Soul Sonic Force
Prince Paul | Prince Paul
Already an established musical force from his work with Stetsasonic, Prince Paul has gone on to produce De La Soul's brilliant debut LP. Steven Daly talks technology and sampling ethics with a Prince.
Two of the most influential and successful hip hop acts around have the talents of one man to thank for at least part of their success. The acts are Stetsasonic and De La Soul; the man is Prince Paul.
"Some people are so concerned about their image that they think they've gotta use James Brown, but with us if it sounds good and if we think nobody elae would use that, then we use it."
DISTINGUISHING THREE FEET HIGH and Rising, especially in hip hop terms, was that it sounded so relaxed, and effortless. This, it transpires, was because making the album was relaxed and effortless...
"The sound developed out of laziness and impatience as much as anything", says Prince Paul. "Not too much thought went into the actual recording. Once we put it together, if it sounded good me and Pos would just say 'That's good enough' and move on.
"We'd use messed-up, cracked old 45s, which no-one else was doing at the time, so there's hardly any clarity on the album, and none of the scratching is perfect, plus there's mixes where we just got too lazy to rewind the tape and do it over. But the whole thing is, if the listener hasn't heard the record before, how would they know if we missed a punch or whatever, it doesn't really matter."
This laissez-faire approach extends to Paul's choice of equipment and he expresses a preference for just a few basic tools of the trade.
"We only used drum machines on two or three tracks because we rely mainly on the Akai S900 sampler but I love the Casio RZ1 for its dirty, noisy sound. Also, it was discontinued so you don't hear it on many other records. On 'I Know' we used the SP12 but you can't really identify it because it's on top of a drum loop; sometimes we'll match the machine to the sample, other times things'll just happen to fit together. That's pretty much it for equipment, plus, as I said, a bunch of old records."
Sales of Three Feet High (850,000 and rising) have afforded the producer the opportunity to upgrade his home studio, which he has done - slightly.
"I used to have the same basic setup as the band, a couple of cassette decks, a mixer, two turntables, and a Casio SK1 and SK5. To me that was good enough until we got into the studio. Since then I've gotten a second-hand four-track - a Ross which is even cheaper than a Portastudio - and a Digitech guitar delay with eight-second sample. That was in the display case, the last one in the shop, so I got it cheap!
"I bought a Sequential Tom drum machine for $100 off a friend and recently I've added the Alesis HR16, the only thing I really spent money on. I like the clarity of the Alesis but most times the rawness of a sampled record sounds incredible next to a machine. You can programme swing but the spillage from, say, the snare drum to the kick drum can't be replaced by digital reverb or echo, it's not the same, not natural."
"People say De La Soul was big in terms of influence but it's not like we tried to change everything - people who are really successful are those who do what they like and do it the best. "
"I'm kind of discouraged but you learn from your mistakes and I'm a lot further on than I was before, lawsuit or not. I felt the album could go gold but since it went beyond that the money we made was unexpected, so I'm thankful for what I have."
The warlike stance of many rap producers on the sampling issue is not one that Paul shares. Stetsasonic were among the first to remunerate a sampled artist (Lonnie Liston Smith, who received a $3,000 flat fee when his 'Expansions' track was used on Stetsasonic's superb All That Jazz) and maintains this willingness to accommodate.
"If I take a measure or two of drums or a bassline I can't really see a fee for that, but if it's something substantial that sounds really good in context then I'll give up whatever money, points or publishing I have to because it's more the music than the money. Obviously the amount varies a lot, but my lawyer's not stupid and I trust his advice on these things; if he says they want X dollars or X publishing, that's excessive, then he'll ask me if the sample can be replaced. If it can be he'll suggest I do so, if not I'll decide what to do."
Such a decision was forced on Paul's production of the De La Soul/Queen Latifah collaboration on the latter's debut album. The song 'Mama Gave Birth To The Soul Children' originally featured on its chorus the title line from Sly and The Family Stone's 1971 hit 'It's A Family Affair', the copyright of which is now owned by one Michael Jackson.
"When we applied for permission to use it they demanded 100% of the publishing and that the song be the first single from the album", says the producer with a wry smile. "I might talk about money being unexpected but I'm not stupid! Sure, the hook was a big part of that record's popularity so I was willing to give half, but 100% was just too much. Michael Jackson's a wealthy man, I don't know what his problem is...
The first single from Latifah's album, Dance With Me, featured on its chorus the title line from Sly Stone's 'Dance To The Music', with composer credits to Sly, Latifah and producer DJ Mark. As they say in New York, go figure. Add to that the minor irony that the propellant in Janet Jackson's 'Rhythm Nation' single was the guitar riff from Sly's 'Thank You (Falettinmebemysellagain)'.
