“Rappers in General are like Peter Pan”: An Interview with DJ paWL

The Hangar 18 DJ-turned-filmmaker talks his new doc and tour life opening for Murs, with Zilla Rocca
By    April 16, 2015


The term “adult rapper” is an oxymoron–it’s unfathomable to picture your favorite MC from high school updating his life insurance and picking up the kids from soccer practice. Rappers by nature are always late, flaky, bad with money, and cannot be yanked away from their Playstations. Alas, maturity and stability are rarely expected nor valued from any emcee holding the mic like a scepter. A couple years ago I put out this song “Never Tell Them You’re a Rapper.” It’s about the awkward conversation that comes up in real life anytime you meet someone at a dinner party, at the airport, at a cousin’s wedding and they ask you what you do. Every rapper has experienced this. When you become an adult, it becomes more painful and silly, and you find yourself meekly responding, “Yeah . . . I umm . . . I rap, you know? Like Jay-Z.” Being a rapper as an adult, and explaining it to other adults, elicits the knowing look of walking out of the barber with frosted tips: I’m sorry you’ve made that decision.

Paul Iannacchino Jr, formerly DJ paWL of Hangar 18, is the first former Def Jukieto to walk away from his decks and pick up a camera (check his remix of Aesop Rock’s “No Jumper Cables”). His first film Adult Rappers asks the question, “No seriously, why are you still rapping at this age?” to indie friends and peers like MURS, Eternia, Open Mike Eagle, and POS. Funded by Kickstarter before it became (un)fashionable, and available for purchase or rental at Vimeo, Adult Rappers joins the ranks of Stones Throw’s Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton and the Def Jux’s Revenge of the Robots as one of the finest meditations on independent hip-hop from the vantage point of emcees becoming silver foxes. — Zilla Rocca

How long were you DJing and producing before you discovered an interest in film?

Paul: I’d say film (movies) came first actually. I’ve always been a movie buff for as long as I can remember. Music came along later, but is/was as big an influence on me creatively . . . I mean back in the American Top 40 days before I discovered hip- hop. I was the kid who would sit in his room and draw for hours listening to records. The discovery of my Mom’s 45’s is still a powerful memory for me. So, long answer to a short question–music & film go hand-in-hand for me. The advent of MTV sealed the deal. We didn’t have cable growing up so I remember going to visit my grandparents and just being transfixed by music videos.

What influenced you as a DJ and producer compared to what influences you now as a director?

Paul: Kubrick, Coppola, Scorcese, John Hughes, Kurosawa, Richard Donner and Ridley Scott are names that are as important to me as Run DMC, EPMD, Duran Duran, Steve Miller, AC/DC, The Beastie Boys, Rick Rubin and Rakim. The older I get, the difference is just what strikes a chord and how it resonates.

What sparked the idea for Adult Rappers specifically? Why did you decide to shoot a film about the taboo nature of aging in hip hop?

Paul: Pretty simple: I’m aging. I love hip-hop. As I get older, I confront my own issues with being a Dad and a creative person and someone who will still unabashedly bump EPMD or Madvillain in the mini-van. The subject matter was pretty front-and-center for me. If art is a poor man’s psychiatrist couch, then this film amounts to many hours on the couch; it was me confronting my own age and middling music career, and then sorting out what I was feeling.

Second, I was watching lots of friends and acquaintances do the same. We were having these conversations so it was pretty topical. The name came first, which sparked the idea. I was on set working and a dear friend (and one of the DP’s on the film) Sam and I were on a break when my phone rang. It was someone calling me to inquire about a beat CD I’d probably given them 10 years ago . . . the old “What’s up with these beats?” call. I hung up and told Sam the story and we joked that I had too many “adult rappers” in my life. Viola. The idea was born.

Why are adult rappers fascinating?

Paul: I have to quote Jimmy JAMS Jolliffe here. “Rappers in general are like Peter Pan . . .”

The rappers you interview in the film range from NY guys like Lou Logic and RA the Rugged Man, to Rhymesayers cats like Slug and POS, to West Coast legends in the indie field like MURS and Luckyiam. Were you friendly with all of the rappers before or were there any you didn’t know but sought out specifically for the film?

