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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Speak Ya Clout: Prince Paul on Montezuma's Revenege Part 1

As a writer, some of my proudest moments have come from compiling “Reconstructions” for The Smoking Section. Writing these articles involved interviewing an artist about a particular song or album that meant a lot to me. I often had a list of questions that I wanted to ask the rapper or producer I was interviewing about the process behind the music. Getting answers to these questions from the artists themselves often gave me a sense of clarity as well as new insight into their work.

While I no longer write “Reconstructions” for The Smoking Section, I have had the recent good fortune of being able to talk with some of my favorite artists for my own blog. As a result, I’m deciding to launch a new set of interviews titled “Speak Ya Clout”, which will be in the same vein as the “Reconstruction” series.

My first installment of “Speak Ya Clout” is an in-depth breakdown of one of my favorite albums in recent years; Soul’s of Mischief’s Montezuma’s Revenge. Prince Paul graciously played the role of interviewee and helped me to shed light on some of the more intimate details regarding the album’s creation. Read on, as Paul drops science on his most recent artistic feat.

Please support Paul as well as the Souls of Mischief by copping the album.

DJ Sorce-1: Much of your early career involved co-producing De La Soul’s first three albums. Lately, you’ve done conceptual albums like A Prince Among Thieves and Politics of the Business, where you were working with a wide variety of artists. Was re-adjusting to group dynamics and figuring out how to work with Souls of Mischief difficult at first?

Prince Paul: That wasn’t really difficult. What was difficult for me was getting them all on the same page. Although they are a group, they haven’t worked together on an album in a long time. They’ve done a lot of Hiero stuff here and there, and they’ve done tours, but in terms of working on an album, they haven’t done that in a while.

From what I understand, some of their records were done with them laying down their rhymes at different times. So to get them in one place at one time and to be of one mind was more of a challenge than anything else. It’s like being a coach. You try to get everyone on the same page, with the same goal, and have everyone do what they’re supposed to in order to win.

DJ Sorce-1: Did you enjoy making Montezuma’s Revenge?

Prince Paul: It was a challenge, because I haven’t worked with a group since the Gravediggaz. That’s the reason I wanted to do the project to begin with. I’ve done so many projects in recent times where it was mainly just me and I got people to come in and do stuff here and there. So it was a challenge, but it was fun.

The whole thing came about when Opio opened up for Handsome Boy while we were on tour. I asked him what was going on with Souls and I said, “Tell the guys that I want to produce the next album.” He was like, “Yeah!?” I didn’t think they’d actually call me on it. Next thing you know, they were like “Ok, we’re ready to do the album!” (Laughs) I was open to do it, because I said I wanted to. But people always pop junk and say they’ll do some sort of project and never do. So I was surprised that it actually ended up happening.

DJ Sorce-1: From what I’ve read, you and the group rented a house and did a lot of the recording there. Is that true?

Prince Paul: Yeah. You hear a lot of albums now where the producers change from track to track and all the songs sound different. It doesn’t sound like a cohesive album. People say albums don’t sell anymore; it’s the single that sells. Regardless of what sells, I like to listen to an entire body of work. In order for us to make a cohesive album, I suggested that we take time out and be at one place when we recorded. I actually forget if I suggested that or if they did.

Anyway, we came up with the idea to rent a place and work there, away from where we all live. That way we could just concentrate on music. Man, the house we rented was a grimy spot. There were ants and stuff. I was sleeping on the floor on a mattress. In the back yard there was a tree with some kind of animal skull embedded in it. The whole experience was really taking it back.

DJ Sorce-1: Wait…an animal skull? (Laughs) Was it from the previous owners?

Prince Paul: I guess one of the previous renters put it there. Living together was very sitcom-ish. Cell phones didn’t work because we were way out there. Only one company got good service. None of us had service plans with the one cell phone company that worked, so we had to get a pay per minute phone and share it. It really made me appreciate my home and all the hard work that I’ve done to live comfortably. But it was good that we made the album like that, it built camaraderie.

DJ Sorce-1: Sometimes stripping things down to the bare bones can spark the creative process.

Prince Paul: Being in a situation like that definitely gives you a lot more focus. When I was a kid, I could make music all day and not worry about anything else. Things that bothered me as a kid seem minute as an adult. I used to worry about getting the right rims or being able to buy a jack from Radio Shack for the back of my mixer. Now those are minor things. When you get older, things change. I have to cook dinner for my son, make sure the dishes are done, and pay the bills. Your focus shifts. Being with the group in that house…there was nothing to think about but music.

DJ Sorce-1: Nowadays, not to knock rap music, but it seems like albums are constructed more haphazardly than they used to be. What steps did you take to ensure that Montezuma’s Revenge sounded like one fluid body of work?

