Christopher Portugal schools the kids of the Hip Hop History course
University of Oregon, October 27, 2011
Huge thanks to Hydrolyphic of the PUTS UK boards for allowing us the opportunity to peep this (and to his friend who got this on his iPhone).
This is not exactly word-for-word.
Thes (like the rest of us California homies) tends to, you know, like, talk a little, like, choppy, so this um... kept that to a, you know... minimum.
…you doing today? First off, I'm extremely honored to be here. Thanks, Lauren. This is really awesome because I went to college too, and I thought college was… kinda lame.
Every once in a while a cool professor would do something really sweet. This is probably one of those type of things. When I was in college, the idea that hip hop (in any way, shape or form) could be taught in this environment, it kinda nauseated me. I hid the fact – and we were talk-were laughing about it earlier – I hid the fact that I was in a hip-hop group when I was in college 'cause I didn't want anyone thinking anything about me. It was just one of those weird things. I didn't tell any of my professors I rapped or anything like that. And the idea that you could sit in a room and learn something that, to me, was such a street culture… it was something my friends did… something I did instead of going to college, you know? Like, we would go to school, and then I would go smoke weed and write rhymes…
So the idea that you guys can actually come to this class and learn about people smoking weed and writing rhymes, it's just… I won't tell your parents, so just learn this, just get your credits, graduate, and you're just…
So, for those who don't know, my group… we laughingly refer to ourselves as "the most successful, un-successful group of all time", and by that, I mean that you've probably never seen us on MTV (although you've heard my music on there). You've never seen us in a movie or any of the other places that you might see a rapper. There's a lot of things that we haven't done, as far as the industry's concerned.
There's also a lot of things that we have done that 99.9% of rappers haven't done. We've done sold-out shows on every continent, except for Antarctica, but… One of the most fulfilling things that we've ever done was doing a sold-out tour in China, doing a sold-out tour in Africa, doing sold-out tours across Brazil and South America. For my partner, Double K, and myself to be kids, who smoke weed and wrote rhymes, to actually graduating college and realizing that it's kind of a profession, and then finding myself doing world tours, it's been kind of a dream come true. And now to be standing here and teaching you guys and telling you this, it's kind of a trip. Kinda psychedelic.
That said, I know that you guys have been learning about the sort of evolution of technology, how it correlates with hip hop, and the aesthetic of what it is. And I'm just gonna kind of breeze through my take on it, until I get to where you're at: kinda after your post-midterm section. I've spent an enormous amount of time sitting on airplanes with headphones on. I've spent a lot of time meeting people all over the world who are into hip hop. And so, one of the things that I've been doing over the years is kinda coming up with these crackpot philosophies about what it is, how it works, why people love hip hop. I argue 'em in my head, alone, but I think I've got it figured out (at least, for me), and it's really actually that simple.
In my opinion, the key to hip hop is just two things; it's really simple. There's two things that make hip hop work: destruction and re-appropriation. And I know "re-appropriation" is kind of a term that's used to describe words, but I use it in the sense that… destruction and re-appropriation are the tenets, to me, of what makes hip hop "hip hop".
You know, everything that's been "hip hop" from the beginning has been something that was never intended to be used as such, right? So… that goes for hip-hop fashion, breakers wearing ski goggles… Why? Why are you wearing ski goggles, little kid? You're doing it nice, but… weird! Kangol hats, like they're a doctor in the late 70's, you know? Giant gold chains. Taking two turntables and hooking 'em up like Herc did to a regular consumer stereo, but only using one channel, and using the pan knob as a cross-fader, and… all of the things that hip hop learned from Jamaica, and going way back…
To me, the idea of "re-appropriation" really starts when you have, say… after the Civil War, you have marching bands leaving their trumpets and their drums and their things on the floor of Southern battlefields, and you have guys picking them up and making jazz music. That's what hip hop did with records. In the late 70's, there were records laying around everywhere, and no one cared about 'em. People were burning records. Disco records were getting burned in stadiums. These hip-hop DJs came, and they took those disco records and re-appropriated 'em, and they made hip hop.
And it didn't work so well when people said, "You know what? We don't need the record. We'll just get the disco band, and we'll play it!" And then, we had a great era of disco rap, which I personally love, but it is also kinda cheesy. You know, I mean: "A-hip-hop, a-hippity-hippity-hop" over Chic is great, but it's not as hard as Run-D.M.C. doing their own thing over Jam Master Jay cuttin' up two disco records.
So, the idea of "re-appropriation", of taking something and using it in its unintended purpose… to me, that's one side of hip hop. And then the other side is "destruction". I'm now in my thirties… like I said, I'm old, so bear with me… this is not an old man's sport, and it's hard to find examples of people who can age in hip hop, you know, without being the guy with the fitted Adidas suit who's creepy. I'm not talking about Russell Simmons, but…
But "destruction", if you think about it in… "destruction" as like an idea… "destruction" as the motor for hip hop, the engine that powers it. You wanna go… you wanna be a great graffiti writer? You need to go destruct as many things as you possibly can. You wanna be a good breakdancer? You need to dance so hard you're breaking your bones. You're breaking your spine. You getting paralyzed. You wanna be a really great DJ? You need to get really, really rare and expensive records and then scratch them, go back and forth and destroy them. And the harder you destroy them, in that moment… that's the hardest you ever go. Which is one of those things that hip hop is always going to be just in that moment of destruction.
I'm sure there's lot of people who participate in different hip-hop things, you know, whether it's graffiti or dancing or MCing, but… you know that moment you like… you black out… you're like, "I'm right here… I'm in it! I'm destroying. I'm killin' it!" Right? "I'm killin' it!" You are. You're literally killing something. Whether it's: you're killing the English language by some crazy rap-slang thing or poetry, or you're killing this wall.
So, destruction and re-appropriation are just those two things that just, to me… that kinda keep it going. So I'm gonna kind of gloss over disco rap, as much as I love Peter Brown and Chic and the Sugarhill Gang… well, I don't really love the Sugarhill Gang, no one does… They were thieves... kinda unintended thieves, but that's a different story.
The idea of what the sound is, what the music is, how it plays into this… I was talking about the turntables, the records and destroying them. As technology progressed, then pretty soon, we had technology catching up, and it was like, "Okay, now you don't have to hook in your turntables into the consumer item. Now, we're gonna give you a DJ mixer." Well, that could've just been it for DJing, right? Guys could've just went, "Okay, great. Now, I'm gonna just mix these two records like this." but guys had to take it further. Guys had to scratch harder, learn different scratches. Make it more difficult, learn how to destroy it even more. And wreck those mixers. So like, "Nu-Mark, Gemini, those guys… you're guys gonna make us mixers? We're gonna break your mixers. We're gonna cut 'em up."
And around that time, the early 80's too, we saw the advent of drum machines. Now, I'm gonna go back a little bit. About the drum machine, 'cause you guys may not… it's pretty funny, like… my friend Newman plays a drummer, he can attest… Alex Newman from Giant Panda. Drummers were scared in the 60's of drum machines. They were scared. I mean, guys in the recording unit said, "These drum machines are gonna put us out of business. No one's gonna wanna hire a real drummer when they can hire a drum machine." Well, obviously, that didn't happen. Drum machines kinda ran their course, and there were a certain subset of designers – Roger Linn being one of them – who always envisioned a world where drummers were kind of replaced by drum machines. And certain drummers who thought they were hip, like Phil Collins… Yeah! Like, "I'm gonna use electronic drums. I'm still gonna be the drummer, but I'm gonna hit rubber octagons", and go like… they go like this, but they amplify noise.
So, there was a… these rock drummers, in an attempt to keep themselves… you know, cocaine-y and 80's… they got these rubber drums and rubber gongs and lots of rubber and latex and just… and it's horrible seeing. This is what these drum machines were made for. This is what the DMX was made for. The Linn drum, and all that, F-9000. They were made so that these rock dudes could sit back there and hit rubber.
