“Hip-Hop Was Like Civil Rights, Because We Didn’t Get Respected as an Art Form:” An Interview with Prince Paul and Don Newkirk

Zilla Rocca has a conversation with the veteran producers about stoking competition between Poetic and RZA during the Gravediggaz sessions and scoring the documentary series 'Who Killed Malcolm X.'
By    June 23, 2020

Art by Prince Paul

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Prince Paul and Don Newkirk are the rare rap duo with thirty years of history in the game and no beef. Check the credits of any Prince Paul supergroup, one-off, or conceptual crown jewel and Newkirk is in the credits. After they both smartly exited the major label game, they entered the world of scoring and producing for television and movies and immediately went big game hunting: credits include Chris Rock, Spongebob, and Mr. Peabody & Sherman on Netflix, three things you would think of if you’re talking humor and/or ’60s kids shows Prince Paul has probably sampled already.
Their new work together “By Every Means Necessary” as The Lord Brothers is the soundtrack to the new Netflix series “Who Killed Malcolm X” in the vein of Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” and Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly”. This record ditches the usual charm and humor from Paul and Newkirk for heavy-handed funk fit for a revolutionary. “By Every Means Necessary” is a standalone work brought to you by 2 life long friends who were cutting their teeth in the industry before, during, and after “X” hats, African medallions, and black fists were commonplace in the culture.
For first half of the interview, I was luck enough to pick Prince Paul’s brain about Gravediggaz, Handsome Boy Modeling School, and if he would or not require a bubble machine if asked to square off in an Instagram Live Versuz battle with Timbaland.
For the second half of the interview, Don Newkirk hopped on the call to break down the strenuous job of scoring an entire documentary series while respecting the source material, the shared language he and Paul share as composers and friends in the studio, and how important it was for any music backing Malcolm X’s life to be worthy of the man himself. — Zilla Rocca

RZA vs Premier. Did you watch it?

Prince Paul: I chimed in for maybe 15 minutes. Then I was like, “Oh okay.” I’m a fan of both of the guys, but it’s not them at their best. I like the songs, but I can play these on my own time. What I did do, is that I went and trolled. I put stupid emojis like the bread emoji, a banana, and a whole bunch of random stuff, then I left.

I saw a lot of Adrien Brody on my timeline chiming in, which was super weird. He’d be like, “Go in ‘Preme! Drop that D&D shit!” I was like, “Adrien Brody is a super head. That’s awesome.”

Prince Paul: It was a whole bunch of stars in one place. I’d be like “Whoa! There’s this person here.” Everybody was on, so I was like, “This is kind of cool.” Then it got boring, and I was like, “Eh, I’m cool with the stars.” I’m so opposite of everybody else, so it’s not a swipe on them. I’d rather see a boxing match or something.

RZA had workout gloves on; he was ready to start shadow boxing. Has anyone stepped up to you, like you vs Automator, you vs whoever?

Prince Paul: I’ve seen it. People hashtag me or tag me, “Next one should be @DJPrincePaul vs whoever,” and little do these guys know, I’d never step up to any of these battles. Ever.

Why not?

Prince Paul: I don’t know. If I did, I’d have to do something way different. All these dudes go, “Check this out,” then they give a brief little conversation, then they squint at the thing, and go “Yo, shout out to my man Supreme51! Yeah, I see you out there.” Then they throw another one up. It’s boring! Something would have to give – I’d have to get clowned.

A laser light show behind you, or a bubble machine.

Prince Paul: Not like Teddy Riley and his fail. I’ve heard enough about it.

If it was too painful to hear about, I don’t want to watch it. I love Teddy so much; I can’t go down this road with him. Please don’t do this to me. The thing I was thinking about with you and Newkirk for this record, but more so a zoom out on your career – rap production is an inherently antisocial, by-yourself type of trade for most people. You’re by yourself touching records, you’re by-yourself chopping up stuff and messing around. I feel like you’ve never been a solitary beatmaker, because it seems like your work is always with a bunch of people. When you’re making beats, are you by-yourself then, or are you always around folks?

Prince Paul: 9 times out 10, I’m by-myself, with the exception of when it’s something I know I need to collaborate on. Even in all the projects I’ve done, you can go Handsome Boy Modeling School for example. In some cases, me and Dan [the Automator] call them “skeletons.” We’ll make skeleton beats and be like, “What do you think of this?” He’ll make something, I’ll make something, and then we’ll start adding on to them more. Even when we’re in the same room together making beats, we both have our headphones on, and then go “What do you think of this?” and “Yeah, give me the disc.” We do stuff like that, but I’m primarily by myself with the exception of this Malcolm X project, or lots of other work with Newkirk. Depending on the songs, we’ll sit in a room together and knock things out.

