By Jacob Katel
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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 (a.k.a. Paul Huston) and Dr. Octagon's the Automator (Dan Nakamura), and its inauspicious showing at the 1998 South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas. 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 wacked 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 recent solo album, A Prince Among Thieves, he has finally, and successfully, realized an idea that had been percolating in his head for nearly ten years. It's a hip-hop concept album (he's in the process of financing a film version of it) more inspired by children's records than by Pink Floyd's The Wall or the Who's Tommy, neither of which Huston has seen. Thieves comes complete with narrative structure, a motley cast of characters, and a real message. It tells the story of Tariq and True, two young blacks 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 and Juice, Thieves has the tragedy of black-on-black violence at its center. It's also 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 only agrees to loan him the money 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," Huston says. "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 eleven or twelve years old, he had already developed some serious skills. He also had the ability to relate to a wide assortment of people, a trait that would come into play later in his life.
"I was the type of kid who was nice to everybody," he recalls. "I would sit next to the fat girl that nobody would sit next to. What kinda made me a little more worldly and open was just the kind of friends I had. I had the really nerdy and the really hard-core, in-and-out-of-jail friends. I was cool with both of them, and it made me see both sides of things and be open-minded to what people do. I didn't think people were bad because of what they did or think they were totally nerds. That's why I think I'm able to apply some deviant things and some nerdy things to everything I do."