Prolific producer Prince Paul on almost being fired, De La Soul classics, and working with his son
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In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers, and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two in the process.
The artist: As the producer for De La Soul, Prince Paul’s crate-digging, sample-heavy style contributed to a sonic revolution in hip-hop. Beside his work with De La, Paul has collaborated with a who’s who of hip-hop royalty, including RZA on seminal horrorcore group Gravediggaz, and Dan The Automator on supergroup Handsome Boy Modeling School. Paul’s most recent project, Negroes On Ice, is a comedy/music hybrid that showcases the storytelling of his son, DJ P Forreal, to paint a picture of one wacky day in New York.
“Just Say Stet” (from 1986’s On Fire with Stetsasonic)
Prince Paul: “Just Say Stet” was off the first record I ever made or was ever involved with. I remember that when I recorded it for wax, we recorded at Tom Silverman’s house, who was the president of Tommy Boy Records. I remember that he told Stetsasonic that they needed to get rid of me. He thought I was grossly underprepared as a DJ because I didn’t have a stack of records with me. It just so happened that I knew the records I wanted to scratch on the album so I brought exactly just that, and he told them that they should find somebody different.
The A.V. Club: Did he ever apologize for that?
PP: Nope. I was a kid. It was my first recording experience, so I definitely remembered that. It hurt, know what I’m saying? But the irony of it is that I made him a whole lot of money after that, so go figure.
AVC: Has the experience of making that record with a live band affected the way you’ve gone about making music since?
PP: I think your first experience in everything kind of shapes and molds whatever you do in the future. It was a learning experience. It was how I learned how to sample, how I learned how to arrange a song, how I learned about the music business in general, so it was definitely my introduction. Also it taught me the brutal reality that all that glitters isn’t gold. People see TV and they see people in the studio and they’re like, “Yeah, get some more wine and champagne, and you’re laughing, and there’s girls, and you’re throwing money in the air,” and it’s far from that.
“The Magic Number” (from 1989’s 3 Feet High And Rising for De La Soul)
PP: Pos[dnuos from De La Soul] came up with the initial concept. I think the thing for me was to figure out a way to make them sound good singing on the record. There was staying in key, but then it was also trying to figure out ways to put harmonies in the vocals. That’s when I started really learning how to work with a lot of outboard gear, like pitch shifters and all the other stuff. It was just a fun record. Then I was putting all the scratches at the end, which they thought I was totally nuts for doing, because a lot of stuff had nothing to do with the song. It was just being stupid, like all the little dumb vocal scratches at the end of the song. It was fun. Anything with De La and anything on the first album, all I remember is just smiling the whole time.
“A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays’” (from 1991’s De La Soul Is Dead for De La Soul)
PP: I remember the big deal about that was having Russell Simmons come in and do the vocal intro at the beginning of the song. Russell was my manager as a producer for a hot second, and he was also a manager for Stetsasonic. And I remember just how hard it was to even get him in a meeting. But after De La Soul did so well, it just took a phone call for him to come down to the studio. He was so eager and everybody wanted to be down so much, it just showed me the power of what a hit record can do for you. That, to me, was the shining moment of that song.
It was fun making it. It was uptempo and everything else, and there are a lot of layers and samples. Once again, Pos had the main loop for the song, and it was just us kind of building around that loop, but it was like, “Wow, we got Russell on here.”
AVC: Was it your idea to have Russell on?
PP: I don’t remember whose idea it was, to be honest. I think it came from the guys. Who it came from, I don’t know, but I just remember that he was real happy to be there. I was like, “Wow,” because it was hard enough to get the guy in a meeting but he was on time and ready to record. So that was kind of nice.
“Ego Trippin’ (Part Two)” (from 1993’s Buhloone Mindstate for De La Soul)
PP: I remember Maseo [from De La Soul] came up with the samples. When recording the vocals, I told the guys I wanted to put the vocals through a phaser, and I remember them being kind of reluctant to the idea. I think Dave [a.k.a. Trugoy] or Pos might have been a little weird on it. I was trying to convince them, like, “Yo, trust me, it’s going to be dope. Everyone does their vocals regular. The record just sits a certain way, and if we do this, it’ll just kind of make it psychedelic.” I just kind of forced my opinion on it, and it worked out. In my opinion, it sounds good the way it is.
