Back in 2012 I interviewed my favourite hip-hop producer Prince Paul for Wax Poetics. It was a beautiful spring day in New York and the start of a beautiful friendship …
The Scent of Royalty
In the presence of Prince Paul
A deep female friend of mine once said that artistic greatness is just like strong personal scent; that those who possess it are the ones who least can perceive it. Distinct and pleasing aromas that can bring back a thousand memories, comfort, stimulate the senses, and drive lovers wild are often completely unknown to the one bearing them. And so similarly, it seems to be that some of the most undoubtedly gifted and talented artists are the ones most unaware of their own brilliance.
This metaphor applies to the exceptionally affable and celebrated hip-hop producer Prince Paul perfectly. Undeniably accomplished and influential, his aural highness is the most strikingly modest musician I have ever met. It’s like the man is so drenched in high end cologne that he just can’t smell it.
The valuable thing about this type of innate modesty is that it tends to lead an artist away from complacency and ego, and keep pushing them to create – which is something that can certainly be said for Prince Paul. Always experimenting, moving forward, and showing new sides to his unique personality. From his days of talking jazz with Stetsasonic, and of goofing around plug tuning with De La Soul, to digging deep in session with the Gravediggaz, moderating the musical curriculum of Handsome Boy Modelling School, getting “cerebral” on solo projects, to his latest Negroes On Ice ventures with son DJ P.Forreal, Prince Paul has proved that there are many tenets to his mind and creative abilities.
Multi-faceted artists like Prince Paul can also connect with fans on a truly deep level. By expressing the various sides to your person through music, listeners are able to relate to your work from all different angles. Whether in the mood to be silly, vent frustration, make love, or just move your body, there is sure to be a Prince Paul record somewhere in the crates that is tuned into your wavelength.
Negroes On Ice is in itself like a fantastical exploration of one kid’s head. Entering P.Forreal’s mind to ride fast-paced streams of consciousness and experience his vivid and quick-witted imagination, all of which is scored and enhanced by dope beats and a starry array of guest features. In light of this month’s Negroes on Ice audio release, here is a conversation I had with the man himself in New York City earlier this year, when I was lucky enough to bask in the scent of royalty on Broadway…
Tell me about Negroes on Ice and how touring the show was?
Touring was fun. It’s a one man, well actually it is multiple men, but mostly it’s a one man show. It’s my son at the forefront, and I more or less do the music. We have a little banter back and forth, and there are sound effects as he talks in real time. He has a friend named Talent who is an MC and part of the show as well; he chimes in and rhymes for some things.
We originally did it a while ago in New York at the UCB Theatre to test it. Time went on and it took us another year to come out and do it again, so we had to re-write a lot to make the story more interesting and work out the dialogue between me and my son. What it sounded like when we started changed a lot because we had to work on some of the jokes and the delivery of the story-line. It was a lot of fun to do. There are a lot of people in it too, a lot of guest features. Some of the sound-bites and voices we have in the play are: Ice T, Chris Rock, Peanut Butter Wolf, Freddie Foxx, Erick Sermon, Rosie Perez, Soce, the elemental wizard, Breeze Brewin’ from the Juggaknots – there are a whole lot of people on there! We’ve been working on it for the last two years, and everything changes and evolves as time goes on.
It was the first time that we had ever done that, and I really had nothing to base it on. I hadn’t seen anything quite like it, so we kind of had to make the whole thing up as we went along. I’m pretty excited and curious to see what the public at large thinks about the audio. The play itself was interesting, as we got a lot of different reactions. Some people would think it was the greatest thing ever, and some people thought we were destroying theatre. It was all over the place. So…I’m curious.
Are you looking to tour the show anymore?
Yes, the idea is to travel it. The shows are fun, and I give it to my son because there is a lot of dialogue to remember and he pulls it off. He’s a big ham. It’s easy for him – the way he can get on stage and do that? I couldn’t do it.
How is it working with your son? Is it the first time you have worked on a project together?
