In "The Driveby," one of several side-splitting skits on storied hip-hop producer Prince Paul's clever new concept album Politics of the Business, Paul finds himself confronted on the street by a hyper, exasperated fan. "I did the worm, man. I used to break-dance, man. I fuckin' popped, locked, and rocked, man. What I got to do to get in the game?" the fan whines in a raspy, manic, deranged voice. "I drove the Bentleys. I drove the Neons . . . I did the Dirty South, man. I did Cee-Lo, we ate grits together . . . What I got to do to get in the game?"
The amusing laundry list of hip-hop fantasies and clichés goes on for more than a minute, but for all this character's questioning, Paul, the 16-year industry veteran, seems to have no clue how to answer. He's not really in the game anymore, either.
"I try to be respectful. Everybody has a dream," says Paul from his home in Islip, New York. "But I'm having a hard time as well. It's not like I'm part of the Roc-a-Fella camp and I can put up a whole lot of money . . . It's hard for me."
It's especially hard for Paul now, at a time when the major labels are becoming increasingly nonresponsive to their artists. Born Paul Huston, the legendary producer made his mark with old-school jazz samplers Stetsasonic and was the crafter of De La Soul's psychedelic classic 3 Feet High and Rising. He is widely credited with expanding the sampling palette of hip-hop to include disco, roller-park funk, and all things non-self-important. He's also generally credited with making the skits between songs a crucial element of the record. But like a lot of creative types, he's suffered in an industry increasingly focused on the bottom line.
Paul made Politics of the Business in 2001, finishing it right before his longtime label, Tommy Boy Records, threw up a financial white flag and retreated from hip-hop, leaving Paul in the lurch. His previous record, 1999's A Prince of Thieves, had been universally lauded by critics for its daring structure -- the album, to borrow Paul's term, was a "hip-hopera," a story of two friends who dream of hip-hop success and a drug deal to fund the dream gone bad, tied together by hilarious skits, cameos by Big Daddy Kane and Kool Keith, and weird, diverse beats. The album showed Paul at the top of his game as both a hip-hop intellectual and a musician. But the record sold a disappointing 100,000 copies, and that, Paul says, made him a liability.
"I approached Tommy Boy after I released A Prince Among Thieves and said, 'Where's the love? Can I get a video, can I get a T-shirt?'" he says. "They said, 'You need to put more singles on your albums. It's too artsy. It's for the backpacker kids.' I said, 'Yo, I thought you told me to do what I wanted to do.'" Paul recycles that conversation in Politics' opening skit, with over-the-top comedian David Chapelle playing the exec.
Frustrated, Paul immediately set out to make Politics, which is irony exemplified -- an album of songs plastered with gripes against the perceived shallowness of the music business, marked by beats that sound exactly like the work of Dr. Dre, the Neptunes, and other favored hitmakers. "So What?", with its laid-back guitar, acid-tinged keyboard effects, and use of melody, is classic Dr. Dre G-Funk -- so much so that Paul ought to consider paying Dre a royalty. Another track, "Beautifully Absurd," goofs on overwrought hip-hop soul, with help from singer W. Ellington Felton.
"It comes from hurt, man," Paul says of his motivation. "Practically every record I've ever done came from hurt. At some point, somebody hurt my feelings. A lot of times, I won't chew you out or curse you out, but I'll make a record about it."
To Paul's twisted delight, Tommy Boy liked Politics, but the label's struggles changed Paul's revenge script -- the album wasn't released until last month, on the independent Razor & Tie Records. "So I guess the joke is on me," he says, laughing. In more ways than one: More than a few of the hip-hop enthusiasts, critics, and activist types who normally dig Paul's music have struggled to grasp the new album. They hear the commercial beats and see Paul's joking comments in interviews, calling the album's sound "millennium jiggy," and believe that he's either lost a step or just sold out. Rolling Stone gave the album only a three-star review, taking it as a literal piece of work.
"Irony has definitely been lost," says the perpetually sarcastic Paul, 36. "I'll be the first one to admit it. Sometimes, I give people more credit than they deserve, because I think they're gonna get it. We're in the age of CDs, and people skip through stuff. When the album was done, I smacked myself in the head and said, 'You idiot!'"
To compensate, Paul drafted a lengthy set of liner notes, explaining in detail his frustrations and what he's trying to convey with all that seemingly wack music on Politics. Listen to the record, however, and it's not too hard to discern the album's theme: Hip-hop is as bankrupt as it's ever been.
"All these records the majors are putting out now aren't really rap records," he asserts. "They're designed to be pop records. Everything's so limited now, and to me, that makes it look a little bleak. It's a sad thing. I used to listen to stuff on the radio and be inspired."
From here, Paul says he'll move on to act more like the Prince Paul the "artsy crowd" expects and less like a curmudgeonly hip-hop uncle. He's busy working with Dan the Automator on a follow-up to their dazzling 1999 record as Handsome Boy Modeling School, So . . . How's Your Girl? And, he says, he's brewing up another concept album, though he won't divulge his ideas yet.
For now, he's happy to have gotten out of his system the anger he feels toward the modern-day hip-hop game that's left him staggered. "This is a record that I had to make. It was killing me," Paul says. "I didn't want to be on my deathbed in my 80s and say, 'I should have made Politics.'"