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Written by: Robbie Ettelson
While talking to Prince Paul and his son, Pforreal, last week, I couldn’t resist asking Paul Snr. some questions about his days as the DJ for Stetsasonic. When P had to leave early to sort out some traffic tickets, I took the opportunity to kick it with the Prop Master about his history in the music game.
Robbie: When did you start deejaying?
Prince Paul: I was around 10 or 11 years old. I’ve collected records ever since I was little. When kids were buying toys, I was buying 45’s, so my appeal to music has always been at a young age. One day I go to a park and I see a DJ, speakers stacked up, a microphone with an echo chamber and I’m like, ‘Oh my god!’ I was stuck. I was like, ‘This is nuts! This is crazy! These songs are so loud!’ Now it’s a dime-a-dozen, you can do it all on your computer. Back then you had to seek those things out. Maybe once a week you could find a party that you could ride your bike to. Once I saw that I was hooked. I was like, ‘Yo, that’s what I want to do’. I could never get the equipment, but I would piece stuff together from stuff I had in the house. I just emulated what I saw and practiced and practiced until I was good enough to actually spin in front of people. Once I found out I was pretty decent, then I was like, ‘Now I’mma go and try and battle people’.
Did you grow-up Brooklyn?
I was born in Queens, raised in Long Island, but I spent a lot of time in Brooklyn, ‘cos my grandmother’s from Brooklyn. That kinda gave me an edge from a lot of the Long Islanders out here. People sleep on Long Island, ‘cos it’s the suburbs or whatever, but they don’t understand that most of the people who live in there come from the five boroughs anyway. What gave me the edge was I was visiting Brooklyn often, ‘cos my grand mother lived there. I would take what I saw there and applied to what I was doing here.
You’d have records that no one else out there would have?
Oh yeah. There was this record shop on Pitkin Avenue in Brooklyn, and I would walk from my grandmother’s apartment. Every little bit of money I had – ‘cos albums were $3.99 if you got a good priced one, and singles were $1.99, $2.99 for twelve inches. Whatever little money I got, I would just buy records. I’d figure out all the break-beats. If I’d get a tape, I’d try to listen to Bambatta, ‘cos he always had stuff that I’d never ever heard before. If you listen to old school tapes, a lot of the DJ’s played similar stuff, but Bambatta played stuff that you was like, ‘What is that?’ Some crazy, off-the-wall stuff. So my record collection became a little more eclectic, and I would like to say complete, compared to most DJ’s at the time. So that gave me an edge.
How did you meet Daddy-O and the rest of the crew?
Those guys were a lot older than me – well, are still a lot older than me – that hasn’t changed. [laughs] I was a kid when I joined. I was doing a DJ battle in Brooklyn and they approached me, ‘Hey, we’re looking for a DJ’. I’m like, [skeptical] ‘Who are these dudes?’ They were like, ‘We’re Stetsasonic, we just won the Mr. Magic Rap Attack contest and we just got a record deal with Sugarhill Records‘. You could tell it was old school. They were like, ‘Why don’t you come practice with us?’. I practised with ’em, we found out the Sugarhill deal was wack so we made a demo. I didn’t have no idea what a demo was when we made it. I’m like, ‘What’s a demo?’ Next thing I’m in the studio, scratching, and we made this record ‘Just say Stet’. Demo’d it up and Tommy Boy picked it up and it happened from there.
It was weird, this was in the days of the Fat Boys and Whodini and Grandmaster Flash and Run-DMC‘s early days, so making records isn’t as popular as it is now. Back then it was kinda weird to have the goal of making records. ‘Oh, we’re making a record? I do this for fun’.
Who were the original members?
It was Daddy-O, Delite, Wise had just joined the group like a week before. Fruikwan wasn’t in the group yet, they had this dude named Grand Supreme. DBC wasn’t down then either. I was kinda in the reworkings of Stetsasonic. By the time I went to practice with those dudes that’s when they were looking for another MC, and that’s when they found Fruikwan and they found DBC. Bobby Simmons, the drummer, came way later – he came during the second album.
You guys were the ‘Hip-hop Band’ before The Roots, right?
