After more than 40 years in music television production, J. Kevin Swain still fondly looks back on the menial tasks that launched his career. In 1986, for example, he was working on Showtime’s Motown docuseries — the first documentary of his career — when he was sent out to get lunch for Aretha Franklin.
“’All this is is getting lunch and taking care of errands,’” Swain says now, thinking back to his role at the time, when he was just happy being surrounded by music’s greatest acts. “‘I can do this with a smile.’”
Now, having directed music videos for Tupac Shakur, worked countless variety show and festival jobs and racked up 14 Soul Train Awards over the past several decades, he’s forged a substantial career as a producer and director in music television.
There was no doubt in Swain’s mind that he wanted to work in both music and television since he was a child. Growing up in a household with all women, he never had control of the radio, but one night his older sister took him to see Mad Dogs & Englishmen — a concert footage and documentary film about Joe Cocker — at a drive-in theater in Inglewood and Swain knew he wanted to belong in that space, whatever it looked like.
He landed his first gig as a production assistant on The Redd Fox Show in the 1980s, quickly followed by The Patti Labelle Show, where he was tasked with doing all the little things for stars like Labelle, Luther Vandross, Cyndi Lauper and more. It did not matter how small the task was: Swain was happy to be there.
In order to land his next job, he called his professor at UCLA at least 30 times, he recalls, so he could work on the Grammy awards. “My whole focus was to work at the Grammys, because there was a jazz celebration that had Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Williams, Sarah Vaughn, BB King, Stanley Clarksdale,” says Swain. “I realized persistence is a beautiful thing, particularly if you want to do something with people you really admire.”
Swain had gotten the bug for the intersection of music and film, especially when it was live. He moved onto his first documentary series called Motown for Showtime where he worked on specials hosted by Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson that celebrated legendary acts like The Temptations, Four Tops and Marvin Gaye and delivered Franklin her lunch. (The two would reunite years later when Swain directed the Queen of Soul in a documentary about Soul Train.)
Swain’s big break arrived when he began working for Robert Townsend on HBO specials and became an associate producer. He quickly garnered the nickname “the 82nd airborne,” since it was his job to fix problems. “That’s when I realized I enjoyed the variety TV space and working with Black folks,” says Swain.
His tenacity landed him a job alongside Don Cornelius at the Soul Train Awards. In 1994, he happily remembers getting to produce the Death Row Records segment where Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg enter the stage in a low rider to perform “Nuthin But a G Thang.”
“Don gave me as much rope as I wanted to learn and grow,” says Swain. “And sometimes I went too far out and he’d let me know.”
His work on the Soul Train Awards landed him connections throughout the music industry. Swain can recall the direct line from the awards to his extensive work with Tupac. Because of Soul Train, someone gave him free tickets to see D’Angelo at the House of Blues on Sunset in L.A., where he ran into Dr. Dre, who was curious if he still directed music videos. (Swain had launched his music video directing career with Eazy-E for “We Want Eazy” after getting a call at 2 a.m. one night to work with the rapper.)
Dre invited Swain over the next day to start work on a new video for “California Love (Remix)” featuring Tupac. Born and raised in South Central L.A., Swain understood the assignment of capturing the Golden State. Tupac and I “thrived on getting the work done,” says Swain. “He was real clear — ‘This is what we’re doing. This is what I need from you. I won’t have you long.’”
Swain — who approaches projects like a producer first, then a director — says he appreciates artists like Tupac who arrive with a plan. “Artists are busy,” he says. “A lot of times there is mutual respect when artists know you’ve got their back.” To this day, Swain is the director with the most collaborations with Tupac.
Swain went on to work on music videos with Busta Rhymes, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Outkast and more. He has also been tapped to do direct shows at festivals including Coachella, Afropunk, the New Orleans Jazz Festival, Pharrell’s Something in the Water and Tyler, the Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw. He has even captured Kanye West’s Sunday Service, which Swain considered more than a concert event.
“It is one thing to just shoot what it is. It’s another thing to know when the spirit is moving,” Swain explains. “I told my crew at the time, ‘This isn’t just a job. This is not a concert. This is a praise and worship experience.’”
In 2022, Swain remains busy. He recently directed docuseries Biography: Bobby Brown for A&E and Inside the Black Box; shot footage of Macy Gray in the U.K.; directed for the New Edition tour; and directed the Essence Fest Prime Time for Hulu. “These are jobs and they are opportunities,” says Swain. “But they are more responsibilities.”
What has changed in the industry is: the number of outlets to receive entertainment. I grew up with NBC, ABC, CBS and then cable and now you have platforms. As the technology has changed, it has given me more opportunities to do what I love.
When you’re coming up: love the moments, cherish the moments.
The best advice I ever received was: to keep God first. It is a rough business and it is wrought with ups and downs and twists and turns.
I’ve never had a problem with: career security. I’ve never thought, ‘This is it for me.’ Never. That’s the beauty of doing more than one thing. There will always be documentaries. There will always be commercials. There will always be live music. There will always be televised entertainment.
What’s never made sense to me is: fear, because fear of failing is fear of trying. If you don’t try, then you fail.
I am still learning: that I don’t know everything.