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.
THE EIGHTIES SAW HIP HOP MOVE from marginal artform to mainstream staple, with superstars of its own and an impact on contemporary music beyond the imaginings of even the most arrogant of its early exponents. In America, where house music has failed to match its British pre-eminence, hip hop is the main influence on the dance music which dominates the Top 40 - its techniques co-opted by pop and its beats putting a new spring in R&Bs step, via stellar producers like Teddy Riley, LA and Babyface, and Jam and Lewis.
The hard-core rap scene was, of course, free of such miscegenation, but despite the oft-expressed coda of no sell-out, no compromise, success came to speakologists such as Public Enemy and NWA anyway - on their own terms. Amid their all-consuming frenzy with its ever more rigorous standards of sonic and verbal toughness there emerged a troubling question. What next?
The answer came from an unexpected quarter, three teenagers from suburban Long Island whose group De La Soul nudged hip hop off its axis with the 1989 debut album Three Feet High and Rising. An unhurried collage of hook-laden gems, quirky miniatures and goofball dialogue, this 23-track affair was no-one's crossover blueprint but crossover it did, delighting rap fans, pop kids and critics alike, the latter making extravagant comparisons with Sergeant Pepper and Frank Zappa's Mothers among others. (Just for the record I'd add Todd Rundgren's 1973 opus A Wizard, A True Star).
In the wake of De La Soul's benign confidence and surefire material, all but the most skilled rap practitioners looked, well, a little sad and dated and in the light of their production values (very few) a lot of the decade's more extravagant technology suddenly seemed to resemble excess baggage. Unmistakably, rules had been bent, stereotypes broken and maybe there had been a few clues to the '90s laid down.
Producer of this benchmark idyll, Prince Paul (born Paul Huston) had seen his share of favourite ink when his group Stetsasonic released their In Full Gear debut LP in 1988, but nothing on this scale. And De La Soul did what that outfit failed to - parlay uniformly rave notices into platinum record sales.
At the end of the '70s Paul's earliest attempts at DJing had led him to form the Eveready Crew then, some years later and less tentatively, the Soul Brothers (whose MC Donald Newkirk has recently emerged as a singer on Def Jam's OBR offshoot). But it wasn't until 1985 that his career moved into first gear as he lent his spinning talents to the nascent Stetsasonic. The group then expanded to a six-piece before signing to Tommy Boy to make the aforementioned well-received, if patchy, album.
Producing a handful of tracks for Stetsasonic was, with a college course in audio engineering, the sum total of Prince Paul's studio experience when De La Soul DJ Pacemaster Mase approached him with a tape of his group. It was, rather, Paul's local hero status on Long Island which prompted the request for advice while the pair worked on demos for a mutual friend.
"You could hardly hear their rhyme style there was so much distortion", remembers the amiable 22 year-old, "but straight off I was overwhelmed by the uniqueness of their thinking as far as rap was concerned; like me they were trying to do something outside of the mainstream. The tape wasn't even four-track, it was made on two cassette decks, but it had a certain feel, you just knew it was really good."
Suggesting that a well-recorded demo might bring De La Soul a record deal and serve as the master for their first record, obviating the usual re-recording delays, Paul pooled his money with theirs and took them into Manhattan's 24-track Calliope studios. Thanks to some intensive pre-production they managed to cut three tracks for under $1000 and, with the help of Paul's fellow Stetsasonic member Daddy-O, they secured a deal with Tommy Boy. (Their album is now the label's biggest selling record, topping Africa Bambaataa's pioneering Planet Rock from '82.)
"Plug Tunin'" from those sessions, was the group's debut single.
"At that stage my role wasn't to make them more commercial, just a little bit more understandable", says Paul. "On "Plug Tunin'" that meant speeding up the track from 88 to, like, 92bpm and adding the Billy Joel pieces on the breakdowns which had just been straight up drumbeats. I also put another breakbeat loop in the background to direct the track a little and get a better feel so they could relax putting their vocals on."
The success of that single and, subsequently, of 'Jenifa' meant that an LP was expected; with very little material written, the band still managed to deliver the record after just two months in the studio (including a three week break while Paul toured with Stetsasonic). Again, pre-production was the key.
"They'd come up with ideas and give them to me, that's when I started flexing more of my musical ideas, going home to add stuff and figure out how they should rhyme to it. We'd all get together for meetings after that, then we'd go in and just do it."
On the agenda at those meetings was not only De La Soul's musical direction but their evolving philosophy, the way they wished to be perceived.