Well, Rick Rubin was a rock guy, and Rick Rubin was able to straddle those two scenes. And Rick Rubin and Run-D.M.C…. I'm oversimplifying here, but basically… Rick Rubin helped Run-D.M.C. (and Def Jam, for that matter) envision a disco break that never ended. Because the records provided the disco break (you guys studied this… disco)
. So, two records are doing the disco break, but what if the break never ends? What if we can just program the break on the drum machine? Oh, that's... that's awesome, and that's much cooler than having Phil Collins back your rap group.
So, this again, not to harp on the whole idea of "re-appropriation", but these are how it justifies, like… "Yeah, yeah, I'm onto something now!" because… these guys were taking drum machines that were four or five thousand dollars, that were intended for rock use, finding them on the used market in pawn shops (in places like West L.A. Music in L.A.), picking 'em up for nothing, and then using them in a way that they were not intended to be used. The Roland TR-808 was not intended to do a big bass hit in your trunk. That was not its… That was not Roland's intent when they designed it. It was designed to be a human drum machine, and it ended up being the sound of… well, every 2 Live Crew record. Now, how the designer of the Roland TR-808 felt about that, I don't know. He was probably a little disappointed. But as a person who loved hip hop, I was kinda stoked, you know?
So taking these drum machines, like the Wurlitzer Sideman, the DMX, the 909, the 808, that were used… it had EEPROMs inside them, and EEPROMs were these chips. So, you know… Roger Linn and these guys would sit around, and they would have a guy sit with a drum, and they were like, "Okay, hit the snare!" (*schwap*), and then they would sample that onto an EEPROM, a chip, and they would literally put this chip inside the drum machine, and that chip would play the snare (*schwap*). All of these original, early-80's, hip-hop songs that were using drum machines… they were all working with the same chips.
So it was hip hop kinda coming out of disco rap, in my opinion… hip hop hit a little bit of a lull. 'Cause if you go back and listen to any of this stuff, it really all sounds the same. I don't have a… Alex, do you like a lot of early-80s, mid-80's electro-rap songs? ([Alex:] I don't…) Not a huge fan. Yeah, we had subdivisions of hip hop starting at that time. In L.A., where I'm from, on the West Coast, we had a lot of guys with Jheri curls wearing lace, and ([Alex:] We're gonna get to that, yeah.)… you're gonna get to that. That was some scary stuff.
This electronic sound really kinda fitted that coked-up, Jheri-curl, lace, freebase-type thing. It was gearing away from where it started, which was a guy with two turntables plugging into a lightpost or whatever in the streets, and the sound was fundamentally changing. And some of those hip-hop songs, they sound just like any other pop song, Sheila E. song, Prince song, and there's nothing wrong with that. But it was getting away from, you know… ([Thes pounds the desk:] *bump bump TAK uh-bump-uh-bump*) like, a sound… like, something from the streets.
Then, everything changed. Phil Collins actually got behind E-mu and sponsored the next revision of an SP-12. Phil said, "This is great. I'm gonna endorse this machine. You're gonna release the SP-12 Turbo, and it's gonna be the 'Phil Collins' edition." And I had one, and when you turned it on, it said "Phil Collins. 1987."
But the difference between that machine that came… that version of it… was that there was a battery inside it. And E-mu had designed a way, at a very low bit-rate – it was 12 bits, which is like dinosaur stuff – they designed a way that you could, instead of buying EEPROM chips, you could make your own. So instead of having the drummer sit in a big studio and then, with this big, laboratory-grade machine, do the EEPROM and put it in the DMX, now, you could get the SP-12… you could set up your snare drum and sample your snare drum, and put it in an SP-12. And the battery would save it.
So, they thought, "Oh, rock guys are gonna love this because now they can sample their own kit and go on tour, put the SP-12 up on stage, and then drums are gonna sound amazing every night 'cause"… oh, I kinda glossed over that… people hate mic'ing drums. People hate touring with drums. I think this was the main motivation behind these drum machines. If you've ever had to cart drums around for longer than a day (try, like, six months on tour), you'd want a drum machine too! Plus, they get mic'ed differently every night. They feedback. I mean, it's one of the things with a live band that can most easily go wrong, is the drum sound.
So, you know, they were selling this idea, and if you look at the pamphlets from their other years – mid-80s – they had these pamphlets where it's like: "Step Into The Future!", you know. It's laser beams, and… it's like, some chonchy-dude looking dude with a leather tie playing rubber drums. The idea was that, you know… "Step Into The Future: sample your own drums! Play 'em at your show."
Leave it to hip hop to take that invention and say, "Okay, how much sample time is here… alright, there's one second? Two seconds? How can we make this more?... I got an idea! We'll spin the record with our hands!" (*rrrrrr*) We'll spin it, we'll sample it, and we'll slow it back down to where it was. Now, instead of sampling one second real-time, we've just sampled five seconds.
That, right there, was what changed hip hop forever, basically. It changed the sound of hip hop because now, instead of programming the sounds that were there, or programming "one drum, two drum" like this (*boom boom ch!*), now we're taking that Funky Drummer (James Brown), and we're hooking it up to out SP-12, which is not what… that's what… you know, it wasn't intended to have a record player hooked up to it. Guys were hooking it up and then going like this with their hand, spinning it, sampling it, and slowing it down, stretching one second to five seconds, and then, just going like this… (*boom boom chat a-boom boom chat, boom boom chat a-boom boom chat*), and looping the drums like that.
And that was the end of the single-drum-programming drums, for the most part. Once guys figured out that they could sample a break or a record, all bets were off then. That's like '88, '89, and then things started moving really, really quickly. And you really see hip-hop production evolve at this rapid pace because guys said, "Man, if I could do that, I can sample this Rick James song that my mom loves." The idea was that you could use these nostalgic – at least the way I saw it – the idea was that you could use these things that were nostalgic in your community to make hits. What's the best way to make a hit record? Sample a hit record!
And it worked! It worked, you know… How did Vanilla Ice make a really rad rap song? He sampled Queen. You know? Everyone knows "Under Pressure", so as soon as we heard it (*doon doon doon da-da doon-doon*), like… there it is! That's a hit! See? Then he said, "Stop! Collaborate…", you know. That might be before your time. I'm dating myself, I don't know.
But either way, the race was on, then, to take this newest technology in a totally unintended route, and start sampling things. And what happened was it caught everyone off-guard, right? 'Cause the record industry wasn't ready for that. They didn't know this was gonna happen. They had no idea that this unintended effect of looping was now going to start imposing on copyright issues. Couldn't have seen it coming. And for the most part, when it started, they were kinda like stoked, kinda like, "Oh, you wanna sample Rick James? We own Rick James anyways! We own all that music!" So, you know, it's all good.
But then, when they realized that they… that their artists started sampling other record labels' music, it created a real plus there. You can just imagine these guys hearing these records and going, "Oh, crap! You're sampling The Beatles or you're sampling [this or that]."
So, I know you guys have covered a lot of sampling or copyright stuff, so I won't really get into it, but it's important for me to emphasize that the race was on. There's kind of a disagreement, I think, now, as history's getting written on this stuff as to what the effect of all that sampling and all that copyright stuff was. The way I saw it was: it pushed people to dig for records harder because guys eventually ran out of records in their parents' crates.
The first wave of hip-hop sampling all came out of people's parents' crates, and the best hip-hop producers were the people who had parents who were DJs, like Pete Rock. Pete Rock turned around – or Marley – and their parents were DJs or record collectors, so they had every 70's funk record, they had all the soul, they had everything they needed to turn around and make records.
And some guys had one album's worth of good records, and some guys had three albums' worth of good records. One of my… a group that I really like, Black Sheep, they kinda fizzled after their first album, and they pretty much ran out of samples. So guys had to learn how to buy records. They had to learn how to find records 'cause soon enough, you were gonna run out of records in your parents' crates, and you're gonna have to go to the record swap, or you're gonna have to do something, and you're gonna end up needing to buy records.
So around the turn, then, of the 90's, the Phil Collin-… E-mu saw this huge spike in everyone going, you know… and Phil Collins was probably like, "Wait! This is not what I intended! Naw, it's out of control!" So, they deaded that Phil Collins edition thing, and the SP-1200 came out in… uh… the 1200… sorry, I'm fact-checking myself… in, uh, '87? Doesn't say! Uh… I think it was around '89. Let's say it's '89. It won't be on the test. The point is: when the SP-1200 came out… So, E-mu was watching this happen, and they're like scrambling to get better technology. What they needed was more sample time.