From the outside looking in, it always seemed like you’re in the mix with a lot of collaborators, at least when the album was released. From Handsome Boy to Gravediggaz to the Dix to even Superblack!, where I was always like, “Man, I want to hear the Superblack! album because J-Zone’s the shit.” Is it an energy thing, or is it from the days of Stetsa[sonic] and De La [Soul], where that’s how you knew? To me, Madlib is seemingly by himself all day and night, doing everything totally dolo and then handing in beats; versus your stuff, where you said you’re making the beats, and you want to get this person, these 4 people over here, and you’re going to do a thing. Were you always wired like that from the beginning, or was this something where you were like, “This would be something better for me to do?”

Prince Paul: It’s funny you said that, because I’m just the opposite. I’m really alone by nature and by heart; everything I’ve worked on has been by myself, but I’m like a director-of-sorts, and a writer at the same time. I’ll sit in my head and make beats, and I’ll go “Ooh, you know who would be really good on this? Slick Rick. Aw man, it might be a stretch, but let me see if I can call him. I’ll see if I can get somebody on there.” The birth of it would be in my head, but the key players are always people involved or sounds that I hear. If I was able to rap well, I probably wouldn’t need anybody.

If you could just Drake this whole thing, you’d be good.

Prince Paul: It’d be me, myself, and I. No pun intended. I realize that I need people, and I appreciate the talent they bring. Plus, I come from the days of having a crew. I’m a DJ, and there’s always this person and that person, so I’m used to collaborating since the beginning. That’s never really a problem, but the initial idea always comes from me in a room by-myself.

I remember reading the Check the Technique books about 6 Feet Deep. I’m 37, and with everyone my age, it’s a common language – my friends and the closest people in my life know that record inside-and-out and love it. We all go back to it once a year, and go, “You know what I was listening to a lot last week? Gravediggaz.” We’re like, “Oh yeah! I was playing that like a month ago.” I remember reading in one of the Check the Technique books about the making of it, and this is where I’m fascinated by your collaborative skills, where you were going to each of the guys separately like, “RZA’s crushing you on this record.” Using Frukwan and [Too] Poetic, playing them off of each other to up the ante. I imagine you were still relatively young when you were making Gravediggaz, maybe in your 20’s, but how did you come up with these ideas to get the best performance out of artists?

Prince Paul: With them in particular, it was because I knew where their ego lied. Even when I introduced all of them together, each one of them came in with the idea that, “Nobody’s better than me.” The struggle between all of that was primarily RZA and Poetic. Frukwan was nice, but he’s a little more reserved, where Poetic (God rest his soul) and RZA were super alpha male. They lived and breathed rhymes, and especially Poetic. He rhymed just randomly walking down the street; everything rhymed, so that was his thing. RZA had always told me, “Nobody’s better than me. I can rhyme over anything.” I wouldn’t quote him on those exact words, but those were the sentiments. For any chance that I got, even for my own listening pleasure, I was like, “Poetic can eat you.” RZA was like, “What? Nah man.” And I’d be like, “Poetic, man. RZA’s kind of nice.” I’d see them go at it. RZA is nice though, he’s one of my favorite MCs of all time, which usually baffles people, like “RZA?” But you haven’t seen him at his optimal.

If you listen to Wu-Tang Forever, he’s hanging with Ghost at his peak, Method Man, he’s up there with the top 3 dudes while he’s making the album.

Prince Paul: He’s better than he shows on wax.

He’s crushing it. When you go from a Gravediggaz situation, with 2 alpha male MCs, where “No one’s seeing me right now,” or “I’m putting everything I’ve got into this album,” because at the time nobody wanted to give you guys a deal, and you’re trying to prove yourself, to maybe a different scenario where you’re working with Souls of Mischief — what was it like when you were working with people that were more settled versus “We’ve got to put everything into this album, because there might not be another one?”

Prince Paul: I think for Souls of Mischief, when you bring them up as an example, I was trying to get what they forget they had, or what they lost per se. What made me like them in the beginning, I haven’t heard since the beginning. They kind of made records, and eh, almost got relaxed. “I like when you guys did that, as a fan, and let me see if I can get that back.” Sometimes it’s them questioning, do they still have that? It’s almost as if I ante life is basketball; it’s like a basketball player. Sometimes, you get older and you lose the step, but then you alter your game, so you get 20 points. You build up your weaknesses, and that’s where I was trying to get them at – get their confidence back and remind them that, “You’re still nice and you don’t need to settle just for making good rhymes. Let’s go for back in the old school.” That’s what I was trying to get from that album, from them in particular.

