Interviewed by Brian Coleman, at the Trinity International Hip-Hop Festival. Hartford, CT.
Saturday, April 9, 2016
NOTE FROM THE INTERVIEWER: This is an almost complete transcription of a “live on stage” interview with Prince Paul as part of the 2016 Trinity International Hip-Hop Festival. Thanks to Greg Schick and all the great people at the Festival for having us there, including Farbeon and DJ Boo, who were kind enough to share photos they took at the event. Last but not least, I would like to thank Prince Paul — first of all for being Prince Paul, and also for being an always kind and gracious interviewee. I remain in his debt, and in awe of his amazing career.
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Brian Coleman shows some of the Paul-related vinyl he has brought to the audience — including Gravediggaz, De La Soul, Stetsasonic. Paul laughs.
Brian Coleman: For many years, one of my favorite people to get stories and facts from for my books is Prince Paul [Paul laughs]. I can’t even remember when I spoke with him first. I’ve been a fan of Paul’s work forever, all the different facets of what he has done and the groups he has been involved with. He has always been very generous with his time and honest with his answers and he’s just a great guy. So if you have never seen him or talked to him before, you’ll see. This will be a lot of fun. I want to talk about his history, but not only focus on that. Because he’s still actively making very, very dope music, and DJing, and doing a bunch of other things. So, anyways, thank you, Paul, for being here and I definitely am going to include a lot of time for audience questions, too.
Prince Paul: Now would probably be the time to text other people and tell them they should be here. Tell them that Paul is here giving away free money.
B: You were just at SWSW, right? You did some DJ stuff and also performed with your new group called Superblack. Why don’t you talk about that.
PP: It’s myself, J-Zone and Sacha Jenkins from Ego Trip. We put together a group where J plays drums and rhymes, Sacha plays bass and I just put it all together. The record should be out later this year. I won’t give away too much, but it’s pretty bizarre…. I try to keep myself amused. All of my projects kind of vary from one to the next.
B: You guys all have pseudonyms, right?
PP: Redbone Capone, Moe Lotto and White Thought. [Audience laughs heartily].
B: You have released one song so far, right? “White Privilege.” It’s on Soundcloud, and it’s dope. For me being a fan for so long, and also a fan of J-Zone’s, it’s always great to see guys still doing it and doing it really well. And doing it in a way where it works for old people like me and younger kids too. It’s a funny song but it has a serious message, too.
PP: What I try to do, at least musically, is…. whether you like it or don’t like it, it’ll be the first time you’ve ever heard anything like it before. To me that’s important. It’s like, anybody can go out there and listen to someone else’s music and duplicate it and replicate the same thing. For me, the crowning achievement is making something where people go, “I’ve never heard that before. It reminds me of this, this and this, but it’s not that.” So, I think I achieved that with Superblack. It’s pretty cool.
B: For those who know about J-Zone’s history, he was a producer and MC and wrote a really good book maybe five years ago called Root For The Villain, where the theme was basically, “I failed as an artist and here are all my stories about how I fucked up over the years.” But now he’s back, he taught himself to play drums and he’s quite a good drummer. And for me, as a journalist, Sacha is a true OG, going back to Ego Trip. So it’s pretty interesting as a meeting of the minds.
PP: It’s just like three sarcastic guys who just sit around and everything is one sarcastic comment after the other.
B: How did that project start?
PP: Sacha was the catalyst, he called everyone and said he wanted to do a band. So I said, “sounds good.” I always liked J-Zone. [Sacha] didn’t have the full concept figured out but we built it out as we talked. He just wanted to put us three together.
B: He’s got the “Fresh Dressed” documentary also, he’s a busy guy. He’s one of the main guys at Mass Appeal. It’s not like he’s sitting around with a lot of free time.
PP: Yeah, he’s all over the place.
B: You will always be associated with the Native Tongues, and we lost Phife Dawg recently.
PP: Yeah, it’s sad. Very sad.
B: What are some of your favorite memories of Phife, because I know they go way back.
PP: In the early days, it always struck me that he was just so happy to be there. The excitement of him being in the studio and the camaraderie of everybody in the group. One thing, and I’m trying to remember correctly, but the first record that he rhymed on, ever, was [De La Soul’s] “Buddy.” Before A Tribe Called Quest, he always thanked me for having him on that record. He was just such a nice guy…. Sometimes people die and people say a lot of nice things but they’re really douchey [laughs], but Phife was never that dude. I can’t find a bad thing to say about him. We weren’t super-duper close where I’d call him up all the time, but in a working capacity and just the family environment… it’s just sad. Same thing with Poetic from Gravediggaz. Genuinely nice people. It’s tough, it makes the loss even greater.
B: What do you think about Phife as an artist, as a producer who worked with him and listened to Tribe. What struck you?
PP: It’s funny. People don’t know, but I’ve been around since the Native Tongues day one.
B: Since day negative five…
PP: Yeah. I remember with [Tribe’s first album] Instinctive Travels, Phife was really the secondary guy, and he played his part. And I think the cool thing is that he didn’t sit there and just accept that role. When Low End Theory came out, he gave Tip every bit of competition. Even though collectively on a record you’re part of a group. But especially with MCs, there’s always, “I’m going to show you how nice I am. I’m not going to be the guy on the record where people skip his verse.” [Phife] showed that and I have a lot of respect for him because of that. He didn’t take a back seat. Q-Tip is at his best when he’s with Phife, and vice-versa.