“Diary Of A Madman” (from 1994’s 6 Feet Deep with Gravediggaz)
AVC: This is one of the only tracks on the album that wasn’t just produced by you. Did that make the process on that track different from the rest of 6 Feet Deep?
PP: What people don’t understand about “Diary Of A Madman,” and what I haven’t totally explained until now, is that the sample came from RNS, who was RZA’s homeboy. So he got credit for production, but he really was never in the studio. So he had the sample, and in order for us to use it we had to give him credit. I went and programmed the beat, arranged all the vocals, recorded the vocals, put the skits in the front and the back. So in essence, I’m really the producer. RZA got credit because he was RNS’ homeboy. Technically, I produced that whole record. If you ask probably any of them, I don’t think they can dispute exactly what I just said.
I didn’t really care about credit back then. I was like, “I don’t care. I just want this record to come out.” I was just so excited about putting the group together and having a record out that I did a lot of things, business-wise, wrong. All the writing credits and stuff I split equally when I should have gotten more writing credit as far as music is concerned. I should have got a bigger cut, but you know, it all worked out in the end somehow.
AVC: How much effort did you put into shifting the sound for that cut in contrast to others on the album?
PP: To me, it was really no different, because, aside from “Graveyard Chamber” and maybe a few other songs, I was really hands-on. If you look at the percentage of work I put into “Diary Of A Madman” in comparison to the other guys as far as production is concerned, it was probably like 90 percent. In comparison to all the other songs, I did probably about the same, if not more. I was always open for people to collaborate and add stuff and whatever else, but I babied everything, except for maybe “Graveyard Chamber.”
6 Feet Deep was live instrumentation we had had, and RZA had pieced it together and sampled it on his ASR at the time, so he definitely did the bulk of that, if not all of it, aside from us playing the instruments and then looping it. There was probably a couple more. [Too] Poetic had something to do with one of them, and this guy Mr. Sime, and Frukwan did one. That was just my baby from front to back—the first album. The second album I had very little to do with.
“Holy Calamity (Bear Witness II)” (from 1999’s So… How’s Your Girl? with Handsome Boy Modeling School)
AVC: What was the relationship between this song and “Bear Witness” (from Dr. Octagonecologyst)? Was it always intended to be a sequel to that song?
PP: It conceptually started out as a sequel to that song. But to give full credit, DJ Shadow came in and really did that thing from top to bottom. That was his baby: all the cutting, all the programming. We just added our two cents in, to be totally honest, so credit should totally be given to DJ Shadow.
AVC: Was that true of the other collaborations on So… How’s Your Girl?
PP: No, not at all. The other songs on So… How’s Your Girl? were strictly me and [Dan The] Automator. That’s just one isolated song where Shadow was really excited to come and work with us and said he had an idea. So we were like, “Cool, let’s do it.”
“What U Got (The Demo)” (feat. Breezly Brewin) (from 1999’s A Prince Among Thieves)
PP: The beat for that one was originally a demo I had made for a group called Horror City that never really materialized, like, I was never able to get the guys a deal. That was probably ’95 when I made the demo. So I took the hook and the beat from that song because it applied, and put it on A Prince Among Thieves and had Breeze and my man [Big] Sha rhyme on it. It was a beat that I really didn’t want to let go because I thought it was really cool, and I didn’t want to just kind of let it get lost. It worked out, and I had my man Superstar, who was kind of an Amityville legend as far as MCs go—he’s been rhyming since the early ’80s or even the late ’70s—do the hook on there. That’s more or less how that one came about.
AVC: So that beat works because it fits the demo theme. How much of the rest of the production on that album changed to fit the lyrical themes of the broader story?
PP: That one, the hook happened to work for that particular song. But initially, for the rest of the album, I just told MCs what to rhyme about. It was like “This is the concept, rhyme about the concept.” I lucked out because they figured it out. They understood it and were able to write toward that, and then I would just produce the song around that, whether it was the hook or sound effects or whatever other arrangement to make it work in the story.
“No Sex (In The Champagne Room)” (from 1999’s Bigger & Blacker for Chris Rock)
AVC: This track has a lot more overt production than the other bits on that album. Was there any reason that particular track got that treatment?
