The artist currently known as Prince Paul

Hip-hop's mastermind producer tries to explain what is real.

Published April 21, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

If hip-hop is a genre of constant change and evolution, DJ and producer Prince Paul and his 15-year career of instant success, surprising failures and an out-of-nowhere comeback almost personifies the genre.

At the beginning, Prince Paul, the 31-year-old Paul Huston, was just a kid DJ with New York old-schoolers Stetsasonic. During that period, he hooked up with three fellow Long Islanders calling themselves De La Soul and produced the landmark "3 Feet High and Rising." The unforeseen success caused a rift with Stetsasonic, essentially an underground outfit, and Paul quit. Five years later he split with De La Soul over commercial and artistic differences.

Def Jam Records pegged Paul with his own boutique label, Dew Doo Man Records, which never happened: The company refused to release every artist he signed. He fell into depression and came out of it in 1994 with the Gravediggaz's "6 Feet Deep," a masterpiece of paranoia made with the Wu-Tang's RZA, an underrated rapper named Too Poetic and Frukwan, an old friend from the Stetsasonic days. In 1996, Paul released his first solo album, "Psychoanalysis: What Is It?" a mostly instrumental record that gave hip-hop a brain and allowed its subconscious to open up on vinyl.

The story at the center of "Prince Among Thieves," the follow-up to "Psychoanalysis" and Paul's major label return, is about an aspiring rapper named Tariq who needs $1,000 to finish a demo tape in time for a business meeting with the Wu-Tang Clan. Along the way, the young MC meets characters portrayed by rap stars Kool Keith, Big Daddy Kane, Chubb Rock, Biz Markie, De La Soul, Everlast and others. In accordance with Paul's idea to create an invisible movie told with skits and rhymes, each cast member wrote and delivered his rhymes in character.

The finished product is an uncommonly sharp, yet affectionate, criticism of hip-hop culture. Instead of preaching from the outside or complaining from within, Paul accomplishes the trick of mocking hip-hop's self-importance and bloat while following the genre's own rules. The surface story, about Tariq, is an entertaining and violent tale that wouldn't sound out of place on a thug-life gangster record. But underneath, the cunning samples, complex beats and various mike styles offer a subtle alternative. By showcasing diverse rappers with diverse skills, Paul is portraying real artists -- a direct play on the supposed "real" life quality (read: hard ballin', gun-toting hustlers) of commercial rap records.

Hip-hop, of course, is a broad and diverse cultural movement with history, geography and ethnic diversity. Rap, on the other hand, is a narrow intersection on the hip-hop spectrum, driven by the music industry and commercial concerns. Under Paul's deft direction, "Prince Among Thieves" manages to be both a rap and a hip-hop record.

This interview took place at the Manhattan offices of Tommy Boy Records. At one point in the conversation, Prince Paul marveled at the fact that he had been working with the label almost half his life, starting when he joined Stetsasonic at age 16.

You're approaching a hip-hop taboo by writing about obviously fictional characters. RZA of Wu-Tang Clan took a lot of flak in the rap press for wearing a mask and using alter ego Bobby Digital because it wasn't considered real. Why is blatantly fictionalized rap a no-no?

I don't know. Everything is supposed to be all real and trendy, but rap is so made up. It's almost like pro wrestling.

By putting on a mask, RZA was acknowledging a make-believe identity. That's the taboo both of you are breaking.

I think it's different. People expect the unexpected from me. They expect zany stuff. RZA is credible in "real" rap. With me, it's like, "Oh, there goes Paul again."

I don't understand the negative reaction that a lot of ghetto kids have toward rappers playing fictional characters. I mean, I appreciate the preference for tough music and hard personas, but to label those characters "real" and all others "fake" strikes me bizarre. I assume that ghetto kids know that Raekwon and Mobb Deep aren't really mafia coke dealers.

I dunno. I go around and talk to a lot of kids and they really feel it. Maybe it's something they wanna live. I think the average kid on the street doesn't put too much thought into anything: He just reacts. If he really sat down and looked at the marketing, the money, the record company -- really pieced things together -- he'd be like, "This doesn't add up. You say you sell all this weed, and you shot all these people, but you're blatantly out there on the front of your album cover, chillin'!" Rap is like that anyway -- it's whatever's now, whatever's trendy. Me, I put thought into practically everything.