B: I did a chapter on Low End Theory and I talked to Phife about the first two albums and he admitted, very honestly, that he was kind of fucking around on the first album. He didn’t take it as seriously as he could have. He didn’t see how it could be a big thing for him. He was young. Sometimes we forget how young people were when they did those albums. You don’t have your shit figured out at that age. So it’s nice to have a second shot.
PP: He didn’t bow down, you have to give him a lot of respect. I respect people who respect their craft. And it wasn’t about money, it was about, “I’m nice.” That’s what makes a great MC. Now the gauge is more about money and how many “likes” you have [on social media]. But back then it was [about] how well you were lyrically, how you flowed.
B: When you first started, even before Stetsasonic — which we’ll talk about.
PP: Yeah, 1984, that was a looooong time ago. [Paul, laughs, audience also laughs]
B: I’m sorry to remind you how long ago that was.
PP: I just celebrated my 49th birthday a little while ago.
B: Well, belated happy birthday!
PP: Thanks. I wasn’t fishing for birthday greetings, but thanks. [Audience laughs]. I appreciate it.
B: When you started out — and I’m sure there are young artists here [who are starting out themselves] — what were your goals? I’m sure they weren’t specific, but did you just want to do a record? Or did you think you could do more? What was your mindset?
PP: None of the above [laughs]. My mindset was, “I’m going to graduate high school, I’m going to go to college.” I was only going to go to college because my guidance counselor recommended that I go. Nobody in my family really went to college. I was going to take the civil service test and become a postman. That was my thing. But the Stet thing, they saw me DJ. I have been DJing since I was 10 years old. 1977. It has always been my passion. Wow, that’s a loooong time ago [audience laughs]. So when Stet found me and said they were making a record, I didn’t know who they were. They said they won the Mr. Magic Rap Attack concert and Sugar Hill wants to sign us. They asked me if I wanted to be down and so I said, “Cool.” I was just a kid. I didn’t know what making a demo was, making records wasn’t even in the realm of possibility. That was Run-DMC and the Fat Boys. Those guys made records. So I thought they was just talking.
PP: Next thing I knew we were making a demo. I was so naiive. I was like, “Oh, you want me to scratch here? Cool! All right, I’ll go home now.” Next thing I know I’m at [owner of Tommy Boy Records] Tom Silverman’s table at his house, signing a contract. Underage, which I didn’t realize [smirks, audience laughs]. I wish I could tell you that I had an 8 x 10 glossy and had the demo tape. But I didn’t do that. By the grace of God, it all just happened.
B: But I think your career is a perfect example of how you are put in a certain position and there are opportunities in front of you. And you just kill it. We have talked about it before and I found it really interesting, and younger people today probably can’t even imagine… but with your rehearsals. You didn’t live near Stet, they were in East New York and you were in Long Island. Didn’t Daddy-O write everything out?
PP: Keep in mind, this is pre-email and all that other stuff.
B: You couldn’t even fax it.
PP: When it was time to rehearse, Daddy-O would write me a letter with the whole outline of the show. So he would say, “Wise comes in, we do the boom-zips, then Paul scratches.” I would have to memorize everything before I got there. It was awkward, it almost seems foolish now. It was a process. After 2–3 days, he’d be like, “Did you get the letter?” [audience laughs, Paul laughs]. And we’d have to keep the calls short because it was long distance. [more laughter].
B: Going back to you not having your 8 x 10 and a glossy, Daddy-O was that dude. He was older and he hustled hard. You must have learned a lot from that. Even though you were really young, you must have seen how hard he hustled.
PP: He was a mentor to me, definitely. I used to look at him in awe, he was just the greatest guy ever. I would go over to his house and he was so charismatic. He said, “We’re going to shop this here and there.” I took it all in, I was really going along for the ride, but I was taking notes the whole way. I always just wanted to have fun.
B: When did it go from you being a DJ, a dope one, to you thinking you could also do production. At first, before you go to an actual studio, production is an absolutely abstract concept. You figure these records just happen. So when did you start to realize that you could be a producer, going beyond just being a DJ?
PP: The production thing happened even before Stetsasonic, because, if people recall, Grandmaster Flash had a record called “Flash To The Beat,” which used a drum machine. That was the natural next step if you were a DJ. Like, “OK, we can DJ, but yo what is THAT? A Beatbox? I gotta get one of those.” And so that automatically meant you had to program [drum machines] for your MCs. So I was programming beats way before Stet, just in the context of having a rap group [around his neighborhood]. So, later, I could take the same idea, with punching in beats, and make a song out of it? Cool! I didn’t know that that was considered production. I was pretty naiive, I was as a child. I didn’t know that when you did the music it was considered writing. I was just happy to be there. “Wow, cool!” [laughs]. Next thing you know, someone said, “You produced that beat!” and I said, “OK…. Cool!” [audience laughs].
B: You joined Stet in 1984, and the first record came out in late 1985.
PP: Yeah, late ’85, “Just Say Stet.”
B: What was the early Stet experience like for you, overall? What did you take from it and learn from it? Clearly the next step after Stet was De La Soul.