PP: It was more or less because we were trying to, not mimic, but vibe out. Baz Luhrmann did this song [“Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)”] we were kind of biting off of. That song was just him talking, the way Chris is talking, on the beat. We couldn’t really jeopardize the integrity of the production, because if we’re going to mimic something, or do the vibe of it, if we make it lesser than what the original is, it’s like a poor copy. So we had to keep it similar to what that was. That Baz Luhrmann song was actually a big radio song at the time, so that was kind of our rendition. It doesn’t sound like it, but conceptually we did the same thing. We wanted something we knew might be a video, or we knew if we lucked out might get played on the radio, which it did in some places. So we didn’t want to make it too cheesy.
“Behind Bars” (from 1994’s Behind Bars for Slick Rick)
AVC: This version sounds very different from the unreleased version you did. Why is that?
PP: The reason the finished product sounds different is that Warren G remixed it. He took out all my loops and stuff and just used Slick Rick’s voice. That’s really the main thing. The one I did was the original recording during the time Slick Rick was on release from jail. He had time to record before he had to go back to prison. I had a few of those beats; that was one he really liked. We recorded it somewhere in upstate New York. I don’t know what town it was. The one you hear on the album is actually by Warren G.
AVC: So all of the production is by Warren G?
PP: Yeah, he took out all the music and put in his own.
AVC: Was there any additional pressure working on that recording knowing Slick Rick had to go back to prison?
PP: No, there wasn’t any pressure, at least not for me. For him, I’m sure there was. But what made it cool with Slick Rick was that he was super professional. He knew his rhymes; he had them all written out, and he had no problems recording it. It wasn’t like, “Let’s do it over again, let’s do it over again.” He almost did it in one shot with no effort, which freaked me out. To me, Slick Rick is to rhymes like Aretha Franklin or Luther Vandross is to singing. They just sing without straining or trying to go to a place where they can’t go. He just opens his mouth and it rhymes, so it was real easy.
“The Gas Face” (from 1989’s The Cactus Album for 3rd Bass)
PP: “The Gas Face” was originally done on a four-track cassette, and I took it and transferred it over to 24-track tape so I could record the vocals and stuff on it. The beat on “Gas Face” was a mistake. I had it on my drum machine, and the pattern got messed up somehow, and that’s why the beat is kind of a shuffle beat. I was going to change it, but [MC] Serch and Pete [Nice] said, “Yo, that’s crazy. We really like it how it is.” We recorded it on the fourth of July, which I remember because everyone was out partying while I was in the studio working.
AVC: Did the mistake with the beat influence the way the video ended up looking?
PP: I don’t know about that. I’m sure it did in some regards because they make the video to the beat, but I just showed up, made a cameo, and left.
“It’s A Big Daddy Thing” (from 1989’s It’s A Big Daddy Thing for Big Daddy Kane)
PP: I knew Big Daddy Kane for quite some time. He wanted a fast beat, and I happened to have that beat made up. I played it for him, and he really liked it. He came in and we recorded it at Green Street in Manhattan. He had all his lyrics on separate pieces of paper, and he kind of pieced it together as he was rhyming it, which was pretty interesting. If you listen closely on some of the spots on the record you can hear his chains jingling in the background.
AVC: You worked with a lot of different people during this time. How did working with each of those people like Big Daddy Kane, 3rd Bass, or Slick Rick change your production style?
PP: I don’t know if it changed it. I found beats that I’d already made that accentuated their styles. Aside from what I’ve done with Stet and worked on with De La, I used to just literally make music every day, almost all day. And not everything sounded the same. Some producers, you listen to it and they have a distinct style because maybe they use the same pattern drums, or the same sounds, or only go after the same style of samples or whatever. My stuff has always been all over the place, because my brain is all over the place. Any time a given MC, especially during that period, said, “Hey, I’m looking for something,” there was a good chance maybe I had at least a song or two that fit the vibe of what they were doing. Maybe with whatever my twist is on it, but it kind of fit the mode into where they were going, so I kind of lucked out a lot of times.
AVC: Are there any examples of stuff that was so out there or different from what anyone would have expected you to make?