[excitedly] That’s right! It was DJ, human beatbox, we had live drummer and we had keyboard. Not like The Roots with guitars and all that stuff. We still tried to keep it ‘street’ street. Keyboards is still street – drums are definitely street – and human beat box was the new thing coming out, and I was the DJ. It was cool, it made for a great stage show but it was kind of rough, too, because our set-up times was a longer than most hip-hop acts. They just come on in, a DJ, ‘OK, we’re ready!’. We gotta mic-up drums, check levels…it was not easy for back in those days.
How did you sneak ‘Music For The Stetfully Insane’ onto the In Full Gear album?
I had this drum machine called the Sequential Tom and I would program stuff on there and make little ideas at the house. I think we had some time in the studio and I brought my drum machine in. I don’t think the guys were there at the time, and I was like, ‘Let me try this idea’. The next day I played and they were like, ‘That’s cool! Let’s put it on the record’. I was like, ‘Really? It really doesn’t fit into the scheme of ‘Talking All That Jazz’ and everything else we’re doing’. They’re like, ‘Nah, nah. Lets put it on there!’ I’m like, ‘Bet!’ Who am I to argue. When De La came along it made me do more things like that, but in a higher production value though.
What was the first song you ever produced?
Probably two things. ‘On Fire’ and ‘Bust That Groove’. It’s funny, ‘On Fire’ was an incomplete beat, and they were like, ‘Yeah, we want to use it’. Now that I look back, I remember the engineers were freaking out because of the way I programmed the hi-hats, because they were triple-timed. They were like, ‘This isn’t right! You gotta…ughh’ And they trying to figure out how to reprogram it. It’s funny, now that’s a standard. Especially southern rap music. I was like, ‘Wow, I was doing that back in the 80’s! And you thought I was crazy because of my hi-hats!’ [laughs]
Other than stuff like the Fat Boys, there wasn’t a great history of comedy in hip-hop prior to De La Soul. Do you feel like 3 Feet High & Rising brought a new style of comedy to rap?
The Fat Boys was more slapstick, pie-in-the-face type of humor. Ours was mixed with a lotta sarcasm and some type of conceit at the same time. We were like, ‘Oh god…gold chains?’ All the things that were kinda fad-ed out at the time. We just had that kinda thing about us, and I think that’s what helped us bond a lot. That was more De La! I was kinda feeling that way, but they voiced it, straight-out. I was able to take whatever they were feeling at the time and bring it out on wax.
Even before I met them, I was recording dumb stuff like stupid, silly sketches and this other things I was doing. So I was taking their ideas – which I thought was pretty funny – and trying to coax them to put it on wax. ‘Go ahead – say it! Let’s record that!’ I had a conversation with them, this was way later on, and they were like, ‘A lot of those records were you, not us’. And I was like, ‘Ohh’. I felt bad, ‘cos I felt like I almost forced them to do stuff. It was their personality and I just made the put it on wax. That’s why when they started doing stuff on their own it got a lot more mature and a lot more serious.
Plus you lived through that whole gold chain/Troop era yourself with Stetsasonic.
That wasn’t really me, it was fitting into the context of what the group was and what the times were. I didn’t really have the money to do all that. According to Stet, I’m a Long Island dude, ‘cos I spent most of my time in Long Island, including school. Though I went to Brooklyn, I wasn’t hardcore Brooklynite, like they were. So they saw me as being Paul, this kid – which i was at the time – ‘He’s naive and young and innocent’. I was the dude that when we went on tour, I’d get locked out the room, ‘cos they had some girl upstairs, and I’m stuck downstairs in the lobby with the girl’s friend – who’s waiting for her friend who’s upstairs in my room! And we’re sitting talking about, ‘So…what classes do you take in school? Wow…really…you think they’re done yet? I’mma call up!’ I was that guy! And I got stuck like for a while. When I got with De La, it was more or less my peers, and I’m like, ‘OK, this is more what I’m about’.
What record was the most enjoyable to make over your career so far?
3 Feet High and Rising. We were just dumb and silly, and I was like ‘The Man’, and I was able to tell them do whatever, and they did it. It was a good ego trip for me at the same time. Go in the both and moan, and I want to call this piece ‘De La Orgy’. They’re like, ‘Yeah! OK!’. I’m like, ‘Woah! This is too easy!’ It was a lot of fun because I got the chance to live out a lot of stuff. De La’s so fun and easy to work with, and they’re super-duper smart, and obviously they’re super talented. I was learning as they were learning, but I couldn’t let them know that I didn’t know too much, because they were looking up to me as being the producer, but I was kinda learning on the job on a lotta things. It was cool. Now, if you asked what was the most gratifying? It would be the first Gravediggaz record.