PP: I think the best part of it was just making music and being with likeminded people, with likeminded energy. You know, we wanted to make great songs, and the learning process of how to construct a song. The intro, the hook, the ending. Learning all that. And also learning about the business, how things are actually run. That was all great. And having Daddy-O and Delite as mentors was great. I was a lot younger than those guys. I was a teenager and they were in their mid-20s. I also learned a lot of life things. And what to do and what not to do also [laughs]. What I took away from Stetsasonic is that being in a large group — we were six or seven deep — a lot of times you wouldn’t get too much say in what’s done. Everything is somewhat democratic, even if someone is running things. Moving forward, whatever group I would be involved with, I wanted everybody to have an equal say and be equal in making the music. Not just one person dictating and calling the shots. At a certain point, Stetsasonic became like that. I had ideas that got shoved off. So I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t wack. I was the kid of the group, but let me see if I can apply some of these ideas somewhere else. And that’s when De La Soul came in. They came at the right time and in the right place. I was at a stage where I was like, “Maybe I am wack! Maybe these ideas are stupid.” And those stupid and wack ideas became 3 Feet High And Rising. Stet definitely helped propel me there, though.
B: Remind me, you’re the youngest sibling in your family?
PP: Yeah, I’m the youngest. My oldest brother passed away some years ago and I have another brother and a sister.
B: I remember a funny thing you told me is that when Stet first said they wanted you to join, they came over to your house to ask permission.
PP: I was in high school, so my mom wants to know why I’m going back and forth to Brooklyn. My grandmother lived in East New York. I would visit her often. But my mom wanted to know who this group was. “Who is this guy writing you letters?” [laughs, audience laughs]. The group came to see us from Brooklyn. They were a rowdy looking bunch, you know. They had chains and leather and spikes on the wristband. They had braids with the beads on the end. They came to my house like that. They were sitting around the dinner table and they said, “Yo! Paul is a genius, he’s this and he’s that.” And my family is looking around like, “Paul?!!?” [audience laughs]. All [my family] knew is that I made tons of noise in the house, until late. And my brother would come in and threaten to kick in my speakers. How I was ruining the records [by scratching]. My mom was always supportive either way.
B: Stet or not, a large group is always a tough dynamic. But in any way was the group dynamic like being the youngest kid at home?
PP: The difference in my house was that I was wayyyy the youngest. My oldest brother was 16 years older than me. And the next sibling was 10 years older. So they kind of left me alone, and just let me do my thing as long as I didn’t make too much noise late at night.
PP: With Stet, there was the mixing board and I was adjusting the volume and doing stuff and — I won’t name any names — but my hand got slapped. SLAP. And I was like, “What is this????” I didn’t get treated like that as a child. It’s just not cool [laughs]. So I was looking for another outlet, and like I said, that’s when De La Soul came along.
B: With [Stet’s first album] On Fire, most of you guys were probably figuring out how to be in a studio. But by the time you got to [1988’s] In Full Gear, then the credits were divided up a lot more, and more specifically. That was another thing that affected you as you went into De La, having it be more communal. Right?
PP: With the first [Stet] album, we didn’t really know much about the music business. Daddy-O had a little bit of an edge, but he still didn’t even know. Like, we had a “community service” lawyer [meaning: a public defender] as our lawyer. The contract we signed was horrible [laughs]. The lawyer was a weird type of a friend of a friend. I don’t even remember who it was. By the time the second album came about, we knew a little something. Different people who did pieces got this credit and that, and it got very particular, and it segregated the group a bit. It was a good album but it kind of broke things up. I liked it better in the beginning when we were all in a room. It was a collective, it didn’t get broken up. One thing no one told me was that when you made beats, you got writing credit, as a writer, and you got publishing. I didn’t know that. I found out later, when everybody else got a bigger check than me. “How did that happen?”
B: With De La, I am guessing that people probably ask you about that part of your career than anything else. Is that true?
PP: I think De La afforded me a lot of opportunities, and the more that they’re out there, putting out music, it keeps me out there, too, in a way. I don’t promote it as much as I should. I should be more out there on social media. I should be on there wearing a 3 Feet High And Rising shirt [audience laughs], telling everybody I was there. I just…. I can’t.
B: Tell me about how the De La situation came together. Because in a certain way, you were almost back to step one in a sense, right? You had experience, but you weren’t “Prince Paul: Superproducer.”
PP: No, but I was Prince Paul, who made a record in Amityville [the same town where De La Soul was from]. [laughs] That was a big deal there. Like, “Man, he made a record!” So that gave me an edge with the kids around the neighborhood. It gave me some respect. Meeting up with De La, they were working with this guy Gangster B, who was an MC around the way. Maseo was his DJ and we were there making a record. Mr. Collins, who was our music teacher at Amityville Junior High School, played drums for the Isley Brothers and had a record label. And Gangster B was the first guy they were putting out. They asked me to come in and program a beat for him. I knew Maseo from around the way, I knew he DJed. I knew his uncle. He was a popular kid. We were there and I was like, “This is all right…. But it’s not all there. Something is missing.” So Maseo told me he had a group called De La Soul and he wanted me to hear the demo. He said, “Whatever you want to do, we’ll do that.” I was pitching ideas to Mr. Collins and Gangster B and they weren’t feeling it. So Maseo brought over the [De La] demo, it was a rough version of “Plug Tunin’,” and it wasn’t like anything I had heard before. I said, “This is craaaaazy. But I can make it better. Come back and I’m gonna add some stuff to it, and bring the guys with you. I’m gonna flip it.” I took it and used the two cassette decks method, it was all hissy, but I added so much stuff to it. And to get really fly with it, I had a high quality VHS tape recorder. I put it on VHS, so when we played it back on the VHS tape, they were like, “Whoaaaaa, that’s crazy.” [Audience laughs]. They liked what I did, and I met Pos and Dave. I had seen them in school. I hadn’t met them, but I knew of them. Pos’ older brother was like the thug of the school. And [Pos] looked exactly like him. But he was totally opposite. I used to see Dave and his brother Mike walking to school. But they just didn’t look like MCs. We had a long conversation, and this was the time when I became the Daddy-O of the group. I told them, “We should make a professional demo. We can go to this place called Calliope and they’ve got 24 tracks.” Even though we only use 8 or 10. We pool our money and go late nights, make the demo and I’ll shop it.” Because I knew what shopping was. [he nods, proudly, audience laughs]. And I really believed in myself. They were only a year or two younger than me at the time. So we made the demo of “Plug Tunin.” And I gave it to Daddy-O, because he was shopping Frankie J, who was an R & B guy. He took it along and played it for people and more of them responded to De La Soul. We got offers from Profile, Geffen was just starting, and Tommy Boy.