"The frustration of stuff sounding so similar was what gave us the idea to break different. A lot of what was going on was down to peer pressure, y'know. I like this person because he's hard and I wanna be hard, but there's people out there who don't really identify' with that, people who see a group being themselves and realise that they can too without being ashamed of it.
"And if you've noticed, there's a large percentage of people out there who've stopped wearing those gold chains and doin' a lot of those things within the past year because they've realised it's not all about that."
The concept was ambitious and to realise it so quickly on vinyl took discipline, as Paul explains.
"In the studio I developed a homework sheet - after we'd listened to everything. I'd work out everybody's tasks for the next day, get them to work on lyrics or find things to go along with the track. I kinda lead things off but all of the group are involved in the production and I don't try to hinder time. If an idea works it works, if not you just erase it and put something else down.
"What's so cool about De La Soul is they don't argue or doubt anything and I haven't led them wrong yet, so they have no reason to disagree with me. It seems like we were meant to work together - our families are religious, moralistic people so we often have the same values or feeling which happen to manifest themselves in music."
This is plainly not your standard artist/producer relationship: in addition to helping fund the group's demos Paul has a speaking part on the album (his sleeve credit reads "Prince Paul (The Mentor)" and he provides studious introductions to the videos for 'Me, Myself and I' and 'Buddy'.
"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."
De La Soul's loping grooves and spaced oddities show a consummate musical literacy, sampling a bewildering gamut of sources from Steely Dan to Liberace, from Johnny Cash to Walt Disney. How were these assembled?
"It could be from your parents' record collection, something that made you go 'Wow - maybe I can use that in hip hop form'. The record on 'Jenifa' for example was something that Posdnous' father played which he grew to like. Or sometimes it's from going out and buying records - you could see an album with lots of Brothers in Afros on it and think 'This must have something on it!' or you'll see the title 'Funky Something' and pick it up. Then there's stuff I get which nobody else would really buy - my philosophy with De La Soul or with any production is to try anything and see what happens.
"I think that separated us rhythmically from other artists in rap: the fact that we weren't scared to use certain records. Some people are so concerned about their image that they think they've gotta use James Brown or this or that, but with us it's more or less if it sounds good and if we think nobody else would use that then we use it. It doesn't matter if it's a hard core beat, it doesn't matter if it's a hip hop beat at all, if it's pleasing to the ear we'll have it - we'll take the Grateful Dead if we like it."
One of the quirks of Three Feet High and Rising is a mock TV game-show running through the LP. It seems this vehicle for some of the group's more out-to-lunch humour didn't arrive until the very last moment.
"When we were sequencing the album it sounded so bizarre that I thought we needed a spoken intro to make it more visual and keep your interest the way Parliament-Funkadelic used to. When I suggested a gameshow they all looked at me like I was crazy but we put it together and I think it ended up being a big part of the record's appeal; it seems like you know the people because we're talking to you directly, it's not like everything's too synthetic and perfect or like it's too far away from you."
Not that the creative process on Three Feet High was entirely composed of inspired guesswork; we have corporate intervention to thank for one of the record's most inspired moments: "The record company were asking us for something more mainstream to balance out the weirdness of the rest of the album, so Mase came up with the idea of using 'Knee Deep' and being a big Clinton fan I was like 'Cool'. But when I added the drumbeat and the arrangement for 'Me, Myself and I' and played it to Trugoy and Pos their initial reaction was 'Naah, too commercial'. Of course it turned out to be the biggest song on the album even though it didn't take that much time and effort. 1 just laid it down to please Tommy Boy.
"Hopefully now that De La Soul have built a name, the company will accept the music for what it is", adds Paul.
BEING IN THE VANGUARD OF HIP HOP style is one thing, but the band now find themselves in a less enviable position - the front line of the legal debate over payment due for use of sampled works.
A $1.7 million lawsuit has been brought against De La Soul by ex-Turtles Mark Volman and Howard Kavman over part of their composition 'You Showed Me', which appeared on De La's 'Transmitting Live From Mars'. (The offending track consists of 66 seconds of the four-bar Turtles loop, plus overdubs, played under a French language instructional record.)
The merits and the amount of the claim arc debatable but, Prince Paul, stresses, litigation should have been avoided.
"When we handed the album in we also gave the record company a list of all the samples we used along with labels, publishers, everything. We did say if there's anything you can't get permission on just remove the song from the record because with so many tracks on there it wouldn't matter. So they cleared what they thought was appropriate and the more bizarre stuff I guess they took for granted, so we suffered."
"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!"