A Zae Production
A Zae Production is the first videographer to hit a million subscribers on Youtube, creating a domino effect for an infinite amount of shooters after him. His impressive resume to date doesn’t just include all the Chicago legends, including Chief Keef, Lil Durk, Fredo Santana, Lil Reese, SD, Tink, G Herbo, Lil Bibby — but working with them early on.
Who remembers “Us” by Lil Reese? At the height of Chicago’s drill scene, his signature name tag with the police sirens attached was indication that this was an A Zae video, giving it the cosign for greatness. The numbers don’t lie. At only 25 years old, Zae boasts over 1.6M subscribers and 927M accumulated views on Youtube deeming him the first urban music video director of his kind.
Hailing from Chicago, real name Xavier Williams recalls growing up as a kid bored at home, one day coming across Windows Movie Maker. Inspired by the music videos he saw on TV, Zae would rap around the house and have his little sister film. Eventually, he’d piece the footage together, a phenomenon he single-handedly attributes to his editing skills today.
This is the type of skillset you can’t teach in school. Zae soon became the only person shooting a full movement of artists, describing it as “12 or more people who were blowing up all at the same time.” Having established his name in the Chi, he began working with some of Atlanta’s hottest artists such Rich The Kid, Migos, Skippa da Flippa, Hoodrich Pablo Juan in their early stages. Going back and forth so much, he eventually moved to the A — where he resides now.
Zae comes from humble beginnings. Speaking to Flaunt Magazine, he states, “I started making videos actually at home being bored. All I did was watch music videos. I never watched cartoons, just music videos. Remember BET and MTV when they just played videos? Watching 106 & Park so much, I always wondered ‘how do they make a video?’”
At that point, even Zae wasn’t aware his curiosity would turn into a means of income. At 16, Zae picked up a job at Walgreens. It was then he had a first-hand experience watching his brother (who rapped) shoot a music video inside his own home. Seeing the aftermath, he decided he had to try it for himself.
He remembers his first video, stating “I put Soulja Boy’s ‘Crank That’ to the Spongebob cartoon. When people were doing that on Myspace, I was one of the first people to do that. Then I shot my first music video with my homie Rello [Dreamer]. Everybody at school was like ‘man, how’d you do this?’ I just kept going once I got the response from everybody. I taught myself everything still to this day. I didn’t go to school for none of this.”
At 17, he quit and started shooting videos full-fledge. The moment he realized this was going to be his career path was when a local artist reached out via DM.
“Somebody inboxed me and said ‘how much you charge?’ I’m like ‘wait, I can get paid for this?’ I said ‘I’ma keep doing this. I’ma make some money off this.’ I charged $50 for a music video at the time ‘cause I ain’t know what to say. Just give me $50,’ they’re like ‘cool.’”
Ever since then, Zae turned this into a hustle. Making money on the side working at Walgreens and making money creating videos, he started getting booked so much that he didn’t have time to go to work.
“I quit right after I graduated high school, somewhere around that time,” he explains. “I had a video shoot with Shawnna. I was telling everybody at work ‘I got a video shoot with Shawnna, I’m ‘bout to quit!’ I was so happy, that’s a big artist in Chicago. Then I had a video shoot with Twista right after that. I’m like ‘I’m definitely about to quit, it’s over with!’ Everybody at my job’s like ‘get out of here!’”
The executive decision came when the money from shooting videos outweighed his part-time job. After quitting, he just kept shooting and shooting. To date, he’s shot three videos for Twista, another Chicago legend. So how exactly did he get in touch with all these artists?
“They reached out to me!” he states. “Twitter, Instagram, their management would reach out. ‘Hit up Zae, tell him you want to shoot.’ Chicago music scene is so small, everybody knows everybody. It’s divided in a sense but for the most part, it’s put together. It’s not like everybody’s seperated for real.”
The crazy part is Zae actually went to grammar school with Lil Durk, which opened the doors to the Chicago drill scene.
“I shot a video for Durk around the Facebook era,” he says. “Fredo hit me like ‘we gotta shoot a video.’ He messaged me. I ended up shooting the Lil Reese “Us” video first, that’s his breakout song. Then Keef hit me like ‘we gotta do something,’ and we shot the “I Don’t Know Dem” video.”
Looking back, Zae realizes it was Facebook where most of the magic happened, similar to how Instagram’s popularity stands today. Of course, working with Chief Keef translates to some priceless memories.