B: This is early ’88?
PP: Yep. And I wanted to take the Geffen deal, it was more money. They offered us a lot of things. Something like $40,000. Something you didn’t get in the ’80s. But the group wanted to go to Tommy Boy because they liked Monica Lynch and they liked the vibe over there. And one guy who really helped them at Tommy Boy was Rodd Houston, he deserves a lot of credit.
B: Why didn’t you want to take the Tommy Boy offer? Was it a separation of church and state thing, because you were still in Stetsasonic and they were on Tommy Boy?
PP: We went through a bunch of stuff with Tommy Boy with Stetsasonic and I was like, “Why do we want to go through this again, with another group?” But in the end it all worked out.
B: What were some of your favorite memories of those early De La years, with making 3 Feet High And Rising. We have discussed that era before and you were the veteran in the situation, but mostly just compared to them. You were still figuring some stuff out yourself.
PP: Yeah, but they didn’t know that! [Laughs].
B: One thing we’ve discussed in the past, is how important it was that you acted confident, to lead them to do their best work.
PP: I was somewhat confident. You know like when people tell some lies, they start to believe them eventually? That was what I was doing. I was confident that if I didn’t know something, about the studio or whatever, I could figure it out. I like a challenge, and I think that shows up in all my music. And De La was a challenge. We all came together and I said that we all have a say. Whatever people want to do, we’ll try it. We would record everything. In Stet, it was like, “Let’s record some cowbells and tambourines here,” and then they’d say, “Nah, that’s dumb!” And we wouldn’t do it. I always said, “Let’s record it. The worst thing that can happen is we listen to it and say it’s wack.” At least we’d hear it and know, instead of guess in your head. So I recorded everything. I made sure everybody in the group had the ability to record their ideas and have a voice. And that’s why that record is so layered and textured. The silly parts are mostly my doing [laughs], but musically it was everybody combined. That was important, because I didn’t get that in Stet.
B: The interesting thing for me, being a De La fan going back to “Plug Tunin’,” is seeing them still together, still touring, still friends. And still dope. The Kickstarter campaign, its success, meeting the threshold and going beyond it 6 or 7 times, shows what happens when you stick with it, when you’re honest with your fans, when you always give them a good show, when you don’t dick around. I think it’s fair to say that it’s not easy to accomplish that. You have seen a lot of different situations, with Stet or Gravediggaz. But what would you say about De La’s longevity? It’s so difficult to keep a group together like that for so long.
PP: I think it’s very simple. They bicker with each other, you know, but if you’re together for a long time, you know you need each other. A lot of groups break up because somebody gets jerked or one of the guys feels they are the star and don’t need the other guys. But I think they realize they need each other. Who is going to be the breakout guy if they broke up? It’s not like that with them. The joy of making music keeps them together. So the, “He’s snoring all the time” complaints [laughs] get overlooked for the bigger goals.
B: It’s about ego, or lack thereof. Or having your ego submit to the greater good. That’s not easy to do. Those guys haven’t even taken that many breaks over the years. Tom Silverman called them “The Grateful Dead of Hip-Hop” but also has talked about how bad they were live when they first started.
PP: Yeah, they were horrible. [audience laughs]. Especially coming from Stetsasonic, we prided ourselves on how good our live show was. We’d always try and blow away the headliners. And to go from that to De La and to have it be like, “Ehhhhhh.” [Audience laughs]. But they are smart guys, and they learn. No matter what bumps and bruises they get, they keep moving and learning. Some people just quit and run away. But you have to be like, “How can we make this better?” At this point [in 2016], the whole crowd goes crazy, seas of people. It’s amazing, because they stuck with it. I don’t think anyone can ever think that you’ll be around 25 years in the future. They just took it day by day, opportunity by opportunity.
B: We’ve talked about it before, but everyone might not know as much about it: during the first three De La records, you stepped away slowly as time went by, you let them do more of their own production. By [the group’s second album] De La Soul Is Dead, where were you at?