Yeah it is. Though I have had him do voices on little skits and stuff, and he’s been there from day one. I remember when I was working on Buhloone Mindstate when he was a little baby. I remember having him in my arms like this, and the sampler there, and to De La I’d be like “he’s okay, he’s sleeping!” And he’s seen everything. The Rza used to come by the house when we were in the Gravediggaz, and we would go to Chris Rock’s house. So he’s been used to things, which is nice. I think the difference is that when it’s your child, your patience is way thinner. You’re thinking about every other thing before you come into the studio too, like: “you’re down here – but did you put the butter back in the refrigerator?? Did you…?” Other things can come into play. So it took us awhile to get through that. Plus, when it’s your child I guess you want it to be the best it could possibly be. So I might have pushed him a little hard at times. We still had fun though.
Do you then feel even more proud of it?
Yeah, I’m proud of him for the whole thing. It’s a lot to do. Initially, years ago, I wanted to do something like this, like: “Yo, I’m gonna make a one man play and this is going to be incredible…” Then, as time went on, I realised my son would be perfect for it. He’s at that age, of that swag era – everybody likes those kids – and would know what to do. So it really worked out for him and I’m proud. I’m proud of the way he handles himself onstage, and he’s very professional – on time, knows his lines. He’s also able to improvise and make stuff funny, and that’s hard. Coming out there having had no lessons in anything and performing in front of a bunch of people? Times like that you’ll see me onstage with a gleam in my eye, thinking: “Wow – that’s amazing… Now why don’t you go put the butter back in the refrigerator?” [Laughs] It’s a little bit of both.
Humour has always been so prominent in your work – is it something that you’ve always tried to bring into your music? Or is it more natural and a reflection of your outlook on life?
I just think it’s being silly. Living in my mind and my head all the time – I see humour in a lot of things. I can easily sit there on the street and think of dumb jokes – “he looks crazy in the face – look at them shoes he got on – look at the hair!” When I was a child my siblings would be all “that’s just Paul being stupid!” But then I actually did something with it: from writing stupid stories, which my Mom kept and I still have a few of, to recording dumb things. Even before making skits with De La Soul I was doing all that dumb stuff on my own and with friends. We used to overdub VHS tapes, which I still have, before that became popular.
I remember when De La Soul first came out around the late eighties, they were at my house and I played them an overdubbed karate flick like “aahhh this is funny” and years later I saw the same thing and was like “whaaat??!” Not that they took the idea from me, but I could have made money off of that? You gotta be kidding man… So I was already overdubbing commercials and stuff, and I’ve always been into sketches and skits. My mind just works like that. I’m silly. And figuring out a way to put it on wax has worked to my advantage somehow.
I remember thinking “these guys think like me!” when I first started listening to De La Soul. Always watching old films and cartoons as a kid, you have that with you when you walk around and do whatever. I always found that really uplifting in the music, it would put a smile on your face and make you feel good. Do you think that it is important to put something positive out in music? Something that people can enjoy?
I mean for me, honestly I didn’t see anything positive in any of the records that I’ve done [laughs]. Aside from emcees having a positive message, it was always just me being a kid. Put it like this: I’ve been eighteen years old since I was eighteen. I’m a little smarter I like to think, but I act the exact same way. All I did with De La Soul was to bring out that fun side of just laughing and joking to them because they are really funny guys, very sarcastic and really smart. I guess that’s a side of them I put out on those records. I think that’s part of the reason why after three records their sound matured a lot, because they were more on their own. When it was with me it was more about just laughing and being silly recording everything. I think it got to a point where they grew older and the messages changed.
But looking back at your career, all of the different artists you have worked with – Stetsasonic and the Gravediggaz as well as De La Soul – it is still varied. It’s not like you only have this one playful sound. Do you feel like you express different sides to your personality in each project? Or does it reflect different times in your life?
I think everybody has a secular part of their being. De La Soul’s definitely one part and the great thing about De La for me was it enabled me to be in a position of power, whereas in Stetsasonic I was a group member. I was vocal and helped in creating with Stetsasonic, but when working with De La Soul they looked up to me at times. I was the guy who had the record; none of them did at that point.
The Gravediggaz was a side dealing with the music business. It is one thing to get in, to be put in, but when you have instilled in you a certain amount of loyalty, respect, and morals? You realise as you get older that those things don’t apply to the business… [Laughs] So if you treat somebody morally who has no morals, the outcome usually doesn’t come out in your favour. That all came into light at some point, and that was when I did the Gravediggaz project.