Prince Paul: If people are true fans of Souls of Mischief, which, coming into it, I was, they know what they want to hear on this record. I sat and analyzed all the records they’ve put out, even the solo projects. I tried to figure out what I liked and what I didn’t like. I told them, “I’m going to make what should have been your follow up to 93 ‘Til Infinity. I’m going to make a retro record and scale back technology.” To do that, I decided to use an SP-12, ASR-10, MPC-2000, and MPC-60. We decided to take it back and see how it worked. The only high tech thing we had there was Pro-Tools to do recording and tracking.

DJ Sorce-1: But in terms of beat making, you weren’t using Reason or Ableton or anything like that?

Prince Paul: No, everything was pretty bare bones. One of the songs that A-Plus had done was made with Reason. Everything else was just audio out, no digital…real dusted. Even our Pro Tools rig was dusted. I used an old titanium G-4 Mac laptop. It was all recorded on a laptop with an M Box.

DJ Sorce-1: You mentioned studying previous releases from Souls. What did you like most about their previous albums and what did you think needed the most work?

Prince Paul: In my opinion, the best aspect of their previous albums was their rhymes. Production and direction changed on each record, but the quality of rhyme was there. The thing that I wanted was for them to sound like they were of one mind again. The first album, their rhyme styles were so incredible. They were all over the place, playing with different rhythm patterns.

On later albums, everything got simple. I asked them, “What happened? Ya’ll went backwards.” Their reason for switching it up was that everyone was biting their style and they didn’t want to do the early Soul’s style anymore. I told them that they were the best at that style and I wanted them to go back to flipping it. I think it’s important to show off your lyrics by flexing your rhyme style. That’s what I think really needed to change.

DJ Sorce-1: I noticed that the vocal samples that you used really set the tone for records like “Poets” or “La La La”. Was it your intention to bring it back to a sample based sound to compliment their rhyme style?

Prince Paul: Yeah, in order to make a follow up to 93 ‘Til Infinity, Montezuma’s Revenge had to sound like it was from the same era. The only keyboardy stuff from that era was Dre, but even he was blending samples and keyboards together on The Chronic. He wasn’t only using keyboards. So I had to come with the sample based mentality. Again, I approached this album more or less from a fans point of view.

DJ Sorce-1: Where is the vocal sample in “Poets” from?

"Poets"- Souls of Mischief


Prince Paul: I sampled the record, looked for it again later, and I couldn’t find it. A lot of times when I’m naming a sample file I’ll just write the first word of what the original song is. When you’re recording samples to use, sometimes you’ll tell yourself, “I don’t need to write down what record this came from, I’ll remember what it is.” Clearly you won’t. You’re fooling yourself. I lost it, and now I can’t find the original song.

People ask me what record I sampled for "Flattery" on my Itstrumental album. I tell them, “Eh, I don’t remember.” Some of them will say, “You’re lying, you just don’t want to tell me!” I remember it was a 45’, but I put it in with a stack of other stuff, and now I can’t find that record either.

DJ Sorce-1: Are you still taking the time to clear all of your samples?

Prince Paul: Oh yeah, of course. I don’t practice sampling that much nowadays, unless it’s on an under the radar type of record. For this particular album, I gave all the samples to the guys in the group to have them cleared. So, except for the one sample that I can’t find, everything else was given to them. For me, personally, something has to be really dusted or bizarre for me to use. I want people to go, “Man, what is that?” I’m not going to go to my collection and say, “Ah, Michael Jackson. Let me loop up "Thriller".” I don’t do that.

When I first started and I was flipping stuff with De La, there was a unique few who were really into records and samples. I kinda got blamed and credited for people record digging. People said, “Ok Paul, ever since you got on MTV and showed that Mickey Mouse record, it started a whole revolution of kids looking for beats, samples, and loops.” I guess someone needs to be blamed for it.

Now a lot of stuff I use is pretty dusted. A lot of kids, even the ones who really dig, don’t know what the records are. If I do use anything, it’s not going to be obvious. If the person I sampled heard my record, I’d want them to go, “Whoa, I made this?” It has to be something that weird. If I can, I’ll chop the sample and dust it out.

I’ve gotten to the point now where I’ll re-play samples with instruments. I learned how to interpolate, change the sound, and dust it out so that when I’m re-playing certain samples, it sounds like a direct sample from a record. By the time I figured out and perfected that craft, people got hardcore electronic and less vinyl sounding. It took me years to perfect, and then people were like, “We don’t use that. We use these sterile sounds that come from a keyboard.” I can flip something and make it sound just like a record, but that doesn’t account for too much that will sell in today’s market. (Laughs) Go figure.

