Few hip-hop producers have changed music quite like Prince Paul. This Amityville, New York maverick (real name Paul Edward Huston) has revolutionised the sound and direction of his genre more than once and continues to do so with his new North-to-South American project Brookzill!
Words: Ben Murphy
His beats for De La Soul on their breakthrough 1989 debut Three Feet and Rising were the first to knit together layer upon layer of samples in a colourful psychedelic patchwork. This sampladelia has been imitated endlessly since, not just in rap, but in house, rock and practically every style.
He’s made tracks for legends Big Daddy Kane, Queen Latifah, Slick Rick and MC Lyte, and altered the course of hip-hop with the horrorcore of his group Gravediggaz alongside RZA, Frukwan and Poetic.
In recent years he’s ploughed an independent furrow, with solo albums Psychoanalysis and Prince Among Thieves revealing hitherto unseen influences, while his collaboration with Dan the Automator as Handsome Boy Modelling School over two albums saw them craft songs with eclectic guests such as Roisin Murphy, Alec Empire and Biz Markie. In all his creative endeavours, it’s Paul’s sense of humour and playfulness that sparkle.
His latest adventure is Brookzill! a North-to-South American cultural exchange full of Brazilian sounds and MCs, and the rhymes of Ladybug Mecca (ex of Digable Planets) and Rodrigo Brandão, plus the musicianship of frequent collaborator Don Newkirk. The album Throwback to the Future, out through Tommy Boy, is another excellent addition to his staggering discography, so what better time to explore the new project, and dig deep into his musical history?
Brookzill! is your new project with Ladybug Mecca, Rodrigo Brandão (aka Gorila Urbano) and Don Newkirk, and there’s a Brazilian flavour to a lot of the music, plus Brazilian guest MCs. What inspired that musical direction?
My trip to Brazil in 2006. In general with music at that point, I was getting bored and tired. Maybe it was the shift in how things were starting to sound, things were becoming super commercial and formulated. So going there gave me a vibe of… it was like going back into the ’70s or ’80s when I was a kid. It was old, it was jammin’. There was rocking music I’d never heard before and things that didn’t sound pop. It was rhythmic, some of it was old soul, some of it was Brazilian, and it was all meshed together, and people still rocked out to it. It really got me amped, and then when I met Rodrigo Brandão out there, and I said, “Yo, we gotta make a record together”.
What’s Rodrigo role on the record?
He’s one of the MCs, and he also collaborated as far as helping me find the music. Some of the ideas were samples, and how do we replay some of this stuff? He’s kind of my guide and mentor to anything Brazilian, or even anything hip-hop. He’s one of those guys you can call and say, “What’s the third track on the Cella Dwellas’ first album?” and he’ll go, “Oh, it was this and that, it was written by blah blah blah, the production, publishing…”. He’s that guy. Super nerdy when it comes to that.
And who is Don Newkirk? I’m familiar with him as the game show host from De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising, but…
Don Newkirk is a long time friend, I’ve known him since I was in the eight grade, since I was 14. We had a group together called Soul Brothers, and he was one of my MCs in that group. Later on, I went to join Stetsasonic and he got more into playing keyboards, and singing. I took him with me, and he played the bassline for ‘Talkin’ All That Jazz’, he’s the voice on Three Feet High and Rising, he’s the voice on [3rd Bass track] ‘Gasface’, and then I got him a deal with Russell Simmons and he had a record out on RAL Records, part of Def Jam, I think it was in ’90, ’91. If you’ve seen a record I’ve done, there’s a 75% chance his name will be on it.
Madlib and other producers have tapped into Brazilian music as a sample source. Is it more popular now, is there more potential for people to discover it?
Without a doubt. I haven’t been to Brazil in five years or so, but it’s like an untapped territory as far as new music. Because now, if anything new comes out, it gets exploited right away and doesn’t get a chance to properly grow. Luckily for Brazilian music, it’s been cultivating and growing for years, so you can only go backwards up to the present day. That’s the beautiful thing about it, it’s had a chance to mature, and you can really appreciate good music, as opposed to, “Hey man this is the new sound and such and such”, and everybody exploits it, and in a year it becomes corny.
It’s great to hear Ladybug Mecca on the record, undoubtedly the star MC of Digable Planets. What’s your relationship to her?
