Words By DJ Sorce-1
“If you don’t put Prince Paul in the top ten producers of all time, then you are smoking a rock.” — MC Serch
Throughout his career, Prince Paul has earned himself a reputation as a fearless risk-taker. His track record of oddball projects includes everything from horror-core rap to his recently produced children’s rap record (Baby Loves Hip-Hop). In addition to his unique catalogue, Paul also has the ability to tell stories through his art without having the music suffer. His A Prince Among Thieves album is arguably Hip-Hop’s one flawless concept record.
Prince Paul’s flair for the unique can be tracked all the way back to his early work with De La Soul. Paul worked side by side with the Long Island trio for their first three albums, coming up with skits and interludes to keep a humorous aspect to the music. For your reading pleasure, here are Paul’s musings from De La Soul’s early work as he Reconstructs his De La Soul years with TSS’s DJ Sorce-1.
DJ Sorce-1: What sort of production equipment were you guys using on 3 Feet High And Rising?
Prince Paul: We were using a 24 track two inch reel. It might have actually been a 32 track board. I believe Sound Workshop was the name of the company that made it. As far as samplers, we were using the S-900, which had just come out, an SP-12, and a Casio sampler like an SK-5. We also had a Juno. I can’t remember the exact model number. That was basically itâ€¦that equipment and a bunch of records.
DJ Sorce-1: I understand that the records that you guys sampled came from a variety of sources. Dante Ross would have some records, De La would have some records and there was a big mixture of different people bringing by records. Is that accurate?
Prince Paul: Not to discredit Dante, but I don’t think we used any of Dante’s records for that album (Laughs). But yeah, it was a combination of me, Pos, Dave and Mase. We combined our collections. We more or less gathered what our families listened to and had collected over the years. Pos had a deep collection. His dad had some really obscure records, which helped us out a lot. I’d been collecting forever and I always had weird records. Everybody came to the table with their own little thing. It was almost like we were trying to outdo each other, like â€˜Oh, look what I got!” That’s why the album sounds so layered out. We just kept adding stuff to it.
DJ Sorce-1: Did you teach everyone else the technical aspects of production or did the rest of De La bring their own knowledge to the table?
Prince Paul: In those days, especially with 3 Feet…, it was primarily me because I was already working with Stet. I was a little familiar with the studio, but I wasn’t that good. Luckily I had really good engineers with me or what I deemed to be good engineers at the time. I fronted like I knew everything just to make the De La guys comfortable. I’d say, “Yeah, let’s gate that and compress this.” Meanwhile, I didn’t know what half the things did. But I knew enough about what the different equipment did and its capabilities to get by. That helped. That opened them up to being more imaginative with how to chop things up, sample, and pitch things.
DJ Sorce-1: Do you think that’s part of the reason why the album came out the way it did? Since you guys weren’t seasoned veterans with production, it seems like there was a certain innocence and experimental vibe to the album.
Prince Paul: Yeah, without a doubt man. There are tons of mistakes on that album. I’ll listen to it and go, “Oops. That was a mistake, there’s a mistake, that’s a mistake.” There’s a part of “Me, Myself And I” where the music drops out; that was a mistake. Me and Pos used to mix everything by hand. We didn’t have automation. Everything was kind of on the fly as the song went along. There was a part where one of us was supposed to leave the beat in, and we forgot. We just looked at each other, threw it back in on time and said, “Eh, that’s good enough.” (Laughs)
We could have easily edited the pieces together on tape, but we liked to do everything from beginning to end, manually. We didn’t feel like doing it all over so we were like, “Nobody will know the difference. They don’t know how it’s supposed to go.” That’s what that whole album is. You can hear things like people talking in the background and the doors opening to the booth. It was horrible. But it made it work.
DJ Sorce-1: To be honest with you, since I’m a young guy, I didn’t start listening to the album until almost a decade after its release when I was in middle school. I don’t think there has ever been an album that has come close to 3 Feet… in terms of how imaginative it is.
Prince Paul: Wow, thanks. I appreciate that. If you had listened to it in the era it came out in, it probably would have freaked you out even more. When that album came out we treaded on territory that nobody was willing to go. I just remember people scratching their heads. Either you really liked it or you hated it. It was an extreme record and it was radical in its time. But I’m glad you picked it up and liked it. I guess that it shows it has a little bit of staying power.
DJ Sorce-1: One of my favorite tracks on the album is “Eye Know.” I love the Steely Dan sample. Could you talk a little bit about who came up with the idea to sample “Peg” and how you came up with the songs concept?
Prince Paul: I have to give Pos a lot of credit for that one. He’s the one who more or less conceptualized it. He said, “Hey, these are the songs I want to use.” For me, particularly on that song, I had to say, “Ok. Let me make it work. This is how we do it.” That was the working relationship with me and De La in those days. Wherever their imagination went and whatever songs they wanted to use, it was up to me to figure out how to sample it and make it into a song.