But they realized something about their sampler. When guys were speeding it up and slowing it down, it was changing the sample rate. And I'll try and make this kinda really basic: the way these samplers work is they have a bit rate and a sample rate. When you slow down the sample rate, it's like slowing the pitch down. The sample rate is the pitch for all practical purposes. The sample rate wasn't great to start with in these machines. I mean, this is really, really rudimentary technology.
When you sped up a record, sampled it, and slowed it down, your sample rate went down to like… you know… it was like a Casio watch. But it had a sound, and hip-hop guys started to really kinda associate with that sound 'cause it sounded raw, and it sounded like you were breaking the machine. And in a sense, you kinda were 'cause you were breaking it in a way that it wasn't meant to be used.
When you listen to these late-80's, early-90's… the very beginning of the sample stuff… like Ultramagnetic MCs, a lot of the very, very, very early PE ([Note:] Public Enemy) stuff, or some of the other things, it sounds really hard. It sounds really harsh. And it became kinda a defining factor of the sound in the era. But it was also because of the technological restrictions that the sampler was imposing on them. PE was hard as hell, partly because of what they were saying, and a lot… largely because of the music and the noise, and a lot of that was hard as hell because of the sample rates and what they were doing, trying to get all of that stuff out and sampled.
Meanwhile, another company, Akai, which was a Japanese company that was making keyboards was watching people basically raking the dough, right? Because now everyone's starting to buy SP-twelves (SP-1200s), and E-mu's like, "Okay, we need to get a team together. Get the guy that invented the DMX. Get the guy that started this whole drum-rock thing." So they got Roger Linn, who was the guy that started that in the early 80's. And there was another guy, who was an unsung hero who's a friend of mine, named Bruce Forat who worked with Roger Linn and advised him on the stuff. Forat's thing was… Forat was in L.A., and he was going to the parties. He was partying with these dudes, so he had his hand on the pulse. Roger Linn, of course, was still thinking that rock guys were gonna buy his stuff. It would never happen.
So the SP-1200, going back to E-mu, the SP-1200 comes out, 12-bit, some weird sample rate, like 40-something kb-… it didn't really matter. And it had 12.5 seconds of sample time. Gee, that's a lot of sample time, right? 12.5 is a lot, except… it was pre-assigned to buttons, and each button could only use… oh… ([Alex:] Like 3 seconds…) 2.5 seconds ([Alex:] 2.5 seconds.) 2.5 seconds per button. Still, it was a lot more sample time then the SP-12. And here's the best part: it came with a disk drive. This was another huge change. The SP-1200 came with a disk drive.
Why is that a big deal? Because everything prior to that was made in recording studios. Right? Because… if you buy an SP-12, and you make your beat at home in the Bronx in the projects, and you go to carry it to the recording studio, you get to the studio, and you don't have a beat anymore. As soon as you unplug it, the battery or whatever… like… you're running risky. But with the floppy disk, now… guys could be working in the comfort of their own home, and they could be making beats and saving them on floppies, and they could go to the studio with a floppy put the floppy in, and be ready to go. And this is how and why certain machines became prolific.
The SP-1200 wasn't the only sampler that came out at that time… at all. There were lots. Even ASR was getting into the party, you know, Ensoniq, but… I'm making fun of him [Alex] because he used to use an ASR ([Alex:] The best sampler ever made.) Naw, the worst sampler ever made. Sampler allegiance drama here. But the idea that people could use these at any studio, take the disks with them, and go to any other studio meant that a lot of studios were like, "Dude, we gotta get an SP-1200!" So, E-mu's sales were just going through the roof at that time for this stuff.
Finally, Akai got their product ready, which was the MPC-60, and that was designed by Roger Linn. They were going at the throat. They were like, "We got the guy who invented this shit" (Sorry.) "…this stuff." ([Alex:] It's alright, it's cool.) I get excited when I tell this stuff… So, they were like, "You think the SP-1200 is great? We got the MPC-60. And the MPC-60 has more sample time and a better bit rate." And people were like, "Ah, that's cool." "And it has a disk drive!" "Ah, I don't know."
What about the sequencer? This is when the sequencer became a big deal. Because, if guys were gonna be using the sampling machines, using them at home and looping drums and this and that, what about the sequencer? The sequencer is what you use to record the music. I have a diagram I made on the airplane today, which is kinda wavy, but I'll show it to you anyway.
The way that the sequencer works is… The sequencer is what records the audio into… in the actual drum machine. And the sequencer's important because… here you go… oh, you can't really see that… ([Alex helps him]) Oh… see, if this was an SP-1200, I'd have no problem. Here's how the sequencer works: the… all these drum machines were made in 4/4 time… 1, 2, 3, 4. They had a tempo that you would set, the standard tempo that came with it was 120 bpm, but you could adjust it to whatever you wanted.
And the sequencer was basically… if you think of it like a blank piece of paper… but this wasn't just a blank piece of paper. It was a grid. You could only put your music, your pad, whatever you played, on a portion of that grid. And the MPC-60, their tagline (the way they sold it, Roger Linn's big idea) was: that grid was about 20 or 30 times the resolution of the SP-1200 grid. The MPC-60 grid had 256 tics per cycle, which means that, if you were to sample… if you were to put a quarter note in, so… imagine this is a count, so… 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2… like that. You have all this resolution between here to move it around. SP-1200 can't do that. SP-1200 said, "Oh, you want 1, 2, 3, 4? You get 1, 2, 3, 4, and that's it!"
The MPC… the idea behind the sequencer on the MPC was that, not only can you lay down your notes, but you can slide them around this axis. And Roger Linn still dreamt of drummers using this drum machine. So he wanted to give them a way to make it sound more natural. It could give it a good feel. And so he made it with more resolution. So, for every quarter note, you have sixteenth notes. So this is like: tss, tss, tss, tss [speeds up:] ts-s-s-s, ts-s-s-s, ts-s-s-s, ts-s-s-s. But you still have all this resolution here. You can still move it around.
The SP-1200, on the other hand, had these, but it didn't have this gray area in between. And it really kinda divided people into two camps, and if people wanted to expand and continue to program things on the SP-1200, they had to learn ways to sort of 'freak it' to make it theirs. Same thing with the MPC. I mean, it wasn't intended to be used for drum programming, and it became that.
So now, the stage was set for the battle between the producers with the SP-1200 and the MPC-60. The 60 also had more sample time. It had more than an SP-1200. And guys were speeding them up, slowing them down, speeding them up, slowing them down. Cypress Hill's first album is a great example of what an SP-1200 sounds like when every track is sampled fast and then slowed down. Now, they sampled "Duke of Earl"; it goes "Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke", and it's [lower voice:] "Duke, Duke, Duke… Cypress Hill (AAAH!), Cypress Hill" Like all that noise, all that stuff… that's the SP-1200 coping with music that it was not intended to make.
It was never intended to sample harmonic music. Just drums. Just translating a trio. Any time you have more than two notes together and you sampled in the SP-1200, it craps out. It goes *kkkk*, but that became a real distinct sound that people associated with hip hop. Roger Linn kinda missed that boat. He tried to make it as clean as possible, but it really did separate people, and then SP-1200 continued to be popular.
Well, Roger Linn was like, "Damn!" and Akai was like, "Damn! We made a better sampler!" 'Cause they did. It was a better sampler. It had better specs, it sounded better, but no one wanted to use it 'cause people loved the sound of the SP-1200. It was hard. SP-1200 is the hardest sounding drum machine to date… still. And they tried to emulate it with software, and you can't. You can't emulate it and SP-1200 because inside an SP-1200, there's a bunch of old Casio watch parts. It's a piece of crap! Nothing will ever sound like that. The A/D converter in it, the resolution, the bit rate: all of these things. It was 12 bits. 12 bits is like… you have way more bits than that… I'll just put it to you like that. People were still using SP-1200s, and Akai's pointing out, "Why? We made a better sampler! No one's using our sampler. We need something. We need an edge on this SP-1200. We need something that better."
