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Prince Paul laughs with us, at us, through us, and knows how slight that distance can be. His sound is the sound of meeting places, subway cars and telephones. His sonic playing field, that peculiar mixture of salsa, hip-hop and the children screaming that I hear on the corner of 141st and Convent Ave. Prince Paul works through masks and between them.
Riding the C train. Three kids spread across fifteen seats, the way that teenagers have too many knees and elbows. A man in rags, sitting in the corner working hard to become more invisible. The kids are laughing at the homeless man the way we laugh at crazy people sometimes, because it distances their problems from ours.
Prince Paul, a member of Stetsasonic at sixteen, later produced De La Soul and Gravediggaz, collaborated with Vernon Reid, Chris Rock, Dan "The Automator" Nakamura and Cornershop. His first solo album, Psychoanalysis, pushed envelopes and touched nerves. Settling into his therapist's couch, he talked about the scars on our psyches. His next album, Prince Among Thieves, is the soundtrack to a movie musical he wrote, starring many of his past collaborators.
C train. Three kids spread across fifteen seats, a man in rags ... and Prince Paul with a tape recorder.
CHRISTOPHER: W.C. Fields once said that Bert Williams was the funniest and saddest man that ever lived. Bert Williams, an African-American minstrel in the early 1900's, a Black man in blackface, said that his work was simply based on close observation.
PRINCE PAUL: A lot of stuff that I attack, whether it be social issues on Psychoanalysis or the Gravediggaz stuff, it's always been stuff I observed. For me, making records is really an intense thought process. A lot of what I talk about is more subconscious. I do a lot more thinking than I think most people do. But I really get deep into the science of: "I wonder what people would think when they hear this? I wonder how they would respond to this?" But there's a lot of stuff that I do that's totally misconstrued and misunderstood.
CHRISTOPHER: And you feel like that gets misconstrued as just the "ha, ha, ha trying to be funny" thing?
PRINCE PAUL: Yeah, everybody thinks that I'm trying to be funny. A lot of times, records that I make, it's not funny. There's a lot more insight to it. But I don't get upset. I used to wonder, "Wow, they didn't get that at all; I didn't mean to do that."
CHRISTOPHER: There's a lot of psychological damage in our communities, both personal and historical, and we're ignoring that fact. But you're dealing with it. The documentary feel of your work, coming from observation, and your talking about the "scars on peoples' psyches," reminds me of talk shows.
PRINCE PAUL: Yeah. I think a lot of it is interesting, I'm not going to front, man. I'm a talk show fiend. I'll watch a talk show and really enjoy it. But some things are just totally exploitative. I mean, I'll do stuff, and you'll listen to it and hopefully you can get something from it. But they're doing something and agitating it.
CHRISTOPHER: What do you like about them?
PRINCE PAUL: It's people really being themselves. They get on there talking about, "I know he don't love me, but I love him and I'll beat up the ho that's ..." You know, even though it's embarrassing and you would never go on TV and do that, it gives you insight to people and other things going on in this world. I don't meet people like that often.
CHRISTOPHER: One of the things I think is real weird about you as an artist is that you're one of the few artists out there who doesn't have a voice your voice isn't on your albums in a prominent way. Have you ever wanted to do a whole album where you just talk?
PRINCE PAUL: No, not at all. If I put my voice on the record, I might as well end my career. You know what I'm saying? My ego isn't big enough. As soon as I try to seriously start rhyming or just try to talk on a whole lot of stuff, that's the end of my career, man. Because I know what I'm capable of and what I'm not capable of. And what I'm capable of is, I'm a very good organizer.
I can add insightfulness to a lot of stuff, and I can write. And I can more or less direct people to do something that represents myself without me being there.
CHRISTOPHER: And you're not trying to end your career now? I know you've said you might stop making music and open up a Jiffy Lube down south ...
PRINCE PAUL: I kind of look into the future rather than the right now. This is my thirteenth year making records. I've been in hip-hop for a while. And it's amazing to me, to still be making records because hip-hop years are like dog years, and producers from my era really don't exist anymore.
CHRISTOPHER: Does that ever freak you out? Have you ever been walking down the street and run into one of those producers from that era?
PRINCE PAUL: I run into producers, I run into rappers. I've seen people who were so humongous, man. And I swear, five years later, scroungy looking. "Yo, what's up, man? Yo, I'm looking for a beat. You got a deal? No, man. I'm thinking about getting on, my man's Cool Man Records, we're putting out, it's getting around the corner." And I'm like, "What happened?"
CHRISTOPHER: What do you think happened?
PRINCE PAUL: They got caught up in the hype. I've been a victim of it too. You acquire X amount of success, and then you try to repeat the same success. And you try to please people more than pleasing yourself. You get out of the creativity of it and more into the marketing aspects. A lot of artists get caught up in that.
CHRISTOPHER: It's funny how in a business where everyone is busy keeping it real, people get caught up in this. What do you think about the whole concept of authenticity?
PRINCE PAUL: You mean, like when people say, "Keep it real?"