Then, working with Dan the Automator was being stupid again. Dan’s a big goofball too, so it made it easy for us to do Handsome Boy Modelling School and throw on suits and the moustaches. So yes, it is all part of my personality. I’m all over the place, but I say everybody is like that. Nobody is one way. I just found a way to channel it through different ideas and different projects.
I always run the risk anytime I do something like that too, and think of this before I put it out: “this could be the thing that ruins me.” [Laughs] Because if you think about it, in the majority of stuff that I’ve done, there’s been nothing that I could compare it to. I’m not saying that to brag, but I just can’t go “oh okay – Chris Brown did this on his last album…So there’s a safety net as it has already been done, and there is a good chance people will accept what I’m doing now.” When I go back in my career and I think of De La and Handsome Boy, Gravediggaz, and Prince Among Thieves – it was me putting myself out there on a limb for people to ridicule and torture. Or, either hail me genius… So that’s the fun of it too.
From your career so far is there a proudest moment or achievement?
In my career?
Or life if you’d rather?
In life? [Laughs] The pc answer would be “my children,” but I’m not going to give you that answer. What’s weird is that I don’t acknowledge my accomplishments until other people tell me what they are. Even the whole skit thing, people say “you’re the inventor of skits” and I’m like “I guess I did…” For hip-hop records that is. Or they say “you did this first!” and I’m like “wow, yeah okay…” So, I’m not trying to trivialise my life and what I’ve done or say that I haven’t done anything, but I don’t think I’ve done anything that anybody else couldn’t have. I just took risks. I think people are so scared to take risks that they get stuck in the same old same old. But I don’t see it as being anything super special. Maybe if I had saved a woman from a fire, from a building that was burning – I could say that and that would be great.
One thing was being able to buy my Mom a house and retiring her from her job. That to me is probably the main highlight and what makes me the most proud. Before then my family had never owned a house, so I was the first person to actually be a home-owner. To purchase a home and be able to tell my mom: “here, I’m buying this house” and “oh as a matter of fact – here’s X amount of dollars – you can furnish it, do whatever you want.” I remember seeing the tears coming down out of her eyes – and I had never seen her cry of happiness before. So, I took care of her. To be honest, what I really wanted was a Mercedes Benz. But, I thought a house was more important at the time, and a wiser decision. I had my eye on this 190 Benz with a kick that I really wanted. I could’ve bought it later in life, but I grew out of it, so, shows it would’ve been a bad investment…
I can appreciate feeling proud of that.
It was beautiful, it was a good time. Unfortunately my Mom has passed away since, but at least I took care of her and she died happy. So that’s a very good thing.
Since you started out, how has your relationship with music developed or changed? Is it still essentially the same as it always was?
My relationship with music? You mean my passion towards it or there lack of?
How it features in your life and how you feel towards it?
That’s a good question. I’m kind of turned off a lot by music, especially new music and the way that it is going. It’s almost like a love/hate relationship. When I was a kid and I listened to stuff it was just for the innocence and to listen, just falling into the music. I used to have a soundtrack to everything in my life. From waking up in the morning, to driving down the street, to wanting to punch somebody in the face, to dating somebody…
Then it got to a point where I started producing and it was more about analysing songs. I started appreciating really good production, arrangements and artistry. At the same time it made me nit-pick the stuff that was really whack, like “oh god, I can’t believe they used that same snare and sample…”
Then, it got to the music business part where I would see somebody come out and think “the only reason why that record is big is because they had a lot of money behind it…” So I would think of all the things behind the song rather than the music itself.
Now when I listen to music I can’t just enjoy it for what it is, without thinking of the politics behind it. And I think for the bulk of music that I have been hearing in recent times is that it’s not inspired by anything except people wanting to get ahead. You have Bob Dylan or Marvin Gaye where there is a struggle or something that they might want to speak about, even if you go to N.W.A., De La, Tribe, it was something that they wanted to get across. You don’t get much of that anymore and I think to me it just shows a lot of …insincerity. And that has kind of turned me off. Old stuff I can listen to and get back into though.