Let me ask you about the first Handsome Boy then. That album really blew my mind because, for me, I was a kid in my late-teens, and back then that was real vs fake, Jiggy vs. true school & indie-rap; that “fuck Puffy; we’re all about the Elements.” That was pre-iPod, when if you wanted to know music, you had to buy music or go through someone’s crates. You couldn’t just sit back and here’s every song ever by the Moody Blues, here’s every song by Annie Lennox, and hear every De La song. That album, for me as a kid that was a music freak, had me like, “Who’s Moloko? Oh shit, I love this. Who’s this person? Why is Sean Lennon on here?” I became a die-hard fan of Encore; I was already a J-Live guy before that record. When I visited San Francisco years later, I understood the record, because to me it felt like a San Francisco album.

Prince Paul: Oh yeah, we recorded it out there at Dan’s house [in San Francisco].

For that record, was the plan to be in San Francisco and get all those people, or were they just sliding through? How did that come to pass because it was a pretty radical record to make at the time?

Prince Paul: There was no plan, and I think that’s why the record came out the way it did. It was just convenient at the time to be at Dan’s, and ironically, I stayed at Dan’s house when we recorded that. The first time I stayed at his house, we just got up, sat with 2 MPCs, programmed stuff, and it was more like “Whoa, that’s handsome. Yeah, let’s use that. That sounds very handsome.” We just compiled the handsomest beats, put them together, and compiled a list of people who we thought were handsome enough and who we had connection. It connects Sean Lennon and all of them, that’s Dan’s connects, and when you go to me, it’s more Encore and Brand Nubian. For the record, we didn’t sit too much on anything, and I think that’s why it came out as free form as it was. The second album had a little more thought to it. To me, I like the second album, but the first album makes you want to sit on a comfy couch, and it’s easy to digest. The second album is a little more radical.

“Breakdown,” the Jack Johnson song on the second record; they were playing that one on the radio here heavy, on the NPR station.

Prince Paul: I heard it on the airplane one time. When people were getting off the airplane, I was like, “Whoa! That’s my record.” They had the slow music in the background, and I was like, “We made it there. We’re back.”

I ended up going to England and saw a Moloko record in a store and bought it, just because of the name from your guys’ record. I was blown away by Róisín Murphy [of Moloko], and I was stuck on her just from that one song “The Truth”. Props to you guys, that was a game changer. That was my number one, of all your records, of all concept albums. I’ve now quenched my rap-nerd history; I want to go in on “By Every Means Necessary.” Do you want to call Newkirk now?

Prince Paul: Let me call him. [calls up Don Newkirk]

I wanted to talk to you officially now about “By Any Means Necessary.” The thing I’m interested in finding out about you guys is, because it said on the press release about how you guys spent a lot of time, for a year starting last summer, working on the record. How did you prepare to compose a soundtrack? Did you study other soundtracks, or other composers, or did you guys wing it? How did you map it out when people approached you to do it?

Don Newkirk: I’m a movie nut, so because I’m a movie nerd and I’m a musician, I tend to pick movies apart. When I’m watching a movie, I’m also looking at the score very intently. I think that was part of my preparation, being a movie nerd. In this case, I watched a couple of documentaries to see what other people were doing, and I knew that’s not what we’re going to do. Paul and I chopped it up about doing it, and how we wanted to do it. We figured our approach would be a lot more thematic and trying to capture a lot more of the period of that time, the late-50s and early-60s. That was definitely what we wanted to do – to come at it from a thematic point of view and a period point of view.

Had you guys ever been approached in the past to do a project like this, where you’re in charge of all the music for a film, documentary, or something along this platform?

Prince Paul: This isn’t our first rodeo for scoring. We were initially going to score Pootie Tang and it turned out that, in mid-production, they got rid of everybody. That movie is a lot different than what the script read, in addition to us scoring. They only kept some of our music when they redid it. That was the first time, then we did a couple of documentaries. We did this movie called “The Best Thief in the World,” then we did this cooking documentary, Pressure Cooker, so we’ve done that before and have the familiarity of working together. Keep in mind, we’ve known each other since we were 14, and we’re in our 50’s now, so it’s been a long time. There’s a sense of familiarity and a lot of the movies we’ve seen, we’re like “Oh! I remember this!” because of that era. A name that came up, that I think Newkirk mentioned, is Marvin Gaye and Trouble Man, and talking about Curtis Mayfield and Super Fly, and how those things had a vibe to it, and how we wanted to build a vibe and melodic structure to this. You don’t see that in documentaries. Unless they license music, it’s usually kind of corny. We want to make this like the era, and funky. It has to be thematic and Newkirk is a genius at that, especially at putting traditional scoring things and sequencing it together – we had to combine both. We definitely wanted to make it funky.

