Curren$y Spitta is talking to an employee of Untouchable Body Shop who plans to restore an old Chevy he’s got on the lot for a series called Cruise Life. The car is getting a new paint job, adding a full hydraulic system and upgrading the chassis. “We’re going back with the marina blue. Ghost graphics on the hood of the trunk. It’s gonna be nice,” the employee says.
The rapper, whose obsession with cars is well-documented, is immensely moved by the potential of this project. “Please, please, son,” he says. “Could you talk to CJ? The master and the animator of my dream and my vision?”
Such is the New Orleans rapper’s description of the man behind the camera: Charles Wallis, from Cloverdale, B.C., Canada. An only child sporting a playoff beard and floppy hair, you can’t help but ask: How did this dude end up animating the dreams and visions of a rapper who used to be down with Master P?
The story of CJ Wallis begins in a suburb of Vancouver in the early ‘90s, between the pipes at the Nelson and District Community Complex as goaltender of the Nelson Leafs. His favorite goaltender was Curtis Joseph, whose nickname was Cujo.
“Every helmet that I had, the back, it said big C, little U, big J, little O, for CJ. I had every jersey he ever wore,” Wallis says. “He played for the Las Vegas Thunder for two games, and my mom’s like ‘Fuck, I gotta buy a $500 jersey because this guy got sent to the minors for two games.’”
It’s also where he first honed his craft. “I just started setting up the camera to watch what I was doing, and I found myself more interested in watching the footage and how to cut it up and find new ways,” he explains from a dressing room at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., where Curren$y’s Red Eye Tour has stopped for the night. “I’m convinced I invented the netcam when I was 7. Because I had a camera right at the bottom.”
But being into movies didn’t always make him friends. “It’s hard when you’re in a dressing room and they ask what you did on the weekend and everybody’s saying how they vomited and got carted to the hospital, and I’m like ‘I watched Goodfellas,’ and nobody cares,” Wallis says. “I listened to Scorcese’s commentary track for 3 hours,” he’d say. Then, he’d get punched by a teammate.
In June 2011, when Wallis was in the middle of producing a feature film, he saw a tweet from Spitta asking if anyone was handy with a Canon EOS 7D camera. Wallis was having a bad day, so he decided to spam the hell out of the Jet Life leader and his manager Mousa Hamdan. He blitzed on every platform he could until he got a reply.
Wallis always wanted to make a tour documentary. As a self-taught cameraman, editor, producer and filmmaker, he gained inspiration from Radiohead’s Meeting People Is Easy, an abstract, scattershot 90 minute documentary shot during the OK Computer tour that premiered in 1998. Documenting Thom Yorke’s near-breakdown that came with his increased success, it is not a happy film, full of jump cuts and bad omens. Similarly, the first video CJ and Curren$y ever shot together captured Spitta at a low. He broke his ankle at the Rock The Bells festival in San Bernandino, CA., on the cusp of full-blown greatness. Calling the tour documentary his hip-hopMagnolia, Wallis documented Curren$y’s ascent.
And then CJ’s house got robbed. His entire life’s work was gone: six hard drives. “I’ve only just recently recovered, and that was October 2012. And not to be overdramatic, but it was everything. Every movie I’d ever made, every script I’d written since 17,” Wallis laments.
But it didn’t break him. Months later, CJ is one of the guys. He’s done Jernts With Spitta, the Red Eye Tour documentary, Jetflix, Cruise Life and a slew of other one-off music videos. Still, being on tour with the crew doesn’t mean he isn’t still a Canadian guy amongst a bunch of dudes from the South.
“I still get mocked endlessly. I can’t figure it out. Like, I order fast food. As soon as I say, ‘A number two without pickles or onions,’ the whole car is in tears. And it’s like, I try to be cool about it, it’s just like I don’t get it. I just ordered food,” CJ said. “Everyone’s in tears like ‘It’s alright man, you’re just you.’”
When asked who he would be if the whole Jet Life family were Street Fighter characters, CJ answers Chun Li “because the triple kick is so hard to stop.” Even that comment doesn’t escape joking. “Just like him wanna play with a bitch,” Jet Lifer Cornerboy P jokes while he finishes smoking a spliff.
But his importance to the effort is undeniable. In addition to his video exploits, he designs cover art and websites. From a creative standpoint, JLF just isn’t the same without Wallis.
“He makes it easy. That’s what he do. You could just go on our Twitters and read the comments about his work. That’s what helps. Everybody likes it, I’ve never heard anybody talk down on his work,” JL mainstay Young Roddy says. “Even the work he thinks is bad, everybody thinks it’s awesome.”
Six months into working with the Jets, Mousa posted a Tweet saying that Wallis was the president of Jet Life Films. “He didn’t tell me anything. There wasn’t a Jet Life Films at the time, or maybe we had talked about it a little bit,” CJ says. “Then he just did this tweet and I was like, holy shit, I’m not going anywhere for a minute.
“I was just like, I’m the JFK of JLF ‘cause my hair parts like this anyway. The ‘50s and ‘60s, I just like that. All my previous work is all set in that. I’m trying to hide in that decade because I wasn’t born then.”
To be fair, he doesn’t look anything like JFK. (Again, he is also Canadian.) Still, it’s a pretty slick nickname. For hardcore Jet Lifers, Wallis is just as famous as any artist in the crew. At Howard’s Cramton Auditorium, various fans run up to him after the show asking for pictures with him. Some ask him to take pictures of them with their cellphones.
For Curren$y’s newest project, The Drive In Theatre, which came out on Friday, Wallis flexed some more game. He redesigned and overhauled the Jet Life website for the Valentine’s Day drop. He also happened to finish wrapping up a shoot on the feature film BB starring Jennifer Mae.
Yet through all the strange paths he’s taken to becoming the Steve Nash of directors, he’s still got a master goal. “I got a script that I’m writing to have the Jet Life guys in, original soundtrack and the same brand and everything that the music is, but kind of the movie version,” he says. “I’m 32. I know I’m going to get back into film 100%, I had a plan when I was 15. I quit sports that my parents put a lot of money they didn’t have and their time into. I left all that because I said I’m going to get an Oscar. I got a plan.”
Lames catch feelings, Clinton Yates catches flights. He’s on Twitter – @clintonyates
Photos by Leah Binkovitz – @leahbink