We were Â¾ of the way into the album and Pos had came in and initially laid down the beat for “Eye Know.” I was impressed because that was a result of the time spent showing them the ropes with production. I literally sat there and showed them how to produce. As opposed to just doing it for them, I was trying to teach them. My intention was to just work with them on that one album and then have them do the rest of their albums themselves. When I came in the studio, Pos had laid down the basic format of the song. I was like impressed. And then it was just a matter of sprinkling whatever else on to make it right. But yeah, Pos should definitely take the credit for putting that song together.
DJ Sorce-1: You say that you were setting them up to go on alone after 3 Feet…, yet you ended up staying on for their next two albums. Was that a surprise?
Prince Paul: For me it was flattering. When De La Soul Is Dead started up, they hit me up and said, “We know you said you weren’t going to do the next album but we’d like for you to work with us on the next one. You’re part of the group and part of the family.” That was nice. That’s why the second and third album came about the way they did.
I had told them early on in our relationship, “My whole thing is to do this one album and then have you guys go do your own thing.” When I was in Stetsasonic, I always felt like I had a limited say in things. I thought I had some really good ideas, but you can only get so many of your own ideas across when you have such a big group. I always felt stifled.
That’s more or less the reason that De La Soul came about. I needed a creative outlet and they came at the right place and the right time. I used them as my creative outlet. But I didn’t want them to feel like I did in Stet. My whole intention was to do the one album, show them how to do things in the studio, and then have them do their second and third album, if they were going to have one. We didn’t know back then.
DJ Sorce-1: So they only had a one album deal?
Prince Paul: Back then labels always tried to lock you in for ten albums or something insane. They’d give you a contract and say, “Here’s a ten album deal that expires in 2000-something.” You’d be like “Whoa, that’s crazy,” but you didn’t know any better so you’d sign it anyway. That was standard back then, to sign your life away.
DJ Sorce-1: In an old interview with Ethan Brown that appeared in The Source, you said that when De La Soul Is Dead came around your role was reduced and it was hard for you. What was the reason for the reduced role?
Prince Paul: I don’t remember exactly what I said or in what sentiment. In hindsight, it wasn’t that difficult. I was trying to ween myself out of being the main production person. If you look at the credits on 3 Feet… it says “Produced by Prince Paul and Co-Produced by De La Soul”. The second album is “Produced by De La Soul and Co-Produced by Prince Paul.”
Every group has a set way that they like to do things. As a producer, you have your own ideas of how you want things done. The first album was easy. I’d say, “Hey! Bark like a dog, and let’s record it.” They’d say “Ok” and get all excited. On the second album they’d be like “Eh, I don’t know.” (Laughs)
DJ Sorce-1: They were questioning things?
Prince Paul: Yeah, and rightfully so. They were seasoned artists with a hit album. Creatively that change in the group dynamic made it a little more difficult. In hindsight, it might have been part of my ego too. In the end, it all worked out somehow.
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DJ Sorce-1: De La Soul Is Dead is so much more hostile than 3 Feet High And Rising. It is goofy in parts, but there is a lot of legitimately angry shit on that album. Did the seriousness of the album and the Turtles sample clearance lawsuit from 3 Feet… make the studio vibe a little more restrained?
Prince Paul: Yeah, the recording sessions had a little bit more tension to them. I always have to respect the artist’s vision and where they’ve been at. People change. I think a lot of it had to do with the first album. The first album dropped and out of nowhere it blew up. The guys weren’t really prepared for it. With that success there was a lot criticism, scrutiny, and misconceptions of how the group was in terms of their image. They had people on the road try to test them all the time. People would say things like “Oh, you big flower dudes” and try to run up on them. But De La Soul is made up of three big guys. They had a habit of beating people up when they went on the road and they started to get a rep for that.
The label was getting on their case and expecting a lot from them in a short amount of time. I think De La Soul Is Dead was a sort of rebellion. I remember telling them exactly what you were saying. I said, “Yo, this album is pretty hostile. I was hoping we’d do something not exactly like the first album, but definitely not this angry.” But like I said, I had to respect what they were going through and their artistic vision. I started to figure out how to make the album a little bit lighthearted so it wasn’t like an evil album. That’s when I came up with the skit idea of the three bullies and De La Soul getting dissed. I thought that would lighten it up and give an excuse for the album being so mean and different.
DJ Sorce-1: I think that’s what works about those skits. They keep the goofy aspect, but the album still had cuts like “Who Do You Worship.”
Prince Paul: (Laughs) The original one sounded better. It had a sample in it that they made us change. I forgot about that song.
DJ Sorce-1: You have a demo version of “Who Do You Worship” that’s different?
Prince Paul: Yeah, I probably have it somewhere. Man, I got stacks of cassettes, who knows. It’s probably in the cassette pile somewhere. If I took the time to go through some of these cassettes, there are a lot of rough copies and things that got changed.
DJ Sorce-1: “Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa” is an incredibly dark example of storytelling rap. How do you feel about a song like that in retrospect?
Prince Paul: I love that song. A lot of the time I make albums and then put them to the side. I haven’t listened to those early De La albums in a long time. I think I need to go back to some of them and revisit them. I want to see how I feel about them in 2008. You keep bringing up these songs and I’m like “Yeah, I forgot about that one.”