You guys having hip-hop degrees, how do you know when to bring hip-hop into the mix full-fledged or do something different, like a composer or an orchestral set of ears?

Don Newkirk: I would say we chose that vibe based on the scenes, and what the scenes called for. An overall hip-hop vibe just didn’t fit on everything. There were certain scenes that called for more of a traditional type of score. Even in the traditional sense, I don’t think we went traditional. Even when it didn’t necessarily call for hip-hop, we went for the mood and more of a feel, so we captured that. One of the scenes that stands out, maybe in the first episode, when they cover Malcolm getting shot at the Audubon – I don’t even think we knew they had footage of until we did the score, that they had actual footage of that day. Before that scene, it was super dramatic and super tense, and it came out of a scene before where they were talking about Betty coming to the Audubon with the kids. It went from this really heartfelt scene, with his wife and kids being at the Audubon, to the lead up of him being shot. Hip-hop didn’t really fit what it needed, so for Betty’s scene, that’s where the themes came in handy. Betty has a very touchy, emotional theme that we revisited throughout the episodes, so that was the first place where it was used, in that first scene when they first show Betty going to the Audubon. Then it went to this dark, foreboding place where it’s leading up to him being assassinated. We took a completely different approach; we created this thing we called the “stress bed,” where we’re more atmospheric and less melodic – the melody became the atmosphere and more of a pulsing-type of score, to lead up to that ultimate finality of him being shot in the Audubon. We used the scenes to determine which way we should go. Of course we sat with the directors, and although we had control of the music, we definitely didn’t want to leave the directors in the dust, as far as choices were concerned. We had small instructions that made it clear which direction we were going by.

What was your relationship with Malcom X in your life? Did that inform how you were going to approach this record?

Don Newkirk: For me, unlike Martin Luther King, Malcolm was more of a superhero-type. He was this young brother that represented the Nation of Islam in the beginning, but his personality was so much bigger than the Nation of Islam. He was fiery and fearless and unwavering in his mission. Doing the documentary definitely brought that home, because I don’t think I realized how young Malcolm was. He always struck me as a much older guy because usually you don’t see that intensity in younger people.

And Paul, when Malcolm X and Martin were at the center of the Afrocentricity run in hip-hop, with KRS and his album cover, people sampling him on albums, what was your feeling when that was this zeitgeist? How did that hit you, because you were in the industry?

Prince Paul: I was with Stetsasonic, and we were in that movement during the time. If you look back and you can hear Chuck D, KRS-One, and Stetsasonic, we did “Free South Africa,” where we did the video for it with Jesse Jackson, and we did a song called “Freedom or Death,” which was a rock against racism; and that’s pre-BET and prior to the onset of Public Enemy. It was part of who we were. You’ve got to remember, me and Newkirk and a lot of rappers were born right off of the Civil Rights Movement. It still lingers, not as overt as it once was, but it would veer its head here and there and you would feel it. Even in hip-hop in general, which people tend to forget there was a time period in which hip-hop was like civil rights, because we didn’t get respected as an art form. It took a long time – no one really covers the dark 80’s, in which you’d say hip-hop, and they’d be like “Oh my god! That’s not real music.” The Grammys would barely want to show it, and it would just be a little underlying thing. We were in it from all ends, so it’s not like it was underlying racism. Plus, you see it with MTV when they wouldn’t show anything. They wouldn’t even show Michael Jackson. Hip-hop was really minute, but it was weird because after he had “Bad,” all of a sudden it became a thing, but it took a long time. Now all of a sudden, it’s all over the place, in every form of music.

When you guys work together now, compared to 20-30 years ago, I imagine you have a shared language – the old “nod and wink, we’re on the same page?” Is that the case, or do you butt heads, do you clash, do you go – Paul, like you said how you and Automator would work, where you’d just be demoing stuff and be presenting it? How is the process for you guys, after all this time now?

