Frank Sinatra had a voice like butter -- you could hear an emotional depth in it that belied the fact that the moment he exited the stage and started talking, he behaved and spoke like an idiot goombah. He had a heart. He had love. He had fear and sadness deep within him, and yet it was so buried that it was only able to escape the darkness under cover of his music.
The best music transcends the human being who's making it; it comes from that secret garden both within and without the artist and flows like a pristine stream, unhindered by the ego.
Here's Prince Paul (n Paul Huston), one of hip-hop's most extraordinary producers, on why he has never put his voice on one of his releases: "If I put my voice on the record, I might as well end my career. You know what I'm saying? My ego isn't big enough. I know what I'm capable of and what I'm not capable of. I can add insightfulness to a lot of stuff, and I can write. And I can more or less direct people to do something that represents myself without me being there."
Prince Paul performs at the Galaxy on Sunday, May 26, as part of the Washington Avenue Beat Festival downtown. (He'll also spin at Vintage Vinyl at 4:30 p.m. that same day.)
If you know anything about hip-hop, you've heard Prince Paul's production. His were the beats, hooks and concepts that supported De La Soul's landmark 3 Feet High and Rising; he produced 3rd Bass' The Cactus Album; broke Queen Latifah when she was breaching hip-hop's gender barrier; rolled beneath Big Daddy Kane, Boogie Down Productions, Chris Rock (Paul won a Grammy for Rock's Roll With the New). More recently, he's worked with Del tha Funkee Homosapien on his Both Sides of the Brain, with the Wu-Tang Clan's Method Man on Tical 2000: Judgement Day and with New York rapper MC Paul Barman.
As his own boss, he's kicked out three hip-hop landmarks in the last five years: the predominantly instrumental Psychoanalysis (What Is It?), the hip-hop "opera" A Prince Among Thieves and, the best of the bunch, his collaboration with producer Dan the Automator called the Handsome Boy Modeling School.
Prince Paul is a minimalist, and his innovations have more to do with the big picture than the little one. Where other producers and teams have pushed hip-hop's sound forward by adding scores of textures, samples and counterrhythms, experimented with skewed beats, dissonance, disorder and chaos, Paul has maintained a reverence for simple juxtapositions. If producers such as Public Enemy's Hank Shocklee and Atlanta producers Organized Noize are hip-hop Jackson Pollocks, Prince Paul is the genre's Mark Rothko. His samples and beats, taken separately, are sparse and somewhat meaningless; juxtaposed with one or two other sounds, though, the combination explodes.
His most important innovation was probably one of his first: the production on De La Soul's 1989 debut, 3 Feet High and Rising. It was one of hip-hop's first concept albums, and it changed the game in a way similar to how the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band changed the rock LP. He and the group added playful skits between some of the songs, and these skits -- a funny faux game show -- helped create an album-length momentum.
Prince Paul continued to produce De La through their third record -- though both paled in comparison to the debut -- and made his living setting the tone for others. In 1997, though, he re-emerged as a solo artist, buoyed in part by the oversees explosion of breakbeat, trip-hop and instrumental hip-hop. Labels such as Mo Wax in the U.K. were releasing music that resembled Prince Paul's instrumental tracks, and by shining a light on the possibilities of hip-hop sans rapper, the Brits acknowledged Prince Paul's influence. This is when Psychoanalysis ... What Is It? was born.
Psychoanalysis is a weird, funny record. The beats are never flashy. The snare always hits directly on the second and fourth beat, right where it should be; the hi-hat taps a steady eight-count to the measure; the kick drum booms on the one and three beats. Above that steady backdrop, Paul adds clean horn samples, an occasional sampled moan and freeform sax-riffs. Pure simplicity. Between tracks, Paul adds his signature skits, sounds, funny samples.
In 1999, Prince Paul created Prince of Thieves, an album connected by a narrative about a rapper who needs money to make a demo tape that he's trying to get into the hands of the Wu-Tang Clan. Along the way he becomes desperate, makes a few questionable choices and ends up much the worse for wear. Thieves, too, is a curious record, mainly because Prince Paul asked all of his guests to make rhymes that fit within the story's structure. The mostly successful endeavor features underground luminaries Kool Keith, De La Soul, Big Daddy Kane, Sadat X of Brand Nubian and Xzibit.
Later in '99, he joined Dan the Automator (responsible for Deltron 3030 and Kool Keith's Dr. Octagonecologyst) to create the Handsome Boy Modeling School. Their album, So ... How's Your Girl?, released in late 1999, is a hoot. Again, there's a theme: The two tackle fashion and beauty and truth, tossing in hilarious sound clips from comedian Chris Elliott's short-lived sitcom Get a Life. For guests, the two enlisted wonderfully diverse talent: Del tha Funkee Homosapien (the best rapper alive today, by the way), Sean Lennon, Miho Hatori of Cibo Matto, DJ Shadow, turntablist Kid Koala, Mike D of the Beastie Boys, Alec Empire, Father Guido Sarducci, Biz Markee, Roisin Murphy of Moloko, former Company Flow kingpin (and current Definitive Jux owner) El-P and others.
The album's success was the result of the vast array of styles and emotions that the two were able to create. It's not a mere hip-hop album. It contains rock, breakbeat, smooth soul (the exquisite "The Truth"), rhythm & blues and, of course, those beats.
But really, the minimalist nature of Prince Paul's work -- his way with samples, the simplicity of his beats, his way with structure -- are only tidbits of Prince Paul's personality. You can hear him in his music, even though you can't hear his voice. "I like people who can do that, like Prince Paul," DJ Shadow once explained to an interviewer. "He always puts his personality in a bunch of samples. Puts his personality into the instruments and lets it out. I always respect that."
Prince Paul performs at the Galaxy as part of the fifth -- and best -- Washington Avenue Beat Fest. Also performing at the Galaxy are Mike 2600 and Doug Surreal, as well as DJ Pee Jay. Velvet's concentrating on house and is featuring an amazing lineup of the stuff: The highlight will be legendary London DJ Seb Fontaine, who's been a resident at two of London's most popular clubs, Ministry of Sound and Crème; the versatile Chicago house DJ Lego; RFT Music Award winner DJ Steve-O; and Lovemix Velvet residents Les Aaron and Johnny Orr.
Rue 13 promises a mix of live acoustic music and electronic dance music: San Francisco's Soulstice, who records for the consistently inspired Om Records; and Rue 13 residents the Hothouse Sessions.
At Tangerine: House DJ Jeff Feller, soul/funk DJ Papa Ray and the amazing live house band the Urban Jazz Naturals.
Finally, you can catch some great drum & bass and two-step garage at Lo: DJ Bailey, who's part of London's phenomenal Metalheadz roster; Reid Speed, a drum & bass DJ who's transformed herself into one of the pre-eminent U.S. two-step DJs; and local drum & bass hero Jim K.
The Washington Avenue Beat Festival should be kicking. By all means, check the beat.