Very few have mastered the interplay of semiotic references like Prince Paul. He’s one of the true postmodern tricksters in hip hop history, whether it’s setting up the metaphysics of this jazz thing with Stetsasonic, re-thinking hippie and Native Tongues aesthetics with De La Soul, or revamping horrorcore with the Gravediggaz super group.
With regards to his solo work, Paul’s knack for carefully crafted parody becomes even more obvious. The seminal concept album A Prince Among Thieves might still be his magnum opus. A tongue-in-cheek take on blaxploitation flicks, the album charts the rise and fall of young MC Tariq, masterly performed by Juggaknots member Breeze Brewin, on his quest to gather money to finish up a demo tape for his meeting with the Wu-Tang Clan.
While the album's cast of supporting roles featured an all-star line-up – Big Daddy Kane, Everlast, Kool Keith, RZA, and De La Soul to name a few – the main characters were largely under-the-radar: Breeze’s mentor-turned-antagonist True was played by Sha, a raspy-voiced, Long Island-based MC known mostly through his affiliation with Amityville's Horror City crew.
For whatever reason, both Brewin and Sha didn’t take full advantage of the momentum that A Prince Among Thieves might have afforded them. Released 15 years ago this week, we tracked down Brewin, who – besides the occasional 16 bars for friends like J-Zone and Marco Polo – works full-time as a teacher in the Bronx, to hear the full story: from an unexpected phone call, to working with his all-time favourite producer, and running through Brooklyn in his underpants.
Just the other day, I spoke to Chairman Mao from Ego Trip. He was nice enough to send me the press release for A Prince Among Thieves which he happened to be writing, and he quotes Paul, saying that he was completely blown away by the first demo that he heard of yours, an early snippet tape of the Juggaknots album. Was that something you guys sent over to him?
Yeah, but at the time we had gotten dropped by East West. They had dropped us. We had no contact with our A&R at the time. I believe they even switched A&R, so we were just lost in the woods. Getting to work with Paul was a dream come true. You’re influenced so much by Paul’s… We’re talking the Stetsasonic stuff. Then when De La Soul’s Three Feet High... came out… It was like “Damn!” So the fact that he was able to hear it… It was bugged out, because I didn’t believe it. I don’t know if Paul told you the story...
He didn’t, actually.
He had the whole thing written, but he didn’t show you the whole thing. I think that was by design with Paul.
It was bug, man. At the time, I was like whatever. I had kids, so I was working, just like I’ve always done. At the time, I was working nights, I think, in a group home. It was a rough gig, but I came home, and my kids’ mom, who was my girl for a long time, she was like, “You got a message.” I was like, “All right, well, whatever. What’s the message?” “Prince Paul called you.” “All right, I’m going to bed.” She was like, “Nah, Prince Paul called you.” She knows what it is. She’s a great fan of his. I was like, “Nah.” So she was like, “Nah, here’s his number.” So I called it, and I’m thinking it’s one of my friends being stupid. We talked, and he went, “Yo, I searched you out. I went to Fat Beats. I knew you were cool with Bobbito [Garcia of Stretch & Bobbito / Fondle ’Em Records], so I went to Fat Beats, and I saw Stretch Armstrong [DJ and radio host of the Stretch & Bobbito show].”
I was thinking to myself, “Stretch Armstrong don’t work at Fat Beats!” [laughs] He actually spoke to Eclipse. He thought DJ Eclipse was Stretch Armstrong. Eclipse got everybody’s number. He’s like the glue to this whole hip hop thing. People, they may know, they may not know, I’m telling: He’s the glue.
I’m really wondering about the relationship between you and Paul in this project, because Paul has mentioned that most of the featured guests didn’t know much about the full narrative structure. Paul just told them, “You’re going to play this role and that role, and please just give me your 16 bars on that topic,” and then he edited it together.
He didn’t give you the whole script. He just gave you your parts, and sometimes he gave you enough context, especially with me and Sha, because certain joints we had to interact on, so he wanted to make sure that the tone would match. He would give you just enough so he could craft the tone of what you were saying, and that would then leak into what you were doing lyrically for the songs. He had the whole thing written, but he didn’t show you the whole thing, like, cover to cover. I probably saw more than most, but I didn’t see the whole thing in its entirety. I think that was by design with Paul.
What did he tell you in his first phone call?
He was just like, “Look, I got an idea, I want to do something. It ain’t never really been done before, and I’m going to try it, and I just got this idea of this story, of this kid trying to make it…” A lot of the time, what Paul was saying was, “Don’t worry about it, just trust me. Just try your best and trust me.” Honestly, this is Prince Paul. Why would I not trust him artistically?
