Partners in Rime

People Under the Stairs fix the leak

In February, computer-savvy fans of the Los Angeles hip-hop duo called People Under the Stairs were psyched to discover what appeared to be a leak from Stepfather, a project not to be released until April. But those who downloaded it probably wondered if the group should change its name to People Under the Influence. The track began with an introduction from Chris Portugal, who goes by the moniker Thes One: "You got it way before everyone, you're so smart," he said. "Well, enjoy this." Then he launched into a recitation of English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

Sharing "Rime" instead of rhymes was partly a joke, acknowledges Portugal, who's been putting out discs with People Under the Stairs since the late '90s. The stunt had a serious subtext, though. "I was trying to think of a way that I could thwart all of the people stealing the record," he allows. "So I wanted to make something that would maybe fool a few people."

A handful of downloaders didn't realize they'd been punk'd. "They were like, 'The new People Under the Stairs album sucks!' " Portugal says, laughing. And the rest? "Some of them saw the humor in it, and some of them didn't," he maintains. "I think the downloading community as a whole took offense to it, but they can all go to hell."

On the block: Wilco.
On the block: Wilco.
The Dimes
The Dimes

As this comment implies, Portugal and partner Mike "Double K" Turner are old-schoolers, not techno geeks. They continue to build their songs from music found in their extensive vinyl collection -- an approach that most of their peers have abandoned to avoid paying royalties for every borrowed snippet. Still, the technique is "inherent in the subculture," Portugal believes. "If you're not using it, you're not really making hip-hop." So on strong Stepfather tracks like "Eat Street" and "LA9X," he and Turner chop samples into unidentifiable bits or utilize sources so obscure that they're virtually untraceable. "There's everything from weird outsider folk records to Bollywood drums," Portugal reveals. "It's not just jazz loops."

Stepfather also includes a bonus DVD that features a brief history of People Under the Stairs, an excellent beat-making tutorial courtesy of Portugal and a ridiculously primitive film titled Ice Castles that sports what refers to as "possibly the worst acting ever." (That's a rave review in Portugal's book.) They included the DVD, he says, because "we wanted to put something in there to get people excited about buying an actual record as opposed to downloading it."

That was the idea behind the "Mariner" leak, too. "It started an interesting dialogue on our fan-site forum," Portugal points out. "People were saying, 'If it wasn't for downloading, I wouldn't know who you guys were.' And I'm like, 'That's fine, but have you ever bought a record? And just because you know who I am, what does that do for me? I know who you are, because you just posted on my forum, but I haven't helped your career any, have I?' "

Probably not -- but he's given a real boost to Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

People Under the Stairs appear Sunday, May 28, at Warehouse Live, 813 St. Emanuel, 713-225-5583.

The Abattoir

With feline swiftness, and one sweeping pass of my arm, I sink my razor-sharp blade into the demonically overrated heart of America's most tedious counterculture heroes: Wilco.

Once upon a time, guys like Bob Dylan and Gram Parsons thought it would be a good idea to blend the earthy honesty of country and western with the electric dynamics of rock. They created a genre in the process that has stood the test of time -- for the most part -- to become one more facet of the American musical landscape.

The '90s saw a revival of this stuff in the likes of Giant Sand and Uncle Tupelo. When Tupelo disbanded thanks to the undoubtedly megalithic egos of those involved, one such ego went on to form his own outfit, and thus Wilco was born. I never "got" Uncle Tupelo, and still don't to this day; and for that matter, Jay Farrar, the other ego from Tupelo, spawned his own equally uninteresting band, Son Volt.

But where Farrar faded into the obscurity he so richly deserved, Jeff Tweedy's Wilco has grown with each increasingly dull release to become (arguably) the most popular purveyors of indie rock in the land. And if there's one thing I hate, it's a band whose star shines much brighter than it ever rightfully should. How does a band that excels at so little mean so much to so many?

One look at Wilco's documentary film, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, and Tweedy's insurmountable arrogance begins to expose itself, as does the monstrous wall of boredom that inevitably comes with any time spent in the presence of his music. With equal measures of embarrassment and disgust I watched as he told Jay Bennett that they should hold back on guitar solos because they "aren't really that important" anymore. Oh, okay. His is the land of sappy pop, mindless noodling and pretentious "experiments" that are really, at heart, nothing more than the work of a marginally interesting artist. And that's on a good day.

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