It’s hard to overestimate the influence and importance of Prince Paul in hip-hop history. Essentially the George Martin or Brian Wilson of the genre, Paul (born Paul Huston) elevated rap production to an art form with albums like 3 Feet High and Rising, and went on to create not only some of De La Soul’s most famous recordings, but instrumentals and arrangements – literally the defining sound – for a wide variety of artists. He’s worked with everyone from RZA to Cypress Hill to Beastie Boys to DJ Shadow to Bernie Worrell (and countless others), and he continues to use his restless creativity to reinvent not only that wide variety of performers, but himself as well.
Most recently, he appeared in Los Angeles at the UCB theater to perform Negroes On Ice, a stage show featuring his son as a one-man raconteur who spins a spectacular fable as Paul provide musical and video accompaniment. CraveOnline recently got in touch with Paul about the inception of Negroes On Ice; additionally, he offered some thoughts about his place within the industry, talked about his musical evolution, and offered a few updates about some of his older projects, including his long-gestating, and still highly-anticipated collaboration with Dan the Automator and Mike Simpson of The Dust Brothers, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly.
Hi, Paul. How are you today?
I'm good. I'm good. How about yourself?
Good – it’s a great honor to get to speak to you. You are my all-time favorite hip-hop producer.
Well, thank you. Hey, did you say that to the last person, hip-hop dude you talked to?
I absolutely did not.
Okay, good, just checking with you. I really, really appreciate it.
Absolutely. Well, let’s talk about Negroes on Ice. I got an email last week saying that this thing was coming, which I was not aware of. What exactly is this?
What it is, is actually sort of say a one-man play, which me and my son had wrote, and he is actually the front man of this whole thing. It’s a small production. We tried to keep it simple and keep it personable to the people, so it’s been like small theaters, and it’s more or less like a day in the life of my son. Kind of the inspiration for it is my son has a tendency of—and this is in true life—just like fabricating the truth and kind of extending like these weird stories and stuff. So it’s more or less an exaggerated day in his life; I mean, all the people participated that I'm about to mention did voiceovers and stuff for the play, but he wakes up in the morning and his girlfriend is Rosie Perez. He eventually goes to RZA’s house, punches him in the face and just randomly looks at RZA’s artwork. It’s like it’s just bizarre, and he goes to Freddy Foxx’s house and punches him in the face, and he ends up at a gay parade and he goes from the gay parade to Peanut Butter Wolf, Erick Sermon is a cab driver, Ice-T eventually tries to arrest him. So it’s all over the place – probably my best way to describe it is it’s like a staged play of Adult Swim, so I’ll put it like this: you will definitely need to pay close attention, because if you don’t catch it in the beginning you won’t know what’s going on (laughs). It’s just it’s a bizarre play.
Obviously for all these people to be involved you have to formalize the structure. So how did it evolve from this penchant for exaggeration into a full-fledged stage show?
Well, I wanted to do a one-man play for a while, like ever since I've seen John Leguizamo and Whoopi Goldberg I thought, “I can do that.” But then time went on and I became an old man, so my son started doing these – like in real life he does sort of really fabricated stories, and then he started putting them on when MySpace was really popular. I really didn’t pay attention to it until a lot of his friends or a lot of kids were really responding to it, [and] they knew all the words to the stories and he started putting sound effects to them, and then a local radio station played one of the songs that he made from the stories. I was like wow. Then I had to take notice; I kind of ignored it for a while, but then I was like, wow, people really are paying attention to this. So I was like, “you know, it’s funny – I came up with an idea to do a one-man play, so let’s sit down, take some of these stories, some kind of real life stuff and then kind of just stuff that’s obviously just bizarre stuff, and let’s just make a sequence of events and make a play and you be the front man.” And he was like “bet,” and it took us about a good year to write it, because working with your kid is a little different than working with somebody else because your patience level is just a little shorter, and then you bring other things into the equation. Because we can be downstairs writing and it’s like, “hey, did you take out the garbage?” So then you get sidetracked – “didn’t I tell you to put up the dishes? And what happened to your room and your homework?” So it took us a while to actually get it done. But I think it’s just bizarre – I think it’s fun.
