De La Soul Producer Prince Paul on Trugoy’s Passing, Preserving Mistakes on ‘3 Feet High and Rising,’ and the Group’s Legacy

Pioneering hip-hop producer Prince Paul was never officially a member of De La Soul — but “The Magic Number” was always four whenever they worked together. As ambitious and creative as group members Posdnuous (Kelvin Mercer), Trugoy (the late Dave Jolicoeur) and Maseo (Vincent Mason Jr.) were, the man born Paul Huston was the glue that held it all together musically through many of the group’s biggest successes. “I think the way the dynamic changed because of me is I’m pro-everything,” Huston tells Variety. “If somebody’s considering an idea, I’m like, ‘Let’s do it!’”

That fearless, kitchen-sink spirit led to “3 Feet High and Rising,” “De La Soul is Dead” and “Buhloone Mindstate,” three albums that caused three different generational shifts — for the group, their fans and often hip-hop culture. And those albums (and three others) were celebrated last week at “The D.A.I.S.Y. Experience” event in New York, where Huston, along with Posdnuous, Maseo, Dave Chapelle, Queen Latifah, Q-Tip, Common, Chuck D and many others, to commemorated the group’s music finally being released onto streaming platforms after decades-long legal entanglements.

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But for Prince Paul, they’re part of a continuum that started with him as a DJ for self-professed “hip-hop band” Stetsasonic, and then led to a series of idiosyncratic solo albums such as “A Prince Among Thieves” and “Politics of the Business.” He also famously collaborated with RZA on Gravediggaz’ landmark horrorcore album “6 Feet Deep,” and made two albums (and more recently, an EP) with Dan the Automator under the moniker Handsome Boy Modeling School.

A couple of days later, Huston (pictured above, far right, at the event with Maseo, far left) jumped on the phone to discuss the process of restoring his work with them, the bittersweetness of its timing just weeks after Jolicoeur’s passing at age 54, his past and future projects, and the rich, enduring musical legacy of which he is an essential part.

How was “The D.A.I.S.Y. Experience”?

It was a whole bunch of things. It felt like a reunion of sorts because I haven’t seen some people in 30 years — since De La Soul is from Amityville, we all have mutual friends, so they brought out a lot of those people. The rappers that came out, the artists, the support was overwhelming. You knew people supported De La Soul, but you don’t really know — at least I didn’t really know — until that day. I haven’t felt that much love in one hip-hop event, I think, ever in my life.

How does it feel to have this music finally available after all these years? It really feels like a chapter of hip-hop history was missing for years.

It feels like closure in a sense, because honestly, I just forgot about it. It got to a point where it was like, “It’s never going to happen, maybe not in my lifetime.” So it’s pretty surreal and it’s a happy feeling because it exposes music that a lot of people aren’t really familiar with. As I looked online, seeing a younger generation reacting to it — I don’t know if it’s because their parents are reacting to it, but it’s nice.

Has this rekindled memories of making the music?

Of course. To start off, the fact that De La and Reservoir reached out to give me the task of completing it [mastering and replacing a few samples that couldn’t be cleared], because who best to get it done and complete it with the love and compassion for that project? And as we started going over the tracks, and I’m looking at track sheets from over 30 years ago, it’s like a diary. And looking at your younger self and how you thought, like, “Whoa. I did that?” Some in bewilderment and some in amazement — it was crazy to me. And then it also brought up conversations between me and the guys. “Remember we did this, and so-and-so came in?” It reminded me of a really good time.

How difficult was it? Did you have all of the materials sitting around? Or did you have to rebuild a lot?

It wasn’t rebuilding a lot per se: It was just finding key things that I’m not sure if Reservoir wasn’t sure about, or some stuff that was missing. Because tape was expensive to us and we were stupid and didn’t realize that it’s better to spend extra money on 24-inch tape than to erase stuff and record a new song over it. So I’m looking at tracks, like, “where’s the bassline?” and we had erased it because we’d already recorded the song and mixed it. Just stupid stuff like that. And then you’ve got to figure out, okay, let me restore it. What’s the sample? Do we sample it again or do we replay it? And if we replay it, what’s the level of accuracy?

My thing is, [it has to be] accurate to the naked ear — I can’t cringe on anything that has been restored. Because I’ve heard some things that people did reissues of, and they take samples out or they replayed or they remixed it — and it’s horrible. Not horrible in the sense of the song, but it’s horrible in the sense of I remember it a specific way, I listened to the record a thousand times, I grew up with it, and if anything is different, then it just rubs me the wrong way, like nails on a chalkboard. And so I refused to allow anything less than near perfection on this. And man, it was painstaking. Even if it’s simple as a cowbell, it has to be the same tone, the same ingredient, the same everything, so you don’t know the difference. I sat on this and obsessed. So I like to think it came out really good.