We were all in a place of doom and gloom, everything was a at a loss. Believe it or not, RZA was at a loss at one point in his career! [laughs] This is when he was Prince Rakeem and he had legal problems. Cats wasn’t feeling him and Tommy Boy dropped him – same with [Too] Poetic. Fruikwan got kicked out of Stet, there was a whole lotta stuff going on. For me to put that group together – it took us a freakin’ year and some change to actually get a deal – but to actually make a record come out of that and make a little bit of noise at the time? It was really, really cool.
I was amazed that Russell Simmons ever considered putting that out Resident Alien project.
Because 3 Feet High and Rising did so well, I was making a name for myself and putting out gold and platinum records left and right. At one point in hip-hop history I was doing really, really well. With that being said, and Russell and Lyor being business men, they started RAL Records. They was like, ‘Yo Paul, we’ll give you your own label’. I turned them down forever, I was like, ‘Nah, I don’t want to do no label. You crazy? I’m a producer!’ They called me, called me, called me. I was like, ‘I’ll do it only under one condition – if I can call it Dew Doo Man Records!’ And I remember Russell just frowning. He looked at me, he’s like, ‘You sure you don’t just want to call it Prince Paul Records?’ ‘Nah man – gotta be Dew Doo Man. And I wanna sign my friends!’ He’s like, ‘OK…’ They think I’m gonna make another big record like 3 Feet High And Rising and I give them Mic Teluxe and Resident Alien. They’re like, ‘Urghh. Nah man’. [laughs] I remember Russell saying, ‘C’mon, make a pop record!’ I was like, “I don’t know how to do that’. He’s like, ‘You’ve done it plenty of times!’. I was like, ‘But I just defaulted on that! I don’t sit down and know how to make those things!’ He was really frustrated. Then I tried to put a union together of all the artists who were on Def Jam and RAL and weren’t getting a fair shake or wasn’t getting released, and he found out about it. He called me to his house one day, it’s like, ‘You don’t want to on this label anymore, do you?’ I’m like, ‘Nah, not really’. He’s like, ‘Contact your lawyer and I’ll have my lawyer write something up. It’ll be fine.’ I was like, ‘Yeah?’.
That’s an amicable parting of the ways – quite unusual really.
Russell knew I was a good dude and I had good intentions. He told me, ‘We made you do this deal, didn’t we?’ He knew it wasn’t like I was like, ‘C’mon Russell- hook me up, man!’ They pursued me, and at the end of the day I didn’t give them what wanted. He’s business man and he didn’t see it as marketable. He said, ‘We’re on a clean slate – I owe you nothing, you owe me nothing. Let’s keep it moving’.
Looking at guys like Das Racist, you might have been 20 years ahead of the curve.
I was supposed to work with those dudes, it just never materialized. Not to toot my own horn, but I can tell you a bunch of things I was ahead of the curve on. [laughs] I wish I had ‘ahead of the curve’ money. ‘Maaaan, I was just twenty years off! I could’ve made me some real cash if I’d waited it out!’ [chuckles]
Who was that guy on Psychoanalsis who did ‘It’s A Beautiful Night’? That was hilarious.
That was wild. The guy who did that – that was one take, and he had half a bottle of E&J before he did that. I was like, ‘Look – you know what the hook is. It’s gotta be racist, misogynistic and all these all things to it’. I just put him in front of the the mic and he just ran through the whole thing from top to bottom. I was like, ‘Wow! This should really end my career! Let’s put it out!’.
Did you ever hear ‘Booty Clap’ played in a strip club?
[laughs] I haven’t been in enough strip clubs to honestly see if they played it. But I MC’d a strip club one time in Florida, and that was a lot of fun. I wish I could get a job to do that. [announcer voice] ‘Coming to the stage – Diamond! Diamond’s from Boca Raton. Gentlemen, please be generous for the women must make a living for themselves!’ That was fun.
What are some of the other things were you ahead of the curve on?
As far as production stuff – I think of it’s filtering. Nobody was really filtering out the highs and putting bass lines. I was doing that real early. What was cool is, I seen Pete Rock in an interview, and he’s like, ‘Prince Paul is the first one I ever heard do filtering, and that’s kinda where I got it from’. I’m like, ‘Ah! Thank-you Pete Rock! Thank-you!’ See I didn’t want to go out and tell everybody I was the first one to do that. That was a solid sound for the early 90’s – everyone everyone was filtering the highs and taking the bass. Did I get credit? Ehh…no. I was like, ‘Whatever’.