And meanwhile, guys were really freakin' the SP-1200. They were like… a year went by, two years went by, they were like, "Hey, what happens if we, instead of using the mono output (this was a mono sampler), what happens if we use these 8 outputs on the back?" They plugged them in, and they were like, "Wait a minute. Output 1 sounds different than Output 8!" You look at the back of the SP-1200, it has… it's so cute. They say "Kick Drum", "Snare Drum", "Hi-Hat", "Tom-Tom", "Tom-Tom", because… they thought, still, Phil Collins would be on-stage, and he would plug it in: "Kick Drum", "Hi-Hat"…
And the filter: the kick drum is at the bottom of the spectrum, and the kick drum has a filter on it. They did that because E-mu was… the SP-1200 was a machine that makes noise. So they filtered the kick drum, so when you run something through the kick drum output, instead of having the full resolution, it sounds like someone took all the treble out of it. It's just "Boom!" Instead of "Ka!", it'd be "Boom!" But if you go all the way up to the "Hi-Hat" output, then it sounds like full band, right? So it's like "Ka! Boom!" Guys were like, "Aw, man! So what happens if we take this jazz loop, and we run it out of the 'Kick Drum' output? It's filtered!"
Now, enter The Low End Theory. Enter Q-Tip. Enter these people taking the SP-1200, these other ideas, and saying, "Hey, what happens if we filter things? So, now we're not just playing the loop back anymore. We're not just sampling it and playing it back. We're actually, like, kinda making something new out of this existing thing, and we're putting it together in a weird way. What happens if we chop this drum hit with this drum hit and then put an 808 underneath it?"
And they're really pushing the SP-1200 to its limits, as seen by the Public Enemy output. Some of the other amazing things… I mean, Premier's first record with Gang Starr is another example: they're really pushing the limits of the SP-1200. And Muggs and some guys on the West Coast, some… the gangster rap stuff, which you guys haven't really gotten to, I mean… these drug dealers were like, "You know what? I'm gonna buy six SP-1200s. I'm not gonna buy one. I'm gonna buy six, and I'll put 'em on a table. I'm gonna hook 'em… I'm gonna connect 'em to each other, so they all… When I hit 'play' on this one, they all play. And now, I got two minutes of sample time off 2.5 second banks. And I got all these outputs now."
And this is how those… this is why the classic West Coast albums that were made on SP-1200s, they are so much bigger and ambitious, in a sense, because guys just had more money coming out of the drug dude. It wasn't one guy in like BK in apartments. It was, like, Dre and them, going down there and just like, "Just give me like six SP-1200s." They were making a lot of money off that lace stuff, and… They could afford it. I meant the music, not the other stuff.
But the thing is… the SP-1200 still had a stranglehold on both the sound and the aesthetic of music, and of course, it was being used in this unintended way, which infuriated… I talked to Roger Linn about this, and Bruce Forat at length, and it kinda pissed them off. They were like, "Dude, really? Really, guys? Rappers? We need to make something better." So, they threw the towel in. They started all over again, and said, "We're gonna make the MPC-3000! It's gonna be the best sampler ever. And we're gonna take into consideration the fact that people are using it for hip hop. We've given up on the idea that guys are gonna be drummers. This is gonna be for hip hop. We're going to put the filtering that the SP-1200 has inside it… we're gonna increase the resolution. We're gonna make it the best damn thing ever, and here's the catch: we're gonna make it stereo. And it's gonna be a 44k, 16-bit."
So, for the first time ever, you could sample in stereo. The first time you listen to Midnight Marauders, compared to Low End Theory… first thing I notice is that it's all in stereo. All of a sudden, hip hop graduates from being mono, down the middle, drums and rapping, to this lush, stereo, musical thing, and it starts getting a little bit more respect in the world. And it stopped being something that was just, like, guys sampling that the record labels could ignore, and started being something a lot bigger then… and that also coincided with the sample issues, really, too.
In a sense, it's one thing to sample… some rock band in your SP-1200, and then when it comes out, it barely resembles them. It's another thing to sample Led Zeppelin in stereo and loop it, and then play it back. And everyone knows it's "When The Levee Breaks", and they're like, "Oh, wait a minute, wait a minute. We can hear our song now. That's us, for sure." And that inadvertently advanced the whole clash of sampling and everything. They had created something that was so good, it stopped hiding what hip hop was doing, and there was less destruction happening. So it was easier for people to see what was really going on. It was easier for the lay person to get it.
And that's one thing with hip hop: if you're not really in it, and you don't really understand it, you don't really get it unless it's made really obvious. It's the difference between seeing graffiti on a wall somewhere and appreciating it and seeing graffiti on a Mountain Dew can. That's when you know someone's getting it. And that's when it stops really being destructive and starts being a commercial machine. Not a machine for destruction, but a machine for commercialization.
And I think that's an interesting juxtaposition because that's when everyone was like, "Oh…" That's the first time you ever started hearing, "Hip hop's dying! Hip hop's dead!" Really, it was because people started really making money off hip hop who weren't really involved in it. Sure, the record labels were making money off of it for a long time. But what happens when you hear a car commercial, and you hear a hip hop song. What happens when Taco Bell has MC Hammer flying through the air with these big pants, parachute pants. Again, probably more my time than your time, but it happened and it was tragic.
All of a sudden, hip hop was all over the place. Like '93, '94, all of a sudden, now, hip hop's everywhere, right? That was like… That's when Queen decides to sue Vanilla Ice. I guarantee you: if they made the Vanilla Ice song on the SP-1200, just straight up, they might not even have caught the fact that it was an "Under Pressure" sample. They might've heard it, and it would've been like, "bom bom bom ba-ba bom-bom". It would've sounded different. And the labels had to make a decision as to whether or not they were gonna… really gonna get behind it or not get behind it. If there was money to be made on it, if it was worth the risk, if it wasn't worth the risk.
And as far as I remember, my personal experience: around that time was the first time I ever really got familiar with the idea of the industry having say over the artistic output of the artist. That was around the time that I decided I'll never want to be on a major label. Ever. And it was probably the idealism of youth to make a statement like that. 'Cause my dad would be like, "Well, that's great, but you're gonna get a job 'cause you're gonna have to put a roof over your head, or you'll be on a major label or something. But you can't just be underground for the rest of your life." Showed him.
The things was… a kind of a line was drawn in the sand, and I really think that the MPC-3000 was kind of a tipping point for this, right? Because when you can hear what's happening, and you know what's happening, then money starts getting thrown around in lawsuits and this and that. So, that was the first time that I ever hearing the term "underground", and the idea that, "Well, what's underground?" What is underground? What is it?
Well, as far as I knew, someone who was "underground" was someone who had no interest in getting play on the radio, no interest in (probably) making money (or it was a secondary thought), and really, most importantly, no interest in clearing samples. Because there were whole records at that point that got made that never came out because of samples that were on them. And the art form was suffering, and people were learning from that.
Meanwhile, you got guys who were on major labels working on records, and they say, "Well, don't sample anything", and they're like, "Well, what do you mean? It's a hip-hop record." "Well, like, don't sample anything." So, some guys were smart, and they said, "Well, we'll chop it up." So, then they pulled the SP-1200 back out again 'cause they knew they could get away with stuff. And instead of just letting the loop play, now the art was to skirt the sample issue by chopping it up, taking just the kick, just the snare, taking the jazz loop, putting four markers on it, and replaying it, and making a musical composition out of it. It's a good way to get around getting sued.
People didn't want their… they didn't want their records to not come out. There were prolific producers at the time who were getting shelved for stuff like this. Large Professor, after making a monumental album… his second record, I think, was… second record after Breaking Atoms? The one on Geffen? ([Alex:] That was his first…) After… well, not as Main Source. ([Alex:] Right, right.) So, Large Professor's first solo album gets shelved. Why? The label didn't think it was gonna sell enough to justify clearing his samples. Which is kind of a slap in the face of everything that hip hop is, right? 'Cause, as far as people knew, hip hop was just making records and making more records.