Even with making music, because what used to inspire me was if I heard something on the radio or somebody played me something, or I heard a producer that I thought was incredible. It made me want to work and make more music, but I don’t really get that now. I’m sad to say. Kids get mad at me too. They’re like “you’re hip-hop – the realness – the breakdancing, graffiti, DJing, MCing… Sampling!” And I’m like: “aaah, talk to Pete Rock. I can’t help you man!” They get all hurt, like: “uuuhhhh but you’re Prince Paul!” [Laughs]
Breaking their dreams!
I mean, I do still work on music. To redeem myself – music is still inspiration to me and there is still somewhat of an ego in me to say “I’m better than that, I can do that” or “I can do that better – I got an idea, let me try that.” That keeps me inspired to still make music, and so I have a few other projects that I’m still working on. Negroes on Ice is one thing, but I’m also working on putting together a group, which I haven’t done in a long time. So I still have that in my soul to want to blow people’s minds, I think I have that left in me. Like: “Let me see if I can put something out there that nobody has heard or seen before.”
So you haven’t turned your back on music?
No, no, not like “I left music!” I love music. Don’t get me wrong, I love music. I guess it’s when you love something so much – and I don’t want to sound cheesy about it – is as much as it hurts.
It’s like if you’re in love with somebody, some girl; whatever she says to you can really hurt you, because you have this emotion and passion towards her. Whereas if somebody else said it, it might sting a little bit, but it wouldn’t hurt as bad. That’s the way it is with music – when you’ve loved something and fought for it for so long. During the era I came up, we fought for the respectability of the music. People have a tendency of forgetting that in the eighties, it wasn’t accepted in the Grammys. People said it was a fad and grown-ups dissed you, whereas now it’s just accepted. It’s in every commercial, people teach it in college courses… But back then, it was like “hip-hop? That’s the devils music…” So to put all that behind it, and you see where it has gone, you’re like “is that it?? That’s what’s left?”
I go to rap shows, hip-hop shows, and see people shouting “real hip-hop” with a thousand people on the stage, somebody swinging a towel, two people who actually know all the words to that b-side song that nobody ever knows, and I’m like: “Okay, he’s about to call the people on this side versus that side, and he’s about to stop the music and say, ‘Alright—hold up, hold up—I wanna know—who loves the real hip-hop?’” And I’m just like: “I’ve seen this; I’ve seen it a thousand times…” So, after a while I get a little tainted and say to myself “there’s no future!” [laughs] But, there’s always something that comes out where I think “that’s great—so maybe there is…” I wish I could be more excited about it, show you my Adidas…
Could you talk a bit about the Prince Paul’s Musical Journey project with Scion?
Initially I was at a conference and expressing how uninspired I am about music in general these days. Since Scion has a way of throwing all these different conventions and supporting all these different music forms like rock, electro, and hip-hop, they were like: “let’s do this project together—travel around, document it, and see if there is anything that inspires you.”
I found out in the course of my travels that you get caught up in the moment. At any given moment; I could be at the Garage festival and get caught up in the music thinking “yeah, I could do this!” But as soon as I get on the plane to go home…the feeling’s left. It was the same thing with a lot of the music; it’s best when you’re in the element. I think the most inspirational thing about doing the Scion project though was just seeing people excited about music. When I was a kid I would wake up like “music, music, music. How many bars?? Write something down.” I saw them be as passionate about it, and not making that much money at it. In hip-hop now everybody’s incentive is “I’m gonna go make money, get some women…” So for them to be like “I just love music and doing it,” to me that was more inspiring than anything else. The New Orleans Bounce music was pretty interesting, that whole scene was a lot of fun.
Would you say that was the highlight?
I probably would. What freaked me out was how it was like a throwback; it almost reminded me of how hip-hop was in the eighties, with the call and responses and the people. Minus the girls in the hiked up dresses, and the transgender men that were walking around…other than that it kind of reminded me of back in the day! But, what was so cool being in those clubs and that environment was seeing how all those things co-exist. Everybody was chilling, having a good time, and it had nothing to do with appearance; it was all based on the music. That was pretty cool because one of the last hip-hop events I went to, it was all about “look at me, look what I’m wearing, look at my girl.” It had nothing to do with music and was all about posing.
Coming back to Negroes On Ice—are you looking to do a filmed version?