DJ Sorce-1: Is it hard for you to go back and listen to stuff that you’ve worked on once it’s done?
Prince Paul: Sometimes. A lot of times I make an album and don’t revisit it for a while. What makes me listen to it again is the criticism, whether it is good or bad. Then I listen back to it with that criticism in mind and try to see what other people see in it. Not necessarily to change what I’ve done or change things in the future, but just to understand where they’re coming from. It makes me appreciate it differently, especially if they enjoy it. But other than that I put it to the side and I’m off to the next thing.
DJ Sorce-1: So you don’t rest on the success of your previous albums?
Prince Paul: I like the challenge of doing something new. It would have been easy to make “Me, Myself And I Part 2” when we started in on De La Soul Is Dead. It’s harder to come back with a totally different style or genre. To me, that’s when you’re really doing it.
DJ Sorce-1: My big question for De La Soul Is Dead is what’s up with the “I can’t be your lover” and the “hig-a-huh-he” grunt samples that are all over the album? It’s so funny and I’ve always wanted to know what it really means.
Prince Paul: You ever hang out with your friends and you have a bunch of goofy things that only y’all laugh at and do together? That was making De La Soul records, especially in those days. We were just all kids acting silly and stupid. Somewhere along the lines we started doing that and it just ended up getting on the album. Some of that stuff I can’t even answer; it was just us being dumb. We had the power of recording something, so we’d just say “F it, let’s record it.” There are tons of mistakes and tons of inside jokes on those albums.
DJ Sorce-1: I think it’s funny that even the songs you did as spoofs, like “Kicked Out The House,” were good songs.
Prince Paul: Ugh, I hated hip-house.
DJ Sorce-1: It’s a good song though. I like that song, even though it’s totally a joke.
Prince Paul: It’s funny; Chris Rock said the exact same thing about that song. When I first heard all that hip-house stuff that was coming out at the time I thought “Oh my god, what is this? I could make one of those songs.” I remember sitting in the studio with the engineer and going (Paul starts imitating the beat over the phone). Dave came up with the hook and we just ran with it.
DJ Sorce-1: Was Buhloone Mindstate a tough album to do because of where De La was in their careers? There was tension within the Native Tongues and it seemed like another transitional phase for the group. When you were recording did you know that was going to be the end of your time with them?
Prince Paul: I knew things were changing. They were maturing and I knew the days of me going “Go in there and moan, we’re going to do ‘De La Orgy'” and them saying “Ok” were over. The vibe had changed. Things had happened since 3 Feet High And Rising. People had kids and responsibilities got heavy. The pressure of trying to follow the success of the first album and all of the criticisms made it kind of deep. Buhloone Mindsate caused us to mature somewhat. For them, I think the difference was that I was still in yuck yuck land. I wanted to do the goofy, crazy stuff. They were into being a little tamer. I didn’t know that it would be my last album with them, but I knew things were definitely changing.
DJ Sorce-1: Was there ever any personal tension?
Prince Paul: Nah. The cool thing about De La and I is that we were friends, first and foremost. The music brought us together, but we had a personal relationship. We laughed, joked and cried together. I’d love to give you a great story where Pos pulled a gun on me, Dave put a knife to my neck, or Mase tried to run me over with a car when we parted ways. There isn’t that story though. We just sat down and had a conversation. More or less I said, “I want to do this and you guys want to do something else. It’s three against one. My intention originally was to only do 3 Feet High And Rising. Maybe this is the time where ya’ll do what you feel represents you.”
At that point in their career they had to think about maintaining their fanbase and selling records. I didn’t know how to take them there. We stumbled upon those first albums. I didn’t really know how to make records that sold; I just lucked up and made records that sold. It’s cool though, it all worked out. It forced me to make my own name. After De La Soul, I initially panicked. I was working on the Gravediggaz album and nobody really got it, so I had to go out and make Prince Paul a recognizable individual. It forced me to work and be creative.
DJ Sorce-1: You sort of had to create your own name brand.
Prince Paul: I had to. It’s hard for a producer. I don’t rhyme. I’m not that specific DJ dude that goes out and does back flips on the turntables. So I had to figure out my personality and make it win. That breakup was one of the best career moves I could have ever made. Not because I stopped working with them, but because it helped me realize my own potential.
DJ Sorce-1: You had a quote in Brian Coleman’s Check The Technique where you said “If there was ever a sign of the existence of god, De La Soul would that be proof to meâ€¦I’ve never had such a perfect fit in any other production situation.”
Prince Paul: That’s definitely true. To this day it still amazes me. How did we find each other? I don’t think that any other producer would have worked for them and I don’t think any other group would have worked for me at that time. Working with De La Soul set the pace for who I really was.
Those early records and what they allowed me to do defined me as a producer. It gave me an air of conceit. A lot of those early De La records have that air of conceit. Records like “Take It Off” are us saying “No, I won’t be doing that. That’s for you guys.” And that has stuck with me today. It defines my production. I was already heading in the direction of being obscure, but De La Soul made me put my pinky up while I was drinking tea.