there he called me and asked me to come to California and shoot a video with him and Bun. I told him I had a video shoot in Atlanta but he wanted me to come right away. I had to tell him no because we were already locked in for the Atlanta video but I’d come right after that wrapped. Two days later I got to Atlanta and checked into my hotel. I got a call from DJ B-Do telling me that Pimp was dead. Myspace was still going strong and when I went on my page I had all kinds of comments and messages telling me things like sorry for your loss and my condolences. I couldn’t believe it, I had just talked to him two days before that. He was just so full of energy. As always he wanted to talk about when we were growing up. Then the next thing I knew he was gone.

Did your career stall at all when that happened?

Not at all. At that particular time, I was shooting a lot of independent videos. Big budget independent videos. Then I got introduced to Gucci Mane. It’s crazy how we got together. I talked to Gucci on the phone and he really didn’t know anything about me. He wanted to see my work so I sent him to my Myspace page. I had all my videos on there and he watched some. He called me back and told me that he wanted to fuck with me. I went out to Atlanta with my producer to meet with him. It was almost on a whim, nothing was guaranteed. So we get out there and get a hotel room. We call Gucci and he’s not answering the phone. We kept trying and then we called Deb, he’d given us her number too. Debra Antney, Waka Flocka’s mom. She was his manger then. She told us that that was the type of shit he does and gave us the address to the house they were at. She said he’d show up sometime today. We went over there and met her. She was cool as hell. The wild thing was that while we were trying to convince her to work with us, one of my videos came on BET’s Rap City. That really helped us out. She took us down into the basement and was showing us where everybody lived. Waka’s room, Gucci’s room, even Nicki Minaj’s room. Nicki wasn’t even known at this time. OJ Da Juiceman too, they all stayed in the basement. This was really early, like 2007 or 2008. They were like a family. We were there all day, she cooked spaghetti for us. We started to form a relationship with her. She had us laughing, we had her laughing. Gucci finally came home late in the day and it was like instant chemistry. We started joking almost immediately and he felt comfortable with us. They cut us a $40,000 check the same day to do a video in the future. We never got to do the video. When we got back to Houston he called us a week later and told me that we couldn’t do the video right now but to hold onto the money. I held onto it for about two months and then he called me and told me he wanted to shoot a video for “Bricks” and that was the first video I shot with him. It just took off from there. I used to call it the marathon. I’d put it on Twitter. I’m in Atlanta, it’s about to be another Gucci and Boomtown marathon. We’d shoot like five videos at a time.

Have you done anything with Gucci since he’s been home?

I did one video. We did “Bling Blaww Burr” with Young Dolph. He was still on house arrest. We just chopped it up, but we haven’t been able to get back to our old business yet. We’ve talked a few times so we’ll see what we do in the future.

Does he have the strongest work ethic of any artist you’ve worked with?

Yes. We’d shoot so many videos we’d all be tired as fuck, but we’d have fun though. We shot some classic videos. I always tell people that we should be in the Guinness Book of World Records. Before he went to prison I shot at least 38 videos with Gucci in a relatively short timespan.

How hard is it to shoot a video for a song that you don’t like? Or does it even matter?

It used to be real hard. My thing is that as an artist, and a director is an artist, you have to create something that will make people like the song. Even if you don’t like the song. It was hard for me at the beginning of my career. Now it’s easier. Even if I hate the song I know how to bring a great vision to it.

How much prep work is necessary to make a music video?

It’s different now. The budgets aren’t the same. When we were doing the real big-budget videos we would need at least a week or two of prep time. Let’s say Universal wanted us to shoot a video for someone. They would send us a spec sheet. They would tell us that they wanted us to do the video or even write for it. Writing for it means you’re going up against other directors for the project. Whoever came up with the best concept would get it. The spec sheet would tell us what city they wanted to shoot in and what the budget was. The artist or management might have ideas of what they wanted as well. If we get the video they’ll send contracts. There’s a lot of paperwork.

From there you start getting everything together. We put the crew together and lock in the locations. Then everyone has to get there. You got to have production assistants there beforehand. With the models, we usually use a casting director. Someone that has a real agency. Sometimes the label wants to see pictures of them beforehand. You send them a group of pictures and they’ll pick the girls they want. It’s a process. It’s usually a one day shoot. Sometimes it will be two days but those are the big-budget videos.

Is it harder to shoot or edit?

I love to edit so that’s never hard. It all comes together in the edit. You can shoot the best footage, but if you don’t edit it right your shit is wack. I love editing, period. I love shooting. When you shoot that’s your vision. If you give one treatment to five directors you’ll get five different looking videos.

Your movie Candy just came out on Amazon Prime. It premiered in Houston theaters in 2017. Why did it take longer than usual to become available for streaming?

The thing is that when I shot that movie I didn’t really understand the movie business at all. I figured if I had some known rappers in it I could just go and get a deal from somebody. That’s not the case. These distributors want selling points. They want known actors in your movie. That was one mistake I made with Candy. Initially, it was hard to get distribution. The companies didn’t know the actors and actresses I have in it. Even though I have A.J. Johnson, Scarface, & Bun B in it these distributors still didn’t care. It’s all good though. I’ll kick the door in just like I did with music videos.

I see that Stephen Jackson is an executive producer for the film. What was his role in it?

Stephen grew up around the corner from me. He’s a little younger than me. My younger brother actually got Steve playing in the pick-up games in our neighborhood. Growing up I never knew that he’d be that tall. He does come from a basketball family though. All of his uncles played. Some of his cousins played with me in high school. I never knew he’d be that good and become what he is though. I didn’t know he rapped until during his NBA career. I shot some videos for him. He actually financed Candy. It’s crazy how it all came together. I was shooting a Mack 10 video in Atlanta and Steve came and did a cameo. While we were shooting he told me he had some money to play with and he asked me if I still wanted to make a movie. Obviously I said yes. It took us a little while to get it together. One day he hit me up out of nowhere and told me that he was ready. I sent him the contract and soon enough the money was in my account. That’s my boy. He’s doing his thing with his show on Showtime.

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