Was there anything like that you took the opportunity, whether or not anybody would necessarily notice, to sharpen or correct from the way it was originally assembled?

No. I’ll stop you right now. I kept every mistake, every bad edit, because we mixed that stuff manually. “3 Feet Hight and Rising,” especially, we did everything manually, all the drops, everything. I got everything down to the clips, all the way to the missed echoes, to the amount of delay. Even when I listen to “Say No Go” and it’s all off? That’s how it was originally, and I was like, “I’ve got to keep it like that.” My new self was like, “Line it up.” But I was like, it has to be to the letter. I can’t change anything. Did it bother my new refined ear? Yes. But I had to respect young Paul and let him be him.

Some tracks like “Cool Breeze on the Rocks,” which had a Michael Jackson sample, obviously got changed. Were there other things where it just wasn’t worth clearing all the samples, where it was easier rebuild completely?

I wouldn’t say “worth,” it was just, think of “3 Feet High and Rising” in general of just samples and everything that goes along with that, and clearing and reconstructing, and then “Cool Breeze on the Rocks” has a thousand things on it. And that was really up to the label. They were like, “Dude, if you want this record out within a certain amount of time, this isn’t going to happen.” We had to come to a realization that it wasn’t a [major hit] song like “Me, Myself and I” where people would go, “What? If you don’t have it, we’re going to toss this whole album.” The good thing is that it’s still available — not on streaming, but in the day of Google, people can go and find it somewhere.

Are the new vinyl versions drawn from the masters you rebuilt now or are they going to be the original version?

I think it’s actually a combination of both. Some things that’s exactly the same and then some things will be, I wouldn’t say different, but not even reconstructed. Because it’d really be hard to find a difference in anything. It’s pretty spot on. There might be one or two things that, if you are a longtime fan and really paying attention, you might go “that echo is two echoes down from the original.” I thoroughly checked, even to the point where I was like, “Oh, I can’t tell the difference.” But there were definitely other ears going, “the reverb you used was probably a hall and not a concert” — it got that deep, to the point where I literally just wanted to take the next flight out to Timbuktu and take a vacation. It was very meticulous.

Looking at the work that you did with De La Soul, it’s different than the work that they did after you guys went in different directions. Do you feel like musically speaking you were leading the charge of that experimentation? Or were they also bringing in Serge Gainsbourg and Tom Waits along with more traditional R&B and jazz samples?

It’s definitely the group. Because everybody’s palette was just so diverse. I wouldn’t have known Johnny Cash for [the chorus of “The Magic Number”] if it wasn’t for Dave, because his family is from Haiti and from what I was told, they listened to a lot of country music. So it’s definitely everybody combined. I think the way the dynamic changed because of me is I’m pro everything. If somebody’s considering an idea, I’m like, “Let’s do it!” Where maybe if I wasn’t there they would probably be like, “I’m not going to do it.” They’ll talk themselves out of it. I’m like, “Let’s do everything.”

I’ll give you a good example, and this is not a sample, but on the top of “Buddy,” that “Meany meany meany meany — say what?” [hook]. We had the beat going and Q-Tip and Dave were sitting on the side, not in the booth, but just in the control room, and they were just singing it. Not thinking, just vibing out. And I was like, “Record that!” So it’s things like that — that nature comes out in those records, especially in the first two. And little it be known, but we had started recording “Stakes Is High”  in my house, but it never got that far. But I think that’s the spirit that I bring to those records. And when it’s the three guys themselves and they have to decide on something, it could be two against one, whatever the case is. For me, I’m that, “Guys, do it, do it. Let’s record it. Let’s do whatever.” So I think it’s a little freer space to experiment.

The second album, “De La Soul is Dead” has a different and almost more restrained approach than “3 Feet High and Rising.” Was it dealing with the litigation of samples of the first one that made you pivot in your approach to the second one?

I just think that they got thrust into mega-fame quickly and they weren’t prepared for it. “Plug Tunin’” and “Potholes in My Lawn” were nighttime radio kind of hip-hop songs. And then “3 Feet High and Rising” happened, all of a sudden they’re traveling everywhere and everybody’s expecting them to be [the characters they are on] the record. They would travel and people would try to test them, like, “Oh, you’re hippie guys,” and want to fight them, just test to see how tough you are. So it was a lot of things, and I think that was just their reaction and it came out on the record — which I condoned.

At first, I was still feeling “3 Feet High and Rising,” that kind of vibe. But when I sat down with them and listened to how the songs were coming along, I was like, “I don’t know how people are going to take this.” That’s why I did the skit at the front, where the guy was like, “This is garbage!” Because I was like, “I don’t know if people going to accept [this new attitude], so I’m going to beat them to the punch. I’m going to create a scenario that the record is already scrutinized. We’ll do it for you!”

But did the legal precedent of “Transmitting Live from Mars” affect anything with “De La Soul is Dead?” There’s something slightly more spartan about the production where there were spaces where maybe in the past you would’ve had more samples.

