By Jacob Katel
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By 1986 Huston was the DJ in Stetsasonic, one of 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 it was the best vehicle to translate their personalities and vocal inflections. Frank Zappa might have done something similar first, but 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.
"I stopped paying attention to skits," he declares. "I don't take it personally and think, What is this crap? I listen to it and go on to the next thing. My feelings on rap and hip-hop in general aren't as strong as a lot of old-schoolers. I take it lightly. I used to be all concerned and hurt about what was happening to rap music. It has evolved to where it's going to evolve. I just try not to take part in its destruction. I just do my own thing, and the people who like me, like me, and those who don't, don't."
But by the mid-'90s, Huston's fans were few and far between. Under pressure because of declining sales, De La Soul opted to work with another producer after early sessions for their last album, Stakes Is High, were fraught with tension. In addition Huston's own record label, Dew Doo Man Records, was reportedly not considered a top priority by its distributor, Def Jam Records. Toss in troubles with his girlfriend and a custody battle for his son, and you've got a volatile mix. Huston says he fed most of his aggression into Gravediggaz, a campy collaboration with the RZA, former Stetsasonic bandmate Fruitkwan, and rapper Too Poetic. On their two albums, the Gravediggaz combine hardcore beats with ghoulish raps; it's the aural equivalent to Rusty Cundieff's Gothic film Tales from the Hood.
You can also hear Huston's frustration in the tracks on Psychoanalysis -- What Is It?, an album that evolved out of his one-man, off-Broadway show. Initially released on the indie Wordsound label then reissued on Tommy Boy in 1997, the album opens with Huston wondering, "Why must you hate me?" in a song that evolved out of an argument he had with his girlfriend. With a track about a psycho killer who thinks date rape and murder are everyday activities ("Beautiful Night"), a sendup of Schooly D's "P.S.K. -- What Does It Mean?" ("J.O.B. -- Das What Dey Is!"), and a parody of Miami bass ("Booty Clap"), the album is an irreverent kiss-off that Huston originally thought might be his last album.
"The Psychoanalysis stuff was just whatever," he says. "I had no feelings left when I made Psychoanalysis. There was nothing holding me back. There was no radio and no marketing involved. I didn't think, Oh, that might hurt people's feelings or we can't market this. There was no artist telling me, 'Yo, I can't rhyme on that, son.' It was my record, so if it sold some copies it was all right."
The record didn't sell by the truckloads, but it did catch the attention of the Automator and the Dust Brothers' Mike Simpson, both of whom are working on new projects with Huston. The last describes the Handsome Boy Modeling School's debut as "a hybrid of crap, the equivalent of us babbling." But considering that it's graced with guest performances by Sean Lennon, Cibo Matto, Thom Yorke, Biz Markie, and Alec Empire, it's unlikely the album will be so haphazard. On the record by the Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Huston's project with Simpson), he's still in the process of recruiting guest vocalists. Since DreamWorks Records (home of Dr. Octagon) just recently decided to fund the album, Huston hopes he can enlist high-profile rappers like Busta Rhymes, Method Man, and Rage Against the Machine's Zack de la Rocha.
He has also reunited with Stetsasonic for a one-off show. As for the film version of A Prince Among Thieves, Huston says he's unsure if it will go straight to video or see a theatrical release. It all depends on what kind of backing he gets. With a big budget, he says he wouldn't mind having Jennifer Lopez or Marky Mark as its stars. Huston admits that getting money is never easy but he doesn't sweat the process of finding "potential" investors.