Among the artists with whom sampling agreements were reached on Three Feet High were George Clinton, Steely Dan's Becker and Fagen, and Hall and Oates - the latter apparently less than gracious about the situation.
"It's all through the grapevine but I heard they were displeased with the whole thing. They couldn't be too upset, they got paid", Paul laughs. "People view sampling different ways", he continues. "George Clinton loves it when someone samples his music, Barry White too, because they love rap music, but if a person's anti-rap they might tend to get all uppity and want more money."
Paul's lawyer Eric Greenspan, of LA firm Mvman, Abell, Fineman and Greenspan, had an amusing angle on this greyest of legal areas, suggesting that rap's often multi-layered use of samples could lead to scenarios not unlike Mel Brooks' film The Producers, with numerous claimants all fighting for their 50% of the same thing.
SINCE DE LA SOUL'S SUCCESS PRINCE Paul has mixed tracks for, among others, the Fine Young Cannibals and Living Colour, recently getting a call from the other Prince about Paisley Park artist George Clinton.
Production-wise there have been contributions to the albums of Latifah, Big Daddy Kane, Def Jam signing 3rd Bass and lately to LL Cool J's follow-up to 'Walk With A Panther'. To see a whole album through would, he insists, require a particular type of involvement.
"I've been doing one or two cuts here and there because ideally I'd like to be in a situation where I can think about developing the artist, figuring out how to make them work. I'll be working with a guy called Mike Teelucksingh who was in the Soul Brothers with me. Mike's really talented and I hope to capitalise on his weirdness; he's engineering here at Calliope now and doesn't want to make an album real bad and make a lot of money, so if he does record it'll be just for the fun of it, which is a lot easier for me.
"One reason I'm not keen on working with developed artists is that people always compare what you do with their previous work, and someone like Kane has made some great records. I just had to put that aside and focus in on what I like about him personally. He was the first person I worked with on a professional artist/producer basis and, having become successful, he had his own concepts and ways of doing things while I had my ideas. We didn't clash but it wasn't as relaxed as with De La Soul who were my friends before we worked together.
"The whole thing with them happened so casually that it's like a dream. I'm just waiting for someone to slap me and say wake up, time to go to work. People say 'What's your secret?' but I'm like, Yo - it happened. There is no secret. I don't know how long I'll be into the whole production thing, I guess when it stops being fun I'm gonna quit regardless of demand. I like it but I'm not really fighting to stay in it - what I'd really like to do after this is find some part in a record company, maybe A&R or whatever just to stay in touch with the music part of it."
It doesn't tax the imagination too much to see Prince Paul heading his own label at some point in the future, and you get the sense that even he'd be taking it easy.
With Daddv-O also enjoying a burgeoning production career (Sly and Robbie, Third World, Latifah and mixes for the B-52's, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Keith Richard) there have been considerable delays in recording Stetsasonics's second album, not to mention growing internal tensions. The wait, however, is almost over and Paul is, he says, happy for the moment with his role as the group's DJ. That commitment fulfilled, it's straight to work on the new De La Soul LP.
Having forced back the boundaries of hip hop once the anticipation tor this record will be formidable.
"I can't wait to see what happens - it kind of scares me in a way, I just hope it's as comfortable as the first album. The philosophy will be the same but the music won't; we're probably gonna utilise live drums and other instruments, maybe sax or keyboards but something awkward like the ukelele. It definitely won't be your average musician coming in..."
Very little editing took place on Three Feet High, strange since hip hop has made the editing block the focus of much of its creativity. But, explains Paul, "We just arranged the tracks as we wrote and only started learning what edits could do as we went on. So this one should be a little more advanced on that side and with technology as a whole. But not much," he emphasizes.
"We won't jump on our own bandwagon, so no Steely Dan, gameshows or George Clinton just because 'Me, Myself and I' hit; we'll do what we like. People say De La Soul was a very big group in terms of influence and changing the sound of rap but it's not like we tried to change everything, it's just that the people who are really successful are those who do what they like and do it the best.
"People copy Teddy Riley, or Kane and KRS1's rhyme styles, or Public Enemy's politics but if they started to do their own thing there might be more De La Souls to change the course. The less people copy others and the more they go with their gut feeling the more music will advance.
"But, hey, if people keep on doin' the same old same old I'm not gonna complain - it just makes it easier tor me!"
Interview by Steven Daly
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