Hey, You’re Cool! Ollie Olanipekun and Thomas Ralph of ‘Bodega Babies’
“We couldn’t tell anyone that it was a Pusha T project, so no one knew”
A week ago, Pusha T surprised the world with Bodega Babies, a short film that serves as a promo tool for his eponymous new Adidas shoe (out today) and song from his forever-forthcoming King Push LP. The nearly three-minute clip takes a look at life in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, speaking with local residents about the ways its corner stores serve as community staples—it’s a microcosm for ‘hoods around the world. The concept all traces to that ubiquitous brown paper bag, which inspired the colorway for Pusha’s EQT King Push Bodega Baby trainers.
Adidas and Pusha commissioned East London-based creative agency Superimpose Studio to shoot the Bodega Babies clip. The agency, led by creative director and co-founder Ollie Olanipekun, hired director Thomas Ralph to bring the vision to life.
“It’s quite interesting if you think about it, it’s a lot of Brits trying to make a very American film,” Ralph told MASS APPEAL. Olanipekun chimes in: “Bodegas aren’t just a U.S. thing… Whatever ‘hood you’re in, whatever continent you’re on, the corner shop is a mainstay.”
MASS APPEAL phoned Olanipekun and Ralph to speak about how Bodega Babies came to be, Pusha’s involvement in the concept, Emily B.’s prominent cameo and the fire track that’s woven throughout the clip.
How did the concept come about for Bodega Babies?
Ollie Olanipekun: We’ve been working with Adidas for three years now. We look after a lot of their big brand campaigns, from product releases to content. For Pusha T, Adidas approached us with the shoe [and] said, “These are the trainers, they’re kind of representative of brown paper bags.” For Pusha T, they were a thematic part of his upbringing, from being a child in the stroller and his mom piling groceries in brown paper bags on top of it, to concealing liquor and other stuff as he became a drug dealer, and now it’s come full cycle and he wants to come back and pay homage to those paper bags as a businessman and president of G.O.O.D. Music.
Thomas, what’s your background?
Thomas Ralph: I’ve been making films under my own name for about a year and a half. I spent two years director assisting [at Caviar]. Over the last year and a half to two years I’ve done quite a few indie, small projects that people have responded to.
How does the process work between Pusha, Adidas, and the agency?
Olanipekun: Pusha T and Adidas have a long-standing relationship. They’ve released products over the last few years. For this installment of their collaboration, they wanted to do something that sat against the bodega concept. They had the conversation. Adidas reached out to us saying, “This is what Pusha has in mind, can you come up with a concept that embodies what he wants this shoe to represent?” There was nothing else. Just the importance of bodegas in the community, and how he wants to tell this relatable story. Then we figure out the who, what, and why.
Being from England, did you guys fully understand what bodegas are and their importance to the community?
Olanipekun: We did. Bodegas aren’t just a U.S. thing. They might be called bodegas there but across the world everyone has a relationship with their local corner shop. Everyone. Whatever ‘hood you’re in, whatever continent you’re on, the corner shop is a mainstay for you and your family and your community. It wasn’t hard for us to be aware of the nuances that make it different. We wanted to tell a global story at the end of the day.
Ralph: I [didn’t], at the beginning of the project. I have to admit when it was first sent to me I was a little bit like, “Am I the right guy for this?” I’ve been to New York a few times before; I’ve been in bodegas but I wasn’t aware of the culture surrounding them. What became apparent was what I could bring to the table was a new, fresh pair of eyes. I got a lot of time, before we shot, on the streets. We went to so many bodegas and talked to so many owners, so many customers, that quite quickly I kind of felt like I got up to speed.
How much of the creative came from Pusha vs. agency vs. director?
Olanipekun: For the creative, we were pretty tight in terms of how much we wanted to give away. We wanted to make sure it was tight before we went to any director. In terms of the studio here, we looked at Pusha’s aesthetic, what sort of content that’s going on at the moment and how we could break the mold and do something a bit destructive. The idea to make a documentary where we go into these communities and shoot from within—don’t stage anything—came from us. The aesthetic we saw in Thomas’s work—then he wrote a treatment against that concept—that’s where we got to see the sort of tonality, the colors, grading. That stuff was presented back to us by Thomas Ralph, and then we went in together. The whole thing was a collaborative process, basically. We went in together to present back to Pusha, who signed off on that approach and said, “Yeah, you guys understand what Bodega Babies means.” And then the green light was given.
Ralph: This idea that it would be some form of video based around the different generations that you get at the bodegas, that was my starting point. So when I came onto the project I was sent this brief [that] had three characters: the little girls, the boys on the corner, and this idea of a returning character who ended up being Emily B. For a while that was potentially going to be Pusha. It was where we could incorporate Pusha into the film and this idea of someone who grew up in the ‘hood who almost left and then [is] returning. In the end, we decided not to go down that avenue. That’s why we brought Emily on. I had to figure out exactly what [the video’s concept] was going to be, what kind of shape it was going to take, how we were going to approach it and the tone and the aesthetic. It was a constantly evolving thing. I wanted this idea that you were really on the streets of New York. I didn’t want it to be too polished. I wanted it to be quite raw and a little bit immediate but, at the same time have its own beautiful moments and get under the skin of the people.
