'Let's See How Far He Can Take It': 'Old Town Road' Director Calmatic Talks Working With Lil Nas X on Time-Traveling Music Video
Shortly before "Old Town Road" transcended its Tik Tok-led viral fame to become a global hip-hop phenomenon, Calmatic got an email from his production company asking if he’d consider directing the song's music video.
“The first time I played it, I had no clue who Lil Nas was,” Calmatic tells Billboard. “I heard the song... and I was like, wow this is crazy. I literally responded to my manager like, ‘Is this a joke?’”
However, after doing his research and giving the track a few more listens, the Los Angeles-based director quickly realized how “genius” the song really was. As he brainstormed treatments for the video, Calmatic watched as the track exploded in pop culture and climbed its way to No. 1 on the Hot 100 -- where it has since stayed for seven consecutive weeks.
“This kid is a product of not only the Internet, but just the culture that hip-hop has become,” Calmatic says. “Hip-hop is not just about making music but it's about using technology and making something out of nothing and I feel like that's exactly what Lil Nas did with this song.”
Calmatic -- who has directed videos for the likes of Khalid, Anderson Paak. and Jazmine Sullivan -- originally signed on to make two separate videos: one for the original Lil Nas X hit and another for the remix with Cyrus. The first would be set "in the hood," leaving off with a “to be continued” teaser that the second video would pick up from in a Western setting. But when Lil Nas X’s label decided it only wanted one video, Calmatic did the next best thing: combined the best parts of each concept into one. Thus, the time-traveling, cameo-filled and action-packed music video for “Old Town Road” was born.
Drawing from his two original ideas, the music video -- released Friday (May 17) -- starts in the Wild West in 1889, with Billy Ray Cyrus and Lil Nas X riding horses and seeking out shelter before the rapper dives into a mineshaft to escape gunshots. The track begins to play right after Lil Nas X is transported to present-day, as onlookers from the hood gape at the sight of the fully cowboy-attired 20-year-old riding down the street on a horse.
Featuring elements from the hood and a Western setting was an intentional choice for the video; with “Old Town Road” drawing controversy from both the hip-hop and country communities, Calmatic says Lil Nas X has found himself wedged between the two genres but not fully embraced.
“People in the hip-hop community think he’s a weird country singer, and people in the country world think he’s a hip-hop guy,” Calmatic says. “I feel like he’s right in the middle, and ultimately he is hip-hop -- but I think he needed the validation from both sides of the spectrum in order to be himself.”
The star-studded video features a range of celebrity cameos including Chris Rock, Vince Staples, Rico Nasty, Diplo and Haha Davis. Some of the guests like Staples are frequent collaborators with Calmatic (who directed Staples’ music video for “FUN!” in 2018) while others like Internet-famous comedian Davis were just artists Calmatic hoped to draw attention to. "Haha Davis, he's one of the top Instagram comedians, but I felt like the mainstream world doesn't know about him -- so he was the first person that came to mind when I was like, 'Oh we need a comedian,'" Calmatic recalls. "I think it's amazing to have him with another king of comedy, Chris Rock, kind of passing the baton for this next generation of comedians."
Rock, who plays the sheriff, wasn't actually cast in the video until just a couple days before they started filming. Calmatic says Rock's comedic lines which open the project were the "perfect icing on the cake," and set the tone for the rest of the video.
Calmatic says there’s a “moment” geared for almost every demographic in the video, paying tribute to members of Gen Z who are responsible for the song’s rise, while also involving older generations. “That was my goal going into it as a director: to make something for everybody,” he explains. “You have the square-dancing moments for all the moms and dads out there who have no clue who Lil Nas is and want to share something with their kids. You have the moment where the girl is dancing… that’s for all the teenagers that are on the internet dancing to the song.”
Ultimately, Calmatic hopes viewers take the time to really dissect the video and discuss how it relates to modern-day America. While Lil Nas X has found stardom as a result of “Old Town Road,” the director notes the rapper still faces “trials and tribulations” that come with the territory of being a black artist. He points to one of the video’s opening lines, delivered by Rock as Lil Nas X and Cyrus race by: “When you see a black man on a horse going that fast, you just gotta let him fly.”
“That’s kind of speaking to the critics and even people from the hip-hop world that are saying that this is whack or that [Lil Nas X] is the industry clown or anything like that,” Calmatic explains. “It’s like, ‘Nah, man.’ At the end of the day, we don’t have too many opportunities like this so when you see someone being able to win in a big way, just let him go -- let’s see how far he can take it.”