The enchanted forest

Carl Stephenson on Beck, the Geto Boys, trip-hop, and the fine line between dream and reality

If Forest for the Trees had been recorded in 1997, it would surely spur interest, if only for its position at the musical intersection of the moment, pulling together such current themes as studio wizardry a la Beck, trip-hop, and Eastern sounds. But Carl Stephenson laid down the foundations for Forest for the Trees--both the album and the creative entity it's named for, which is mostly Stephenson--in 1992, before the term "trip-hop" existed in the popular vocabulary as anything other than the tongue-in-cheek name for his own production company. Beck Hansen, whom Stephenson would soon meet and change forever, was a penniless folk singer playing street corners and coffeehouses.

In fact, not long thereafter--at the same time a little song he co-wrote with Beck called "Loser" was on its way to becoming the anthem of a generation--Stephenson was putting the finishing touches on Forest. So why is it that almost no one has ever heard his name or that of his album until recently? To put it delicately (as the media have done to an almost nauseating extent), Stephenson suffered some "mental problems" that resulted in a forced period of hospitalization. His health improved, however, to the point where Geffen Records was comfortable releasing the album last year, appropriately on its DreamWorks subsidiary.

Like many artists who are both ahead of their time and ultra-sensitive to the world around them, Stephenson experienced some difficulty functioning in "normal society." It's a condition that can be traced from Syd Barrett back through Evard Munch and past Heironymus Bosch: At some point, a person loses the distinction between art and life, reality and fiction, until it all becomes a single dream-like blur, providing the perfect opportunity to take creativity and sanity to their limits.

Forest for the Trees bears all the signs of just such a journey. Stephenson pushed his experimentation to such extremes as clipping small microphones to his ears in order to record everything he heard--in the exact way that he heard it. By so doing, he reached a plateau that few artists ever achieve: the realization that everything is art...or, in Stephenson's case, music. A realization that can, indeed, lead one to be perceived as a little nutty.

Many artists who make such a journey, however, tend to lose contact with pop rationality altogether, but Stephenson has a gift for pop that reminds you of Brian Wilson and that, thankfully, has never left him. The result is that rare connection between art and pop music that made the likes of the Velvet Underground, Tim Buckley, and Harry Nilsson both challenging and listenable.

If one were to begin a story about Stephenson's incredible musical career and his fascination with soul and hip-hop, it would likely start in--of all places--a Houston car lot. That's where he and a friend named Cliff Blodgett began working with a record label called Rap-A-Lot. Their first project was to produce for a hardcore rap group called Geto Boys, who would also become one of the determining forces in the music of the past decade.

"Cliff and I put together a studio in his attic [in Olympia, Washington], where we combined both of our efforts," says Stephenson by telephone from his home in Los Angeles. "We did a demo tape that we shopped around Houston, and a little tiny label called Rap-A-Lot records was really into it. Cliff had moved back to Houston to look for a job, so he gave me a call and told me they were interested in flying me down there 'cause they liked the demo, so I went and stayed on top of a used car lot with the Geto Boys for about four or five years."

This is one of only a handful of interviews Stephenson has ever given. His voice is somewhat shaky and nervous, filled with childlike anxiety, sincerity, and wonder, making him seem much younger than his true age of 30.

"We stayed in this really primitive living arrangement," he explains. "There was an office above the used car lot. The president of Rap-A-Lot records, James Smith, sold used cars. So me, Jim Box, Freddy Red, and Rahim stayed there, pretty much roughin' it."

That was in the late 1980s, and Stephenson, then a 19-year-old white kid, thus became one of the first instigators of gangsta rap--albeit unwillingly, he admits.

"I wasn't ever very much into hardcore," he says. "I was more into pop music, so me and some other folks I met at Rap-A-Lot moved to L.A. to try and make it in the pop-music scene, rather than the underground rap scene."

Ironically, however, as a producer Stephenson fell victim to a style of music he had just helped foster. "We kept on going up against strange barriers, like black promotions agents who wanted to hear the hardcore underground thing for some reason, so a lot of the songs we did were never actually heard by anybody. They were pop, and nobody wanted to hear pop music a few years ago.

"One of the groups I worked with was the College Boyz, and we started out working on the Scat Cat project--the animated cartoon for Paula Abdul. They liked the style so much that they signed the College Boyz to Virgin Records. But that was where I was butting my head up the against hardcore vs. pop thing. I recorded six songs for the College Boyz, and they only accepted one of them because they wanted a slow, hardcore sound. All the rest were upbeat, kinda Booker T and the MGs-style '60s soul."

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