You are really for all intents and purposes the guy who pioneered the skit, that sort of interactive tapestry that connects all of the songs on an album. How much with this did you connect what might normally be a digression into sort of a full narrative, maybe in the way that you did with Itstrumental or Psychoanalysis?
Well, I mean first and foremost, the skit is like a gift and a curse because it’s nice to kind of make your mark, your stamp in hip-hop history, but then the actual thing is kind of annoying on a lot of hip hop records. But I think the one thing that definitely helped is just prior experience, and just creating kind of what I call a cinema on wax. A good guide definitely was doing A Prince Among Thieves because instead of like in Prince Among Thieves where it’s more like a movie thing, this is more like dialogue, and then scoring the dialogue, or I mean even in the play everything runs in real time obviously and as he’s talking, I'm scoring it. So you know he can—he walks through the woods, “crunch crunch crunch.” He comes through the window “smash!” So everything is running in real time, and we support it by having video that supports a lot of the story. And you know there is music as well, but as opposed to music being the main driving force, the music is actually secondary in our performance.
The RZA did a thing a few years ago in LA where he was actually mixing video, scratching cartoons and doing things with video mixers. Do you do any of that kind of stuff, or is it pretty straightforward in terms of assembling footage that accompanies what he’s talking about?
Yeah, it’s pretty straightforward. I mean, the video thing I've done that a few years ago with Peanut Butter Wolf and he’s just been doing that a whole lot, and then even before then with Handsome Boy Modeling School, when they first made the CDJs that had video to them, we were using that in our live performance to take the place of some of the artists we couldn’t get, and we made videos to support the show. But in this case it’s not necessarily that; it’s almost like a slide projection – some videos are in there, but like I said, a lot of these things are mainly to support the dialogue as opposed to being like “the thing.” But to me it’s kind of multifaceted because you have an audio portion, a video portion, and then you have him acting onstage, so hopefully at some point we don’t lose you because there is so much going on. Hopefully it’s not overstimulus, but there is a lot of things going on.
Do you appear onstage?
Yeah, but what I am is more or less the sound effects, scoring guy as the thing goes on, and I'm onstage with them. I have a turntable set up, and we do banter along the play, because in real life that’s what we do. We try to make it as much of what we do at home, because for some reason like people who come over, my friends, his friends seem to get a kick out of our relationship. You know, in a lot of ways it’s typical dad, but at the same time we just snap on each other all day. Like with my son is and my kids in general, I've created my own best friends, so at the same time there is definitely a level of respect, and I'm the dad and what I say goes, but at the same time it’s like we have a whole lot of fun. So that’s what we try to show onstage and hopefully at the same time, if kids come with the parents or whatever else, it opens up some dialogue, because there is definitely a difference in generations, but then again it kind of shows that there is thin line, especially my generation and his generation. As before with my parents and me, we seemed like miles apart. I think nowadays maybe it’s because of media, maybe it’s because of just, you know, “30 is the new 20” and “50 is the new 40” makes this generation gap a lot smaller you know, but there is definitely a lot more things we compare and contrast at the same time.
I feel like you’re one of the most candid performers in hip-hop when it comes to your music really communicating sort of where you are or how you feel. Like Politics of the Business was sort of half-satirical and half-if this comes off, it will kind of almost cynically be like a weird triumph. Was this something you undertook because you felt like you weren’t making as many inroads with music as you wanted to, or what led to this for you?
