How many questions can you ask in fifteen minutes? That’s the challenge when told you’re getting a quarter hour with Prince Paul. Having so much to discuss wasn’t helped by the fact that Paul turned out to be one of the chattiest and most intelligent guys I’ve ever interviewed. Also, he takes the prize for being the nicest, and that’s not just because he refuses to use cuss words. Paul was getting ready to accompany De La Soul to Australia on their 20th Anniversary De La Soul Is Dead tour, so it was a good opportunity to ask about the early years he shared with Dave, Pos and Maseo. It was also a nice time to pester him about that film for Prince Among Thieves that he promised in the liner notes. – Matt Shea

Where are you talking to me from?

I’m at my house in Long Island.

More than a mere producer of their early stuff, De La Soul cite you as a mentor. Do you remember when you first met those guys? What about them caught your attention?

I think that one thing about them that definitely caught my attention was that they were not settling to be like everybody else. We had similar points of view, as far as we felt about music and just how we were seeing the hip-hop scene at the time. It’s funny because in hindsight everybody’s saying, ‘Aww, that’s the golden era,’ but there were some bad records coming out then too (laughs). It was like, ‘Oh god! The same old records with the same sound,’ and we were both at the same time searching for something different, something exciting. That’s definitely one of the first things I noticed about them, is that they were more or less trying to push the scene forward as opposed to trying to do something that everybody else was doing and I respected them for that.

You were with the guys from 3 Feet High and Rising to De La Soul is Dead, and then of course onto Bulhoone Mindstate. But talking about … Is Dead, was it a surprise or a concern to you when the guys came in wanting to really do something so different from what had made them successful?

Um, no, not at all, because I was trying to push them even further, so I was onboard with whatever they were doing. You gotta understand: we didn’t go in there saying, ‘Let’s do something different!’ We thought differently so it automatically kind of came out that way. But there were certain things that we would stay away from that we thought were cliché. Like everybody was sampling James Brown at the time – like, a little bit is okay, but it became an overload. There were certain ways people were programming drums and certain sounds, so we just strayed away from it, you know? I think that was the main thing behind the sound at the time.

The album went on to receive a lot of flack at the time but it goes without saying that it’s been critically revised. It must be satisfying – both in terms of being a producer and a mentor – that 20 years on you’re touring the album together to places as far flung as Australia?

I mean it’s pretty crazy man, because we kinda put ourselves out there to hang, musically. There was nothing to base it on. We couldn’t go, ‘It’s almost like such ‘n’ such’s record.’ It was a first time thing, so it’s kinda nice that it holds the test of time, and who would have thought – I didn’t think that those records would have gone as far as they went, actually. It’s kinda a surprise, you know?

Is that culture of mentorship strong in hip-hop at the moment?

Not really. It seems as though the younger generation of hip-hoppers don’t really revere their elders. Now mind you, I wasn’t that much older than them. I was only like a year older than Dave, who was the oldest guy in De La Soul and it’s just that when you’re in high school: ‘I’m a senior! He’s a sophomore!’ (laughs) So, you know, I appear to be older but really we’re all around the same age, it’s just that I happened to have a little more experience from being with Stetsasonic, you know? Nowadays, unless you’re somebody like Dr. Dre or somebody who’s really successful, a lot of kids aren’t really tying to hear you. They’re basically going by dollar signs. ‘What? How much money he make?! Who would listen to him?! Whadda he make? What?!! You gotta be kiddin’ me – I’m not gonna learn anything from this dude.’ It’s a weird kind of thing, you know?

Those early De La albums spin the head when it comes to all the samples you used, Paul. The beats involved use so many different elements, how did you know when they were finished?

You know, it’s a collective effort. So, when you got four guys including myself who are avid music lovers and music collectors, the process was really just us going, ‘Oh, you know, that’s crazy! I’ve got something for that!’ The next day you listen to it back and you’re like, ‘Yo! I got something for that!’ You add it to the record and then the next day someone else is like, ‘YO! I got something ELSE!’ So, things would just automatically go on and on and on and on, to a point where you’re like, ‘Okay, that works.’ Everybody would collectively say, ‘Yeah, that’s right.’ I think the key to our sampling back then was just putting things in key, and that’s where hip-hop was a little different for us, like a lot of people would layer samples but they would just randomly put ‘em in. Ours was like, ‘Let’s put a whole bunch of things in, but let’s put ‘em all in the same key so that it musically blends together,’ and that kinda made us sound different as well.

The last album I listened to that you produced was Montezuma’s Revenge – it’s very boom-bappy, very different from your De La stuff. If all samples laws disappeared and you could do whatever you wanted again, would you be interested in reviving that multi-layered sampling style?