I have a really rough diagram I made, too. Check this out. This is kind of the cyclical process of hip hop around that time. Can you guys see that? So, guys are going out in the field and getting vinyl, right? They're putting it on a turntable, through a DJ mixer, into their MPC or their SP-1200, then going to a recording studio (most of the time, subsidized by a record label), running it through a mixing console, recording it to tape, then back off the mixing console, on to a master tape, to a mastering engineer, to a lathe, getting plated, getting stamped… end result? More vinyl.
And hip hop starts becoming really self-referential in that sense in the early 90's. You got guys making records, and then… out of other records, and then scratching the record they made out of the other record. So, it ends up being this extreme… and it helped create a sense that you really had to know what was going on to appreciate it, right? If you listen to it and you're like, "Aw, I hear them scratching Premier!" Or, "I hear them scratching a Premier scratch from a Donuts song." You really… it really drew people in, and really made it kind of "underground". And the industry was turning their back on us. They were like, "We think CDs are really kinda what we want to do, and we wanna sell a lot of units" and this and that.
So this "underground" idea, and everyone kind of… I'm gonna tie it up here real clean… so the underground guys were scared of getting sued or didn't care, or they had to do what they did. And I kinda came in at the very end of this. So in 1994, the day it came out, I had saved up, and I bought an MPC-3000. The week it showed up at West L.A. Music, I bought an MPC-3000. And I could've bought an SP-1200. It would've changed my entire career, probably. ([Alex:] Could've bought an ASR-10.) I could've bought an ASR-10, it would've been tragic.
I bought an MPC-3000 in 1994 with money I had saved up delivering food at Brighton Coffee. And I started learning it, and I learned it kinda like it was the back of my hand. There's nothing on the screen… barely. There's alphanumeric. You make music with it with your ears, and… nowadays, a lot of people make music on computers, and there's nothing wrong with that. I personally can't make music while I'm using my eyes. I like to close my eyes and use my ears, my brain, and my hands. The SP, the MPC… there was no information. There was just music, just something to make stuff with.
And all of us who were sampling it were interested in doing is… we knew we had no chance of getting on a record label, right? In '95, in '96, when Double K and I formed People Under The Stairs, I knew we weren't going to get signed, partly because we were high-school students who smoked too much weed. He was fat. I went to an all-boys school. We were a wreck! No one, no record label in their right mind would sign us.
Now, on the other hand, I had a friend – well, not really, I had an associate – named William. He could dance really good, got all the girls… he got signed. Atban Klann got signed by Ruthless Records. Eazy-E signed them. They disbanded, they added a white girl named Fergie, they became Black Eyed Peas. You chose sides. What do you wanna do with your life? You wanna get signed, or do you wanna be underground? He chose one, I don't hold anything against him, I chose the other.
Years and years later, we had a beat battle that was a lot more personal between him and I than people, I think, realized. 'Cause we went back. I was at the same underground clubs he was at, and when he jumped ship and he got signed, we all looked at him and said, "Oh, really?" But then again… he's worth, what? 60 million, 70 million dollars? He the voice of that bird in Rio? I, on the other hand, ate at the Pita Pit today and will be playing with Mac Miller later on, so… It depends what you want out of life, right? But as far as I'm concerned, I'm still caught up in the destruction of my body and my life, and he's doing pretty well, and that's not really hip hop.
The rest of the story is kinda known: made a song called San Francisco Knights, made a couple of records, toured… went on our first world tour in 1998. I graduated college… never got a job after that. I just started touring, and… here I am. Any questions?
How'd you get your name?
How'd I get my name. I used to go to this day care center called Peck Park Day Care in San Pedro, California, and… this was 1983-1984. We had a radio station called KDAY, which played nothing but urban music and rap music. KDAY fan up there… ([KDAY Fan:] 93.5, baby!) No, not that KDAY. 1580 AM. It was an earnest attempt, and you did a good job, but in 1983, it was KDAY, and it was an urban, adult-contemporary format station, and a program director by the name of Greg Mack came on board, and he knew what was going on in New York, and he started playing Run-D.M.C. on the radio there, and we all were like, "Ohhhhhh!" I was like, "What?" I instantly wanted to be that person.
And so we had these camp counselors that would rap. They were older, like… Puerto Rican dudes, Mexican dudes, white dudes, Chinese dudes, "Hey, Mack!" Everyone listens to hip hop, and say, "Hey, you! You rap!" And I was just a kid, so I thought that if I used really big words that I would be… cooler. They were like, "Oh, you a little thesaurus, huh? You a little thesaurus." And so then I was thesaurus, then I was Thes. Then I added a "One" because there was this tagger in L.A. called "Thes" who was getting the crap beat out of him on a daily basis in the mid-90's, and I was like, "No, I'm Thes One. That dude… kick his ass."
But see, hip hop's funny like that because it's just… as big as it got, the underground still, I think, kinda maintained that sense of community. And one of the… there's been moments that Double K and I have had that have been emotional because we've given our lives to this. I hold a family together… I'm probably not as good of a dad as other people, but they ain't gotta drink a lot of beer and tour, so whatever. But there's… my kids, they get it. They're two, they understand. Although, on that note, my wife and I were laughing about the fact that, when they get older, and all my videos are on YouTube, they probably won't get sleepovers at our house, ever. "You're not sending the kids over there."
But anyways, some of the things that have documented success in my life hasn't been the hundred dollars, five hundred dollars, or a thousand dollars I get from doing a show 'cause we still are doing shows with three hundred people or whatever. Nothing ever changes. But, having someone like Biz Markie call me on the phone on… he called me on, if you can imagine this, he called me on April Fool's Day, right? So I'm sitting there in my room, Cambridge House: "Hello?" "Yo! Mr. M-iz-r Thes-Thes One!" I'm like, "Alright, who is this, man?!" "Yo, it's M-iz-r-" I'm like, "Who is this?" "Biz!" I'm like, "No, it's not, man. It's not fuckin' Biz." It took like five minutes for him to convince me that it was Biz. And he was calling me, basically, to say, "I really like your first record." He didn't have to do that. And I thought to myself, "You know what, man? If I'm ever in a position where I'm older and kids are trying to come up and do that, I wanna be the guy. I wanna be the Biz that calls someone out of the blue and says, 'You know what? I feel your record.'"
And we had the same experience with Chuck D. Chuck D… we performed at CMJ a couple years ago in New York, and Chuck D drove down from Long Island, and… of his own accord, got up on stage and was like, "These dudes? These dudes are keeping it going!" And me and Mike were going *crying*, "It's Chuck D!" That's… I know I'm never going to get a platinum. Never going to win a Grammy. I know that. That's my… I've cast my lot. That's my fate. But if Chuck D thinks I'm doing a good job… That's hip hop, right? I think, "We did alright."
How did you and Double K end up meeting?
We should just make a wiki page for this. I'll tell… There is a wiki page for that? Okay, I'll tell… this generation's much quicker than my generation. People are like Wikipedia… ([Lady Student:] It's on your page.) It's on our page. I'll make it quick.
We met in a record store. He went to Hamilton. I went to Loyola. And when I was in school, they'd be like, "Yo, we heard you make beats and everything, but there's this guy at Hamilton who's much better than you." And I was like, "Oh yeah, well… 'F' him." And the same thing was happening at his high school. We met at a record store, and we he walked in, I was like, "That's him?!" I was like, "What's up, man? How you doin'?" I'm all playin' cool 'cause he was big and of… you know… "gangster descent". I was much more humble descent.
We both came from working-class families. We both grew up kind of in real similar ways. He was brought into it… we have a legacy of gangster DJs in L.A. They're really awesome. DJ Aladdin's one of these guys. This guy would cut up the party, right? Then turn around and shoot someone… Like, "Motherfucka!" and shoot 'em! Come back to the party like, "Hold up." He came from that legacy of gangster DJs, right? 'Cause he could either bang really hard or he could be the music god, and that was one good way to not get killed, was to be the guy DJing at the party, not the guy gang-bangin' at the party. But still affiliated…
So, when I saw him, I was like, "Oh, damn. This dude really is like that dude." He also was… He was playing it up a little too, I think. And I had a cassette tape of beats, he had a cassette tape of beats, and we had a little showdown. And then I was like, "Wow, that's really cool. You like Led Zeppelin? That's kinda weird." We talked about things that we liked, and we realized that we… our common interest was music.