I’ve known of her since Digable times, and the weird thing is that when Digable got signed, it was to Pendulum Records back in the day. Unbeknownst to her, they had asked me to remix some of their songs. I never got around to it, as I was busy at the time. We ended up working together on this children’s record called The Dino 5 in 2006. She has an amazing voice, she’s got to just read the alphabet and you go, “Woooh!” [laughs]. So to get her to rhyme on something is even more amazing. This was one of the first projects that I knew would work with her. Her family is Brazilian. You can’t get a better fit than that, and her first language is Portuguese. I didn’t know this either! This project brought out a lot of stuff.
How did you start out making hip-hop beats?
I don’t think it was a thing of knowing what I wanted to do, it was just a natural progression from being a DJ. Early on, you DJ, you collect records, you DJ for MCs, you had routines and you orchestrated that. The next natural thing is, you had a drum machine. The first person who really kicked that off to me, was Grandmaster Flash. Once I heard he had a beatbox, I said, “Yo, I gotta have one of those”. It went from DJing for MCs to programming a beat for the MCs. And then the natural progression for a lot of people was, we’re gonna try to make a record. “Hey, I have a beatbox, you programme the drums”, next thing you know, you give it a title. “Oh, you’re a producer now?” So a lot of these things that happened weren’t by design, it just organically showed up and I said, “Wow, that’s what I do?” It’s not like today where people have a clear-cut idea of what every title is. It found me.
One of your earliest classic productions, Stetsasonic’s ‘Talkin’ All that Jazz’, has an interpolation of the bassline from Lonnie Liston Smith’s ‘Expansions’. This was before all the sample clearance litigation that we have nowadays. Why did you choose to replay it?
We were in the studio, and Delite who was in my group Stetsasonic said, “Yo, I wanna use ‘Expansions’”. But I don’t think we found a good way of sampling it and playing it at the tempo we wanted. So he hummed it out to Newkirk, who didn’t know the song. He was clearly going by Delite humming the notes, and figuring it out! And then he played it and I said, “I’ve got a beat for that”. It wasn’t about choosing to sample or not to sample, the record was there. Now if you listen to the record itself, it would have required some chopping. Back then we weren’t chop savvy, it would have taken a bit of work.
It’s interesting that the lyrics talk about sampling, and how it’s an art, but it was before the sample clearance problems…
Yeah it definitely prophesized a lot of things that were to come. Especially for me, as history would show with De La Soul.
How did you start to produce for other people?
MC Lyte came before everybody else. That was one of my first productions outside of Stetsasonic. That was even before De La Soul if I remember correctly. When I did De La, that opened up the floodgates for people wanting to work with me, because they had an idea of what my sound truly was. With Stetsasonic, it was more of a group sound with the band, but De La was more of my baby that I could dictate, and bend the sounds, do what I wanted to do with them. From there it was Big Daddy Kane, 3rd Bass, Queen Latifah, and it moved on.
Who were some of your own production heroes?
My productions are a combination of these people: George Clinton, Bernie Worrell. I took my mindset from what they did, because they mixed a lot. If you listen to those records, the ones in ’80s, they’re really dense, there’s a lot of stuff going on in them. You combine that with Rick Rubin, I was a big fan. I’d listen to [The Beastie Boys’] License to Ill, the scratching back and forth, call and answer things with the sound. And I was listening to the Bomb Squad, heavy. Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, you can hear that. And then you combine that with Eazy E’s Eazy-Duz-It, Dr. Dre, his production. So all that together, I was really deep into that, and out of that came Three Feet High and Rising.
How did your association with De La Soul first come about?
I hooked up with De La through Maseo. He was the DJ in a group, with an MC called Gangster B. They were making a record for our music teacher, Mr. Everett Collins, who was also the drummer for The Isley Brothers. He was a teacher in our junior high school. He wanted to start a record label and rap was big, so he signed Gangster B.
They asked me to come in and programme a beat, that was probably the first thing I ever produced. We were there in the studio and they were like, “Yo make a beat!” My drum machine had this function that made the beats go backwards, and he was like, “Yo, do that”. I said, “It’s too much like [Beastie Boys’] ‘Paul Revere’”, ’cause biting was a crime back then. I was like, “I can’t do that”, and they said, “Do it, do it”. Maseo was sitting there, and was like “Yo, this is really corny. I’ve got a group called De La Soul, and we have demos and stuff. You should work with us. Obviously this isn’t your thing, but we’ll listen”. I was like “Cool”, and he brought over the demo. It was a rough of ‘Plug Tunin’. We took it from there, and afterwards we were inseparable.
Your beats on Three Feet High and Rising were like nothing else at the time. What gave you the idea to thread samples together intricately?