At some point I think we will, because not everybody gets a chance to see the live show. But we want to tour as much as we possibly can first, and I don’t know if filming it will spoil it for people. Do we try to rock the live version until there’s only one person left in the crowd? If I could animate it, that would be great. It’s another thing where they will either hail me genius or throw stones at me… and I like that, I like the edge. A lot of producers and people sit in the comfort zone, which is cool but it doesn’t push anything forward. It remains stagnant and—life is for living—sometimes you have to push the boundaries, have fun and experiment. Maybe that’s why I’m tired with everything; I’m like “I’ve seen that, I’ve done that.”
They say it’s always darkest before the dawn, so maybe there is some really good music about to come…
What do you think? Do you see music getting better, the people getting better and the artistry?
I’m very guilty of always discovering new music, but not necessarily the newest music out. So I listen to a lot of old music that is new and exciting to me, but it’s not that it is current and contemporary.
I’ve done the same thing, exactly what you’re saying. I’ve discovered old music, which is new to me. So it’s all old stuff, but the new stuff? You don’t find any contemporary artists that you’re fascinated with?
I can’t think of anyone that I’ve fallen in love with…
Not like back when you’re younger and you listen to something and want to put a poster up on the wall…
Well I do get that, but just not with music coming out at the moment. I still discover new music all the time. Or stuff that you had, but you’d just not quite gotten it; it hadn’t clicked yet…
It’s funny you say that because there is a lot of music that I didn’t really think much of when it was out, music that seemed a little flimsy to me, but it sounds so good now. Like “wow – I really didn’t like that song in ninety-something when it came out.” I’m trying to figure out whether that is by default, and if I like music because there’s not much that I think is great out now…
I always feel with a lot of new music that I’m trying to like it, rather than it just happening. When someone recommends something to you and you’re trying, listening out for a good beat or something like that. It’s not like it just hits you and gets in your head.
Good, see I’m not as crazy as I felt. I was questioning myself. It’s rough for me because this has always been my bread and butter. Even though I went to college and graduated – I did all other things so that I wouldn’t have to have music as my main thing to do in life. But, it has become that without me making it so, it just progressed like that. It’s rough when your passion is no longer your main passion. I’m trying to figure out: “what’s the next thing?” So, the next is just how I inspire myself through my imagination: Negroes on Ice, making a screenplay, doing the project with Scion, and putting this new group together. I’m more excited for people, and to see what their response is going to be.
I’m intrigued—I really want to see Negroes on Ice!
I forewarn the crowd before they come in like: “Look, I’ll let y’all know right now – it’s not what you think!” The story is really based on my son, and it’s sort of a true story of him just lying all the time. He would just exaggerate, and we made a whole story of him ranting about the dumb stuff that he’s done and the people he’s seen. Everything is in real time and it’s so multi-faceted—music, projections, sound effects—and it’s funny to see the crowd reactions. Some people get it, some think it’s crazy, some people are like “we love you guys…,” and some people leave the theatre crumpling up stuff, throwing and knocking chairs over like “this is horrible! It’s blasphemous!”
Do you think it is likely to click seeing it a second or third time? Similar to how with a lot of music, you have to listen a few times before tuning into it.
Yeah. I think that’s what the audio is like too. A lot of my friends have said, “Yo, I didn’t get the joke the first time” or “I didn’t hear that…” We wrote it with so many jokes within jokes, and it’s so sarcastic. There’s layer upon layer of different things—and at the same time there is a level of simple stuff underneath, underpinning all of that.
I remember when I handed in A Prince Among Thieves for the first time to Tommy Boy, they were like “Paul, we don’t think people get your music because you’re making music too smart.” And I was like “What are you trying to say? Are you trying to say the audience is dumb??” What’s too smart? They gave me advice a number of times. They gave me advice like—and I remember this clearly—“Don’t worry about making a good album, just worry about singles.” I was like, “Whaaatt?!?!” How are you going to say don’t worry about making a good album? “It’s all about singles now, just make singles…” As time goes on and you hear a lot of this stuff you just start thinking, and the music starts getting all sad…
You didn’t take the advice though right?
