The first time I ever talked to Aminé was on October 2, 2015. My eighteenth birthday.
After stumbling on his SoundCloud page, I noticed he was from Portland and had a show at Reed College in a few weeks. So I sent him a tweet and asked if I could shoot photos at the show. He messaged me back and said he needed a photographer, so a few days later we met for the first time at Good Coffee in SE Portland.
Aminé and I hit it off right away, but I had no idea that two years later we’d be celebrating my 20th birthday in the Napa Valley while a music video we made on a tiny budget racked up millions of views a day.
Back when I first met Adam Aminé Daniel, I was still finding my voice as an artist. My plan was to drop out of school and get a job while making art projects on the side. Then, he gave me the opportunity to work on stage design for his show at Reed. We set up the stage to look like a living room, centered around a red rotary telephone that he’d previously used in press photos. Honestly, there wasn’t much to it, but it was my first step towards finding what I was passionate about.
For months after that, there wasn’t a whole lot going on for me. I made music videos with Michael Todd Berland and Christian Novelli of Fox Academy, took photos of friends, and watched a lot of movies. Then, sometime in early 2016, Aminé played me a demo of a bright, catchy rap song and said that his manager’s girlfriend loved it.
That song turned out to be “Caroline.” Released in March 2016, it was the first single since his summer 2015 mixtape, Calling Brio. A few days after it came out, we were in a Starbucks. I was editing photos from a shoot we did together when Aminé got a text from a friend telling him that “Caroline” came up while he was shuffling Spotify’s popular Fresh Finds playlist. If there was one moment to pinpoint when everything started taking off, that would be it.
With the song starting to pick up buzz, Aminé told me he wanted to make a video for it. So, we snuck into an unlocked classroom in one of Portland State’s downtown buildings to work on the first concepts for the “Caroline” video. Brainstorming ideas, we sketched the outline of the treatment on a whiteboard. I took a photo of it with my phone and later turned those ideas into a more legitimate treatment that I could send to potential directors, DPs and brands to help fund the video.
No endorsements came through so we had to shoot the video with almost no budget. We hired local videographer Nik Popp (aka Puurple) to film and edit, and Aminé directed.
The idea behind the video itself was pretty simple because our budget didn’t allow for much else. Lots of people comment on the fact that there aren’t any girls in the video and it’s a song about a girl. But we didn’t want “Caroline” to be any one type of girl. We wanted people to imagine for themselves who Caroline is. So, instead, we illustrated a day hanging out with friends: hitting the burger spot for lunch, hanging out on the block, and playing Xbox back home.
We shot the first scenes at Mike’s Drive-In on Singer Hill in Oregon City. I came up with the idea of printing the fictional Big Kahuna Burger logo from various Tarantino movies—most famously Pulp Fiction—on the hamburger bags, but the burgers were actually just from Burger King. My friend Brandon loaned us his vintage Pulp Fiction shirt for the shoot as well. We showed up before Mike’s opened and made sure to avoid getting their logo in the frame, hoping nobody would give us any trouble. At one point a cop pulled up, but we told him we were working on a school project.
That summer, I was working as a park ranger at a county park, and I remember retweeting the premiere of the video from a computer in a tiny 8-by-12-foot park office. The duality of cleaning toilets at a public park while the video I helped create gained millions of views was almost too much to handle, but I was happy to at least have something else going for me. I was hoping this video could help me get out of there.
A few months after the “Caroline” video was released, Aminé went to New York City for the summer and signed a record deal with Republic Records. I kept my head down, knowing a win for him was a win for me too. Then in September, we went out to a house in the Napa Valley where he started working on new music; “Dakota” was the only song from those sessions that ended up making the album. We spent three weeks there watching movies, eating at the best roadside burger spot I’ve ever been to, and watching the numbers on “Caroline” skyrocket.
While in the Napa Valley, the first model of a custom Banano keyboard arrived. A nod to the bananas we used throughout the “Caroline” video, designers at Wieden+Kennedy built a working keyboard that used real bananas instead of standard keys. It was the perfect prop to open his first late-night TV performance on Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show. To test it out, we went to the Safeway down the road and bought some bananas. Aminé got a FaceTime tutorial from the designers, and in just a few weeks, they’d perfected it for the show.
What I remember most about that Fallon performance was seeing a video of a whole bar in Portland dead quiet, watching and listening. It was exactly a week after the election and he broke into a surprise verse that called out Donald Trump, rapping lines like, “You can never make America great again, all you ever did was make this country hate again.” As the song went on, the bar got louder and louder until the room erupted into applause. If you couldn’t see the TV, you would have thought Lillard hit another buzzer beater to advance in the playoffs. But this was my friend Adam on Fallon. This was a Portland kid rapping on The Tonight Show—and he brought along hometown musicians, including vocalists The Last Artful, Dodgr and Blossom, to back him up. It may not have been a Blazers win, but it was a win for the city.
After Napa, Aminé moved to L.A. and I headed back to Portland. I ended up in L.A. once a month for little projects like shooting the “REDMERCEDES” single artwork (a track that was later remixed to include a verse from Missy Elliott) and helping put together The Good For You Post, a real newspaper that fans got for free at pop-ups in New York, L.A. and Portland surrounding the album’s release.
In February, we packed our bags and headed to London for Aminé’s first overseas shows—my first time outside of the States. We spent a week in London exploring the city and Aminé recorded his remix of Honne’s “Warm On A Cold Night” in their apartment. Then, he had a wild show presented by BBC Radio’s DJ Semtex. At this point I’d seen a handful of sold-out crowds, but it was a whole new feeling watching a foreign audience singing all the words to “Caroline,” thousands of miles away from that little Portland State classroom where we brainstormed ideas together. The crowds would keep getting bigger, but there’s nothing like the first one. It felt like vindication.
After a few days in London, we headed to Paris where Aminé worked on more music for his first album, Good For You, and we saw more sights. Our Airbnb was within walking distance of the Eiffel Tower, so we walked there on the first night and saw the lights flicker as they do every hour on the hour. Most of our time in Paris was spent in the studio (in my case, asleep in the studio) or eating some of the best food I’ve ever had.
I flew back to Portland in February where I was greeted by Trump’s face—which I’d successfully avoided while overseas—plastered all over the TVs during my layover in Salt Lake City. I didn’t have too much time to reflect on the trip, but looking back it feels surreal. Within a year, I watched my friend transform from an unknown local rapper to a world-traveling star with a Top 40 radio hit, over half a billion plays across streaming services, and a debut record featuring artists like Nelly, Kehlani and Migos’ Offset. He played major festivals like Bonnaroo and Bumbershoot this summer and is currently selling out shows coast to coast.
I couldn’t have imagined that my job would be exploring the world with a camera around my neck less than a year after cleaning toilets. If nothing else, I hope my story can serve as an example of what can happen if you believe in your ideas.
It can be difficult to succeed in the entertainment industry when you’re not in a major city like L.A. or New York, but I’m learning that it’s possible. The internet has become an amazing tool for all artists to find and build audiences on their own. I’ve always felt that you’ll rise above the rest if you put your all into your work. So far, my experiences have confirmed that.
Maybe we got lucky, but the time and effort we put into our projects when only a handful of people were watching laid the groundwork for us to reach millions.