As far as I know that was the first record that incorporated that type of sound. For me, being in Stetsasonic, I was the youngest in the group and I would come up with certain ideas, but the elders at times would shut it down, like, ‘I don’t know about that’. In hindsight they were right at the time, because it fit more for De La Soul than it would have fit for them. So I was sensitive to that.
When I got together with De La, everybody had records, ideas of what they wanted to do for a song. So I said, “Whatever you have, let’s just add it!” Mase would come up with a sample, usually Pos would come up with a good bulk of ’em. Dave would come in with something, I would come in with something, so we kept adding. Then we found out, and this is the beauty of it too, we figured out we wanted to put things in key. ’Cause you have samples, but how do you get it in key? Using the technology of the studios, which was limited for sampling, we found ways to pitch shift, time-stretch. That’s how we got the horns to fit, so everything sounded natural. We had really great engineers who were musicians, so we were able to tweak it. We kept on pushing the envelope for technology, like, “How can we do this?” It was cool, I never wanted to stop them from being creative, so that’s how it came out.
Was it difficult with the limitations of the equipment at the time?
Then I didn’t know any better so it didn’t seem like it. It wasn’t that frustrating because, it was, “Hey let’s try to do it”. Now you look back, it took us an hour to do that, now it would take maybe two minutes to do something. Then we didn’t know so it was cool! The fact we actually got it was more amazing than the process of getting there. I think the beauty too of production back then is in the process of learning things and using your imagination, learning how to record those sounds, you learn other things. There’s a journey. Now, you go, I want to do this, this and that. You press a combination of keys and it happens. It was kind of the gift and the curse.
De La was sued by 1960s pop band The Turtles for an un-cleared sample. Did that experience cause you to approach sampling differently?
Not The Turtles per se. It’s funny when people talk about, “Oh you had to pay them X amount of dollars”. But I had never made any money, I’d never seen money before, so to lose something you’d never seen or had, didn’t bother me. What probably determined it later was when the labels said, “We can’t do this”, or “This has to be a certain way”, or just the hassle. This person would clear it but they want 100% of the writing, or this person wants 100%. It became really technical, like, how do we avoid getting through these problems? That made me change more than that lawsuit.
Your beats for De La Soul is Dead had a markedly moodier feel. Was that reflective of the prevailing feeling in hip-hop? Was it because De La Soul wanted to get away from the ‘D.A.I.S.Y. Age’ stuff?
Yeah. A lot of that was them going through… that first record took everybody by surprise. We didn’t know it was going to be that big, that fast. So we weren’t prepared for that type of success, and along with that success comes scrutiny. It was hectic. Coming from a bunch of fights and having to protect your reputation and dignity, De La Soul is Dead came from that. It’s funny, I listened to it the other day with my daughter, and it was the first time she’d ever heard it, she’s 13. It was angry back then, now it just sounds like a happy, silly record. For them, it was definitely reflective of those times.
You worked with Big Daddy Kane over two of his albums – what was that like?
I loved working with Kane. We spoke early this year. I liked working with him because there was a mutual respect. He respected my opinion and my work, and I’m a fan of his work, so it made the process much easier and more fun. He’s good for taking suggestion. Some MCs, especially of his stature, and in those times, they’re so dope and that good, it would have been easy for him to say, “Yeaaaahhhh, ok, I’m Big Daddy Kane” (laughs). But he didn’t do that. That gave me more respect for him. He called me up and he’s like, “Yo, I did an interview and they asked me about producers and people I worked with, and asked me about you, and I said, “Prince Paul was the first producer that ever told me no. Nobody’s ever told me no!”’ That’s how I did, I’d say, “That’s wack, you’ve got to do that over”. It was nice that he remembered that.
The Resident Alien track you produced, ‘Ooh the Dew Doo Man’, was a classic tune but the album got shelved. Why?
Oh man, I had that record label deal with RAL, it was Dew Doo Man Records. They had signed a bunch of different acts and had a bunch of different labels under that RAL umbrella. I had a long conversation with Lyor Cohen and Russell Simmons, and I was like, “What’s up with the release schedule? I made these records, you asked me to make this label and I have this record done, what’s the hold up?” We got into a little disagreement, and it got to a point where I was like, trying to get a union together. I said, “I’m going to get everyone on Def Jam together, and as a collective we have a voice”.
There were a lot of people who said, “When are they putting my record out, am I getting dropped?” They got wind of that and asked me if I wanted to leave. That was it and the record got put away. I don’t think Russell liked it anyway. They were really hearing me doing another De La record, and when they didn’t get that, they said, “Yeaaaahhhh alright, let’s let this guy go, let’s cut our losses”. It never came out officially, but there are people who say, “I got the record”. You can find it somewhere online. There’s some records that people have posted, that aren’t on the album. I need to take the time because I have a lot of music archived, a lot of things that have never come out. Even if it’s on SoundCloud or Mixcloud, let it be out there.