Do you think there's a class or a race issue there?

I don't really think so. I think it's just peer pressure. Being smart isn't cool. Y'know? It like, "Huh-huh, I drink 40s and smoke blunts -- I'm cool." And if you say, "Hey I'm thinking about taking some extra classes," then you're corny.

"Prince Among Thieves" is both cool and smart.

A lot of times I don't realize what I'm making until after I make it. I wrote the story and I made the record, but only looking back on it can I see what I meant. It's almost like psychotherapy. You express all these things, then afterward you go back and break it down.

It's got some very sly satire, like when the character True orders a gun that's "lightweight, yet economical, and'll match with brown Tims."

Ha ha! I'm just playing a joke but brothers be like, "Yo! I kinda feeeeel that, man." I think being cool is just funny, 'cause brothers go way out of their way to fit in. It gets to a point where it's almost like being a clown. It's not even real.

It's just arbitrary. Like Timberlands become the cool shoe one day.

It's not cool. What gains more respect in my eyes is people who can be themselves under any conditions. I mean, yeah, I'll adapt to a situation, but I'm still myself. If I feel a certain way I'll express it, and that's what comes across in my music. I'm not scared to say I'm scared or angry or happy. That's what I thought artistry is supposed to be about.

You cut through the phoniness in rap. For example, Tariq, the protagonist, boasts about an elaborate sexual encounter on the song "Steady Slobbin'." But you pepper the song with little snippets of what actually happened between him and the girl, which contradicts Tariq's story. And it all rhymes.

That's funny, right? I didn't think anybody would really pay attention to that. Breeze [of the group Juggaknots, who plays Tariq] is really talented, really slept on. He's a really smart guy. And he knows all the newest slang -- that's what makes him cool. He's like an intellectual street kid.

"Prince Among Thieves" touches on race issues in, again, a really sly and penetrating way: You have white rapper Everlast portraying a racist cop. It's like the separate-but-equal flip side of gangsta rap.

I thought the grimy voice that he has would be so perfect, almost like a Nick Nolte that rhymes. He knew exactly what I wanted, and as soon as I asked him he started writing the rhyme.

Why didn't you back Chubb Rock, who plays drug dealer Mr. Big, with anything except for Biz Markie's human beatbox?

Because nobody does that anymore. It was like a blast from the past, getting Biz to do the beatbox. What's good about the older rappers is that they're really professional, really courteous. I like that.

Even Kool Keith, who plays weapons dealer Crazy Lou? He has a reputation for being sort of difficult to work with.

Out of everybody on this album, he was one of the most if not the most professional. He was on time, and in some cases early. He was so on-point that when we did "Weapon World," he showed up with gun magazines. He did research for his part. I was really impressed.

You've both been in the game for so long and yet your styles are still evolving.

This album enabled me to try a lot of different styles to fit the mood of the story. It gave me an excuse to experiment. "Prince Among Thieves" is about putting everything I've ever learned on one record. I can score. I can do hip-hop beats. I can do alternative styles. I can do ballads.

What is your greatest strength?

I can make MCs sound really good and I think I can really produce. I'm not the best beat-maker: My beats are OK. What sets me apart is sight-on arranging and getting artists to project as much of themselves as they can. I don't have those records that radio loves and can embrace, but what I do, I do pretty good.

The depth and variety of emotion in your mixes is also unusual. I always think of the way the horns in De La's "Potholes in My Lawn" seemed to be laughing along with Posdnuos' goofy rhyme.

I think it's important for everything to kinda fit. I remember telling Pos a long time ago -- though the rule doesn't fit anymore because people are just doing whatever as far as sound -- that we always had to have the drums match the era that the sample came from. Like, we couldn't have "Planet Rock" drums on "Plug Tunin'," we'd want something with more swing. That's not popular anymore.

You're thinking of the whole.

My way of thinking is really warped. Sometimes I wish I could do some other kind of style, but even if I tried and sat down and said I'm gonna make a commercial song, or a radio hit, I can't do it. It's just not me.

By Adam Heimlich

Adam Heimlich is a regular contributor to Salon.

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