By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
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Next to Coolio, Prince Paul may be rap's best sport. Consider the Handsome Boy Modeling School--a duo featuring producer and ex-Gravedigga Paul (nee Paul Huston) and Dr. Octagon's Dan the Automator (Dan Nakamura)--and its inauspicious showing at the 1998 South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin. Crammed into a tiny DJ booth inside a Sixth Street club called Bob Popular's, the pair spun records and called out raffle tickets during a Tommy Boy Records showcase. Lesser DJs would scoff at the notion of performing such a menial task, but Huston, the producer responsible for the imaginative skits on De La Soul's first three records, fully embraced the gig. Doing his best imitation of a whacked game-show host, he sarcastically called out the winning numbers and feigned enthusiasm for the fabulous prizes.
"Oh yeah. I forgot all about that," Huston says when asked about the performance. "That was a blast. I was like [in a deeper voice], 'If you have number 115, that's 1-1-5, you're a winner.' I like doing stupid stuff like that. It's low-maintenance."
Huston doesn't always take the easy way, though. With his brand-new solo album, A Prince Among Thieves, he has finally--successfully--realized an idea that had been percolating in his head for nearly 10 years. A hip-hop concept album more inspired by children's records than by Pink Floyd's The Wall or The Who's Tommy (neither of which Huston has listened to), Thieves comes complete with narrative structure, a motley cast of characters, and a real message. It tells the story of Tariq and True, two black kids whose ambitions reach far beyond their ghetto home. Tariq is an aspiring rapper, and True, his best friend, is a drug dealer who can rhyme. Like films such as Boyz N the Hood or Juice, Thieves has the tragedy of black-on-black violence at its center. It's one of the most ambitious and audacious hip-hop records in recent memory, bringing a vibrant shot of street-savvy imagination to a slumping genre.
Trouble starts when Tariq, who needs another grand to finish his demo before his meeting with Wu-Tang's RZA, asks True for the extra cash. True agrees to loan him the money only after Tariq agrees to peddle drugs for him for a week. The album, which opens with the sound of medical personnel attending to Tariq and True as they lie on the pavement after a shoot-out, retraces the steps that got them to that concrete stretcher. Thieves starts on a serious note, but in typical Prince Paul fashion, it quickly devolves into humor and parody, with Huston reaching flamboyantly into his treasure trove of old-school funk beats to create a stirring soundtrack.
"When I started writing, I didn't know exactly where I wanted to go, but I knew I really wanted to write something serious," says Huston. "People think that Prince Paul always jokes around, and I wanted to shock everybody and do something really dramatic. My intentions were to be serious, but then my personality came out in the middle of the writing. I'm not a writer by any means, so this was a new experience for me, and I couldn't tame myself."
Thieves is as much a showcase for Prince Paul as it is for its cast: a loony weapons specialist played by Kool Keith; Chris Rock's desperate drug addict, who's willing to perform fellatio in exchange for a hit; and a crooked, loudmouthed cop brought to life by Everlast. Even though the characters are stereotypes, the terrific performances and hilarious situations keep the material fresh, despite the obvious references.
"It is a parody of everything I've ever seen," Huston says. "You've got the crooked cop, hooker, sex scene, good and evil, pimp, crime boss. Every element in my story is like something you've seen before. The mom who tells her boy to do something with his life--that's like John Travolta and his pops. It's all the same crap. With a lot of it, I can't tell you where the parody or the concept comes from, but I can tell you that I've seen it a million times, and I've squeezed it all together."
Huston, who says he's been DJing "since before rap was on wax," grew up on Long Island. On his way back and forth to Brooklyn, he spied DJs in the parks and took their cues, using makeshift turntables in his bedroom. By the time he was 12, he had already developed some serious skills.
By 1986, Huston was the DJ in Stetsasonic, among the first hip-hop groups to use live instrumentation. He went on to produce De La Soul's 1989 debut Three Feet High and Rising, a seminal effort that featured the first use of skits--short, often silly segments between songs. On Three Feet, the members of De La Soul were introduced as if they were contestants on a game show.
"We had no idea what was going on with Three Feet High and Rising. It was like the blind leading the blind. Looking back, I think, 'Wow! They believed in me?'" says Huston, who has since produced 3rd Bass, Big Daddy Kane, Boogie Down Productions, and Chris Rock, whose Huston-produced comedy album, Roll With the New, won a Grammy in 1997. He adds that the skits were the result of "trying to figure out the sequencing of the songs." He also came up with the game-show concept as a way of introducing the members of De La Soul, because the game show, he figured, would best enable them to translate their personalities and vocal inflections. While Frank Zappa might have done something similar first, he didn't spawn anywhere near as many copycats. Now it seems every rapper, from Eminem to Wyclef Jean and Busta Rhymes, uses skits. Most can't come close to the ones on Three Feet High and Rising. Huston, however, says he doesn't take offense when he hears a bad skit.