By Chris Gray
By Corey Deiterman
By Jef With One F
By Chris Gray
By Rocks Off
By Rocks Off
Welcome to the jungle... What in the hell am I doing here? Surely, that question must have entered Carl Stephenson's mind on a few occasions back in the late '80s, as he pondered his strange situation. At the time, Stephenson -- a sensitive young redhead with skin as light as rice paper -- was sharing living and working quarters with some of the meanest customers in rap, Houston's Geto Boys.
"We went out to eat a lot at Denny's," Stephenson says of his four-year tenure as a whiz-kid producer at Rap-A-Lot, the Geto Boys' label. "It was my first experience in a big city."
Stephenson's Houston odyssey began in 1988, when the then 19 year old quit a job as a box boy at an Olympia, Washington, grocery store and headed to Texas. He came at the urging of his pal Cliff Blodget, an electrical engineer/computer ace who had recently moved here with his wife, a native Houstonian. While growing up in Washington, Stephenson and Blodget had been tech heads with a passion for music. Stephenson, part of a highly intellectual family that didn't own a TV set, was especially enamored of synthesizers. Inspired by the rap, funk and dance tunes they'd heard on a local college radio station, the two eventually built a home studio in the attic of a house they shared.
The studio centered around a creation of Blodget's, a special sound cartridge that has proven extremely useful to hip-hop programmers. Bringing his invention with him to Houston, Blodget hooked up with the Rap-A-Lot crowd and was assigned to help produce the first Geto Boys release. Then he sent for Stephenson, and the rest, as they say, is history. The Geto Boys went on to become the proverbial ugly stepchildren of gangsta rap, Blodget has broken his ties with Rap-A-Lot and is currently designing speakers somewhere in the Houston area, and Stephenson -- now 30 and living in Los Angeles -- has made one of the most impressive major-label debuts of 1997 under the band moniker Forest for the Trees.
A mood-swept song cycle awash in expansive hip-hop sampling, luminous pop hooks and highly personal lyrical interludes, Stephenson's eponymous CD, Forest for the Trees, is a meticulous marvel of self-absorption. Yet its musical thrust couldn't be more universal. Stephenson combines Beatlesque psychedelia, rampant instrumental experimentation and a dreamy techno ambiance with an appreciation for the smallest details worthy of a Brian Wilson. The result is a flowing, multidimensional work that moves forward as often as it glances back.
As organically derived as it is synthetically hatched, Forest for the Trees is a post-punk magical mystery tour of the psyche, and you have to wonder whether anything about Stephenson's stay in Houston figured into its creation. Stephenson himself doesn't have a definitive answer to that.
"I learned a lot when I was there," he says. "It was a little bit crazy, but it was a good experience."
When he first arrived in Houston, Stephenson lived in a room over the Rap-A-Lot headquarters, which were then in a ramshackle house on the property of label owner James Smith's used-car dealership. He and Blodget helped the Geto Boys record the bulk of their debut release, Making Trouble, in the same building. Though he can't remember street names or even the location of the home he rented when his Rap-A-Lot digs became too stuffy, Stephenson does recall hanging out with the Geto Boys' posse at various local dance clubs. He also spent more than a few hours ogling the turntable expertise of the Geto Boys' DJ Ready Red. "I got heavily into sampling grooves from records -- I learned that from Ready Red," he says.
By 1992, however, Stephenson was tiring of his work at Rap-A-Lot. Turned off by the Geto Boys' misogynistic lyrics -- and increasingly tuned in to the sort of R&B and dance-oriented sounds early gangsta rap had little use for -- Stephenson moved to Los Angeles. It was there that he began work on Forest for the Trees and hooked up with folky hip-hop auteur Beck. In 1994, the two collaborated on a catchy little hit titled "Loser," which was recorded in the living room of Stephenson's L.A. pad. That set the stage for what would come.
A recent Rolling Stone article implies that Houston was just this side of hell on earth for the young Stephenson. But if that really was the case, Stephenson won't acknowledge it now. His preference has always been to accentuate the positive and bury the negative -- and he's had plenty of both in his life over the last nine years. Foremost among his problems: Stephenson is afflicted with a potentially debilitating mental disorder in which a single word can trigger either a loss of focus or intense obsessive ruminations. Signs of the illness showed up out of nowhere about four years ago, and Stephenson has been in and out of hospitals ever since. His treatment postponed the release of Forest for the Trees -- which was ready to go as early as 1993 -- for almost four years.
But with the help of medication, Stephenson is working through his ailment. My interview with him, in fact, was yet another step in his recovery, as it was the first in memory that he'd done on his own, without anyone sitting by his side for reassurance. In the future, Stephenson would like to assemble a band and hit the road. After that, he plans to record Forest for the Trees' follow-up, most of the music for which is already written. As for the more immediate future, he's planning a trip to Houston to visit friends.