When Chris started directing high-end rap videos out of his family’s Salt Lake City photography studio as a teenager, he proved that talent and determination alone can take you to the top.
by Heidi Grieser
Being the child of first-generation Vietnamese immigrants, Chris Le’s mother insisted that he get a traditional education. But when Chris started directing high-end rap videos out of his family’s Salt Lake City photography studio as a teenager, he proved that talent and determination alone can take you to the top.
“Asian parent’s are not usually cool with rap videos,” says Chris Le. But not many 21-year-old guys without formal training are given the opportunity to work with some of the biggest names in rap and hip-hop.
Out of his father’s photography studio on 7th South, Chris Le has assembled a team of young artists and project managers who are lined up on computers working on covers and videos for rap stars from L.A. When I walk in to inquire about the business, Andy Le (Chris’ father), is beaming—“Chris just got back from Hollywood,” he tells me. “He’s working on getting big budget video’s, like $150,000 video’s, but he’s already so good he makes $18,000 budget video’s look like $100,000. He’s going to be the next big director in Hollywood.”
Chris Le was attending Bingham High when he decided he wanted to start making rap videos. In some of his first videos, which Andy says Chris did behind his back, Chris worked with local artists Calico and Blocks. Chris—who now goes by the stage name “C-Le”—continued working locally and growing the scale of his projects and his skills. He filmed Jutbox’s “At the Bar” video on 200 South in downtown Salt Lake and had to coordinate with local police and city officials to have the street closed down for filming. After this, more rap artists and work came pouring in.
Chris says he preferred to stay home and work while his friends went to sporting events and prom during high school. “I had the mentality that that would pay off,” he says. “Out of high school, my buzz got big, because I coded the Myspace band layout for Sean Kingston, and it was all different than the other Myspace band pages. People started to notice my graphics. I got contracts with Def Jams and Warner Brothers and used graphics as a way to get my foot in the door as a director.”
“I stepped into this when I was very young. I knew what I wanted to do. A lot of Vietnamese families want their kids to be doctors, well—my family is into art. My dad’s a photographer, and my mom is a make-up artist. Mom told me to be a doctor, you know, like the typical Asian parent.”
Chris’ father who has been in the photography business for 21 years, couldn’t be more proud and tries to be as involved as he can in his son’s work. “I still fly with him everywhere,” he tells me. “My wife sees him as a 5-year old and thinks everyone is just going to devour her son.”
When they aren’t traveling to L.A., New York, or Miami, Chris continues to live at home with his family. Chris also continues to work on a college degree at the Art Institute of Salt Lake City in Draper, but he says he’s only doing it to please his mother.
Chris decided to hire his father as a project manager for his business 3 years ago. “I got sick and tired of watching my dad shoot wedding photos,” he says. “So I brought him into the entertainment industry.” Chris now uses Skype to direct big budget videos and commercials while remaining in Utah for his business and art school.
He’s so committed to bringing hip hop culture to Utah that, after years of being too young to attend the L.A. premiers and events that showcased his work, Chris chose to have his 21st birthday party in Salt Lake City, “I got the idea to have birthday shout out videos from different rappers. Dr. Dre and Cool did one, and Glasses Malone and DJ Skee. We had two parties going at once—an underage party at Sandbar, and an overage party at Bliss; now it’s called the Bay. I wanted to be different, and not many people in Utah are doing anything like this.”
Not only different from people in Utah, Chris wants to be different from other designers. “I wanted to be like Andy Warhol and hang out with the artists,” he says. “I got to chill with Christina Milian at her crib. When I was in middle school, she was like my crush.” Though Chris stays extremely busy with his work, he reports he still makes time for fun. “I owe my social life to my career,” he tells me.
The father and son duo are now working on a feature film to enter in the Sundance Film Festival. Andy wrote the story line for a romantic comedy, and he wants his son to script it and shoot it with him. They are also planning a trip to Vietnam. Both are excited to work with a major actress on a music video for a prominent boy band there. Additionally, they will be making a 30 second commercial for Coors, which will be the first time the beer company attempts to break into the Vietnamese market.
Andy is especially emotional about his son’s interest in the project, because Andy was part of the first generation after the war. Andy left Vietnam when he was 14, “packed in a canoe with 22 people.” He reports he thought he was going to America directly in the little boat. “I thought I was going to die, because the waves were so big, and then we ended up in Hong Kong. I didn’t realize how far away America was.”
Not only has Andy found a way to assimilate into American culture, he’s also managed to stay cool enough that his son is taking him along on a ride to the top of the hip hop industry.
Stop in to Andy Le’s photo studio on 7th South near State Street for a proud father’s update on his son’s clothing line, rap label, and designing and directing studio, and check out Chris’ videos online. §