PP: My whole thing was that I was just going to do the first album. But when it came time for the second album, I was like, “Cool, you guys know how to work everything now.” We had the Akai S-900 sampler and [they knew] how to sequence stuff, and they knew the studio. They were ready to do it on their own. But they said, “No, you’re a part of the group. You’re Plug Four.” And that gave me a fuzzy feeling. “Wow, that’s great!” And that led to the third record and in the process I would step back gradually. It’s funny how things in your childhood affect things in your adulthood. For me, Stetsasonic was my childhood and De La was my adulthood. I didn’t ever want to step on their toes. Looking back, some of the Stet stuff really hurt me, with the hand slapping stuff. “That’s dumb, go sit in the corner.” So I probably overdid it with De La. The second one I guess I planned to step back. With Stakes Is High we started working on it together, and midway through we had a bit of a disagreement and I said, “You know, maybe this is the time where I step off, while we’re still friends.” And they finished that one on their own. That’s how it progressed. They produce their own music, J Dilla did stuff, obviously. I think it turned out really well for them. They got less juvenile once they stopped working with me [audience laughs]. Any record that’s produced by Paul is going to be goofy.
B: I definitely want to talk about your solo production work and the conceptual albums. The first would be Gravediggaz, an album which I’m a huge fan of, Six Feet Deep. We talked at length about that for my last book, and the interesting thing to me about the album and group was that the group you assembled, how you assembled them, was crazy. And also how long it took for it to actually take hold. Tell us about the earliest days of the group and what you went through to get that album out.
PP: It was a lot. Initially, Gravediggaz came from a record label I had with Russell Simmons’ imprint RAL [Rush Associated Labels], it was called Doo Dew Man. [Paul smirks and pauses, audience snickers]. In the early ’90s. And it didn’t work out and I felt that everybody hated my guts and thought I was wack. I went through a slightly depressive moment. It’s like Stetsasonic led to De La and RAL led to Gravediggaz. I was like, “Yo, they think I’m wack, they gave up on me. I’m gonna show them!” I was going to put together all these guys that went through a similar experience with other labels. So first there was Poetic, who had a whole record for Tommy Boy but it got shelved. And I knew he wasn’t feeling good. He wanted me to sign him for Doo Dew Man, but that obviously didn’t work. And RZA was Prince Rakeem back then, he was signed to Tommy Boy for a song called “Ooh, We Love You Rakeem.” I met him through his manager Melquan. I actually programmed the drums on “Ooh, We Love Your Rakeem.” Although I didn’t know until it was out that they used them. I was like, “Hey that’s my drums!” We had messed with some demos. And Frukwan had a beef with Stet, and had left after In Full Gear.
PP: I was in a dark, depressed mood at the time. My son was about the be born, and everybody hated my guts. “I’m gonna show the music world that I’m not done and I’m gonna do it with people who are downtrodden.” I called them separately and said I had an idea and said to come by my house. They were like, “Hey I know you” to each other. I sat them down and played them music. And all of the music was just dark. I mean, I was depressed! [Audience laughs]. They thought it’d be some 3 Feet High and Rising type of stuff or 3rd Bass. But it was just dark. And they were trying to think of names. I was like, “I don’t care,” I was angry. And there will always be a debate, but RZA came up with [the name] Gravediggaz. We kind of liked it. So he was like, “Yo, I’ll be the RZArector.” RZA’s name was made up in my house! [Audience laughs]. And Poetic was the Grim Reaper, because he was in a group with his brother called Brothers Grimm. And then the Undertaker was me. In hindsight, I should have been the Paul Bearer [audience laughs], but I was the Undertaker. And we made a demo, which I have on my Soundcloud, called “The House That Hatred Built.” And we all thought we had something and started recording. Now, remember, this is before “Protect Ya Neck.” Wu-Tang was conceived, but hadn’t recorded at that point. This is ’91. We made the demo, it was flawless, I thought it was the best thing ever. We shopped it, and nobody wanted it [makes a sad face, audience laughs]. Everybody dissed it. I remember I took it to Def Jam, which was dumb because later on Russell put out the Flatlinerz. Go figure. We went to Jive, we almost had a deal with them, but somebody — and I know the guy but I won’t say the name — said, “These guys are old and played out, let’s not sign them.” And so the demo sat for a year. And during that time RZA put out “Protect Ya Neck” and he was like, “I’m gonna show all the different flavors and MCs.” Keep in mind that RZA would bring some of the Wu-Tang guys when he’d come to my house to record the Gravediggaz demos. I remember ODB and GZA, they’re cousins, they wanted to do a group together and have me produce it. And I was like, “Nah, I got this Gravediggaz stuff, maybe when that’s done.” [Audience laughs after Paul makes a “duh” face.] Hindsight, right? So then “Protect Ya Neck” came out, RZA put it out himself and it blew up. I’m still shopping Gravediggaz. Having Wu-Tang blow up should have helped, but people still weren’t interested. They thought it was gimmicky and whatever. I gave myself one more week to shop it, and it was the last day of that week. It had been a year or year and a half and I was going to give up. And that’s when John Baker from Gee Street called and wanted to put it out. Poetic had just got a job at a bagel factory, I remember that. Frukwan was making clothes. Wu-Tang still wasn’t that big. But we got the Gravediggaz deal. It was the greatest thing ever.
PP: Then we started recording in the real studio as Gravediggaz, Wu-Tang started really picking up. And all those labels that dissed us were really upset because now they didn’t have a piece of the RZA. He could do no wrong. It worked in our favor. We put the record out and it got mixed reviews. Some people loved it, some people thought it was a gimmick. Keep in mind, it was designed to come out in ’91, now it’s ’94. It’s beyond its time period. By that time, Craig Mack is out, Biggie Smalls. The texture of hip-hop was changing. But when we put out “Diary Of A Madman,” it was the number one requested record on Hot 97 [in New York] for a while. That was big. We did pretty well, but not as well as I had hoped. And that was only supposed to be one record. Then people could make their own thing with their own careers.