CHRISTOPHER: There was a time when there were 18 songs out that all had the word "real" in the title. And I was very sure about myself, being a faux Negro, that to people who are concerned with who's real and who's not, usually I'll fall on the side of "not real."
PRINCE PAUL: Well, the same with me. "You do that bugged stuff, that's not real." You probably heard this answer a million and one times, but I think real is whoever you are. People just think anything ghetto is real. Anything outside the ghetto is not real. And I just think that's wrong. Look at Stevie Wonder he can't see but he has an album called Inner Visions.
CHRISTOPHER: When hardcore rap music first came out, their argument was, "Oh, we're just doing characters; this is not who I am."
PRINCE PAUL: Like NWA.
CHRISTOPHER: Exactly. But at the same time, whenever they would do interviews, they would say things like, "I grew up right here in the middle of this, man; and I didn't even stand up straight for the first seven years of my life, because I was just ducking bullets." I feel a double-tonguedness about that. What do you think about that idea of doing characters?
PRINCE PAUL: Yeah I was like, the biggest NWA fan. I'm not going to front. And listening to Parliament records was the same thing, it was a big fantasy thing.
Now, in interviews, when they tried to say, "We're hardened," I think it was just kind of keeping up the image for their fans. I know them for them, so it was like an acting, characterization thing. But I think it's messed up when brothers start talking about stuff and you start believing the hype, which happens a lot. I mean, me, as far as characterization, that just spans from my imagination.
CHRISTOPHER: How do you think your work deals with Parliament and Funkadelic, because I see it, but I can't put my finger on it.
PRINCE PAUL: I just think it's the psychology behind it. A lot of those Funkadelic records, a lot of stuff George Clinton talks about on those records, is so way ahead of its time. Those records are very insightful, very visual. And I try to do the same thing. I based my whole Three Feet High and Rising record on Funkadelic. Not necessarily musically, but with the idea of making everything visual. Conceptually, it stemmed from that.
One of the most flattering things I ever came across, I remember it was in 1989, and I won some New York Something Award. George Clinton was there. I idolized this man for so long. And he said, "You know what, man? You're really silly, you know that?" And I was like, "Thanks." Coming from George Clinton, it was a compliment.
CHRISTOPHER: It was deep.
PRINCE PAUL: I'm not going to put no multicolors in my hair or nothing. But he's just ill to me. And for him to acknowledge me being silly was a total compliment. "You're silly, man; what you do is really cool." You know, if somebody had their leg cut off everybody says, "Oh, you must have some handicap ramps and stuff. But if somebody's crazy, it's like, "Yo, get out of here, you're crazy."
CHRISTOPHER: What got you into the idea of writing a movie?
PRINCE PAUL: I always wanted to. Making records is cool and I love making music, but it limits me somewhat. I'm a real visual person, so I wanted to actually write something for a change, really sit down and formulate characters and stuff.
CHRISTOPHER: Are you going to shoot it yourself?
PRINCE PAUL: Oh, yeah, and I want to make it a real B-movie. You know the Master P movie, I'm 'bout it, how that was trying to be an A-movie but ended up like a B-movie? Well, I'm going to really make mine a B-movie.
CHRISTOPHER: I can see the movie so clearly from the album.
PRINCE PAUL: Did you like it?
CHRISTOPHER: Very much.
PRINCE PAUL: Really, honestly?
CHRISTOPHER: Amen, man.
PRINCE PAUL: It was the first time I ever wrote anything like that. I went to the library. I was doing a little research on how to write scripts. The film's just me trying to express myself more. It's kind of loosely how I feel about society. I'm describing stuff as it goes along, as opposed to doing something where people can make their own interpretations of what I'm saying.
I'm not trying to get the average people anymore. I'm just trying to get an intellectual crowd. And hopefully it will bring the average b-boy to an intellect; maybe he can listen to it and say, "Wow, I never thought of doing something like that. Maybe I could write instead of just doing rhymes." It might bring out something else.
CHRISTOPHER: Did you have problems getting the people you had on the Prince Among Thieves record to stretch and buy into their characters? For example, Everlast on "Boys in Blue," which is the bomb.
PRINCE PAUL: Oh, you like that? I like that song too. Everlast as a dirty cop.
CHRISTOPHER: I thought that was good casting.
PRINCE PAUL: Perfect, right?
CHRISTOPHER: He looks like a dirty cop. But did you have problems getting people to really buy into the characters?
PRINCE PAUL: No, I had to get people who are open-minded, really cool. I got people who were from the era I'm from, and remember how hip-hop was more creative and a little ill or whatever. People who respected me, and a lot of what I did.
I didn't give people the whole story. I had them read the lines and I sampled every piece and put it together through a computer. So let's say you're reading this line: "Yeah, I got to kill him." Okay, say it again. "I got to kill him." No, more aggressive. "I got to kill him." It would all be on tape. The second one is the best, but I like "I got" on the first one, but "kill him" on the fourth one. Take the whole thing, put it together, then put the next line in, and put the sound effects around it.
CHRISTOPHER: Are you all over computers now?