Gravediggaz was a complete musical change of direction with the horror theme and sinister samples. How did the concept for the group come about?
I called all the guys together, they’d never met each other. I had a separate relationship with RZA, he was known as Rakeem back then. I knew Frukwan from Stet, and then Poetic was actually gonna be the last person I was gonna sign to my record label before it got defunct, he gave me a demo. I introduced them, they came to my house and I said, “I want to make a record with you guys, can we come up with a group?” I played them the beats, and it just so happens, this is all related to the Doo Doo Man Records thing, I was just depressed.
De La Soul records didn’t do that great, even De La Soul is Dead, in hindsight people say, “That’s a great record”, when it came out, it was under a lot of pressure, ’cause people wanted Three Feet High and Rising. People were like, “That record’s wack, they are dead”. There was a problem with that and a whole bunch of things. So a lot of music that I presented to the guys was just dark, it had a dark vibe to it, very different to what I’d normally do. But I make music based on what my emotions are. And when they listened to it, the guys were pretty angry and upset ’cause they had had pitfalls in their career. I remember RZA going, “Yo, we should call ourselves the Gravediggaz”. We just took it from there. He’s like, “I’m gonna be called the Rzarector”, everyone came up with the names.
When you did your solo record Psychoanalysis, did you find it liberating to do what you wanted musically?
I was trying to find a way to put my name on a record, because I was signed to another label. I wanted to do another record, but how can I technically get around it? That record, what’s weird about it, it came at a time when I thought my career was over. So I stopped caring, I’m going to have a bunch of songs that nobody ever wanted. It wasn’t even beats that I would say I was in love with. My friend said, “I have a record label, I’m going to print maybe 1000 copies”.
Little did I know it would be the record to jumpstart my career. I asked a couple of MCs I worked with to be on the record, and they said, “No”. It was that part of your life. You think you’ve done all these things to help people, and realising what the industry was about. “Oh people don’t like you to offer them things”. So I got all my high school friends, Newkirk’s on there too, to make this record, and like I said, it just changed my life, which was totally weird to me.
You’ve produced two albums with Dan the Automator as Handsome Boy Modelling School, what’s it like working with him?
Oh man, Dan is brilliant. I guess we’re both eclectic guys in our taste in music and how we approach producing it. But he’s taught me a lot of things. It was my introduction to the MPC, ’cause I was using the SP-12. I had a computer programme called MasterTracks I was using to sequence, Akai 900s and 950s, so he was the one who sat down and explained to me, “We’re gonna use an MPC on this”. That was the turning point as far as my production, it really helped a lot. He used a lot of Pro Tools and I got savvy with that. He forced me to learn outside of what I was using. We work well as a team. I make Dan push the limit, like, “Stop being stuffy, you gotta be handsome!” It’s a fun project.
You produced the whole of Souls of Mischief’s Montezuma’s Revenge. What inspired you to produce the whole record?
I produced it with the guys, yeah. It’s a record that very rarely gets talked about. People seem to just gloss over that. I thought, when it came out, and the comparison to, aside from the first album to the other albums, I thought it held a lot of weight. But I don’t know what happened. Whatever.
Beyond Brookzill! what have you got coming up?
I also got a project coming out with J-Zone, Sacha Jenkins. It’s called SuperBlack. That’s record’s been done for a while, and it’s going to come out on Mass Appeal, some time next year, maybe the end of spring. That’s gonna raise some eyebrows, it’s real edgy. As I pride myself, it’s a sound I’ve never heard before. I haven’t put out music for a while so it’s a very exciting time for me, to see people’s reaction. Following that I’ve got a solo record I’ve been sitting on for the longest. There are so many things that haven’t been done, so I’m excited to see how people are going to react to it, because everything I do could either be hated or loved, to an extreme. It’s exciting, will they hate me or love me? You won’t go, “It’s aiight”.
It seems you always like to challenge yourself…
I’m forward moving and that’s a little bad for business, because a lot of times, if I replicated the same sound, I would have made more money, if I’d stuck to one thing. Especially with something that was successful. But I get bored easy, and there’s more to my life and to my personality than one type of sound. I think once you get in your comfort zone, you’re really not expanding. The cool part for me is making myself uncomfortable, like, “What’s going to happen?” What’s the worst that can happen?’ The consequences aren’t that bad.