PP: I think everything in my career is different than what anyone would expect of me. If you listen to Stet and then you go to De La, it’s totally different. From De La to Gravediggaz, it’s totally different. From Gravediggaz to Handsome Boy, it’s different than to Chris Rock to the Dino 5. So Nobody knows what to expect from me. I never really had the, “Whoa! I can’t believe he did that!” It’s like, “Okay, that’s just what Prince Paul does, he does everything.” This isn’t a bragging point, but I can’t really think of anyone else producing, especially in hip-hop music, that has done such a wide variety of genres and styles. It’s probably because I like a challenge, and I like all different kinds of music. Doing the same thing over and over is boring.
AVC: In terms of particular challenges, there are a couple of tracks, particularly on 6 Feet Deep, that you’re sort of vocally featured on. Does that ever change the way that you go about making the beats, if you know you’re going to be featured on the track?
PP: Nah, that’d be egotistical, like, “Let me spruce this up.” If I’m vocally on the song, it’s usually prompted by the MC, like, “Yo, you should blah blah blah.” It’s never really me that’s like, “Yeah man, let me throw my verse right here,” or “Let me throw my line.” So it’s usually, “Yeah, do something.” The only thing that I do when I EQ my voice is put more bass on it.
AVC: Was there a particular track you were vocally on that got you to start upping the bass?
PP: No, it was just insecurity, knowing my voice was mid-range and high-toned. Being a producer, I could throw a little bottom on it so I don’t sound like Magoo from Timbaland & Magoo after messing with it.
“Beautiful Night (Manic Psychopath)” (from 1996’s Psychoanalysis: What Is It?)
PP: “Beautiful Night” was an old beat I had laying around. Psychoanalysis was a record that I couldn’t get nobody to help me work on vocally. That whole album to me was like the end of my career, more or less. I was like, “Let me just get my friends,” like, friends I went to school with, and we just got on the song. They came up with and started singing the hook, and I was like, “Wow, that’s really funny. Let’s record it.” I set up the mic and we just told the story from top to bottom with no pauses, first take. It was just a bizarre, made-up story. I thought it was silly. I was like, “Some people might get butt-hurt about it, but so what? It’s probably the last record I’ll make anyway.”
AVC: Why did you think people would be upset about it?
PP: Talking about date rape, talking about racism, you know, it was every possible thing that’s horrible in one song. Even though it was very tongue-in-cheek and jokey-jokey, I know people are über-sensitive to everything nowadays. Well, then-a-days, I should say, because that was back then. Probably even more so now, because people try to appear to be more PC now. But it, weirdly enough, got a lot of fans, that song. Even the most feminist person was like, “Oh, I love that song.” So go figure.
“Hot Guacamole” (feat. MC Paul Barman, from 2004’s MM… LeftOvers with MF DOOM)
PP: You’re the second person today who has brought up that song.
AVC: Who was the first?
PP: Some kid today tweeted asking me about it. I put a lot of unreleased mixes on Twitter, and they were asking, “You need to put ‘Hot Guacamole’ on unreleased things.” I was like, “Wow, I forgot even the name of the song.” It took me a minute to figure out what it was.
I forgot what Paul Barman wanted to do it for. I think he didn’t know DOOM at the time, though he was a big DOOM fan. I knew DOOM from doing “Gas Face,” so I called him up and asked DOOM, because that night he was going to be in town—he was living in Georgia at the time—he was in New York. I told him to come by the house because Barman was a big fan, and I had this beat, and Barman wanted to collaborate on the song with him. They came by the house and we recorded the song.
My son was there, actually, that time. That was when we gave DOOM a bicycle. We had an extra bike that we didn’t need. So when we recorded that song we gave him the bike. It was cool. It’s just amazing to me. I’ve known DOOM forever, and I like to think that we’re pretty cool. I used to always go on about how great he was, and people were like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” And all of a sudden he blows up and now it’s like, “We hail the earth DOOM walks on,” and it’s just so funny to me. It’s just like, “Wow, okay, I think I kind of mentioned that a while ago.” But it’s well deserved.
AVC: Did you ever have to argue for DOOM to people before he blew up?
