Phoenix's Matt Johnson Is Part of a New Wave of Do-Everything Music Video Directors

Matty J does what it takes to make music videos happen.
Courtesy of Matty J
Matty J does what it takes to make music videos happen.

To shoot 700 videos by the age of 23 is a stunning feat by any means, especially when you work with the likes of rising stars such as Torey Lanez and G-Eazy. However, Phoenix native Matt Johnson, who goes by Matty J, has bigger dreams.

“I want to be able to rent out an airplane hangar to where I can have a full in-house production studio for video, music, photos, all of that, and really provide an experience and build relationships,” Johnson says, smiling.

He started small. Under the brand the Creative Hangar, Johnson crafted performance recap videos for the likes of G-Eazy, Ty Dolla Sign, Dizzy Wright, and Kevin Gates. In these videos, Johnson developed his signature editing style of surrealistic transitions and rapid-fire cuts of slow-motion video.

Last year, a member of rapper Tory Lanez’ team, Zac Facts, put out an open call to video directors to shoot a single for the artist. After someone tagged Johnson in the post, he blasted Facts’ Instagram with links to his work. Facts hit Johnson’s inbox within 30 minutes.

“He sent me the song. At that time, I had no idea it was unreleased. They sent me the song through one of those website that tracks whether you download it or share the link or not,” Johnson remembers. “Four days later, they were knocking on my door with a rental van full of equipment.”

Johnson shot the video for Lanez’ hit “LUV” at South Mountain. The video has been viewed more than 91 million times on YouTube.
One of Matty J’s strongest traits is his ability to adapt and be resourceful. The vast majority of his music videos — including “LUV” — are made on a small budget. Johnson makes a point to maximize what he has to work with. From his improvisational use of lights, to using locations to his advantage, he manages to craft visually appealing videos that have the look of a big-budget production for next to nothing. Being able to adapt to his surroundings and respond accordingly has turned Johnson into one of the more versatile videographers in the state. Arizona heavyweights like Vee Tha Rula and Sincerely Collins have enlisted Johnson for videos like “Out The Roof” and “Midas Touch.”

Early in his career, he worked closely with the likes of director Jakob Owens, an Arizona State University grad known for his work with Tempe rapper-turned-YouTube-sensation Futuristic. This connection proved fruitful for Johnson. His time with Owens acted as a boot camp, as he learned the ropes of independent video production.

“Jake was the one that showed me that ... you don’t need a $30,000 camera. And he was the one that showed me that you can edit four music videos a week if you want to. And how to use YouTube and Facebook to get yourself out there,” Johnson says.

Owens’ and Futuristic’s method certainly seems to be effective, since Owens’ YouTube page, theBuffNerds, contains hundreds of videos that have been viewed more than 200 million times collectively. This is mostly propelled by Owens’ creative, guerilla-style videos, including some that have managed to go viral. The guerilla technique has become a part of Matty J’s signature style of using makeshift locations and techniques.

“I think people find it cool that it’s just me creating that. It could look like we had a $50,000 budget and full production crew, but little did you know I did it by lighting up my bush or in a 10-by-10 room with lights,” Johnson explains.

Johnson seems to be pretty good at rolling with the punches. In high school, he suffered a traumatic brain injury while playing football. The injury left Johnson fighting to get back to normal, and it took him years to fully recover.

“Basically, I was pretty much a vegetable,” Johnson says. “I couldn’t talk, I had trouble with walking and basic social skills. It was a major setback.”

The injury was life-changing. Over time, Johnson came to realize that he could express himself easier through art. He decided to take advantage of his time on student council and began to create videos for pep rallies and events going on at the school. Johnson would attend practices for the various sports teams and make mashup videos that included newer, trendier music. The school soon invested in equipment for Johnson to use to make more videos. These were the early beginnings of Johnson’s career, but he was looking to expand his brand, leading to his first big break.

Johnson began working with the local band Jazz and the Giant. The relationship proved to be fruitful for Johnson, as he was able to hone his abilities while the band gained the advantage of having a videographer on hand. Eventually, Johnson saw the opportunity to shoot video for a live performance the band was doing with at-that-point-unknown artist, Tyler, the Creator, over at the now-defunct venue the Clubhouse. This wasn’t as easy as it seemed, as Johnson had to figure out a way to bring his camera into the venue.

“I ended up getting a media pass by lying,” Johnson laughs. “They are like ‘Hey, you can’t be bringing that professional camera in and I was like, ‘I’m an intern for the Arizona Republic; we are going to be doing a recap video.’”

The crafty move led to Johnson shooting small recap videos for the rising rap star.

“This was before ‘Yonkers’ even came out, so he was still very small, and being able to reach him and his management was actually pretty easy,” Johnson states. “After that, I started getting little inquiries about doing live recap videos and music videos here and there.”

Matty prides himself on being self-taught. He dropped out of Grand Canyon University, and at just 23, he has already worked with some of the biggest names in hip-hop. But he’s not necessarily looking for flash over value.
“I’m craving a little bit more substance in my music videos lately,” Johnson says. “I’m not really into selling consumerism or being flashy. I’m looking for more purposeful stuff to work on.”

In order to remedy this, Johnson began working with his best friend, Dana Mitchell, also known as rapper Kirsin, to create music videos of higher artistic value. Videos like “XXYYXX” touch on themes like domestic violence, while “Normal” looks at the plight of social anxiety.

“I’ve worked with him for a little over two years now, and I’m confident in saying that no one can compare to his thought process or his overall work ethic,” Mitchell says about Johnson. “He is the type of artist you can connect with on an unconscious level and be in absolute sync with.”

At this point, the sky’s the limit for Johnson. He’s trying to stay humble and not concern himself with the political aspects of the industry. He just wants to have fun.

“My favorite videos I’ve done have been the ones I did with my friends with no money, out of the kindness of the heart and the passion, and those have always worked out the best,” Johnson says. “I just don’t want to get lost in the sauce.”