PRINCE PAUL: No, I just needed to do it. And that whole record I did all by myself. Contacted everybody, wrote it, recorded it, engineered it all by myself. But it's the feeling of wanting to do something, and how I wanted to do it. And I might have come in at a bad time, making a whole story peoples' attention span might not hold it. But I think if you're going to do something, do it with a purpose.
CHRISTOPHER: Do you think about audience?
PRINCE PAUL: I used to think about it, but the more I do, it shifts how I make a record. I'll make it more b-boy if I want brothers to get it. Or I'll make it more straight up and formal if I want an alternative crowd to get it. It clearly has my signature on it, so now I just do stuff. I don't try to think of an audience or anything because then it will come out corny.
CHRISTOPHER: What kind of things influence you? Movies? Books?
PRINCE PAUL: I don't know, I watch some weird stuff. There's a lot of movies I didn't particularly care for. But I did like Good Will Hunting. On a personal, videotape-watching level, Bloodsucking Freaks.
CHRISTOPHER: Bloodsucking Freaks is an influence?
PRINCE PAUL: Yeah. People are going to think I'm totally crazy, because it's a bad movie. It's sexist, it's totally degrading in regards to race, just a degrading movie. But to me it's just so funny. I don't take it personally. It's a B-movie.
CHRISTOPHER: It's more like a C or a D movie. What about stuff you've read?
PRINCE PAUL: Biographies. Other people's lives just generally interest me because I find ways on how they parallel with my own. Whether it be Malcolm X or just the guy next door. I'll sit down and talk to an old person for a while and ask, "How was it when you did this?" It just intrigues me.
CHRISTOPHER: I've noticed you have a wide range of music you know about and listen to you turned me on to Serge Gainsbourg.
PRINCE PAUL: I just like good music, regardless. Regardless of what the label is. Good Country & Western, it could be whatever.
CHRISTOPHER: I heard you were working with Cornershop?
PRINCE PAUL: Yeah, Cornershop is dope.
CHRISTOPHER: They're real divergent from the DJ thing, but they got some DJ thing with them.
PRINCE PAUL: I think a lot of alternative groups are doing the smart thing. I mean, they're so much more diverse and they experiment more than rappers. And they're using the same concept, just like the fly beat, it's funky or whatever. Rappers are so stuck into, "Oh, you can't do this, it won't be cool ... can't do that, it won't be cool." Topics have become very limited.
It seems like a lot of the white audience, the more alternative type of kids, the bands now, picked up where rap left off. I can't front, it's doper than a lot of rap records.
CHRISTOPHER: Who do you have in mind?
PRINCE PAUL: You know who I actually like? I actually like Beck. I think Beck is really ill. And I'm not saying that because Mike Simpson produced it, seeing that I'm supposed to be working with him, but it's the production, the cut-and-paste of it. Regular producers and hip-hoppers don't do that anymore.
A lot of hip-hop is just one loop that goes through the entire record with a hook, while Beck's production is so intricate. I'm into that. That's what PE and the Bomb Squad used to do, that's what Dr. Dre did initially with NWA. Then everybody left that intricate stuff alone and just got into basic production.
CHRISTOPHER: I've heard about what you're doing with your shows ...
PRINCE PAUL: We did a Psychoanalysis tour last year in Europe and I took my friends, so it's a free trip, they got a chance to see all different parts of Europe, everybody made money. I can't even describe it, man. It was just totally wild. Just think of all your high school friends, and you're all really, really corny, you're all going around acting stupid, man.
CHRISTOPHER: How did Europe take you all?
PRINCE PAUL: They bugged out. It wasn't like a regular hip hop show. It was more of a vaudeville musical comedy, almost a play. And as we performed, it went into songs. I would come in as the psychologist and take people from the audience and psychoanalyze. When people would come up they'd always give me some ill German name. But I'd say, "Today your name is Joe; hi Joe." It was hard for me because I'm really a shy person, so I had to get out of character to get on stage. But it was fun, man.
We had a lie detector test that we built, with two light bulbs, green and red. We'd hook people up to it and ask them questions. A girl would come up and I would ask, "Are you a man or a woman?" She'd say, "I'm a woman," and I'd say, "No, you're a man!" It was just dumb stuff, but totally wild. And every show was different, every day it would change.
I know brothers don't do stuff like that, even when I do it. Because brothers limit themselves. There's so much in the world and so much to do records you can make, shows you can do. But everybody wants to do the same thing pace the stage and say "Ho!" all the time.
CHRISTOPHER: How do you explain that?
PRINCE PAUL: You can't fault people for that. Everybody wants to be accepted, everybody wants to be liked. I've had a popular MC actually tell me, "Yo, man, I'm not really like that, but people want to see me like that." Half the MC's are not really what they portray. But you get them in front of an audience, with a crowd, and they're totally wack. It's like they're really scared to be themselves. Everybody gets scared, man. I mean, I'm not always myself.
CHRISTOPHER: Well, what if they were out there just being who they were?
PRINCE PAUL: I don't know. That's just it. Maybe they'd be like me and still have a job after thirteen years. You know what I'm saying?