Prince Paul Hip-Hops to His Own Drummer

Prince Paul Hip-Hops to His Own Drummer – the career of music producer Paul Huston

V. R. Peterson

A black BMW sits in the driveway of the house where Paul Huston lives. The basement–crowded with compact discs, turntables, keykboards and a Macintosh computer–has long been transformed into a recording studio dominated by a 32-track mixing board. Otherwise, there is nothing to suggest that this relatively small, one-family home in Long Island is the castle of the most unassuming member of hip-hop’s royal family.

This low profile is exactly what 32-year-old Grammy-winning producer Prince Paul–as Huston is known in the hip-hop nation–prefers. “I don’t expect much,” he says, downplaying a career that grew from a love of deejaying into a reputation as the Black Einstein of hip-hop. “My take has always been nonchalant. Things just happened because I was in the right place at the right time.”

The place, of course, was behind a turntable. The time was the mid-1980s. Prince Paul was studying audio engineering and business management at Long Island’s Five Towns College by day (an experience he calls “a waste of time”) and mixing beats by night. A fateful block party in Brooklyn, N.Y., changed everything: Members of the rap group Stetsasonic were at the party, and they were so impressed by Prince Paul’s irreverent mix of rhythmic textures and quirky musical references that they introduced themselves and started making plans to collaborate.

The result was 1988’s “In Full Gear,” the title track on Stetsasonic’s second CD. More than a decade later, Prince Paul says he is “still overwhelmed” by his luck and longevity. For a brief time, he had his own record label. His credits include gigs with acts as diverse as Big Daddy Kane, white rappers 3rd Bass, pop’s Fine Young Cannibals, and comedian Chris Rock (whose recording of July’s HBO special, Bigger and Blacker, lists Prince Paul as one of its producers).

Curiously, Prince Paul’s most creative project this year is one that has attracted more ink than airplay. On A Prince Among Thieves (Tommy Boy), the musician offers what he refers to as “a movie on wax.” It is an old idea made new. Thieves follows a hybrid musical odyssey by plotting the hip-hop skit (a generally comic, seemingly illogical interlude that Prince Paul made popular on De La Soul’s CD 3 Feet High and Rising) and tells a story scene-by-scene against an ever-shifting tapestry of sampled sounds, songs, filters and rhythms.

Think of Ellington’s thematic tonal portraits and suites, such as Black, Brown and Beige, or such concept albums as Marvin Gaye’s politically astute What’s Going On?–or, more on target here, Parliament/ Funkadelic’s antic excursions on the Mothership. “The artwork and the records told a story,” says Prince Paul, a definite celebrant of George Clinton’s P-funk energy.

Musically, Thieves offers a pastiche of surprises. A line from a familiar sea shanty, bits of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, jazz riffs (don’t miss the slice of “Moody’s Mood for Love”) and snippets from earlier De La Soul tracks all smoothly come together with rap’s more typical, booming beats. It is this deliberate eclecticism that characterizes Prince Paul’s signature sound–a style to make you smile. “A lot of what I do is by feel,” he says. “I know what I want to hear. I have a short attention span, so if I’m not amused, if something in the song doesn’t make me screwface, the track’s not ready.”

Textually, Thieves spins a familiar narrative of innocence betrayed, performed by a roster of rappers both established and new. Tariq–the fiction’s talented wannabe rapper–hungers for a record deal but needs $1,000 to finish a demo tape. No problem, says his thuggish best friend, True, who hooks Tariq up with some action on the street and then proceeds to set him up and rip him off, leading both protagonist and listeners to the tale’s predetermined tragic ending. As told in the track called “Pain”: “Never prayed before but I’m praying now/Seen a flash of light and I’m going down/The last thing I see/The crowd was gathering …”

Call it a neoblaxploitation soundtrack with a moral. The music journal The Source dubs it “a hip-hopera.” “Funny, funky and bombastic,” says Interview. And according to Spin magazine, Thieves marks “the renaissance of hip-hop’s psychedelic edge.” It’s significant praise for a CD not found on any of Billboard’s charts or heard much on radio–for a CD bearing the Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics warning label. In fact, given the thriving commercial success of the rap industry (in 1998 the genre sold more than 81 million CDs, tapes and albums), Thieves represents something of an artsy gamble. Indeed, as cultural critic Nelson George wrote a decade ago: “The question is no longer `Will rap last?’ but `Who will control it?'”