Well, it’s two things. Part of it is just boredom – especially for music, I've been there and done that. Like, thank God I've accomplished highs and lows in my music career, but luckily a lot of highs. But I’ve always been one to like kind of make everything I've done visual; part of it is just still being a child and still being imaginative and, you know, enjoying kids’ records when I was little and kind of listening to the story and kind of see it out. That’s one part of it. And the other part of it is watching my son mature. And I'll admittedly say I didn’t really pay attention to what he wanted to accomplish musically because he DJs, he produces, it’s almost like a miniature version of me. I never wanted to make or have that situation where – and I always kind of downed it – when you see the parent of somebody who has a certain profession, or certain amount of fame whether it be actor, actress, musician and then their kids come along and you’re like “oh, it’s the watered down version of this other person.” Or you know you look at it and you go, “he’s only down because his parent hooked him up.” I've always despised that and I've always been ride or die for music and it’s by the heart, so I’d always I just thought that what he did was just be default because it’s what I did, but it wasn’t until I noticed that he actually had a talent – and his talent is different from mine. It’s similar in some ways, but he’s a lot more animated, and I don’t know if it’s because he’s younger, I don’t know if it’s because he’s been raised into it, but he’s a lot more animated in his imagination and his humor than me, and I think he’s really, really funny. I think he’s a lot funnier than a lot of people give me credit for, and not because he’s my son, but just basically because I just think he is. So when it came time to put this together, it was easy to make him like the front man. And like I said, it’s another generation; I like to see him become better and greater than me, if it’s in what I do or with whatever he does. And at the same time for me it’s like, you’re bored man. Like every record I've made, if you noticed, it’s almost schizophrenic because it goes from De La to Gravediggaz to Handsome Boy; I mean, I’m kind of the common denominator of all those things with my sense of humor, but that’s just the way my life has been. You say, oh God, okay, all right, next thing.
Are you still as interested in music as you ever were? In the last few years, you’ve been doing these internet radio shows and stuff like Be My Valentine with Peanut Butter Wolf.
Wow, you know all that stuff. That’s all the bizarre stuff. I forgot about that.
But you’ve done all of these really interesting, ongoing things that are in different areas. Do you feel the industry has had a sufficient appreciation for and continued interest in what you do?
You know, honestly from the gate I never thought people had appreciation and interest in what I did (laughs). Even as far as this interview, I'm like wow – they want to talk to me? And it’s like there is so much of that “other thing” that I think sometimes what I do is refreshing and different, and sometimes you know people like that. Maybe it’s not always the masses, but there is a certain amount of people who go, “the word swag has been used a billion, trillion times – I'm kind of tired of that. What is this other thing?” And usually I'm kind of that other thing, and that’s cool because I think to the left anyway – I always have. And the music industry now to me, to kind of answer the earlier question as far as inspiration and making music is, I don’t know – I just got bored. I used to listen to the radio or whatever and just get inspired and go, wow, that’s great, oh man, there is new music. But now the majority of it, I'm not going to say all, but the majority of it is just like, “isn’t this the same tempo and the same music and the same 808 and the same keyboard of the last song? And that chant sounds very familiar!”
How many times are people going to try to sound like Drake? I'm like, wow, when I was young biting [someone’s style] was a crime. Now biting is like appreciated – if you don’t bite you’re not cool. So honestly I'm kind of turned off on a lot of things, but I think in very recent times it has made me – very recent, as in the last few months, I've been actually inspired to make new things, primarily because people have came up to me, whether it be on Twitter or in person when I DJ or whatever, and they’re like, “yo, when are you making something new? It’s time for something different.” And I got this bug now, like oh, what’s the next thing? And the play is definitely one of the next things, but I'm due to make another record, and so I'm in the process of making music for it now. I'm really excited, really, really, really excited about it.
Buhloone Mindstateis my favorite De La Soul album, as much as I love the first two as well. Even if you just look at the colors of the album cover, there is this real lush sort of vitality to it, and the stuff that you did on that is so remarkable because it feels like you refined all the ideas that you had on the first two De La Soul albums. What’s your experience been like in refining this eclectic range of influences from Serge Gainsbourg to children’s records and plugging them into these things? Because when you listen to Buhloone Mindstate, much less the Paul Barman EP or whatever else, listening to them you feel this interesting growth and refinement and precision, but you never lose the energy and the color and the vitality of those things. How do you think about your own evolution as a musician and producer?