Yeah, I think it’d be fun. When I did the Souls of Mischief record: it’s weird because we actually finished that record, it was done, in probably 2007, so it came out way later. The concept of that record was that it was supposed to sound like a throwback record, like my idea was, ‘What record shoulda came out right after 93 ‘til Infinity? What record shoulda came out?’ So I was trying to recreate that, but nowadays as far as sampling and layering and stuff, I think it would be great. What killed the art was that sampling got really expensive. It was really hectic. You know, you’d do a record and the next thing you know somebody’s come out and gone, ‘Aye! I want 100 per cent of your publishing, AND I want you to pay me $20,000 for the master,’ and you’re like, ‘Woah! That’s crazy!’ Now, what happens if you have other samples on top of that? And somebody else is saying, ‘I want 50 per cent!’ Well, there’s only 100 per cent to go round. It comes to a point where you just shrug your shoulders, say, ‘Eff it.’ And then you’ve just gotta trash it, or put it out as a promo thing.

The big project for you after Bulhoone was Gravediggaz. That was a major shift for you sonically; did you approach that first album the same way as your De La stuff?

Well I guess you could tell the approach was different. It was just a period of depression, I think, because I did the De La records and had this label deal with Def Jam and everything was just goin’ badddd! I never intended that record I did to get a lot of praise and to do great, but when all of a sudden you’re [hearing] like, ‘Oh, he’s aight.’ I went from, like, everything I touched turning to gold to everything I touched being just ‘aight’. It was aiight? Come on!! I was like, ‘Wha? What happened?! I’m the same person!’ And it’s like, ‘Yeah-yeah-yeah, he’s whatever.’ So I thought, ‘I’m gonna put my powers together with some other guys that everybody was talking about the same way, way before RZA became The RZA, and Too Poetic and Frukwan. So, it was cool. We kinda like put our superpowers together, like, ‘We’re gonna show ‘em!’ It was definitely a different vibe, where I was just glad to be there: high-fiving each other: ‘Wow! What’s gonna happen? This is fun!’ It was definitely different.

Would you guys ever consider getting the band back together so to speak, and doing another fully fledged Gravediggaz LP?

You know, it’s kinda tough for me because Poetic’s not here, and he was a very integral part to the whole process. But RZA did bring to my attention the idea of putting the group back together and actually what’s weird is, you know, talkin’ about Australia: ‘We’ll go to Australia and do this tour.’ He specifically mentioned Australia and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll think about it. Let’s figure it out.’ But, you know, that was a while ago. He’s busy doing stuff and going all over the place so I’m not gonna call him and go, ‘Yo, what’s up with that?!’ I just kinda figured it was a nice conversation (laughs).

Whatever happened to the Prince Among Thieves film? I know it was in the liner notes and on YouTube there are a couple of videos that look suspiciously like trailers…

Yeah. You know, the weird thing is that I approached that whole album and Tom Silverman from Tommy Boy and was like, ‘Yo. Let’s do this low budget film,’ and they just looked at me like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ I talked about how the record was different and they were like, ‘Yeah, the record’s different. It’s alright. Whatever.’ So they really showed no interest in it, so I never got the budget to do it. Then Chris Rock had the rights to it and we were supposed to rewrite it, and then he, um, became Chris Rock! Suddenly he was famous and then other things came up, so it kinda got shelved. But here it is, I get asked this all the time: ‘What happened?!’ And I’m like, ‘Ughhh,’ and then just shrug my shoulders, ‘Yaaah, I dunno!’

You and Breezly Brewin seemed to really click on that project. Have you guys ever thought about working together again?

I talk to him every once in a while. You know, he’s a teacher now and so he’s all grown up. But I put him on this project that I recently started and now completing with my son called, Negroes On Ice (laughs). Breeze is actually on there and he sounds really, really good. He’s a very underrated guy, man: it’s almost a crime.

Anybody I chat to about that talks about how he held his own on an LP full of talent…

Yeah, he’s a great talent, man.

You’re back touring with De La Soul so maybe it’s brought it into relief for you: do you have a favourite De La tune?

Not really. It’s funny: all the songs that we’ve done again and even the ones I started with them – I dunno – they just hold a special place in my heart. Stakes Is High we didn’t work on together, but that might be my favourite album of the guys’. We started working on that together but that’s when we parted ways so we never completed it together, but I just love that album – it’s great, man.

Looking ahead, what are the plans for 2011?

I got the play that I wrote with my son called Negroes on Ice. I’m looking to release the actual audio portion of it on Father’s Day – we actually did a few runs of the play in December and we plan on taking it and touring it probably at the end of the year. I’m excited – I’m a playyyywright! (laughs) It’s fun. It’s real bizarre and a bit dumb, but it’s nice to write with an 18-year-old kid because you can just be as stupid as he is (laughs).