Whereas, most of the MCs that we knew, their common interest was themselves. They were like, "I'm an MC. I rap. That's all that matters." They'll rap over anything! "I'm the rapper." And to this day, Mike and I hate rappers. We hate 'em. Because rappers like to sit around and write their rhymes, which is great, but they don't like to make songs. They don't like to make music. They want everyone to hear their rhymes.
Like look at Nas. Nas has made turd after turd after turd. I'm sure there's Nas fans in here. But even if Nas was here, I'd tell him! "Dude, you've made a lot of turds." Nas makes good records when he has a good producer behind him. When he has someone who cares about the music, like DJ Premier or Pete Rock, and says, "You're rhymes are dope, and here's a dope beat." But don't let the MC pick the beat. 'Cause the MC's gonna pick the beat that lets him shine. So the MC's gonna pick a beat that's not even a piece of music. It's just gonna be, like, a clock ticking. 'Cause god forbid anyone get in the way of their majestic rhymes.
Well, we bonded… Mike and I bonded because we were concerned about music, and then… we hated MCs so much, we were like, "You know what? We should just start rapping to cuts. Then we won't have to deal with MCs." And that's how People Under The Stairs started. We weren't rappers.
How do you feel about mainstream rappers (for example, Lil' Wayne) that say they're the best? Does that annoy you, or do you let it go?
Saying you're the best is kinda a part of hip hop. It's kinda… that doesn't annoy me. I think what annoys me is when everyone else says he's the best. I expect a rapper… If a rapper's not telling me he's the best, then I'm kinda like, "Really, dude? Get some self-esteem." Rapping is toasting. It's heritage is in Jamaica. It's heritage is in boasting and commandeering the party. The problem is when bloggers (or somebody) feel like they missed the boat, like what happened with Tyler and them and Odd Future. They're like, "All the bloggers missed the boat!" And then they tried to retroactively be like, "We didn't miss the boat! They're the best!" Then they go way too hard.
We saw them coming up in L.A. It was great. It was just like, "It's more kids doing rap. It's awesome." But then everyone was like, "Oh, my God! We missed it!", and then they overcompensate: "They're the best! They're the best! They're the best!" They did that with Lil' Wayne, too. They're like, "He's the best! He's the best! He's the best!" And Wayne has done some suspect stuff in his life. But Wayne must be the best, right? Because he was able to kiss Baby, and no one cared!! They're crazy! This is hop hop, right? Dude's kissing his label-mate on the lips. If I kissed Double K and ended up on the Internet, we would be a wrap. Maybe we'd have a niche market, but other than that....
Naw, in the back with the blue, and then I need to…
How do you feel… you talked about the bloggers and stuff, and how do you feel that affects the music-making process? Is it like direct feedback, or is it more pressure to… more…
I think one of the… amongst the many things that I think is kinda of a bummer right now about music – but it's not unfixable – is the fact that a lot of artists don't focus on making albums anymore, and there's a subtle art form to making an album, in and of itself. And a lot of it's… if you're sitting around, you're smoking with your friends, and you're drinking, do you really wanna keep clicking on single after single after single? You know, you wanna put an album on. Sit down on the couch, play some video games, let the album sink into you. And I think that's… what's happened is the instant gratification and the echo chamber of the blogosphere has made people focus on song, song, song. Instant feedback: song!
If you ever put all those songs together, they don't make an album. Ten singles an album does not make. An album, like 3 Feet High and Rising or an album like Takes a Nation… these are albums. These were crafted to be albums. And we still try and do that, but because of that, we don't know what to give the bloggers, right? 'Cause they're not gonna sit and… I know they're not gonna sit and listen to the whole record. And iTunes hasn't helped that either. 'Cause iTunes makes more money when people buy songs and not albums. They're more likely to make money, I should say. They don't make more money. But we're being forced into a single song thing: single song, single song thing. And I think it would be really cool if we went back to the album being an event, where we waited for it, and then it came out and we were like, "Ahh!"
And for whatever your take is on Kanye – I know we all have an opinon – I commend Kanye for bringing that back with his last record. Because… Twisted Fantasy? Was it skinny… ([Class:] My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) Yeah, that's the one. Whatever it's called, but it was kind of an event, right? People were like, "Here's the album", and I think people were exposed to it as an album. Sure, some of the songs came out here and there, but when it came out, people listened to it like a record, like an album. And I honestly can't remember a time when a hip-hop album came out and wasn't just a bunch of blog songs. ([Guy in the class:] Highlighter, People Under The Stairs.) Yeah, thanks, man… Lil' Wayne is epic for being song after song after song after song…
Okay, that's it. I'll take you with the PUTS shirt, no doubt…
Two questions, actually: I'm curious, what's your favorite song that you and Double K have made, and who is your favorite artist in the past and the present?
Woo, loaded questions.
Favorite song… it's hard to say what my favorite song is. I cringe when I hear most of the songs we've made. All I hear are the mistakes, and I think that, over the course of my life… maybe on my deathbed, I might make that perfect song. But I don't have one yet, 'cause I don't have a song that I hear and I'm just like, "Aw, man, this is perfect!" I'm extremely insecure about the music that we make. I just don't think that it's really that awesome, but other people like it, and that's cool. But what keeps me getting back to the studio is I'm still trying to make that one track. I feel like sometimes we get close, but there's still room for that.
As far as artists from the past, I'm a huge Michael Jackson fan, James Brown, The Beatles, Zeppelin (who I mentioned)… as far as hip-hop acts go, Mike and I used to love Beatnuts, that was like one thing that we used to talk about a lot… Tribe Called Quest… there's so many. And then there's all the lesser-known groups that I've taken a little bit from… they've all influenced me in one way... and even Latino, like a lot of the Latin New York rappers, like Curious George, Beatnuts… I was like, "Man, this is cool that there's only like six Latinos doing this. This is rad." So yeah, I hope that answers the question.
As far as new music goes, I really like the Tame Impala album that came out. I thought the MGMT album from last year was phenomenal. That's what Mike and I listen to. We listen to a lot of Michael McDonald too. Seriously.
I'm from L.A. too, I went to Saint Monica's.
I was wondering… Yeah, not much (music in football.??)
What do you think about the new rap that's coming out?
I probably don't share the same opinion as most of the old guys in hip hop. I think it's awesome. I want more guys coming up and getting into it. Mac Miller's a good example. We… When the Mac Miller song "People Under The Stairs" came out, a lot of our older fans were kinda like, "Get him!" My take… I was like, "Wow, thanks, man! 'Cause you just gave me, like, 4 more years of this." Mac's audience is 16, 17, 18 years old, and people that are coming up. And when I met Mac Miller – not on this tour, but before – he was like, "Yeah, man. I used to listen to 'O.S.T.' before I even started doing this." And I was like, "Wow, man. I influenced you?! That's weird." Am I old?
But I think it's awesome, right? He can tell the story of that generation. I can't. I'm trying to tell the story of what it's like for Mike and I to keep going in this. He's telling the story of that, right there, right now. And I think we need more people doing that. And I think it's really at stake right now… You got the whole Occupy Eugene movement going… or Occupy Wall Street, right? And Alex and I were talking about what it kinda means for art and music. And we've been… we need to Occupy music and art a little bit. Because you got guys who will go to Occupy Wall Street, right, 'cause they hate the banks and they hate this and that. Then they'll go to a free Scion show and listen to Immortal Technique rap about… ([Alex:] Corporations.)
What's good for the goose is good for the gander in hip hop. You can't take the money from the corporation and then be political about "anti-corporation" or this or that. And I'm not saying Technique is. I'm just saying, in general, Scion, Taco Bell, Nike… all these corporations want a piece of hip hop. For years, they've been wanting it. It's nothing new. But they found better and cleverer ways to get into it and to spread the money around and make money off of people. Scion's a great example. They really want you to buy that car. They want you to buy that car so bad, they're gonna reunite the Wu Tang Clan… or something. You know?