PP: No, not at all, because music is subjective. You like who you like, and you don’t like who you don’t like. People could argue how Tupac is great, some people argue that he’s all right, some people say Biggie Smalls is better than him, some people say he’s worse. It’s really what you’re into and how it affects you. That’s why it’s hard for me when some people look at something and say, “No, you like that? That’s whack, how could you like it?” It’s hard to argue that with people because everybody’s different. I don’t get mad when people are like, “I love Lady Gaga and all she stands for, her style, and her music really touches my soul.” I’m like, “Okay, that’s your thing.” You know what I’m saying? It’s hard to argue those things.
“Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa” (from 1991’s De La Soul Is Dead for De La Soul)
PP: “Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa” was a beat that I had made and had laying around. I remember we started working on the second album, and I played it for De La and they really liked it. Pos said, “I have a really good concept for the song.” He wrote it all out, gave Dave his part to say, and I remember he just caught the whole vibe of how the music went, because the music was pretty eerie. It was a Funkadelic record I really, really liked. I had a friend come down and play bass guitar over it. I had my man [Don] Newkirk play keyboard over it. At the time, that was my favorite song on the album when we recorded it. It just had a mood to it, and to hear it loud in the studio, blasting, was great.
AVC: Is it not your favorite song on the album anymore?
PP: At that point it was my favorite song. My favorite song on the album now is probably… it’s hard to say because of whatever mood I’m in. There’s a lot of songs on that record that are pretty good. But that’s probably in my top five on that album.
“Wake Up (Loaybm)” (from 2012’s Negroes On Ice with DJ P Forreal)
PP: We had an original song for that album that was conceptually a wakeup song. It was done by my son’s friend Talent Harris. We listened to it, and it was a good song, but we said that for the beginning of the album we needed something a little more bizarre, and something fast, because the song originally was long. So we said, “We need to get to the point, so we’re going to sit, and we’re going to find this beat, and we’re going to write the rhymes ourselves and piece it together.” [Ed note: At this point, Prince Paul’s son, DJ P Forreal, joins the conversation.]
DJ P Forreal: We sat there and then came up with a bizarre, kind of twisted wakeup song that fell into place. We pieced it together with all these different rhymes, and if you listen to the rhymes it actually makes sense. It kind of worked out.
“Pixel Hero” (from Negroes On Ice)
PP: The good thing about Negroes On Ice is that it was such a bizarre and stupid record; it gave me the opportunity to play with different styles and genres in the present day. We literally recorded this album three years ago, it just kind of came out three years too late. At the time, I was like, “What would The Black Eyed Peas do? What kind of beat could I make?” And I came up with that, and I just started giggling to myself.
I asked Soce, the Elemental Wizard because there was a section of the story in which we had to go into the gay parade, and he’s an openly gay rapper and also a good friend. I knew he would get it and kind of get the joke of it. So I was like, “Okay, so this is what the concept of the story is, and this is what I need, this type of song.” And he just came up with the vocals and sent it back. Ironically, that’s one of the songs on the album where people go, “I really like that song!” Everything we made on that album was kind of a joke, but it was a lot of fun to make, and he nailed it.
AVC: So you went into making the beat knowing it was at the part of the story where you drive into the parade, or did it just happen to fit where the story was going?
PP: After we wrote the story out, I made it fit the story. That was one time that I was like, “You know what would be great? It would be funny to make this type of beat to go right here.” So I kind of contoured it to the story.
AVC: It works really well for that part of the story.
PP: It does, thank you. I wanted to do it like how you do a movie: When you do a movie, the movie’s there first, and then you score it to the movie. So I was like, “Let me try this.” I don’t have a beat that I think fits that mode, but let me try to make something like that. It gives me an opportunity to let people know in a joking way—and for myself, for my own ego—that I can do any kind of beat. I can make any kind of music I really want if I choose to make it. It’s obviously not a hit or nothing, but in my own little world, I know that I did it. I can make those.
AVC: Was the production process different for the sound effects in the skit parts, in contrast to the other normal tracks?
PP: Yeah, for the most part, me and P, we’d sit there, after writing the story, and we’d read it down or listen to it back after recording the vocals, and then go, “Okay, this would be good here, we can put this here,” and we’d make notes about what should go where. Then you go back and add the actual sounds, or make sounds. Some things don’t exist on sound effects, so you have to say, “I need to make something that sounds similar to this or make them think of this,” which is sometimes difficult.
