When De La Soul inverted hip-hop hegemony with "3 Feet High and Rising," the hope was that the genre -- which even in 1989 was suffering from the first symptoms of a stultifying sameness -- would be irrevocably altered by smart rhymes and ingenious production. Unfortunately, mainstream rap only picked up one thing from the mind-bending studio work producer/DJ Prince Paul did on the album: the skit. Sure, a whole range of "alternative" rap was ushered in -- and quickly ushered out -- and sure, the "underground" is still learning from the lessons Paul taught, but the sound of the lowest common denominator has gotten lower and lower, and Prince Paul has had enough.
"It's supposed to be horrible," says Paul of his latest album, "Politics of the Business." "That's the concept. It's supposed to sound like everything on the radio."
And, weirdly enough, it does. Delivered with Paul's trademark sense of humor (this is the guy who made a song about date rape sound kinda funny) and wicked sarcasm, "Politics" is a full-on assault on mainstream conventions, featuring "mad" guest spots (there are at least 35 cameos, ranging from Planet Asia and Jean Grae for underground cred, to Chuck D and Guru for old-school acknowledgement), simplistic jigginess and dozens of other clichés the commercial machine depends upon to sell hip-hop to the masses. And yes, there are skits.
"I really wanted to [not do skits]. But I had to explain the record," says Paul. "If I just came out with the jiggy stuff -- the fast-food music -- people wouldn't have understood. This record shocked everybody and that's what I try to do. What's difficult about it is that I'm spoofing styles and everybody's like 'Aw, Prince Paul sounds like everybody else' and I'm like, 'That's the point!'"
Yet "Politics" is more than just a parodic send-up of the sad state of the hip-hop nation. The album was conceived and crafted during a period when Paul admits he was "hurt" by the way the business was treating him. An undisputed legend via his groundbreaking work with Stetsasonic, Big Daddy Kane, Boogie Down Productions, MC Lyte and, of course, De La Soul (well-documented on the recently released and long-overdue "The Best of De La Soul" CD), Paul had certainly earned some artistic license, which he exercised on 1996's "Psychoanalysis" LP. Originally released on the Brooklyn-based Wordsound label, street buzz finally convinced Tommy Boy to reissue the stunningly dark record. The label also greenlighted Paul's next project, a collaboration with Dan the Automator (Gorillaz, Dr. Octagon) called Handsome Boy Modeling School. The duo's hilariously twisted So ... "How's Your Girl" album paid off surprisingly rich rewards, thanks both to the Automator's increasingly high profile and the attention garnered Paul's other project, the RZA-helmed Gravediggaz. Although Tommy Boy deigned to release his 1999 album, "Prince Among Thieves," that's about all the label would do.
"After 'Prince Among Thieves' came out I was like, 'Hey, can I get a video? No? Well, can I get a T-shirt? No? Oh, OK.' I'm serious. They didn't want to give me a T-shirt. They told me my records are too smart, that I've got no singles. Levi's ended up making my shirt. And then I went through another situation with them where I was supposed to get some money, but then because of a technicality in my contract, they said they 'couldn't' pay me. They were like, 'You were supposed to initial right next to this dot, but because you didn't, we can't pay you.'
"I put a lot of years into that company, and I think I made them a little bit of money and gave 'em a little bit of notoriety, so I was really kinda hurt," says Paul. "It just made me rebellious, though. I decided that if that's what they want -- if they want an album with hit singles -- well then that's what they're gonna get. So I went down to the music store and got all the cheesy keyboards and modules and anything that says 'phat' or 'dope' or 'blazing' on it, all the prepackaged, instant hip-hop CDs, and I got a billion guest artists, and I got a girl singin' the hook. It started out being spiteful, but then it became fun. The only painful thing was listening to the radio for research. That was killing me. It was the same records, all day, every day."
That lack of flavor (and the crooked business that leads to it) is exactly what Paul mocks on "Politics." And though it was easy, Paul insists it was also exhausting. ("I don't have it in me to make another record like this," he says.) Which means his next project will likely be just as neck-snappingly different as usual. Up next is another Handsome Boy Modeling School album on Elektra ("Thank God for the Gorillaz," says Paul, "because that gets me a meal ticket.") and a group project called The Dix, whose debut EP, "The Art of Picking Up Women" is near completion.
"I want to create a breath of fresh air," says Paul of his upcoming projects. "People want me to change the world. I don't think I'm going to change the world, but hopefully people will listen to what I'm doing and say 'That's what hip-hop needed.'"