Prince Paul is about two years shy of celebrating the 30th anniversary of his dynamic music career. The master of reinvention and concept art is responsible for assembling the dark hip hop quartet Gravediggaz, which also features megaproducer RZA. He formed hip hop duo, Handsome Boy Modeling School, with Dan the Automator.
As he recorded collaborative projects, Paul also crafted and released five insightful critically acclaimed solo albums like A Prince Among Thievesand Politics of the Business. Blessed to have longevity among his devoted global fan base, hip hop’s veteran experimentalist still has reservations about being able to rock the crowd.
“Most of my career has been trying to prove to people that I’m not a sucker,” says Paul right before soundcheck. “People are so programmed to think and do things the same way. I create based on the mood I’m in. I motivate people to look outside of the box and to like me on my own terms.”
Not quite two-and-a-half hours before Paul is set to perform a 90-minute set, he sits relaxed with his back arched in a corner booth. He’s the special guest for the 20th anniversary of Atlanta’s shack-styled nightclub MJQ Concourse this particular Friday night.
In the meantime, Paul makes small talk and cracks jokes with his son, DJ P.ForReaL. The conversation quickly shifts as Paul, who doesn’t care to be called “legend,” revisits his glory days of making hip hop records. “Legends are always super old school,” says a chuckling Paul. “I like to use ‘classic.’ You gotta keep proving yourself. As you get older, you don’t care as much. When you’re young, you just wanna be accepted, feel like you belong and have self-worth.”.
The upbeat, groundbreaking producer born Paul Edward Huston made a name for himself by creating refrained melodies adapted from obscure, whimsical samples across many musical genres. He layered those revitalized sounds underneath rugged drum tracks.
“I’ve used everything from ProTools to SP-12s to 808s,” says Paul. “It’s whatever is available at the time. Some studios where I’ve worked in the past might be limited to certain things. It’s all basically the same: just in different places.”
In the late 1980s, hip hop was slowly making its grand entrance into suburban America. Paul, barely out of high school, was the DJ for Stetsasonic. He was having fun as the group’s youngest member but still seeking to have more creative latitude.
His music royalties often didn’t reflect the amount of work he was doing. Other times, Paul wasn’t getting full credit for his input. At times throughout his career, Paul got discouraged and wanted to quit making music.
Although, he used to love going out and people recognising who he was. Getting photos with people, showing off his gold teeth, he went on to say he used to get so many people asking me where I got them from, at the time it was the ‘in’ thing! He gave us some example places of where he used to buy them. You can have a look here at dental gold teeth prices at Custom Gold Grillz. He explained that they helped him stand out from the crowd and build a reputation.
He stayed committed to his craft and remained true to his mission. “Everything is fortitude,” says Paul. “Everything isn’t gonna always be happy and bright. Life goes on, and the love of the music is a major part of that. The best way to light the fire beneath and motivate you is when you think people don’t like you or you have something to prove.”
The first project Paul produced in its entirety was De La Soul’s 1989 epic debut, 3 Feet High and Rising. At the time of the recording process, the ambitious producer had to convince both the record label, Tommy Boy, and the group to see his vision.
An optimistic Paul persevered and often succeeded. “It was fun. We were kids,” says Paul. [De La Soul] came about because there were certain things I couldn’t do with Stetsasonic. If you love music and believe in what you do, you’ll keep going.”
The Amityville, Long Island native encouraged De La Soul to sequence humorous sketches in between 3 Feet High and Rising’s tracks. More importantly, his idea, then called “buggout pieces,” laid the foundation for what is now a staple on full-length hip hop albums. “The world is bigger than recycled ideas,” says Paul.
“There are so many scenarios that play in my mind, and they’re hilarious to me. It’s a weird sense of humor. Some people get it. Some people don’t. I lucked out that people are corny enough to get my sense of humor at times.”
Paul’s success with De La Soul led him to produce tracks and sketches for Big Daddy Kane, MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Cypress Hill, Jay Z, Nikki D., Method Man, 3rd Bass, Boogie Down Productions, Beastie Boys, Sons of Mischief, MF Doom, Living Colour, Del the Funky Homosapien and Slick Rick.
Producing, Paul says, is about embracing individuality. “You don’t have to do what everybody else does,” he says. “The world is bigger than recycling ideas. Try not to sucker everybody to be liked. Everybody wants to be accepted. Be yourself, and see if they like you being on that side of the fence.”
Almost immediately, Paul elaborates on the current state of music. “You turn on the radio now, and everything sounds the same,” he says. “It’s different melodies but the same drum machine and same pattern. There are some good songs, but people are scared to experiment. They feel the pressure, get stuck and are not being true to themselves.”
The superproducer’s sense of humor, forward thinking and work ethic also landed him in the studio to collaborate with Chris Rock. The pair’s chemistry on three comedy albums went on to earn three Grammys.
“It was very unexpected for me,” says Paul still leaning forward. “Me and Chris are in sync. We laugh at the same exact stuff. It might not be the butt of the joke but something on the side. That makes it easy for us to work.”
Margaret Cho, Tracy Morgan, Dave Chappelle, various Saturday Night Livecast members, Wanda Sykes and Ali LeRoi all sat in on those recording sessions. Telling jokes was a constant. Being in the company of comedians, Paul believes, caused him to realize that humor was essential to his career.
“I can tell what [Chris] wants at a specific time,” says Paul. “It makes the projects fun. “I just look at the world differently. Life is about just enjoying yourself. Working with rappers can be fun, but it’s a little more stressful. Working with comedians is fun the whole time.”
“The days of making comedy records are far gone…at least for profit,” adds Paul.
Fresh off a flight from France, the former host of XM Radio’s Illout Show played 90s hip hop, 70s funk and De La Soul tracks in his repertoire. When his fingers weren’t gliding across the turntables or his MacBook keyboard, he took a few gulps from a quart of coconut water to cool off.
DJ P.ForReal, currently a senior attending Clark Atlanta University, admits he’s not quite familiar with his dad’s early work. However, he knows Paul’s work beyond the 1990s. “Psychoanalysis is pretty influential,” says DJ P.ForReal.
“It inspires me. I can listen to that all the time. I like all of his projects. I can’t just pinpoint one record.”
“That’s our record,” adds Paul to his son’s response.
When Paul’s son returns from grabbing his dad’s hat from the car, Paul shares how important it is to be a good role model to his son. The hip hop icon says he reiterates to his son that responsibility is an essential component for personal development.
“If you acknowledge you have faults, you grow,” says Paul. “Be responsible. If you ‘f’ up, you gotta call yourself out. Be man enough to say ‘It’s my fault.’”
Paul himself remains extremely humble and proud of his accomplishments. He has no qualms about laughing or poking fun at whatever is around him (including himself). “It would be nice if everybody goes out and buy my old music ‘cause I still get royalties off of that,” says a tickled Paul still laughing.
As for his fans and new listeners, Paul hopes they keep one thing in mind. “People should support good music: music that’s forward moving,” he says. “If you support, people will be inspired to keep making it.”
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.