B: In Gravediggaz, you were the ringmaster, more than with De La. Was that on purpose? How would you say Gravediggaz was different in the way you produced, contrasted with De La?
PP: With De La, I was still directing a little bit. But with Gravediggaz, I probably did 95% of the music. With De La, everybody chipped in. I would give them homework at the end of sessions. I’d say, “Make sure you have that second rhyme, make sure you have that scratch ready next time.” With Gravediggaz the process was different. I was the ringleader, I told people what to do.
B: Did you feel even more in control at that point?
PP: I had to be in control, because everybody had their own idea about what they wanted to do. Either way, everybody was on a common mission. It’s like the Golden State Warriors right now — they want to beat the Chicago Bulls’ record. Even RZA, when he was blowing up, wanted to make that album work. Everybody was down for it. It got a bit tougher after shopping it for a year. Sometimes with the guys, I’d go to Poetic and say, “I don’t know, RZA is pretty nice, I don’t know if you can get him.” Or to RZA, “Hey man, Poetic killed you.” And I’d watch them battle each other [laughs]. RZA and Poetic would battle, Frukwan would mostly just stay out of it [laughs].”
B: What do you feel is the biggest accomplishment of that first Gravediggaz record? It did pretty well commercially, it went gold, right?
PP: Yeah it did. It’s not bad, but back then, everything was going gold. [laughs, audience laughs]. That record is personal to me because it got me out of my depression. I was really depressed. Imagine the world telling you you’re great, but then all of a sudden they’re like, “He’s all right,” or “He’s wack.” At age 27 I was old and played out. [laughs]. I guess I got old real quick. But what made the album real special to me was the fact that I gave an opportunity to Poetic and Frukwan and RZA too. RZA was getting established, but I was more popular at that time.
B: I think you’re downplaying that a bit. RZA was an MC with Gravediggaz, not really much of a producer. I’m sure he learned a lot from you during that time as a producer. I remember past discussions where you’d say how crazy you thought RZA’s production style was. It didn’t make any conventional sense.
PP: Yeah, he had no metronome, no time. Just pap, pap, pap [sound of drums going off at different time signatures]. “What is that?” But the MCs would always tie it together. And I learned from that, because by then I was getting so technically savvy. But he made me remember that it’s about feel. RZA brought me back to that. I showed him structure. We learned from each other. He picked up a few things from me I guess [laughs].
B: I always found it interesting how “Protect Ya Neck” and “Diary of a Madman” were both pieced together, Frankenstein-style, with the vocals. The way the finals came out weren’t the original order [of when MCs were recorded]. I have more questions but I want to open it up to the audience, too. Does anyone out there have any questions?
Audience member: I wanted to get your opinion about Handsome Boy Modeling School. That’s such a crazy record.
PP: [Laughs loudly]. Dan [The Automator] had just finished Dr. Octagon — I’m sure everyone here knows Dr. Octagon — and I had just finished my album Psychoanalysis. And a friend of ours, Skiz Fernando, who had a label called WordSound Skiz is also a writer. He was interviewing Dan and I was over at Skiz’s house at the time, because Skiz put out Psychoanalysis. He said, “I’ve got Dan The Automator on the phone, he just did Dr. Octagon, he wants to speak with you.” So Dan wanted me to do a remix for Octagon. We started talking about Chris Elliott’s “Get A Life” [TV show] and all kinds of geeky stuff. I remixed “Blue Flowers” and he liked the way it came out, and we started talking about Chris Elliott. There are Star Trek geeks, but we were stupid TV show geeks. So we said, “We should do a group called Handsome Boy Modeling School, ha ha ha ha.” [Dan] was up at Tommy Boy one day because I got him to remix something on Psychoanalysis, to return the favor. I think Monica Lynch was talking to him and she asked him what we were working on. He said, “Me and Prince Paul have a group called Handsome Boy Modeling School.” And she was like, “Yeah? We want to sign it.” [audience laughs, Paul snickers]. Meanwhile, Dan calls me up and goes, “Yo, Paul, guess what? Handsome Boy Modeling School, Tommy Boy wants to sign us to a record deal.” And we just started laughing, hahaha. So then we had to figure out what we were going to do. We got together and we was like, “OK, Chris Elliott ‘Get A Life’ was about a male model. How can we make this?” We sat around with two MPCs and just banged out beats. We’d say, “How does that sound? Is that handsome?” There was a certain vibe to it, a certain kind of feel. And neither of us rhymed, so we got people to do that. We just put it together and I remember the guy was doing the album cover and I was like, “How are people going to take this? I don’t know… I’m going to put on a mustache, disguise myself.” Then the mustache thing just took off. It was so stupid. That whole record was just fun. Like, “How did this happen? People like this record?”
B: It’s nice to get signed without a demo.
PP: It was cool, yeah. Dan definitely had a good track record with great record and I was doing what I was doing. It all helped.
B: Clearly Dan was a big fan of yours, since his own career has been equally open-minded and project-based. It must have been fun working with someone so like-minded, but coming with a different background.