Well, first and foremost, thanks for the compliment for Buhloone Mindstate. That’s actually Chris Rock’s favorite record that I've done and weirdly enough has got me to work with him and a few other people. Comedians for some reason take to that record, like Dave Chappelle was like, “oh, I love Buhloone Mindstate,” and that was kind of like the ongoing record for the comedians. And I'm like, “that record?” It has the least comedic value of any record I've ever made (laughs). But for me, trying to refine is just what I see as time goes on; I'm getting older, so you just mature in general, and I think part of it is being more critical, which is kind of good and bad. It’s good in the way that now when I make a song, I make things and I'm really listening technically on a lot of things, how things should mesh or how a feeling should be. Now, I kind of know how to hone in on a certain sound that I want, as opposed to before, it’s almost like, “wow, okay, I stumbled onto that.” You know there is still some of that, but less of it now. Now I can kind of capture something.
But the bad side of it is less likely to do just that, just to stumble onto things. There is a certain creative process that you have just by being ignorant, like, “yeah, so that’s how that’s done,” or there are things you would put together just by not knowing. Where now it’s like, “I can’t put those two horns together,” and I might dismiss it even before I try it, where before I would just randomly do things. So yeah, in a way it refines what I do, which is great and I'm glad you can hear it in the production, but at the same time it limits me because I feel like I'm not as creative as I once was. So I try to battle that all the time. Like how do you dumb yourself after you’ve learned something and acknowledged something? So it’s a constant conflict I go through production-wise.
How much at this point do you produce and sell instrumentals these days? I’m thinking about how MF Doom recorded like 500 songs and he just sells the living shit out of them and they’re fantastic. I’m not taking anything away from him, but he produced this huge library of songs that he just sells to Ghostface and these other people. Do you ever think about doing that, or do you see your instrumental albums as maybe a way to introduce people to certain sounds that you make?
Not at all. Like, I'm real sensitive – I’m just real sensitive about my music and stuff and I'm real sensitive on quality and everything else. And though I have a lot of music that I've made and I don’t know what will happen to it, some old, unreleased stuff I put out on Soundcloud and Mixcloud and stuff, but I don’t know; it’s just not my thing. Like, I’m not saying every record I've made is a hit or it’s crazy ill, but I don’t want to put music out for the sake of putting it out or just for like money. I've watched my spending, so I wouldn’t have to do that (laughs). I'm not saying that Doom and everybody else does that for that reason, but other than wanting to make money, there is no other reason why I would even put those things out. It’s a certain level of like you know quality I want to put to stuff. But I don’t know – maybe I’d luck out and hit an act that might come off and be good. Who knows? But I'll never find that out, because I don’t think I'll do it. But who knows? I can’t tell you about the next five years to ten years to twenty years, but as of now I don’t think so.
I know you’ve put out a couple of retrospective things, Hip Hop Gold Dust and stuff like that, but are there any records that you’ve produced that to this day you regret not being able to come out, or that you still hope will come out one day so people will have the opportunity to hear it?
Well, I put it out recently – just I gave it away for free – and that was this project I did called Horror City, which I loved that project, personally. I worked hard on that project and nobody would give it love, so I stumbled upon it maybe two or three years ago. I almost forgot about it, and I just gave it away for free – and it’s funny how people seem to appreciate it now. They go, “what? Nobody picked this up? This is great!” And I remember going to the label and they were like with their noses up, “what?” It was almost like Gravediggaz – they did the same thing. But they were like, “ugh, we don’t want nothing to do with this!” But other than that, there is not really too much of anything. A lot of stuff I'll listen back to and then I'm like, “I'm kind of glad this didn’t come out” – you know, in the moment it was great, but looking back, I'm like, “eww.”