And, you gotta be against that, you gotta be against everything else corporations do too. I don't remember how this has anything to do with what we were talking about.
How did you go about making your first album and releasing it 'cause… I don't know, (where??) did you get started?
Right. I glossed over that sort of thing. When these home samplers came out, like the 60, the 3000, the 1200, there was also an advancement in home recording, which was the cassette four-track. And it would be laughable by today's standards, but when you're fourteen, and you're looking at a Cadillac, it's the most awesome thing ever. It was a cassette tape that you could record four tracks on. Seems like a novel idea, but imagine having that in your room with a microphone. You could record your lyrics and your beat and run them simultaneously! "What? We just made a song! Fuck! Rewind it! Play it again! Oh, snap! Solo the lyrics! Oh!" There were no Pro Tools. There was no computer. There was just these cassette-recorder things and big tape machines.
But we had one of those. I got one when I was a freshman in high school. So, Mike would come over to my house, and he would actually… he would come over and spend the night 'cause I think… I couldn't drive when we first started. I'd just started driving. Our parents were always really supportive of all this. Both my parents and his. And we'd go up in the room, and beat box, freestyle, or whatever. Just be kids, you know? Just have a good time. And we did that for like two years, and then we had a bunch of songs, and they were like, "Hey, you guys should put that out." And we're like, "Naw, man. We're just doing this so other MCs can't rap over our music."
But we ended up putting it out, and then our first single came out in 1997. In 1998, the Next Step album came out. That had "San Francisco Knights" on it, which is weird because it's still one of our most popular songs. So here I am on stage, tonight, performing a song that I made in 1996… still.
And we released it independently, and I got screwed by the distributor. I put all my student loan money into it. I lost $3,600, which was no small chuck of change for me at the time. Tried to sue the distributor… us, Souls of Mischief… I think Gift of Gab… we all lost money from that distributor. We all got a wake-up call: "Oh, you want to be independent? You want to be underground? You wanna play with the big boys and have your stuff in Tower Records or Warehouse? You'll lose."
And everyday, I might lose. Being independent means that, if you wanna make a CD? When you call the plant: "Where's my CD at?" They're busy making Universal… they're busy making Tha Carter IV. They don't have time for you. These are the things that you struggle with, trying to get your music out. The cards are stacked against you, being independent… with everything, for all practical purposes. "Get signed. Get signed. Sign away your life. Sign away your music." And, dude, like… sorry, man, I'll get to you in a second…
My favorite groups don't own their music anymore… like The Pharcyde. I love the Pharcyde. Everything they ever made is sitting in a vault, owned by a bunch of old dudes in West L.A. I know where the vault is. That's not their music anymore, and if those dudes decided that they want to remix it? Take the lyrics out, flip 'em around, play 'em backwards and put 'em over gospel, they can. And Pharcyde can't say anything about it. That really mortified me growing up. I was like, "Dude, no way, man. I gotta hold onto everything." But then, you're not really that famous either.
I was just wondering if you thought that… If you think that the cards are stacked against you as an underground rapper coming up. If the Internet and releasing free mixtapes would help. Do you think that's a helpful way to get your name out? As opposed to trying to sign…
It's helpful, but the cards are still stacked against you in ways that you can't really see. There's a couple of young… "spittas" in my neighborhood that I really wanna help out. I think they have a lot of talent. But I'm always shocked at how they look at, say, laws, right? They send their songs to blogs. And their like, "Man! I don't know why he's not playing our song." I was like, "Yeah, this is a dope song." He's like, "Yeah, we've sent it to 'em two hundred times. They never feature it. They never play it."
What they don't know is that the blogs are all paid. Sure, there's a couple of blogs where it's just one person doing what… writing about what they love, but all the big rap blogs… you have to pay to get on those. You pay. And there's a guy in L.A. that you can pay $2,000 a month to insure that you're at the top of these rap blogs. And most consumers don't know this. They think the blog is just writing about what's good, what they love. It's all paid.
It's all… it's always been a big con on the consumer. The rap fan always has to deal with something from the labels, the consumerism, the money. We lose albums. We need to get together and launch this album because of the labels and sampling. And conversely, when you see these guys on the blogs, don't think they're there because the bloggers love 'em out there… they're not. It's paid.
Would you consider It Was Written and Lost Tapes as "wack" or as real albums?
Depends on what Nas' take is on whether Lost Tapes is a real record or not.
Well, yeah… more so It Was Written, I guess.
I wasn't a big fan of It Was Written. After Illmatic, I heard the second record, I was like, "Really?" Then I heard "Phone Tap" and I was like, "Alright, man." And ever since then, I've also been waiting for Dre's album to come out, and that's… So, we lose, you know? 'Cause what's Dre busy doing? He's making headphones… or he's not, Monster is. But where's the music, guys? If this is really about being a rapper, where's the damn rap album? Where's the tour?
That's why I got respect for Mac and these kids coming up, 'cause there are kids who are rapping. Dre… how much longer is Dre gonna live off of his legacy, when there's young dudes actually making music? Coming out… I'm down with the young musicians, for sure.
Where exactly in L.A. did you grow up? Coming up, how many times did you say that you were "over it"… "I'm giving up"?
How many times did I say "I'm over it"? Like… ([Q'er:] Yeah.) It's been… Alex knows this… It's been a lot of times, and a lot of those have not been me saying it. It's been my family saying it, like "That's it. There's (nothing else??)"…
I grew up in San Pedro, California. It's across the bridge from Long Beach. We have an epic rivalry with Long Beach in Pedro. We're a port town. We're a community… a small community of fishermen, longshoremen, and gangsters. And home of the Minutemen, who's – in my opinion – one of the top punk groups of all time. When I was growing up, the Minutemen were really… when I was really growing up in the early 80's, the Minutemen and Devo and them were doing their thing. And I was really influenced and inspired by the way they handled their thing.
As far as I can remember, the first people that I ever knew that were touring in a band and not a bus were punk groups. Guys going from motor lodge to motor lodge, making their own records, being in control of everything. That to me was a punk idea. That wasn't a hip-hop idea. Hip hop was champagne and gold chain. Punk dudes were putting the work in. They were going town-to-town, playing their music, and that was the same energy that we felt towards hip hop. And I think there is some kin to hip hop in the punk scene, early on.
As time went on in my life, and I got older, and I got more responsibility, there were lots of time that I thought, "You know what? We've made three albums. This isn't really working out. Not getting any more money than I was last year. It's time for me to get a job." And then the next day, I'd get a phone call that would change everything. When that happens one time, it makes it impossible. It's like… my career is like sitting at a slot machine. 'Cause I never know when I'm gonna hit the jackpot again. There's been these little things, like the Chuck D thing.
I woke up one day, and thought maybe our career was like going like this, and it was The Simpsons. They wanted us on the 10-year anniversary… or the 20th Anniversary of the Simpsons. "We're flying you to New York. You're gonna be on The Simpsons with Andrew W.K. and Hugh Hefner." "Oh, really?" It's like, "Hey, family: guess I can't stop making hip hop anymore!" Those things… I kinda like… just keep my head in it. Who knows what can happen at this point? I never woulda thought I would be on tour with Mac Miller. I mean, it's kinda awesome…
You've had your hand up for, like, forever…
What's the most emotional story you've written about in your music?
The most emotional story I've written about… I've written about the music?
…In your music.
…In our music. Oh, god! There's… alright, this is like a People Under The Stairs encyclopedia. I'm sorry if I'm running a little late. ([Alex:] No, you've got ten minutes.) Alright… okay… so, right when our first record came out, we got offered a world tour. That kinda didn't really happen. I should state this better: we couldn't tour the US in 1998. There was no reason to. But Japan was so into hip hop at that time. They were like, "Yeah. We'll take anyone! You got People Under The Stairs? We've never heard of 'em. We'll take 'em." Same thing with Australia, and even more so, same thing with Europe and the UK. So next thing I know, we're buying plane tickets. "What are we gonna do when we get out there?" "I don't know. Let's just go. Let's see what happens."
