MC Paul Barman is one of a kind: A gawky, Brown-educated rapper, he rhymes about Krzysztof Kieslowski and Chuck Close with a uniquely wordy, self-deprecating style that's won the attention of hip-hop legend Prince Paul (De La Soul, Handsome Boy Modeling School, Gravediggaz, Stetsasonic). Paul produced Barman's loopy debut EP, It's Very Stimulating, and a full-length album is on the way. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke to Barman about his stage name, his new song "Hamstergram To Amsterdam," and much more.
The Onion: Where do you live?
MC Paul Barman: I'm currently homeless, unfortunately.
O: You're nomadic?
PB: I am nomadic. Well, I just bought a cell phone, so I'm constantly headquartered. Do you want to hear about the song I'm working on?
O: Yes, I would.
PB: I'm so excited about it. It's really difficult. It's called "Hamstergram To Amsterdam." See, the story goes that my pet hamster, who I was thinking of naming Morton so there could be a segment called "I'm important"... I think he'll just have to be called Hamster, because there's no cool enough name for him. I think he'll just be called Hamster. Anyway, his great-great-grandmother used to smuggle food through a mouse hole into Anne Frank's secret attic, and she kept the diary, and she recently died of cancer, because it sort of rhymes with hamster. There were days when I would only use the tightest rhymes on Earth, but I'm loosening up a little bit. It's just that rhymes are pretty precise: Something either rhymes or it doesn't. I don't think things kind of rhyme. I once had a friend who was like, "Well, the beginning of the word rhymes." I'm like, "Well, the end of the word has to rhyme, too."
O: You'll find a lot of rappers who rhyme the same word.
PB: That's straight up. I hate that.
O: Kurupt, for example, will be like, "You ain't nothing but a bitch / And also I think you're a bitch." That's not rhyming: That's just saying the same word several times.
PB: Should I keep telling you about "Hamstergram"?
O: Sure, go ahead.
PB: Okay, anyway, so he goes on a trip from Brooklyn to Amsterdam on a slow boat, and he meets a bird and the captain of the boatthey all have ratsand, you see, when the Anne Frank space was going to be turned into a museum, they were going to furnish it the way it had been during the time when they had been in hiding. But Otto Frank, the father and sole survivor, said, "No, the Nazis cleaned out this place and that's how it should remain. And besides, it's a lot more utilitarian considering that people are just going to be wandering around." So, what they did was they created, on one of those museum sculpture pedestals, a tiny, dollhouse type of arrangement that showed how it was furnished in the space that you're standing in, which is otherwise empty. So, since this great-grandma's diary was hamster size, it's that little miniature where the diary needs to be returned to. The only problem with having this great-great-grandma is that hamsters' life spans are only like five years, I think, so it would have to be more like a very, very great grandmother. But I'm just gonna give these hamsters human generations.
O: Have you written any part of the song yet, or is this just a concept you're coming up with?
PB: It's a little of both. I have the first verse going something... I sort of have it. Do you want to hear it?
PB: Okay, hang on. Let me go get it. I'll give you a tiny morsel of the first verse. It goes something like, [rhyming] "My hamster's great-grandma just died of cancer / and left her diary to my hamster." [breaks from rhyming] No, wait, that's hamster twice. I'm still working on it, you know. [rhyming] "It's quite an heirloom / a rare glimpse into the spare room / before their doom." And then something like, "Keep on your Pampers, man / It's a hamstergram to Amsterdam."
O: So, that could be the chorus.
PB: Oh, believe me, it is. And then the other chorus will be something like, "He wasn't from Vietnam / but he called her Grandma-san / which is an anagram from Anna gram / It's a hamstergram to Amsterdam." [The final, illustrated version of "Hamstergram To Amsterdam" can be found on the final page of a recent issue of Spin. ed.]
O: How did you come up with your rap name?
PB: MC Paul Barman? Honestly, it was kind of like a lightning strike. When I thought of it, I knew I could never think of a better name, and that I would never change it.
O: Do you ever see yourself abandoning the MC like MC Hammer did?