Deejaying was a big deal, ‘cos I thought I was the greatest DJ to ever walk the earth, for two seconds. I was the first person I heard to break-up words, like when you cut-up, ‘Jump – on – the – jock’, like ‘Funky, funky – funky’. Even though it seems trivial now, back then when it’s first done, people like, ‘Oweeehoooo!’ They running around, crashing into stuff, into the wall. ‘It’s crazy! Owwweee!’ Now it’s like, ‘Oh OK, it’s such a weak cut’. I remember I did it on ‘Just Say Stet’ and I didn’t hear nobody ever do that. After that it became kinda a staple.
I did that, ‘LL – Cool – J – Is – Hard – As Hell’, like breaking up stuff. I did that when I battled Easy G in the [New] Music Seminar in 85/86, and I used that cut to beat him. After I did that cut, I’ve heard it replicated a billion times, even on LL Cool J’s records! I’m like, [whiny voice] ‘I made that up! I invented that!’ Then I heard Jazzy Jeff do it , but he did it way cleaner and way better. After that I just put my hands down, like ‘Meh’. I gave up deejaying, and production was the natural progression.
What crew was Easy G from?
He was down with Original Concept. They were Westbury in Long Island. Me and Easy G would turn out to be really good friends. He was the World Champion the year before, and I battled him to get into the semi-finals. That was my crowning moment. I was like, ‘I beat the guy who was the World Champion’. That cut was the icing on the cake – that’s the one that made it like, ‘Winner!’ And I was like, ‘Ah! I got him!’
At least you got the credit for inventing hip-hop skits.
I didn’t realise that until someone brought it up to me. ‘I guess I did!’ But now I just stop thinking about it, ‘cos there is no ‘First Time’ check. ‘You’re the first one to do whatever! Here’s your check in the mail!’ The First One To Do Whatever To Kinda Influence Others To Do Whatever And Make Money! So here’s the residuals! In that case, Kool Herc would be a multi-billion billionaire.
Do you horde all of your old drum machines?
Of course, man. I got 808, 909, the Casio drum machine, some Korg drum machine, Sequential Tom, DMX…I always feel like I might need it one day.
No Linn drum?
I never felt like I needed it because I had the DMX. To me it was the same thing, almost.
Are you planning on working with Breeze Brewin’ again?
He’s dope. I was trying to put this project together, and he’s part of the project, but a lot of it no is timing. He’s a school teacher now, and I can’t go, ‘Man, eff your job! I need that verse by Saturday! I’m gonna pay to a grand total of nothing!’ A lot of projects I can’t really get done – before, if I had a budget, I could get a good commitment. You like to offer people money for their hard work.
Do you find making a records a good way to release frustration?
It used to be that way – it’s not like that anymore. Everything to me was centered around music – everything! When I was a kid, ‘I can’t believe what happened in school!’ I’m all distraught, deejaying, music’s blasting. ‘Reow! Reow Reow!’ Or ‘Oh, man! This girl dissed me!’, I’d sit and make a song. But I don’t feel that anymore, which is kinda scary ‘cos music’s always been my bread and butter and my passion. I’m not sure if that’s based upon not being inspired by what I’m hearing – ‘cos a lotta times I listen to the radio and I’m like, ‘Oh my god! That’s incredible!’ And it inspires me to make music. But I don’t think I’m getting enough of that now.
The Negroes On Ice stuff isn’t reflective of what I’ve been making. There’s music I’ve been making for this project which I’ve had in my head, that I can never get done, for the last – I don’t know how many – years. I wanna finish it. I gotta get the right lyricist, the right concept together, but it’s hard to come by.
How much time do you spend in the studio these days?
It’s rare. Maybe a coupe of times a month. I’ve been more into writing now – I’ve been working on this screenplay, it’s in it’s final draft. I’ve been hosting this talk show for Scion that’s gonna go online soon. It’s like a traditional talk show kinda thing, with a desk and a co-host and guests. Music has ti be a total passion, and I really don’t see a dollar sign on it. It’s almost gone back to when In was a kid – I just did it for fun. The other stuff now seems to be more lucrative. And there’s always deejaying. I kinda took this year off to relax a little bit and get my thoughts together.