I don’t know if you picked up on it but we brought the narrative to some of the lyrics in the actual track. We planned certain scenes based on certain lyrics but we also just kept ourselves open to seeing if we could find anyone who matched any particular lines. Some of that worked terribly and some of that worked pretty well. That was quite an interesting aspect of it.
How involved was Pusha during the whole process and why isn’t he in the film?
Olanipekun: In one of the first meetings we had with Pusha, we presented an idea where he featured in it quite heavily, but I think the current status of Pusha wanted to move away from it just being about him. He wanted to make it more outwardly facing, more relatable to everyone. The creative supervisor from his side came on board to help try to keep it on brand with [regards to] Pusha. The decision to not have him in was made very early. The track that you hear on Bodega Babies was what he kind of wanted us to use as a guide and it was kind of how involved he was until the final process where he obviously saw all the edits. Also, he helped in some of the casting. All of the characters you see throughout were street cast. We presented him with ideas of this is the person we want to play this guy and he’d give feedback on that.
Ralph: It was really important to have [Capricorn Clark] there because not only does she speak Pusha’s language, she literally comes from the world that he’s homaging and trying to capture. So having someone like her on the set was invaluable in terms of authenticity. She was also the only American in our main creative crew, other than the DP, so she also brings an element of… it’s quite interesting if you think about it, it’s a lot of Brits trying to make a very American film.
Did you pre-cast all the roles or did you also pick up people from the neighborhood on site?
Olanipekun: 80 percent of the guys featured were cast on the street from that community. We spent a week out there. It was only a two-day shoot but we spent seven days around just filming in the community, meeting the locals, and finding out what’s important to them about their local bodegas. That was kind of how we approached the filming. We added a couple of people to add flair. Emily B was added to really represent that story of coming back to the bodega, the neighborhood, when you’ve gone off and made it already. She represented that character authentically. That was the reason for every decision. Is it authentic? We feel we did a good job of getting to that.
Where was it filmed?
Olanipekun: We shot it in Bushwick. We considered the Bronx but felt that the access that we were given by the [Bushwick] community—even though it was going through change—made us make the decision. Those boys are actually corner boys, that’s how they live their life. A lot of them came up and said, “This has been an incredible experience for me. Being able to be on set with icons like Adidas and Pusha T.” That is what we wanted to do. We wanted to inspire people on set as well as those who watch the video.
Was there a little Spike Lee influence with having people look directly into the camera?
Ralph: That’s the cinéma vérité thing. It was almost like nudging Nick, the DP, and being like, “Just roll for 10 seconds before they think we’re rolling.” I’m a big fan of that. When you want to make it feel really real you need the idea of people being aware of the camera or aware of the crew but in a way that you don’t see them.
This film was created to promote the sneaker. Is that song going to be on King Push?
Olanipekun: Yes, it will feature on the album. And that’s as much as I can say on the album. I don’t know anything else about it. But yes, that track is from the album.
How do you feel about the reaction to the video?
Olanipekun: When we put down the concept we thought it was special. To work with Pusha at this stage of his career and a brand like Adidas with the resurgence they’re having, to be able to tell a true authentic story from the perspective of those living in the ‘hood, I think has never been done before. When we were writing it we thought there’s no way we’re going to get it signed off. There were challenges all the way because it was ambitious but that was the beauty of it and we managed to deliver. So I’m happy with the response but I always knew if we can get it over the finish line then yeah, we’ve made an incredible piece of content.
Anything else people should know?
Olanipekun: With an ambitious project like this came all of the challenges—going into a ‘hood you wanted to pay respect to working with the characters from the community. I feel, like I said before, like this is the first time I’ve seen a brand do this in an authentic way. This is definitely the way content should be made moving forward.
The fact that this is a Pusha T project gives it that authenticity inherently, no?
Olanipekun: But we couldn’t actually tell anyone that it was a Pusha T project so no one actually knew. As a studio, everything we do is rooted in authenticity. We are part of a new school of creative agency and I feel our approach was completely different than what you would see from a bigger agency or traditional brand. They go in there with big Winnebagos and cordon off streets. We went in there with handheld cameras. We spent a week chatting and getting to know everyone in the community. So that’s what I’m talking about in terms of how we approached it differently. I’ve been doing this for 10 years and I’ve seen how brands have gone in and done it completely wrong. For us we knew that when we were putting the concept down if we were going to do it we’d have to approach it completely different, with respect, no patronizing, no condescending. It really needs to be a collaborative process, not only with the director and the brand but also with the community. The community made this film with us. I’ve never seen that done before.
Ralph: Everything we shot, we would look at each other and ask, “Does this feel real.” With somebody like Emily, that was a fictionalized scene to some extent. We were trying to create a narrative there. Whereas some of the best characters in the film were literally like they walked past or they walked into the shot and then 10 seconds later you’re filming them and then they’re gone forever. That was really important, the idea of the bodega and your subject is: whoever walks in.
Have you gotten any feedback from the people that were in the film?
Olanipekun: Yeah we all exchanged Instagrams and we’ve been talking. That to me is the most important thing. It doesn’t matter who writes about it, where it goes, having the guys who were involved, who we found on the corners, messaging me, watching their content going up on their personal channels, is the best thing. That, for me, is the win.