So, instead of doing shows around L.A. and around the US, we just got on a plane, and we went out there. And we were kids. I mean, we were 18, 19 years old. We found out that mushrooms were legal in Japan. The last thing in the world you wanna do is take two rappers who are feeling themselves, right? 'Cause they're on world tour at 19… and from L.A., you know? You tell 'em, "Hey, you guys. There's mushrooms for sale over here." That didn't turn out good for me at all. I was still high as we flew to Australia a couple days later. I don't recommend… do not do that.
But the reason I'm telling you this story is because we started cataloguing a lot of things… we were put in a position that people rarely find themselves in. And we were meeting a lot of people. We were meeting people who were, like, war veterans in war games. We were meeting people in Australia and Japan who were just like us, and we're like, "Wow, man, this is crazy! 'Cause growing up in America, I was always kinda taught that you guys were all really different than us. You like to drink beer and party too? That's rad!"
And it changed the way I think we looked at writing music. We realized that if we can just write about ourselves and what we go through in our daily life, the next time we come back to Japan, it's gonna go over great! Right? Because it's one thing to rap about being a gang member here in America where people get it, but it doesn't really translate well to other countries. And when you rap about kinda being mad at your parents or people getting drunk or whatever, that does translate to people of other cultures and other places.
So, we really… doing that first tour, we got back from that, and we really started putting a lot more emotional stuff into the record. I got hit by a car… July 3rd, 2000, and… our second record, I wrote a song pretty much about it 'cause I came really close to dying. And really, the song is about how… my verse is really about how you don't think anything could happen, and all of a sudden, something happens.
We've written about our significant others a lot in music, much to their chagrin. Never goes over well. Our parents… we've lost a lot of… being in hip hop so long, a lot of people have died around us. DJ Rob One, who was the first person who ever played our record in a club, passed away. We write about him a lot. DJ Dusk died; we write about him. Hip hop's always been good at commemorating people, you know? It's like… breakdancers get a sweatshirt like "In Memory Of…" and do a headspin on it.
But because it's always been a community thing, like a family thing, I think that the tributes songs are the kinds that commemorate experiences of people in our lives. Those are always the most emotional. People hear it, and they get it because they understand the feeling, but it's really us just getting something off of our chests at that point. And a lot of the music we write is just us getting some stuff kinda off of our chests. And the crazy thing is, is people like those songs! I'm like, "Dude, really? You don't like the party track we made you?" They're like, "Naw. Do 'July 3rd', the song about you getting hit by a car. Do it at the show!" I'm like, "Naw, dude. Not doing that." How would I look, standing on stage, rapping about being hit by a car. That is a bummer.
I already took a question from you.
It's a good one, though.
This better be good, man.
What's your favorite kind of beer? 'Cause I know you and Double K like…
That's a good question. We get… We're always touring and traveling, so one of the ways that we pass time is… I like to try different local beers, Mike likes to try different local… "stuff". So, we kinda have a running log of things, and… I like the Pacific Northwest the best for beer. My favorite beer, if it's gonna be a beer that I'm drinking all day or before a show, it would Full Sail Session in little 11-oz. Bottles.
You have one with you?
What's that? Right. I find that hoppy beers are not good to drink before you rap because you start burping up hops on stage, which is kinda rank, but… and they make your breath stink. So I learned, after years of (partying and??) touring, don't get IPAs for the show… or after, really, 'cause you'll end up the fat guy on the tour.
Hope that answered the question. I don't drink forties anymore. I used to back in… high school. Like, anyone should graduate from them… you guys are all in college, you shouldn't be drinking… Keystone, St. Ides, Natty Ice...
Who's the person you've met that's you've met that's really been the most impactful?
The question was "Who's the person that I've met who's been the most impactful?" Damn, so many people have – everyone, our family – have had an impact on what we do. It's been…
Probably Double K 'cause… I tried that… Actually, on the new album, I tried to capture that feeling. First of all, I'm not gonna be the guy who stands here and quotes himself, but I said something to the effect of… something to try to explain that feeling that… What are the chances that we would meet and then make this group? I'm not a religious dude at all, but if I was, I would think maybe that was an act of God 'cause our lives would be totally different right now. And not for the better.
Earlier, you talked about the destruction as a part of hip hop. Do you think that artists, like Nas and Wu Tang on Illmatic and 36 Chambers… do you think that they'll always be living in that shadow of what they did?
Absolutely, because there was so much destruction happening on those records, right? 36 Chambers… if you ever hear the stories behind the recording of those records… they were literally destroying things… studios. They peed in them. I'm serious. These dudes were gnarly dudes. Make no mistake about it. Anything you think is tame compared to what was actually happening during the recording of some of these classic records. And I've talked to the engineers that were there, and they're just like, "Aw, god! God, I need a drink if we're gonna talk about this." It's the studios that are worth millions of dollars, right? And all of a sudden, you hear this… twelve dudes, (stacked??) with their posse, and… rap ended up getting a really bad name because of that sort of stuff.
But then again, those are amazing records. And I'm too shook to destroy things like that, so I'll probably never make a record that has so much of… just an aggressive energy. You feel it as soon as you hear it, and you know what time it is. But behind the scenes, they really were so… Ol' Dirty Bastard, especially, really was…
Any other questions… about hip-hop gossip? Yeah. That's you!
I saw you on YouTube on The Price is Right.
Yeah, I was on the Price is Right…
What was that like?
It was kind of a trip, man. I don't know… Bob Barker smells like cash money, you know what I'm sayin'? Sometimes, he carries in his pocket… he has all this bonus money for people, right? But still new money, its new money, it's that like building, papery-smelling money, so that's what he smells like.
And the way that the cameras pan: I was like… I was kinda having a mushroom flashback or something like that. I got up there, and he asked me to bid on a turntable, and I was like… I leaned on the table, and I was like… "Really? A turntable (for me??)?" I told Bob, like, "Yo, it was…" – while Rod Roddy was announcing – I told Bob, like [under his breath:] "It's $150." They were like, "80 dollars: higher or lower?" I was like, "Higher! [under his breath:] It's $150, I know exactly…" I had the damn turntable!
So, I won all the games that I could win. The wheel was pure chance, so I lost, but I won a washer and dryer set, a green couch set, a collection of English literature, turntable… I still have all those things. In fact, if you ever come to my house, you can sit on my green couch, wash your clothes in my washer/dryer…
You guys are too questionable…
What was (the best life experience??), like, for you?
Oh, man. I mean… there's been a lot of great moments. It's tough to say, man. It's tough to say. I would say, to date, being on The Simpsons 'cause there's not many people in the world that can say that. But, who knows what'll happen tomorrow. I think, (on that point??)… KDAY, one more.
Favorite place to late-night grub in West L.A.? 'Cause I'm from there too.
You realize that alienates the majority of the class. I'll tell you the best late-night grub ever in the whole world. Ever, ever, ever. Alright, there's two. One is in Soweto. There's this… in Soweto, where the dudes live – not where the tourists go – but in Soweto, there's this place where they sell (koetog??). And a (koetog??) is a quarter loaf of bread. They cut the middle out, they jam it with French fries, and they put this Peri-Peri hot sauce on it. So it's bread with French fries and hot sauce. So, standing there in Soweto with the dudes that were from there that rap, and eating that, I felt whole. I was like, "This is amazing."
Have you ever been to Fat Sal's?
Fat Sal's? No, I've been to Fatburger.
It's in Westwood. It has these crazy sandwitches with French fries and chicken tenders and mozzarella sticks…
Alright, I'll have to try that… that's good.
I'm curious what your specific formula is for producing records.
I can't tell you. I don't one.
Do you just listen to records? What do you do first? Do you sample or…
I dance a lot. Seriously, I dance a lot. I'll be at the studio, and I'll be like… I'll start dancing! And the part that makes me jam the most, where everything's in the pocket, that's the part I wanna sample and use. And I keep dancing while I'm making the beat. I stand up, and I jam. Then it's done, and if I can still kinda like jam to it, then… that's my formula, man. My dad was kind of a dancer, and I think I still like people who dance. Dancing, drinking, partying: that's what life's all about, right?
Alright, guys, have a good night!