Prince Paul: I think it’s exactly like what you said. What’s cool, because we’ve known each other since childhood, is that we can do stuff like, “Remember the luncheon, the gig we did at school. Remember the sound that came out the hallway in high school.” And Newkirk would go, “Oh! You mean this,” and he goes to the keyboard, and I’m like, “That’s exactly what it is!” I can’t do that with everybody. I can’t go to a Teddy Riley like that, and that’s how we talk. We have always been that way. Of course, it takes time to build that type of rapport; it’s sit together, think of a vibe, sometimes I’ll have an idea, sometimes Newkirk will have an idea, and we’ll go off of it. Newkirk’s just brilliant like that, he’ll take whatever thing I might think of and take it 5 steps further, like “Oh, you mean this?” and “I didn’t think of the church bells!” He’ll just take it to some other place. It’s fun; it’s never ending and it’s always unfolding.

Don Newkirk: That’s definitely true. To echo that, now that I think about it, I can’t think of any major argument Paul and I have ever had. Looking back, we pretty much always got along. Just as a discrepancy, I think there’s so much truth in the relationship, and we just trust each other musically, and as friends. A lot of times, I tend to overcomplicate things, and it can be hard to be edited by someone. People don’t like to be edited; they don’t like their thoughts edited, and they damn sure don’t like their music edited. Because there’s such a trust there, if Paul says “Move on because you’re overthinking it. Just go with that idea. It’s the right idea, don’t overthink it.” It’s because it’s him. If it was anybody else, I wouldn’t respond the same way. But because it’s him, I trust him so much, and I know he trusts me to just work. He’s the one person I won’t argue with. If someone says, “You’re second-guessing this,” I’m like, “What do you know? You don’t know nothing.” Because it’s Paul, more than anything it’s our relationship – just the friendship that we’ve built up over the years that makes it so approachable and easy to accept. Criticism, or whatever it is.

Prince Paul: Your friends won’t allow you to be whack, that’s the bottom-line of it. If you’ve got true friends, they’re not going to let you walk out of the house looking crazy. They’ll tell you right out the gate, “Hey man, I don’t know about that orange hat you’re wearing. You better go inside.” Friends that care about you won’t let you go out looking like a fool and get ridiculed and be mean on IG, at the end of the day. We don’t allow ourselves to look stupid.

Malcolm is one of the most important and well-known people in American history, and definitely the 20th Century. What did you do when the process of making the score was over?

Don Newkirk: It took me a while to get back. The schedule was so tight and so dense. We tried to get this project going a few months before we started it, but it was a lot of back-and-forth to get it going. Once it did get going, because we didn’t get it started when we wanted to, the schedule was pushed forward. They were like, “Now you have 90 days to do 6 episodes,” and we were like “What?!”

Prince Paul: We looked at the schedule, and there were like 40 cues per episode. There were like 1000 cues.

Don Newkirk: We looked at each other like, “Did we make a mistake? What did we get ourselves into?” It was definitely difficult to meet deadlines. I know personally, when it was over, I got sleep. I can speak for myself, and I can speak for Paul also, we were elated to be a part of it, and we’re glad we dealt with that schedule because it’s done. We knew it would be monumental; we knew it would be a documentary unlike anything else done on Malcolm before. This was definitely not a run-of-the-mill documentary, it’s whole new information. It’s really intricate.

Prince Paul: I just did what Paul normally does, and not talk to anybody – just avoid everything and everybody, and relaxed. Thank God for Newkirk, because I would have quit, like “Ah! This is stupid! I love Malcolm X and the subject matter is very important, but we’ve got 80 cues. In one night, it’s got to be done.” And Newkirk would be like, “Look Paul. Relax. We have this. Just relax.” I’m going all crazy, I need therapy, borderline using meth, it was horrible.

Don Newkirk: That’s another thing about our relationship, we’ll judge each other, because those roles switch throughout the whole process. There were times where I was like, “I don’t know man,” and Paul would be like “We got this. Don’t worry about it, we’re going to be good.” Those roles were back-and-forth. Somewhere in the middle, I was freaking out and he got me on track, but it all worked out.

Prince Paul: Although scoring is great, it’s fun, and I think the best scores are through communication between you and the production company. We’ve been in situations where communication has not been that great, which makes it not as fun, and also when you’ve got a good amount of time to complete the task, it always helps. With all that said, in a perfect world where you get all those things together, scoring’s great. And we’re good at it! I think that’s the one thing, this was a very important project for us. We definitely sweated through it, but at the end of the day, when you look back and you listen to it and watch it, we’re really dope. I have to channel my inner-Kanye because we’re really good at it, and we’re hoping other people (movie directors, production companies) see how good we are at it, and we’ll have more opportunities to make their projects that much more amazing. That’s where I stand.

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