Little by little, he’d play me a joint of somebody else, and that would give it a lot of context. Other times, you would just hear something, and it would challenge you competitively, Iike, “‘I’ve got to keep up the level of that Everlast joint or that Kane joint.”
Something that really struck me as interesting: the album is pretty much packed with big names in all these minor roles. We have De La Soul playing the drug fiends, Big Daddy Kane as Mack Daddy, Kool Keith as a gun-selling weirdo, etc. Then Paul chose, no disrespect at all, MCs that were not really household names at the time for the lead characters. Did that come as a surprise to you?
It was nice to know that, given the opportunity, I could at least hold my own against those type of dudes.
Honestly, I don’t know why he went with me. Even if he liked what we were doing, I don’t know why he went with me. I’m just glad he did. I felt like given the opportunity around cats like that, if I worked hard enough, it would really work well. Like, I took time away from my job even. I think it was like a couple of months where I really went in. I haven’t had that since, really. It was nice to know that, given the opportunity, I could at least hold my own against those type of dudes, and I guess he saw that. It’s like an intangible talent that certain cats in the industry have.
I think Paul is the type of dude who was able to spot uniqueness and harness it. Sometimes you get stuck. It’s like, you’re the producer, you’re the MC, you’re this and that, but then there’s the visionary aspect. The sixth sense, if you will. Without those dudes in the game, things would be different. Paul was the type of dude to make that happen.
Paul also said that his initial idea was to have you as a lead character and Chino XL as the other main character. He said that there were people who were really against it. I was wondering if you were amongst those people that were really against it?
What?! [laughs] No, no, I think that dude’s amazing, and I think Sha did a great job, but man, that would have been crazy. I’m a fan of that dude, so I would have been cool with it either way. That’s just Paul, man. I never knew that.
I hope Sha is good, man, because he was a good dude. We spent a lot of time working on the video and then in the studio. I hope he’s good, I really do.
The video… You mean the trailer video that was shot, right? Despite its comparatively small budget, it still looks highly ambitious. Was it fun shooting the video?
It was fun, besides running up and down the streets in Dumbo in my drawers! [laughs] I wasn’t really in shape at the time. Let’s just say I was all in, because you know, it was a different time in Dumbo. It wasn’t really about the arts at that time. It was still grimy.
It took a while before it actually came out. You finished it in 1998 and it came out in 1999, I guess?
We had started it, I guess… we started talking about it and working on it around 1997.
Which was shortly after the release of [Juggaknots’ debut album] Clear Blue Skies, right?
Yes, not long after it. It was long enough for me to start working again for a time, and to really try to figure out what was next. To have a project on this scale come through, it was like… “This is what’s next.” After that, I toured with them and Mr. Len, and it just opened a lot of doors for me. At the time, I just didn’t have much going on. I was just really trying to feed my family.
Did you try to get a Juggaknots album finished soon after the release of A Prince Among Thieves? Maybe a solo record even? Were there any plans?
Perfectionism has its merits, but it also has its casualties, you know?
There were, and we had some pretty good singles out, but at the time, it just … there was a lot of stuff going on personally, and some of it ended up coming out in the music… I don’t know, man, it just made things difficult. We did put out some good music, though, at that time. The Generally 12-inch. We had put out a record with Dynasty. I had put out a record with Subcon & DJ Eli. Then there was The Weathermen... I had started building with other cats. It wasn’t like I was dead in the water. It was just different types of projects, and I’d met so many cool cats that I respected artistically, but the focus to sit down and just get a full Juggaknots album done… Eventually, we didn’t end up completing the next album until 2005, and released it in 2006. I wish I could have worked faster, and if anything that I regret it’s... Perfectionism has its merits, but it also has its casualties, you know?
You recently featured on J-Zone’s new album, who has sort of a similar fan base. It just seemed completely logical, because both of you have a small cult following by now.
It’s going to have to be like that. Unless something really changes in my life, that’s just the way it’s going to have to happen for me. I mean, I love it. I love music. I also love the art form. I’m actually teaching a class about rhyming to kids at my school. Which is fun, and I’m lucky enough to be in a school where the arts are important. I’m talking [to them] about the way hip hop helped shape me in the formative years. I’m able to challenge them in what they listen to and introduce them to other things that let them understand there’s a lineage here. There’s a legacy and… it’s a wonderful culture, man, and just to deal with Paul, somebody that’s so important… He’s Mount Rushmore status, and I’m glad I’m part of that. It’s pretty cool.