PP: Yeah it was cool. My thing about making music has always been fun, first and foremost. Once it starts getting like [makes sound like he’s in pain], then I don’t do it. You know what I’m saying? I might as well dig ditches [laughs]. So I try and make sure that everything is fun. It can’t always be that way and make cash. But I have done it that way. I purposely live below my means, so I can keep money and be able to do what I want to do. I’ll never be like, “Will work for food.” One thing I saw in the future is that I want to make music to change the world. It sounds cheesy, but I mean it. I want to give music back what it gave me. Now there’s a tendency towards, “What can I get from it [music]?” And they never give back to it. They gotta get money, fame, more Likes. But they don’t want to give anything back to it. But I want to give back to it. I’ve put my son through college, I’ve done some great things, and I’m here today.
B: Speaking of your son, let’s talk about Negroes on Ice.
PP: Aw, that’s bizarre.
B: It’s you and your son, P-Forreal. It must be fun. But your kid is probably the only person who isn’t impressed with you as a producer. He’s just like, “That’s my dad, he’s a dork.”
PP: My kid’s not impressed by my work too much at all. [Audience laughs]. Half the records we talked about, he’s like, “Huh?” He’s 24 and he knows very little of my catalog. We [Brian and Paul, with Joe Schloss and Dan Charnas] did that thing at NYU and my daughter learned more about me in that interview than she knew her entire life. She said, “Dad, I never knew you did all that. That’s so cool!” With my kids, I’m like, “Do the dishes!” I’m that guy.
B: Tell me a bit about the record you guys put out [Negroes On Ice]. Is that group going to continue?
PP: I don’t know, he’s in school in Atlanta, and he’s DJing for this kid named Little Uzi. Are you guys familiar with him at all? [Asks audience]. He’s playing in front of 2,000 people, he’s sending me videos. That’s his path and I don’t know how he did that. He did it on his own. My name has no value to young kids. I will say one thing about my son — great kid, but he’s done everything the opposite of how I would tell someone they should get into the music business. What he did, what people do now, he built up his image and his perception before he had the skills to match it. In high school he had DJ equipment in his room because I gave it to him. But once kids saw the stuff, they were like, “Yo, he’s nice. He’s got equipment.” So then he had to build the skills to meet what people thought of him.
B: That’s a very modern approach, though.
PP: Awwwwww, man. I was watching him, going, “He’s going to crumble.” [Audience laughs]. I was like “You gotta pay your dues, you gotta put in work, you have to have the passion.” I tried to talk him out of it. And he did just the opposite. He built up his skills, he got serious about it. And it met whatever public perception was out there. Now he’s doing all these gigs, and he’s on the radio. People are like, “He’s one of the best DJs out here.” And I’m like, “What????” [Audience laughs]. How did that happen?” I only wish the best for him, but he goes against everything about what I believe about music. He did it is way, though, so I’m proud of him.
B: Other questions from the crowd?
Audience member: You mentioned that you had struggles with depression and how you overemphasized what people thought of you. How did you get past that? That’s something I deal with all the time. You can really beat yourself up about things, and it stagnates you. How did you push through that?
PP: You just do it. You know? Not everything you put out is going to be a hit, everybody isn’t going to like everything. It took me years to realize that not everyone’s going to like what you do. But somebody’s going to like it. You know what I’m sayin’? I hate to sound cheesy, because you hear it all the time, but you have to believe in yourself. People can be their own worst enemy. You just have to do it, put it out there, and run the risk. Sometimes that’s the beauty of it. I prayed a lot, I wanted to get past it. And you can will things into existence. It took me a while to realize that that’s the way it is. And I’m here now, my first record came out in ’85. I didn’t think I’d be here in 2016. I was probably least likely to succeed in everything. As a producer, I make the weirdest records. I don’t rhyme. I go against every conventional way of doing things. But I’m OK. You just have to do it.
B: Sometimes it speaks to when you’re a pioneer, when you are innovative, when you don’t go along with what is expected or what’s popular, it can be kind of a lonely path.
PP: It’s hard, man. Every record I put out, I run the risk of people going, “I hate what you do. It’s not like anything I’ve heard before.” But that’s the challenge, to do something no one has done. And if it does win, I’m in the history books as the first. It’s just a matter of doing it and seeing what sticks. Not everyone’s going to like you, bottom line.
Audience member: I’m a longtime fan. What’s the difference between De La and Tribe, do you think? It seems like people gravitate more to Tribe than De La, out of the Native Tongues groups.
PP: I think Tribe, to me, when they came out with Low End Theory, it was just way funkier. That was part of the reason that led up to why De La transformed before Stakes Is High. Tribe raised the bar, not just with Native Tongues but with everybody. Like, “Oh my god! What is this? This is crazy.” Same thing with Jungle Brothers. People were like, “This is crazy.” I think Tribe is a little more accessible. De La was doing crazier stuff.
B: I think that clearly groups who stay together for 25 years are much more the exception than the rule. It’s so difficult to stay together even as friends. Once it’s your job, once there’s money on the line. And touring is a whole other stressful thing.
PP: It’s usually two things. “I got jerked” or “I can be the star.” Unless someone sleeps with someone’s girl. That can be part of it, too.
Audience member: What are you listening to these days? Who inspires you musically? And what do you think about how things are more solo and individual with newer artists, not as much about crew.