AVC: What examples are there on the record of sounds that didn’t exist before?
PP: I can’t think of anything off the top of my head, I’d have to listen to the album and go “That’s an idea, that’s an example.” I know there’s one or two that we’d kind of made up and said, “That’s close enough, that makes people think of this.”
AVC: How else did writing this album differ from anything else you’ve made?
PP: Writing that whole record, there’s some weird thought process or giggle session we were going through. I think, for us, what makes it interesting, especially for the songs my son’s rhyming on, is that he doesn’t rhyme. So the whole process of trying to get him to rhyme and make him sound like he can rhyme or is a rapper, or us writing rhymes, which we don’t do, is kind of interesting and bizarre within itself. We’re writing this stuff being like, “How can we make this clever?” Then sometimes we’ll piece it together and go, “That actually makes sense! Those two rhymes and lines made sense!” And we get all happy. I’m sure regular MCs don’t sit down and go, “Man, yeah, I wrote that and that made sense.” It’s pretty funny. I think we just amazed ourselves in the process of writing this whole record, like, “Wow, we did that. We did that.” To the world it’s whatever, but for us, we’re just high-fiving the whole time.
AVC: What rhymes on the album ended up making sense when you didn’t think they would?
PP: Stuff like the basketball song [“My Favorite Sport”]. We both like basketball, but then we tried to find lines that rhymed with our favorite basketball players. So we’d sit and go, “Kobe… Manu Genóbili, endobe.” We’d just sit and rhyme, rhyme, rhyme, and piece it together to see if we can make something make sense with all these things that rhyme with “Kobe.” We had Amar’e Stoudemire, which we didn’t put in there. We had “start a fire,” “go and retire.” That’s how we wrote. As we pieced it together, and we made it cohesive, and we listened back, we’d be like, “Whoa, this all made sense,” and we’d just get all happy. Even though I’ve been around it most of my life, the writing is totally different. To get him to perform is totally different than producing and telling people what to do and how to do it.
AVC: Is that true of the stage shows you did for the record too?
PF: It’s hard trying to learn the whole thing since you’re the only person, so you’ve got to learn it top to bottom, and you’ve got to learn all the stops of the songs and all the stops of the actual sound effects, and then actually performing it. Like my dad said, I’m not a rapper, nor am I an actor. But I’m naturally goofy, so it kind of worked out in itself, so I just go on stage and act like myself.
PP: That’s really what it was. We can kind of imagine how to do these things, but we didn’t have anybody to lean on and ask how to do it, so we just kind of guessed it out. So we’d need to do this, this, and this, and let’s see what happens. The result was people would either come to the show and call it genius and thought it was the funniest thing ever, or people would come to the show and say we were destroying theater, and it’s the worst thing ever.
AVC: Did any of that happen during the shows?
PP: No, I’ve seen one or two people walk out. When we were in Boston, which was the worst show we did because some idiot booked it in a bar and not in a theater. It wasn’t conducive for our format, for people to sit down and pay attention. There was idle talking and stuff, so it was hard for us to perform. It made a lot of people not get it, because it’s almost like watching TV, but having your iPad in front of you at the same time; you’re kind of looking, but not looking. You’re looking down, you’re looking all over, you’re talking to your friend, and so that was jacked up. But for the most part, people enjoyed it.
I’d read some reviews, and it was so scattered, and it was just so typical of my whole career. Some people get it, and they’re thinking, “Paul, he’s the greatest ever,” some people look at me and are like, “He’s a waste,” like, “Come on, let me get some more [DJ] Premier. Why this dude?”
Everybody likes to hear good things, but I’m just so used to it, and I’m trying to get my son to be prepared for the criticisms too. If you’re going to veer out the norm, and you’re going to walk your own walk, you’ve got to be prepared for critiquing. Now, more so than back when I started, because we didn’t have the social media or the Internet that they have now. Now everyone has their own critique, their own, “Oh, he’s whack.” And everyone has their little blogs and can tell you how whack you are on Twitter. Before, you had to wait and see it in a magazine somewhere, but it’s way different, so be prepared for it, good or bad.