The crass answer, of course, is the market. A more culturally astute approach, however, might question whether Thieves can begin to shift public concern away from a morally narrow focus on rap’s language and use of positive and negative black images (think Will Smith vs. Ice Cube) and redirect scrutiny to issues of artistic integrity and stylistic complexity as well as social awareness.

“At their best,” minister and professor Michael Eric Dyson reminds us in his 1996 collection of essays, Between God and Gangsta Rap, “rappers shape the tortuous twists of urban fate into lyrical elegies.” From Dyson’s vantage point, one can ponder such questions as whether an artist like Prince Paul and an incendiary project like Thieves could become the sort of evolutionary catalysts to rap that, not so long ago, Richard Pryor’s edgy narrative candor was to black comedy.

“People respect the money, but not the art,” says Prince Paul in a voice suddenly loud. “I’m sensitive to what I do. When I started out, it was cool to be original. Now everyone is focused on making cash, and that’s stagnating the creativity.” And though he won’t name any specific passengers on rap’s gravy train, when he speaks of his own efforts, his voice sounds strident. “My mind moves to what’s different,” he says. “I go against the grain. I don’t label. That’s my problem.”

It is also his background. Born in Flushing but raised in Amityville, N.Y., Prince Paul recalls spending his youth in a house set apart by music. His mother, Peggy, a home health aide, listened to rhythm and blues. His father, Thomas, a truck driver (now deceased), collected jazz. Prince Paul, the youngest of three children, remembers having his own little Mickey Mouse record player. (“I got my first 45 rpm from May’s department store. I think it was `Hot Pants.'”) The impressions from those days are heard in his work today. He says: “I gravitate to kiddie records and TV themes like G.I. Joe, Spiderman.” And sometimes, as on his 1996 release Psychoanalysis (What Is It?), to Sigmund Freud. Funny, experimental, criticized for its surprising sexual innuendoes, Psychoanalysis received positive reviews and gained notice not only from Chris Rock, but also from the Library of Congress.

On Thieves, Prince Paul’s lyrics are again X-rated, but his criminally street-smart persona is, he says, an act. “I grew up with morals,” the rapper states in his own defense. “I hold the door for you; you hold the door for me.” He suggests, however, that the coarse language on Thieves is part of making his characters visual–that despite a certain crude realism, this material is primarily broad parody, intended to make an audience laugh. “Everything makes me laugh,” says Prince Paul. “I watch game and body language.”

Still, isn’t there a message in A Prince Among Thieves? “I see the dream of a record deal every day,” says Prince Paul. “I don’t come from that `a-record-deal-by-any-means-necessary’ mentality. What I share with Tariq is being naive. He is based on the way I saw life. When I wrote A Prince Among Thieves, I was going through the roughest time of my life.”

Specifically, three years ago, Paul Huston went through a custody battle for his son, Paul Jr., now 7. Ironically, in court, Prince Paul, the man whose work defies easy categorization, found himself being labeled: “I had tons of work, but being a black rapper was a negative thing,” he says. The child’s mother was awarded custody. Prince Paul appealed the case and won custody of his son in 1998.

Up next from Prince Paul: two more recording projects, Handsome Boy Modeling School and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. There is also talk of a film version of A Prince Among Thieves. And Prince Paul is even talking of taking a break from the studio. “I haven’t relaxed in a while,” he laments. “I’m a tense guy.”

But tense or not, as long as the work keeps coming and rap remains fun, he will continue, ever marveling at his longevity. “Someone said that rap years are like dog years,” he says. “I guess I’m about 100.”

V. R. Peterson is a reporter at People magazine.

COPYRIGHT 1999 American Visions Media, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group