PP: There’s so many people out there, and I’m always asking my daughter, “Who’s that?” She just listens to songs, one here and another there, she doesn’t follow artists as much. There’s this guy out there, Vic Mensa, he impresses me. There’s a few people out there, I just can’t think of them off the top of my head. And that’s sad.
B: During the ’80s and ’90s in recording studios, it was very communal. People were up in everyone else’s sessions, sharing ideas. Now it’s a lot of emailing MP3s back and forth, which is completely the opposite. Do you notice anything good about the new way of doing things, about what technology lets you do?
PP: About it being communal, that was cool for a while. Until the lawyers started being involved. Like, “You went to whose session? Did you write anything for that record? Did they give you publishing?” And the guy’s like, “He’s trying to jerk me.” People were getting pitted against each other. So that slowed things down. The cool thing about technology is that I can work with the best South African artist and send a file and he can record it. But the idea of having people together, and the ideas that come from that [atmosphere], you can’t beat it. Sitting in a room and somebody goes, “Yo, record that thing you just said!” You don’t get that when you email files.
B: One person who seems to have had a great deal of success in the current era with a crew is Kendrick Lamar. He works in a communal musical environment. Studio sessions, the same players. Thundercat and Flying Lotus. Plus he has also come out and talked about living within your means and not throwing money around, which hearkens back to what you were talking about.
PP: Yeah. It’s cool to be in a room together. As an example, when we did [De La Soul’s] “Buddy,” that “Meany, meany, meany, meany meannnnny” was just Q-Tip and Dave on the side, messing around. And we were like, “Yo! Record that!” and they was like, “Really?” That wouldn’t have been in the song if we weren’t all together. It’s so important to vibe off each other. Too many times people are too obsessed with credit in sessions. And the music suffers because of it.
Audience member: I just want to thank you for everything you’ve done, it’s the soundtrack to my life. [Audience claps]. You were so important with the skits, when De La came out. After that, everyone had to have even more entertaining skits.
PP: Yeah, it ruined hip-hop! [Audience laughs]
B: So it’s your fault that everyone had 25 tracks on their album in the 90s?
PP: I appreciate that [to audience member].
B: It all goes back to the fun part, right?
PP: Yeah, it’s about having fun. I never thought this job was long-term, I never saw me doing it 31 years later. I said, “If I go out, it’s on my terms. I’m not going to go out and look back and go, ‘I did that hip-house track with the jazz influence and the pop twist’ just to make dough. If you don’t like me, it’s because I made music I wanted to make. And I stick to that to this day. It’s always about challenges. I was in “The Breaks,” I do the Scion thing, I’m all over the place. It’s fun. And it’s on my terms. I know it won’t blow up and I won’t make a billion dollars. But it’s a challenge. And my kids can look back and be proud of me. My legacy, I did something. I didn’t do something that was stupid.
B: Would you agree that part of your longevity is treating people well? Because a lot of people burn bridges that they don’t realize they need to go back across. You’re always great to deal with. I assume you have seen your share of burned bridges.
PP: With me, it’s the way my mom raised me. I’m very humble. For me it’s God first. When I talk about my career and how I got here, it wasn’t by design. I just followed along with the map that was made for me. But you know what? If you’re the best person in the world…. No matter how douchey you are, if you’ve got talent, people will put up with it. [audience laughs]. The ego thing never really did anything for me. I never tried to walk in a club for free. I’m at the back of the line. I have watched… no matter how douchey you are, if people want something from you, they’ll put up with it. It’s like the pretty girl. She could be real wack, and dudes are like [makes drooling noise]. They take it! It’s the same thing with artists and I’ve seen the same thing happen. You can be the nicest person in the world, but if you don’t have anything to offer, they don’t care. And I’ve been in that position. “But I’m nice to you!” And they say, “That guy just made me a quarter of a million dollars.”
B: OK, one more question. Who’s got the best question for last?
Audience member: You are iconic in shifting culture. Talking about De La, 3 Feet High, De La Soul Is Dead. Two of my favorites.
PP: Thank you.
Audience member: The concepts on De La Soul Is Dead. Millie pulled a pistol, that was amazing. Can you talk a little bit about that shift, and how you guys kept going through that shift?
PP: De La being young, they got tired of being pigeonholed as hippies. De La Soul is Dead was a rebirth. In hindsight, people love it. But at the time, not everyone loved it. It was like, “Yo, De La Soul IS Dead!” [Audience laughs]. The Source gave it 5 mics, but a lot of people were like, “It’s all right, it’s not 3 Feet High And Rising.” And we took the lumps. But great music at some point in the future will be discovered. 10 years, 30 years. At some point, some kid is going to be like, “Hey, this is great.” Now you see a lot of these bands out again. Someone dug up their 45.
B: What song of yours do you still wish more people had heard? Which one are you most proud of, that isn’t one of the usual ones?
PP: I would have to say the Paul Barman EP [It’s Very Stimulating, from 2000 on WordSound]. No one ever talks about that. I did that in seven days, I thought it was brilliant. I think he was just hated because of who he was. Lyrically he was just dope. But he was just a white nerd and people didn’t take to it. Like, “Eminem’s the real deal.” And they never gave him a chance. He coined the phrase “Va Jay Jay” on that record, so there’s another first on a Prince Paul record. Making history! [Audience laughs].
B: OK we’re out of time. Thanks to everyone for sticking around and the great questions, and thanks to Prince Paul. [Loud, lengthy applause]