Over Their Heads

Prince Paul is damn near ecstatic. "Thank you!" he shouts into the phone. "Thank you for getting it!"

The voice on the other end of the phone just gave Paul his take on Politics of the Business, Prince Paul's latest CD: It's not a Prince Paul rap album, but rather Prince Paul's satire of a rap album.

"That's exactly what I did," Paul says. "Do you know how hard it is to explain that to people? They go, 'Ah, I don't get it.' They'll listen to it and go, 'Oh, he's trying to mimic these styles. He's just being corny.' "

Even the most revered music magazines have been flummoxed by Paul's album-length stunt. Vibe gave Business a ho-hum review, citing Paul's "unexpectedly anemic production" and declaring that the album "throws a lot at the wall but can't get much to stick." Rolling Stone, probably acting out of respect for Paul's past accomplishments, was slightly more favorable, yet still it whiffed on Business's big picture. "Where his beats once evoked DJ Shadow picking through a crate of old comedy records," the review ran, "now he sounds like a hook-y, less bling-y Neptunes."

We beg to differ. What Paul has done with Business is right up there with what Brian De Palma does with his movies. Paul has made a deceptive, purposefully superficial album that delivers a pointed commentary on the pitiful climate of today's rap, and if you think Prince Paul has made a substandard hip-hop album, you most likely aren't bringing enough to the table.

After all, this man has tripped though the annals of 20th-century hip-hop, taking all the quirkiest detours along the way. First known as the beat man for Stetsasonic, he next brought hip-hop into the D.A.I.S.Y. Age (and invented the hip-hop skit while he was at it) by overseeing De La Soul's landmark 1989 debut, 3 Feet High & Rising.

During the '90s, he formed the faux- horrorcore trio Gravediggaz, produced two comedy albums for fellow hip-hop critic Chris Rock and squeezed out a couple of solo joints: Psychoanalysis: What Is It? in 1996 and the hip-hopera A Prince Among Thieves three years later. That same year, under the handle Handsome Boy Modeling School, he collaborated with fellow maverick Dan the Automator on the ambitious compilation, So…How's Your Girl?, the only album ever to boast contributions from Sean Lennon, Money Mark and Father Guido Sarducci -- and that's on one freakin' song. More recently he produced tracks for nebbishy Jewish rapper MC Paul Barman, a guy best described as Philip Roth and Roxanne Shanté's hormonal teenage love child.

You'd think with that kind of résumé audiences would know what to expect from Prince Paul -- which is the unexpected, of course. Paul assumed so when he was putting down Business tracks: They'll get it, he thought, rap audiences are savvy enough to get my kind of music. He soon found that he was giving most of the public more credit than they deserve. "People go in the listening stations and skip the records real quick," says Paul. "They don't listen to the whole overall song and the concept. So I got lost."

The genesis of Business came about when Paul felt his previous label, Tommy Boy, wasn't giving Thieves enough promotion. Paul begged Tommy Boy to no avail for some kind of publicity -- a push for airplay, a little merchandising, a goddamn T-shirt, something! What they told him left him stunned.

"I remember them saying, 'Well, Paul, your records, they're too smart,' " he remembers. "'You only have this limited crowd, this backpack audience. Most of all, you don't make singles. It's a singles market. It's all about singles. It has nothing to do with the content of your album,' which is pretty sad to hear. I guess that's why music is pretty sore right now."

Before he set out to make his next album, which he decided then would be one long, complex response to his label's absurd comments, he did his research. "I listened to the radio -- pretty painful, youknowhamsayin'?" he laughs. "And I was like, 'I'm gonna mimic and make fun of every style.' "

True to the contemporary rap cliché, he assembled a multitude of guest MCs to perform on each of his radio-friendly rap beats. He snatched not only hot new finds, like Kardinal Official and Jean Grae, but also the oldest of old-school orators: Guru, Chubb Rock, Masta Ace, the Pharcyde's Tre and Fat Lip, De La Soul's Trugoy. For the title track, Paul recorded Ice-T and Chuck D simply reciting their war stories. Actor-comedian Dave Chappelle appears in a couple of Paul's famed skits as a lunkheaded record exec. Paul had Business ready to hit stores, and then Tommy Boy, the butt of his elaborate joke, shut down before it could be released. Politics of the Business, indeed.

"I was like, 'I'll show you! Here goes that record you wanted!' " Paul remembers. " 'I'm'a get a billion guest artists! I'm gonna make these keyboardlike records!' Finished it in 2001. It should've came out in 2001. The record label wasn't there. The joke's on Prince Paul."

Razor and Tie eventually picked up the album, and Paul shouldn't be so quick to dismiss it as a total failure. While Business may not be Paul's best work, it just may be the album that determines where listeners stand on the man and a litmus test on hip-hop in general. If you get it, then congratulations, you're a hip-hop head with savoir-faire. If you think it's just another collection of mediocre radio-ready rap, then go back to listening to 50 Cent.

But those in on the joke can rejoice in knowing there are some in the hip-hop universe who are witty, subversive and smart (when did being smart become so awful?) enough to try something besides the same old stuff -- even if that means coming up with a satire on the same old stuff to get their point across.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Craig D. Lindsey
Contact: Craig D. Lindsey