All the plate glass on the front of Nails R Us was covered with black plastic, but when I opened the door it was like I'd been gang tackled by color and light. The salon had been repurposed for the day as the set for the first video by local rapper Kid Sister, and it was a lot to take in: the walls were stunningly orange and covered with racks of nail polish in every possible shade, and the place was stuffed with lighting rigs and cameras and technicians and stylists and dancers dressed like In Living Color Fly Girls in multicolored DayGlo flight jackets.
When I walked in, Kid Sister--aka Melisa Young, 27--was in a spa chair, rapping along to her new single, "Pro Nails." Two white-coated Asian women, actual employees of the salon, mimed giving her a pedicure. "Pro Nails" came out last week on the Brooklyn-based start-up Fool's Gold, run by Nick Catchdubs and A-Trak, and this was the label's first video production. Catchdubs, a former Fader writer, is tastemaking royalty, a DJ and blogger who can break an act single-handedly. A-Trak, one of the most technically skilled DJs in the world, spins for Kanye West. (He's also Kid Sister's boyfriend, though they had a musical relationship first.)
Everyone else in Nails R Us had already been through "Pro Nails" at least a dozen times by the time I showed up. At first I only knew the chorus--"Got her toes done up and her fingernails matchin'," delivered in a slowed-down, Houston-style slur--but like most people on the set, I could soon rap through the verses, which are about not only having good-looking nails but encountering the kind of jealous hating you get when you have nice things like good-looking nails. Even after hearing it all day long, most of us singing along still smiled while we did it.
Fool's Gold is a reasonably professional operation, but the budget for the "Pro Nails" video was still minuscule compared to a major-label project--Catchdubs guesses it won't end up costing more than $2,500. Though there's a salon actually called Pro Nails just south on Western, across Addison, Nails R Us won out for its wide-open layout and orange walls--and because the owners would rent it out cheap. Director Ruben Fleischer, one of the creators of the MTV series Rob & Big, knows Catchdubs and agreed to work for free--he even brought in a camera operator on his own dime.
Considering he had one day to shoot, Fleischer had a lot planned. As soon as he got a couple good shots of Kid Sister getting her nails done, he rounded up the Fly Girls and had them wreath her face with their own elaborate acrylics. From off to the side where I was standing, it looked corny, but on the playback monitor it was super slick. "It looks like a Maybelline commercial," A-Trak said, beaming.
Then Fleischer was on to the video's big hook: the finger dancing. Before I saw the MySpace bulletin calling for finger dancers that went out a week or so before the shoot, I had no idea what finger dancing was. It turns out to be one of those odd useless talents that become trends on YouTube--the basic deal is that you pretend your index and middle fingers are the legs of a little person, then make that little person do dance moves.
The scruffy dude I'd seen hanging around the set--his name's AJ and he likes to do magic tricks--had answered that casting call. Like me he'd never heard of finger dancing before he saw the MySpace bulletin. "I looked it up on YouTube and thought, 'I could do that,'" he said. With the camera rolling, two of the actual dancers made impressive attempts, and then AJ stepped up and totally killed it. He made his finger guy do the Matrix, the moonwalk, and a truly lifelike windmill on a piece of cardboard the size of a CD case. On the playback monitor it looked freakishly like a real person dancing--especially after someone got the idea to outfit his fingers with a pair of little plastic Nikes from a High School Musical doll. When AJ finished he got what must've been the biggest round of applause in the history of finger dancing.
Eight hours into the shoot, the Fly Girls finally got to be the center of attention, and their garish jackets made their choreographed spins seizure-inducingly dazzling. A-Trak set his turntables up on the receptionist's podium in front of a large potted palm, and the dancers improvised a party sequence. "Keep it ghetto, people," Fleischer directed. After a costume change they headed outside to the alley--where it was unfortunately chilly for their outfits--to shoot a teaser for "Switchboard," a juke-heavy track that's slated to be Kid Sister's next single. But though the lights weren't that bright, the music wasn't very loud, and it was only about 10 PM, the cops showed up and threatened to ticket the production. Fleischer told them he'd stop, then ran the dancers through the song three more times.
All day long, through all the setups and retakes and makeup sessions, Kid Sister projected a charisma I'd have to call star power if she were already a star. She's only been performing since early 2006--her brother Josh is half of Flosstradamus, and she started out joining them at their Town Hall Pub gigs--and her rap skills are still developing. But onstage or on camera, she radiates an infectious energy that makes you really believe she's having the best time of anyone on earth at that moment. The Fool's Gold guys can definitely feel it. "We knew that she was going to be the marquee artist," Catchdubs says. "When MTV did My Block: Chicago they had Melisa on, a totally unsigned artist, no records out, just a MySpace page and these crazy performances at these awesome parties. This is the moment where that nebulous buzz gets solidified into something different."
That process ought to get a big bump from Kanye West, who rapped on "Pro Nails" when he put it on his Can't Tell Me Nothing mix tape this summer, then made sure his verse stayed in when the song came out on Fool's Gold. Kanye happened to be in town to accept an award at a Recording Academy event honoring Chicago artists--he'd invited Flosstradamus along to spin a tribute set--and afterward he rolled over to Nails R Us to jump into the video. He came with an entourage, but he wasn't too stuck-up to jam his expensive-looking blond leather gloves into the little plastic Air Force Ones for some finger dancing. Curt Cameruci, Floss's other half, sighed and said, "Man, from shitty-ass Town Hall Pub to here."
After Kanye ran a few verses and choruses with Kid Sister--and frankly got outshined on camera--he and his crew took off. By then it was pushing 1:15 in the morning, 13 hours into the shoot, and as Kid Sister and her dancers assembled under a black light for one last routine she was visibly exhausted. But as soon as the system started pumping "Pro Nails"--God knows how many times she'd heard it that day--she broke into a smile that looked as fresh as it had on her first take.
For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Kid Sister with Kanye West photo by Andreas Larsson.