I have to ask you about The Good, the Bad and the Ugly project, which you were supposed to do with Dan the Automator and Mike Simpson of the Dust Brothers. What happened to that, and is there a possibility that it will ever sort of come to fruition?
There is a good 99.9% chance that it won’t happen, and what happened to it is me, Mike and Dan had actually recorded a lot of the music. I still have a lot of the music that we have, and it’s great. Like I wish I could take it and just release it because it’s really, really good; we sat in a room together for like two days straight with three separate machines, and we were just all programming stuff and passing it off and adding stuff. I think one song that we recorded fully was a song that had a De La rhyme on it, which oh, man I wish I could release that song. It’s really, really good. And it all started to come together and I think it was just some weird thing going on at DreamWorks because Mike had worked at DreamWorks. But honestly I don’t know what happened; it just kind of never came to fruition you know. We started to do the deal, started to make the record, and then there was just inner things that [kept it from happening]. My focus at the time was just doing Handsome Boy and I let Dan and Mike kind of man the helm with that particular project and it just dissipated. But I haven’t talked to Dan in man whew, like 2005? And Mike, I haven’t talked to Mike since probably near that project, so it was a long time ago.
Is there a record that you feel like you’re proudest of, that you feel like it came out exactly the way you wanted it to or came to fruition the most satisfactorily?
Well, listening back to all my records I'm like eh, and there is tons of mistakes on stuff and I'll always find fault in it and I could always pick out, that’s wrong, that’s wrong, I’d change the drums on that, or I would do this. But the only one that has less of that would be Six Feet Deep, the Gravediggaz record. I worked really, really hard putting that record together and I did it with such a passion at the time because I just felt so slighted by everybody that I put so much work into it trying to, I guess, prove to myself and prove to other people that I wasn’t wack, so that record is very intricate. Like, people might not realize it, but if you listen close to that, to just the production and all the stuff that goes on in it and the changes and the sample that comes in one time, there is a lot of work done on that record. And I can listen to it now and appreciate it and go, “wow, I did that?” And weirdly enough, I think the Paul Barman record, It’s Very Stimulating, it’s easy to listen to for me. I can listen to it and appreciate it, and that was definitely overlooked.
That Barman record is just fantastic. But one of my friends in college and I probably listened to that Gravediggaz album like a thousand times. To this day, I can probably call him up and he can still tell me every lyric to every song.
Thanks, yeah. I think out of all those records, that to me is like the more passionate one out of it. I'm proud of that record. And it wasn’t just that; at the time, it helped a lot of those guys – it definitely helped Poetic, God bless his soul, and Frukwan. We actually started recording this pre-Wu-Tang, and so it was a defining moment I think too for me working with RZA, which you know, I don’t talk about too much, but [I was] showing him stuff in the studio and how to record and all sort of stuff, which he kind of took over to the Wu-Tang side in his production. And it was a bonding moment, so it was nice; it had a weird brotherly type of thing going on you know, so it was good times.
After the show in Los Angeles, what are your plans for Negroes On Ice – will you take it on tour? Or how are you guys planning to unveil it across the country?
As of now, we’re going around more or less promoting everything. Like we’ve done this at the UCB Theater in New York in December of 2010, and that was just more or less like a rough sketch to kind of get an idea of what we’re going to do, and rewrite and kind of fix the rough ends on it. So we’re going now just to get a buzz up; we’re going to put out a Negroes on Ice record later this year, which is actually based on this whole play obviously. It’s basically the whole play on wax. Actually, it’s a little longer than the play on wax. But this is just to get people to talk about it, but the plan is to gather up all our data and at the end of the year make this a tour. We want to go out and hit all the little theaters across the country you know, overseas where people understand and speak English, and we really would love to do a college tour. I think that would be beautiful, to kind of go to colleges and do it, because to me it’s funny, and I honestly think it’s a nice bonding piece for any parent that has kids. Even though it has nothing to do with that, it has all to do with how it was created, and it would be nice to see more parents kind of get involved, without sounding cheesy, and kids doing things together.