Paul: I started by reaching out to heads I knew personally, then working out in concentric (rap) circles from there. People would cosign or get interviewed and put me in touch with others. I had people cold call cats on our behalf–you name it–we tried it. At one point Jay Electronica started following me on Twitter so I would tweet to him weekly just to put the offer out there. Joking of course. But not if he responded!

Over the course of several years, how did you shape the narrative of the film for the final cut?

Paul: The best feedback I’ve heard as people see it is “I didn’t want it to end.” I think it’s the perfect length. We honed-in on a 60-minute cut and then tinkered once we had the broad story arc . . . and I stopped shooting finally, which I didn’t want to do. I could still be shooting this! (if someone else would chase down rappers, that shit is a full time job).


My editor and I would try to get together in the same room to work, pretty much after every shoot to move it along in chunks. Then he would work on it alone for a time until we’d have more interviews to work in, or he had more questions than answers and we needed to be in the same room to hash out the story further. My wife and I had our third child amidst all this, too. We were hashing out the third act at that point so Pat (my editor) came out to Wisconsin in the dead of winter and set up in my basement for a few days so we could keep working. That guy is my spirit animal.

Was there anyone you were hoping to interview for the film that you couldn’t?

Paul: Of course, but the journey is the story as they say. They say that right? It’s hip-hop so some interviews fell victim to rap o’clock. Some to schedule conflicts and some folks were just not interested. At the end of the day I love the cross-section of cats we have and I’m forever in debt to them for sharing their stories and their insights in such an honest way.

J-Zone and your partner ALASKA in Hangar 18 both have been very honest about the moment they knew they didn’t want to do music for a living any more. Was there a specific moment for you when you decided you needed to try something else?

Paul: I have to tip my hat to both of those cats because without them there’d be no film. We wouldn’t be talking right now. Tim (ALASKA) is like my brother from another, and beyond the honesty, and his story, he helped me keep this project afloat as much as anyone. He’s one of the biggest behind the scenes players. J Zone is a story unto itself. I’m in awe of him. Who else do you know would take the lumps he did, and admit to them–let alone put that story down on the page? His book should be required reading for every aspiring musician. Read it and then ask yourself, am I ready to put in the work?

As for me, yes. There were moments of clarity. The most vivid was on the DJX III Tour. It was an indie hip-hop dream come true in a lot of ways. We had done plenty of shows in NYC and opened on spot dates for Aesop and Smash Bros. but now we were on the road, on a legit tour bus with MURS headlining. Shock G was in tow! Shock was an amazing dude. So lucky to have spent some time learning from him. We were the openers for a 2 week leg of the tour down South and out West along with C-Rayz and The Perceptionists. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and we made the most of it. Kicking off the first date on our first real tour at the House of Blues in New Orleans was surreal.

About a week in I was up early in the front of the bus in the middle of nowhere going from one date to the next, probably in Kansas or Oklahoma. Tim (Alaska) slept on a couch up front because at the time I don’t think he could fit in the bunks comfortably. We were low men on the totem pole–tour rookies–so we had last dibs on bunks. Tim woke up at some point and we started talking about the hijinks of the past night. We were living up to our label rep of being the drunken step children of sorts and every night pretty much ended the same. Blackout drunk. He was telling me how much he loved touring and the lifestyle that went along with it and thought he found his calling. He pretty much knew this was what he wanted to do. I knew he was looking for consensus from me, my guess was Ian (Wind) felt the same as Tim and had already told him as much. I just couldn’t bring myself to lie. I laid it out there. “I hate this,” were my thoughts at the time as I recall. I was a homebody. A studio rat. The road just wasn’t for me.

I’m so thankful that we had the opportunity to go out and rock stages all over the country and live with and learn from some of the best like Murs, Shock and Lif. I’ll never forget it. Our last night on tour was the stuff of legend starting with Shock pulling us aside with the bottle of Hennessy from his rider. He had decided we were OK after all (he wasn’t sure at first) and wanted to give us a proper send off. They had to drag us off stage that night. Truly amazing moments I’ll treasure forever and it was exactly what we’d worked together for years to achieve–it just wasn’t for me. I guess in a way this film is both a love letter and my obituary to that time in my life.

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