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."
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."
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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.
"People automatically think that when they see a triangle next to your record, you're making tons of money," he says. "To me, making tons of money is shaving off the top. You could sell a ton of records but have a lot to recoup. My whole thing is that I make records and spend very little money making them. It's a good feeling when people accept you on your own terms.
"I'm more into getting respect than working with people who say, 'Yo, I see you've sold a million records, and I don't know what you do, but I want you to work with me,'" he continues. "I've had that before when I worked with De La Soul -- label execs who had no idea what I do but just think I'm hot and want to have their artists work with me to have their name next to mine. To me that's an insult. It's a good way to make money. I work with people who like me because I'm me. I don't have to wear Fubu to have everyone like me. I can dress like a bum and be Prince Paul and make records. That's the greatest thing in the world. I'm in the position I always wanted to be in.