PB: What, just to Paul Barman? No, of course not.
O: Are you concerned that people will rip off your stage name?
PB: Should I tell you my prepared answer?
PB: What's her name... Who's that cute girl in Star Wars? Natalie Merchant?
O: Natalie Portman.
PB: Natalie Portman. Natalie Portman's parents knew when she was a baby that she was going to be famous. Not as a baby, but as a little actress, so they made up a fake name, Natalie Portman. This is true. Her old name, her real name, is MC Paul Barman.
O: What was high school like for you? Were you popular? Everybody denies being popular in high school.
PB: Well, it was a remarkable thing. I got to high school just as shrimpy as I had always been. But there was a transformation between sophomore and junior year, and by the time I was a junior I had a huge afro with some dreadlocks and a goatee, and I wore strictly yellow. I was actually really popular. I will admit it. I remember a guidance counselor telling me this story about pointing me out to a jock in the yearbook and being like, "Get a load of this guy," because I was doing something stupid. I always did stupid stuff for my school portraits, like in one of them I was tearing my shirt off. And he was like, "No, no, that guy's okay." It's weird: I actually managed to be quite the clique-hopper, going to different places. I never drank or smoked at all. And then, after that, I had never even really smoked a cigarette at all until college. A lot has been made of me being the biggest nerd dork in the world, and they say the same thing about Prince Paul, which is so ridiculous.
O: When he was in high school, Prince Paul was in Stetsasonic, wasn't he?
O: So how can you be a dork and be in a popular, nationally known hip-hop group?
PB: I feel like we're both happy. If that means being distanced from ignorance or idiots or people who pretend to be cool, then fine.
O: How has your life changed since the release of It's Very Stimulating?
PB: It's completely different. Things have never changed so much. I'm on such a fast course, I've gotten gobs and gobs of press. I've met a billion people. I'm trying... It's hard to know who to trust. It's very intense. I had to buy a cell phone. I'm on the phone all the time now. I had to move up to New York from Chapel Hill, which is a pretty big change.
O: How about the ladies? Have the ladies been more receptive to you since you became rich and famous?
PB: They've always been receptive. You know, I hate to say I don't spew truth, but come on... A joke is a joke, baby.
O: So everything on your album is just self-deprecation?
PB: I don't know. It's here and there.
O: Why aren't there any gay rappers? It'd just seem to make sense that if you have thousands of rappers, at least one of them should be gay.
PB: Listen, there are gay rappers. We're not sure who they are.
O: Why are there no openly gay rappers?
PB: There will be. It's going to be about 10 years.
O: What will your album be like?
PB: Mostly stories. It's a struggle at this point for me to write a rhyme that's just about myself and really entertaining. I have a lot of characters and stuff.
O: What have your gigs been like?
PB: They've all been very different. Some of them are like parties where you just get up for a song or two. Right now, I have a dancer. It looks like my crew is going to be entirely white, which is kind of weird, 'cause I think that makes it look a lot more like a total usurpation, and it also lends itself more easily to being considered a total novelty. But then again, these are the guys I've known for years and really trust and like hanging out with. I've worked with other guys, too, and they're really awesome. Basically, my live show is not totally standardized yet. I think there's going to have to be some gimmicks, like floating pigs and performing in back of a giant wall that slowly crumbles. Also, my show is pretty short. I think a half-hour is as long as I could possibly go.
O: You could just start free-styling.
PB: No, no, no, no. Dude, I don't think I'm a true MC.
O: You don't think you're a true MC? Why don't you bust a freestyle right now?
PB: Okay. I can kick you a tiny rhyme: "I make def tunes / Take from MF Doom / Wu Tang, and Jeff Koons / No one left for the restrooms when I got onstage / I can rock the mic to 'Silence' by John Cage." Let me think for one second. I had a really important rhyme. It went something like, "Am I a flash in the pan / flash ash in the sand? / Am I half-assed or will I laugh last with some cash in my hand?" Well, what's the answer?
O: I can't say at this point.
PB: Me neither.