DJ Sorce-1: Are you mostly playing instruments now?

Prince Paul: Yeah. I have a guitar, bass guitar, and a whole lot of analog keyboards. What’s cool is that a lot of modules and virtual instruments in computers sound real. It depends on how you play them. I played a beat recently for someone and they said, “Where’d you sample it from?” They were surprised when I told them I played it. That was like the ultimate compliment. I wasn’t using anything that dusted to make the beat; just keyboard module stuff. I learned a lot when me and Dan (The Automator) were recording stuff for Handsome Boy Modeling School.

With me, a lot of stuff happens by mistake. I’ll randomly do something in the studio and go, “Wow, that sounded pretty good.” A lot of guys will sit down, think of a beat in their head, and then figure out how to go about making it into a song. Very little of my music has been done like that. I wish I could hear something in my head and make it work. But it never comes out like that…ever.

DJ Sorce-1: Did you come in with the beats already, or was it more that you were making them on the spot with the group there?

Prince Paul: All the stuff was pre-made. I brought in some music, and I had everyone in the group bring beats. I told them what the direction the music should be. Their first record had a few people within the group doing all of the production, so I didn’t want to use outside producers. I felt it would change the sound of the album. I wanted to keep it within the group.

We sat down and started selecting beats. We started out with something like 30, then we narrowed it down to 20, and we kept narrowing it down. Eventually, we had a group of beats that we felt fit together. I took the beats we chose, recorded them onto Pro Tools, and manipulated them so that it sounded like one cohesive thing. I would replay some samples on old dusty keyboards and I also re-chopped a lot of things.

When I read reviews, some of them will say “Prince Paul didn’t do this song, someone else from the group did.” Little do they know, I took their samples and flipped them hard. Domino said to me at one point, “Wow, you made me sound really good. Thanks man.” (Laughs) I’m not saying they couldn’t have done production on their own; I just put a lot of work into those songs.

The intention was to make the album sound like it was all of one mind and one place by doing what I do…flipping it out a little bit. In order to make a good record, in my eyes, you gotta put ego aside. Sometimes you get people who produce records who say, “I want to write everything. I want this. I want that.” They want all the credit. I don’t mind about credit or who does what. The main object of the album is to make it really good. If you make a crappy record, it doesn’t benefit anyone. But if you make something decent, we all win.

DJ Sorce-1: Right. Why does it matter who gets credit if it’s total shit?

Prince Paul: Exactly. Rarely do I look online, but I was checking the online feedback, which mostly looked really good. But again, a few people said, “Paul didn’t do this, Paul didn’t do that.” Ultimately, that doesn’t bother me, as long as they feel like the product came out good. I kind of laughed though and thought to myself, “Little do they know how much work I put into this record."

DJ Sorce-1: Yeah. When I was looking for interviews after listening to the album, I remember thinking, “Where’s the interview with Paul?” I remember how detailed your memory of the 3 Feet High and Rising sessions were, and those were over 20 years ago. I was surprised that there wasn't an extensive interview with you about the album.

Prince Paul: It’s funny; I’ll probably remember all those things from 3 Feet, but this record I did a couple of years ago, I might forget. (Laughs) We did this album a while ago, and I was talking to Tajai about this recently. Everyone was going retro a few years ago, and all of a sudden the 80’s and 90’s were cool. I thought it would be perfect timing. But then it came out two years later. (Laughs) It’s a throwback record, so it doesn’t really matter, but I think the timing would have been better if it had come out a little bit earlier.

DJ Sorce-1: I remember hearing about the album a while ago, I think as far back as 2006. What was the reason for it getting delayed?

Prince Paul: I have no idea, because the guys in the group put it out themselves. I’m not sure if it had to do with distribution or they had a time line for when they were releasing different people’s albums from the Hiero camp. There are a bunch of people in Hiero, so they might have wanted to release some other material before putting it out. But like I said, it was a throwback record, so it wasn’t like we had tons of auto tune on it and releasing it late threw the timing off. (Laughs)

To read Part 2, click here.


Nam Sane said...

Speaking of insanely dope collaborations, I wish Prince Paul would get together with RZA and form an actual band. Both those cats actually play instruments and understand composition, they are two of the best and most creative producers in hip hop history, and they have already worked together in Gravediggaz. Come on y'all, if Princes Paul and Rakeem rocked out on some guitars, laid down some fat bass lines and dope drum beats, and hit up the pool of incredibly talented MCs and singers they have worked with in their long careers, that shit would be black-flame grade fire.

DJ SORCE-1 said...

Agreed. Couldn't have said it better myself, it's a shame they never did much together beyond the first Gravediggaz album.