“What’s crazy is it’s not even him that’d be the greatest [memory], it’s his grandma. His grandma was so funny. He couldn’t leave the house, we shot a video while he was on house arrest. His grandma used to always talk about us coming in her house and shooting videos, like ‘this better pay off! Y’all in my house playing loud music, somebody better blow up from this.’ She used to always crack jokes like ‘y’all better blow up ‘cause y’all in my house making all this noise!’”
The gang that stood in the room included Zae, Young Chop, Tadoe, Ballout, all in Keef’s house thinking they were doing something. Fast forward to 2019, Zae can’t even keep track of how many music videos he’s done.
“I really don’t know,” he says with a laugh. “I’ll go on Youtube and be watching something, and the suggested video I did has 10M views. I did a video with Mozzy, Lil Boosie, and another one of Mozzy’s homies [Rexx Life Raj]. ‘Tomorrow Ain’t Promised,’ I shot that video. I looked up, it had 10M views. I ain’t even know it. I got to the point where I don’t check views no more.”
One video whose views do not go unnoticed is 21 Savage’s “Red Opps,” which currently hails over 115M views and counting. The crazy part is, the Slaughter Gang rapper reached out to Zae via Twitter.
“I followed him, he followed me back, he explains. “I still got the DM. He hit me like ‘let’s work.’ I’m like ‘cool, send me some songs you want to do.’ He sent me his project. We agreed to do a whole ‘nother song. On the way, I was literally 5 minutes away from him, he’s like ‘nah, let’s do this song called “Red Opps”.’ I listen like ‘yeah this one’s way better.’ There’s no treatment or nothing, I was just pullin’ up.”
Zae proceeds to pull out the screenshot shared between Savage and himself, reflecting the actual conversation from 2015. And still, this is regular. Artists like Lil Pump, Smokepurpp, 2 Chainz, and many more have all reached out to work in some capacity. The crazy part is, Zae is still a one-man team.
“When I do bigger budget projects, I’ll hire DPs and stuff,” he states. “But for the most part, it’s literally me. All those videos back in the day with no budgets, it was me shooting and editing everything. Nobody could say they edited a video for me ever.”
He continues, “I have a certain look and nobody else could do that look. I had a lot of people start to copy it, so I’d rather me do my own look versus send somebody to do something that’s gonna look like me. If I’m gonna send someone, I want you to do what you do to it. I don’t want to send you someone who looks like something I’d do. I might as well do it myself.”
The fact that Zae became the first videographer to hit a million subscribers and didn’t even know it says a lot about his character. When asked if he celebrated, he answers, “nope, I just hung my plaque up. It wasn’t a personal goal for me, it just happened. I just looked up like ‘damn, I’m ‘bouta hit a million subscribers.’ Got the plaque. I’m like ‘damn, I really did it.’ It wasn’t a goal so I wasn’t excited as if I reached a goal because I wasn’t expecting it. I was just working.”
Stemming from the fruition of his career, Zae has since retired his production tag/intro, the “jungle sound with the police sirens.” Even Tee Grizzley was browsing Youtube when fans blew Zae’s line after hearing the tag. But the 3D-animated text over the city of Chicago was soon trumped by the quality of his work.
“My videos are dark, gritty, authentic, he states. “It makes you feel like you’re there. You feel the realness of the hood or wherever you’re at. You can feel it. I had a video come on, someone thought it was a trailer for Black Ops. It has that dark, gritty type of look to it. People just know it’s my work.”
As far as the influence Zae has in the digital world, many aspiring videographers have followed suit. Even Lyrical Lemonde’s own Cole Bennett pays respect.
“He [Cole[ hit me up for advice before he started. He still says my name in interviews till this day. In 4 or 5 interviews, ‘A Zae paved the way for these type of videos.’ He’d say that out his mouth. I really believe before I started shooting videos, it was lame to be a cameraman. If you walked up to someone like ‘yeah I’m a cameraman,’ people would laugh at you almost.”
It was after Zae sparked the whole Chicago movement that videographers were accepted.
“I was taking pictures with people, he states. “You never seen nobody like ‘oh lemme get a picture with your cameraman!’ That was unheard of. I started taking pictures with people like I was the artist. I go to video shoots and take more pictures than the artist. I bring people out to video shoots. You can say you’re shooting a video, they’re like ‘aight cool.’ But if you say you’re shooting a video with me, people coming because I’m shooting the video. They want to get in it. They’re like ‘you gotta get me in it, it’s an A Zae!’
Every day, Zae has hundreds of messages from people saying he’s the reason they started videos. His current day goals include getting into short and feature films, transferring his fanbase from music videos to the big screen.
As far as his creative process, he only needs two things: sunflower seeds and weed. The rest is history.
Photos by Tim Dailey, J Visuals, and Jteef