Was there anyone who you really wanted to work with who you never did?
I remember when Rush Management was my managers as a producer, they were like, ‘Alright – who do you want to produce?’ They were expecting me to pick Rakim and all the obvious ones, I was like, ‘Tom Jones. I wanna do a Tom Jones record’. They looked at me like I was nuts! They’re trying to show me how fly they were as Rush Management – which they were – but Tom Jones? They couldn’t pull that one off. They had a hard time trying to get Tom Jones! For two seconds in my career, people actually liked me! I was considered a Top 5 producer. It got to the point where there were people who I couldn’t work with or time just didn’t permit. They wanted me to remix or rework ‘Love Shack’ by B-52’s. This is when it was just a demo – and I’m like, ‘I don’t got the time – and then it becomes this huge, giant record! Same thing with Janet Jackson – we want you to redo this song called ‘Black Cat’ – I was like, ‘I don’t got time. People! I’m just busy! I’m making hip-hop! This is what I do!’
I was so adamant about stickin to what I am, and I was always afraid if I went outside of the box too far – I remixed Fine Young Cannibals and a few other people just to see what it would be like – but I felt if I went too far out of the box I’d lose what I was doing. I was a ‘true artist’. ‘Money? I’ve lived without money before. I’m making enough – a couple of thousand here, a couple of thousand there – I’m good. It’s more than I ever had before’. Now in hindsight, I look back and I’m like, ‘Man! I could’ve retired!’ [laughs]
I got jerked so much back in those days. I look back at some of the contracts – I think the object of labels is to try to not pay you ever. Really! That’s what it is – they really try to find ways of not paying you. You always battling. You look at a contract, it says, ‘Thereof’ – not ‘therewith’ – therefore I don’t get my money. They got me on a technicality! Everything’s recoupable – that’s the science. Anytime I’d be at a label, ‘Yeah Paul, we’re going to have lunch’. ‘Well, is this recoupable? Or can I actually keep it? Do I have to pay this lunch back? ‘Cos if so, I’d rather get my own lunch’. They thought I was being funny but I was very serious. That stuff starts adding up, man.
Great! Let’s go and have some lobster!
Yeah, that’s on your bill. ‘What? $20,000 worth of lobster? What was that?’ ‘All the times you came in! And you brought your homeboys in! And you randomly invited the Wu-Tang Clan to come in!’ I’m like, ‘No!’
What project had the biggest budget?
They were all kinda wack! I think that’s why labels liked me, ‘cos I made them money in those days. ‘OK, we’ll give Paul $5,000 – but we’ll make $5 million!’ [laughs] They all averaged around $200,000 – a quarter of a million if you were lucky. But studios back then were $1,000 a day, and that’s not including your engineer, so you could eat through those pretty quick. That’s that gave me an edge back then too – I bought a pre-production studio, so I’d have all my music done by the time I got to the studio, and all I had to do was just track it. I always found ways to save money. People wasn’t really doing that back then too much, but I really sat and thought about it. ‘I’ve gotta save as much money as possible’. I booked those graveyard sessions, ‘OK, we’ll start at 12 and end at 8 in the morning!’ Because it was cheaper. The engineer’s half asleep, but I’m like, ‘I’ve gotta get it done – cheap!’
You’ve already uploaded Big Daddy Kane and BDP demo mixes. Have you got more unreleased stuff to share on your Soundcloud account?
Yeah, I’ve got a lot more stuff. I’ve just gotta take the time to transfer – some stuff is on tapes and ADATs – it’s just a matter of me taking the time and putting it up. Like I said, music’s for free, and what’s going to happen to it except sit in my basement? I remember reading Idris Muhammad, and he was getting all his old music and putting it together and putting it out, because he said, ‘Well, when I die somebody’s gonna wind up putting out all this stuff and put it out the way I don’t want it to be put out, so I might as well do it myself!’ And I’m like, ‘You know what? He’s totally right!’ I could see it now, ‘That’s not the right mix!’ I might have to come back and haunt people just for messing up my music, and I don’t want to have to do that from the dead.
Stetsasonic – ‘On Fire’
Resident Alien – ‘Ooh The Dew Doo Man’
Prince Paul – ‘Beautiful Night’
A Prince Among Thieves
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