No, nah. I spoofed what he said and I did this record called Politics of the Business. I was joking and tried to be sarcastic with it. I had Dave Chappelle in the beginning play the part of Tom Silverman, and a couple of years later Tom Silverman figured out “that sounds like me…” I made a jokey pop/ hip-hop record—and people took it literal! People deemed it as me failing. They were like “he’s trying to make this radio record” and I was like “No! No it’s a joke!” I think I got too cerebral on it and took the audience for being smarter than that. Some people got it, and others were like “you sold out!”
You’ve had an influence on a lot of hip-hop artists, how does it feel to see that? Or do you not see the influence? For instance, people always cite 3 Feet High & Rising as an inspiration…
Really? I didn’t notice. The only time I’ve ever seen the 3 Feet High & Rising recognition was when we got put in the Library of Congress, and when De La’s “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” was inducted. I was like “wow, I’m an American staple of music, in the Library of Congress.” I’ve seen few things here and there, but I never knew people cited that. I mean, I do acknowledge that it’s a record that made a lot of lists. It makes a lot of top lists, like, “Wow, out of a hundred I made…ninety-eight!” I guess not until people take me in a crowd and pull me over the shoulder, say “hip hip hooray!” and carry me through—then I’ll go “yes that’s right! 3 Feet High and Rising! Thank you!” “Thank you for my 3 Feet High & Rising check…and my cake…and people love me…”
I do occasionally get “Prince Paul!” when I’m walking down the street, so I figure “okay, maybe they know 3 Feet High & Rising.” [laughs] Or, maybe they know me from The White Rapper Show…which has happened.
The White Rapper Show was on VH1 out here by a team of people called Ego Trip. They put this show together and it was a battle to find the top white MC, and I was a judge with MC Serch. You know, here I am, ‘Prince Paul’, I’ve made a whole body of music from the mid-’80s to present day, and I walk inside the WalMart and this kid goes: “Yo! You’re Prince Paul! You’re MC Serch’s sidekick on The White Rapper Show!” [Both laugh a lot] I was like “oh okay, at least he knows me, at least I still stay relevant…somehow.” It had nothing to do with my music, it was all me being Serch’s sidekick. I just smiled.
Around De La Soul is Dead and 3 Feet High & Rising—where did you source all of that from? Did you look to source samples from anywhere that you could? Or was it just that you brought in everything?
I think what makes the dynamics of the sampling in 3 Feet High & Rising so great is that it stemmed from all of us, it was all different points of views. I was talking to Maseo about when we made the old De La Soul records and as far as sampling sounds and trying out stuff, the model was “try anything and everything.” In a lot of cases I see people when they work be like “nah, no, let’s not do that, it’s just dumb!” As a producer I was always the one who, if somebody came in like “I got this record” or “I got these horns, let me see if they fit,” I’d be like “go ahead.” The worst that can happen is it doesn’t work and you take it out. I’d rather know than not know, than to have the attitude of “nah, that will never work, that’s dumb so let’s not do it.”
So our whole thing for that album was “nothing is a stupid idea – let’s just try it and record it.” I think that is what made that record, especially the sampling, so creative. We took it from all different sources and it was from different minds. I always credit the group because it was everybody trying out do each other. Posdenous would come in with something like “I got this idea” and we’d be like “cool, let’s loop it up and figure it out.” Then I’d be like “Yo! Know what would sound good? Let’s try this!” We’d have a record playing and I’d scratch it up, dub it over and be like “Yeeeah lets sample that!” Then Maseo would come in “No. Tell you what—I got this bass line…” We would just sit there and add, add, and add. That’s why when you hear that record there are so many layers and samples.
The way that we made it work and made it cool is that we figured we had to put our samples in key, and people weren’t doing that back then. Everybody was just sampling to be sampling and we wanted to make it musical, not just have a whole bunch of samples. We used a harmoniser and we pitch-shifted all the music to make everything in key. So, we would have the horns in key with the bass. Production-wise, I think that is what the brains of the record were. People had done tons of sampling and layers before, but, they didn’t take time to really make it musical, and I think that was always our edge. Like I said earlier, I don’t think I’ve done anything that’s super brilliant, I just think that nobody had taken the time to do it—but other people had the same idea. Like when I overdubbed the Kung Fu voices in the karate flicks on MTV—I just never did it. I could have made a lot of money. Go figure.