Prince Paul, the production maestro behind such acts as De La Soul, Queen Latifah, and Big Daddy Kane, is hip-hop’s most cinematically minded auteur. Throughout his career, he’s cast a motley crew of comedians, actors, and musicians—from Scottish new New Wavers Franz Ferdinand to comedian Chris Rock—to play roles in the grand narratives of highly conceptual records. In one especially audacious skit on Paul’s second album, White People, just released with fellow producer Dan “The Automator” Nakamura under the joint moniker Handsome Boy Modeling School, Jay-Z is playing himself, chatting up a contestant on a faux Dating Game in that unmistakable “Brook-lawn” accent. Jay-Z gamely punctuates his walk-on with self-satisfied “hah-hahs” and an offer to his potential mate of “the finest drink, and of course it’s gonna have ice in it . . . and I don’t mean frozen water!”
How did Paul convince hip-hop’s most outsize ego to send himself up? He didn’t, actually. “I cannot reveal the source of the impression, but I can confirm that it is an impression,” Paul says with a mischievous laugh. “It’s bugging everybody out. When [Atlantic Records Group president] Julie Greenwald heard it, she said, ‘I gotta play this for Jay.’ ” And what was Jay’s response? There is a long, nervous pause. “I haven’t heard from Jay yet. But I’m sure I will.”
Jay-Z might not appreciate the joke, but there’s a good chance that he won’t mind being lampooned by Paul. Though he’s just 37 years old, Prince Paul—born Paul Huston in Amityville, Long Island—is already revered as a godfather to the genre, mentioned in the same breath with older hip-hop icons like Grandmaster Flash and Kool Herc. He first took to the turntables at 11 years old, and ever since, Paul has remained the hip-hop scene’s most adventurous producer, shaping and reshaping the music according to his gonzo sensibility.
Paul was the first producer to include short, theatrical skits on hip-hop records, even though he now is more than a little hesitant to claim the credit, since the skits have turned into compulsory items on rap records, descending in the process to third-rate versions of Cheech & Chong–style stoner humor. “My skits were made to explain the album,” Paul says. “Now it’s ‘My album’s done, I need the skits.’ That’s really corny.” And he’s one of the few hip-hop producers to venture successfully outside the genre, helming Chris Rock’s Grammy-winning 1997 comedy album Roll With the New, which featured the spot-on P. Diddy parody “Champagne.”
But being so far ahead of the curve—and casting a satirical eye on a form of music that takes itself very seriously—has made Paul into something of a stealth hip-hop legend. A music-industry naïf when he signed on as the D.J. and producer for hip-hoppers Stetsasonic in the mid-eighties, Paul relegated to the band’s lead emcee, Daddy-O, the lucrative songwriting credits to its now-classic (and much-sampled) song “Talkin’ All That Jazz” under the mistaken belief that only lyricists could stake a claim to them. He also looked on helplessly as the “horrorcore” sound of the Gravediggaz was hijacked by lame imitators like the Flatliners. “I was crying down in my basement,” Paul admits. “Gravediggaz was meant as this great metaphor for lost souls, and we couldn’t believe it when it was turned into this schlocky devil-worshipping thing.”
While this sort of opportunism has made a lot of hip-hop into a soundtrack for the success ethic, Paul’s music has always sprung from loss. His 1997 solo album, Psychoanalysis (in which Paul cast himself in the role of Freud), was made “after Gravediggaz faded away and I thought everything was over for me because I couldn’t get anyone to rhyme on my tracks.” Paul’s most powerful post–De La Soul albums, 1999’s A Prince Among Thieves and 2003’s Politics of the Business, are both scathing statements about corruption on the streets and in the music industry.
But Paul seems to understand instinctively that his great records—De La’s Soul’s 1989 debut 3 Feet High and Rising and the Gravediggaz’s 6 Feet Deep, specifically—are not just shining musical moments but actual hip-hop history. “The first Gravediggaz album is the best project I’ve ever produced,” Paul says proudly. “I think people are just catching up to it now, more than ten years later.” Indeed, it’s impossible to imagine the foreboding visions of Mobb Deep’s Hell on Earth or even Eminem’s funereal new single “Mosh” without the Gravediggaz. And the wild-style sampling of 3 Feet High (Hall & Oates, Johnny Cash, Steely Dan, and School House Rock themes are among its sources) has made the record the most potent symbol of hip-hop’s pre-gangsta golden age. It was a time, Paul says now, “when actually knowing something was considered cool and where emcees were real articulate.”
The gangsta revolution has also meant fewer production jobs for Paul, as well as confrontations with record-company executives who don’t grasp his sense of humor. Paul’s most recent record with Chris Rock has been delayed from its initial release date in August by its label, Universal Music. “I think what’s bothering people is that there are parodies of certain musicians—I won’t name names!—that are making some people uncomfortable,” Paul explains. “It’s like [adopts stuffy exec voice], ‘Hey, I go golfing with that guy’s A&R guy. Don’t go making fun of him.’ ”
It’s record-company hassles like these—as well as the ascendancy of a cadre of young producers like the Neptunes, Just Blaze, and Kanye West—that are forcing Paul to consider retirement. “Am I needed anymore?” he asks. There is a long pause. “I don’t know. I used to think that I made a certain contribution to hip-hop, but now I’m not sure.” But Paul again rallies to explain that he’s primed to take a fresh shot at extending his legacy. “I’m going to do one last album as Prince Paul,” he promises. “I’m going to try and change the world one last time.”