We did become smarter and come to realize that, hey, whatever person doesn’t like sampling and he hates hip-hop, stay away from them. Not that we sampled the Beatles in the early record, but we were just like, “Oh, this is dope” and we just put it in the record. So we were a little more cognizant of it. “Transmitting Live from Mars” didn’t really affect us at all in the sense of it wasn’t like a million dollars or whatever the lawsuit was came out of our pocket. We weren’t getting paid for making records, so it was nothing really lost. In hindsight, now that I understand royalties and stuff, and actually this is the first time I ever really got royalties was from De La Soul — I was like, “Man, it’s a lot of money that went in my pocket.” But you don’t think about those things, you just think about art for art’s sake. And I think that the reason why the things were maybe a little sparse sampling wise was just the guys’ taste was just changing. It took a couple of years to make the next record. And there’s different influences out there you listened to.

Do you remember what creative impulse was going into “Buhloone Mindstate?” You seemed to pare out a lot of stuff out — skits and more — for that album.

“Buhloone Mindstate” was just the guys reeling everything back. They had the success of “3 Feet High and Rising,” and were thrust into this uber fame, then they did “De La Soul is Dead,” which got 5 Mics in “The Source” but other places was like, “Eh, this is all right.” So it was a sobering-up effect, from what I can remember. It was just like, “Do they love us? Do they hate us?” And it comes out in some of the songs, like “Stickabush” and a lot of dialogue about how, “Wow, they loved us, now they don’t like us.” It just made them mature really fast, and it showed in the music.

Pos and me were both listening to [legendary James Brown/P-Funk saxist] Maceo Parker’s album at the time and he was like, “We should get Maceo on the record.” His record was a contemporary record at the time; it wasn’t an old JB’s record. So we were listening to what was going on in the pulse at the time and that was partly an influence. And we strayed away from making 50 songs on an album and streamlined it. It was definitely a different vibe. When I think of “Buhloone Mindstate,” I don’t think of the chuckling as we once did, but I do think of feeling like they were coming into adulthood.

There were also all these amazing B-sides from these records, “Double Huey Skit,” “Mack Daddy on the Left.” Is that material lost to history or do you think that it will also be brought to streaming services in the future?

I have no idea what’s going to happen to that stuff specifically. We didn’t even discuss it. It’s really whatever the Reservoir chooses to do. I know the main focus was, hey, let’s get these records, primarily “3 Feet High and Rising,” done, and get these out for streaming. But I’m sure at some point that they’ll consider those. But it hasn’t come up in any conversation I’ve had.

You mentioned that you had worked a little bit on “Stakes is High” before you guys decided to go your separate ways. Was it that your creativity had gone too far in different directions?

I just think there was a lot of pressure on them at the time because the records were getting less popular. My mindset has always been, we innocently got here and I don’t want to sit and calculate how to stay here or to go to another level. I just liked how organic the ceiling was. And so there was a lot of things that I remember that I was like, “That’s good enough.” And they’re like, “That’s not good enough.” Now there’s a level of perfection that’s going to have to happen because we’re in a position that this could be our last album. And I had to respect that struggle. So it was me having to really be an adult and having an understanding.

I told them initially when we got together that I only wanted to do that one record. “I’m going to teach you guys how to produce and work equipment and you take it from this point on.” It’s not until they had asked me when the option for the second record came, “Hey, we still want to work with you, you’re part of the group.” I was like, “Oh!” It was one of those Kumbaya, wanting-to-cry moments.

And so it went to the next record, “Buhloone Mindstate,” and got to “Stakes Is High,” and I had to remember, I wasn’t supposed to be here anyway. And I had to really suck it up — a lot of my identity came with De La Soul, and it was hard. Gravediggaz [Paul’s next major project] didn’t do as good as I wanted it to do. So it was just one of those situations where it just seemed like it was time. And I valued our friendship and relationships more than I valued my own personal ego of wanting to control stuff or to be a part of something. It was just time and it worked out. To me, it was probably one of the best decisions I think I’ve made in my career, to let them move how they wanted to move. And I love “Stakes is High”! When my son was really little, we used to listen to that and Nas’ “Illmatic,” and so that’s the soundtrack of his childhood when he was really little.

There was never any beef. I think what caused some uneasiness, and I’ll state this for the record, is everybody saying that there was beef. And so after a while, I remember Pos called me up and was like, “Are we good? We have a problem?” And I was like, “No.” He’s like, “I didn’t think so.” It was drilled in us that the reason why we stopped working together because there was a problem. And so it was so strange — it was like, “Do we?”

Is there a chance that your work on “Stakes Is High” will ever come out?

Oh, it came out, but it was their work. It was recorded at my house and I aligned it and put all the stuff together, but it was their ideas. So I couldn’t really get too angry ’cause it was getting to the point where I was, “Okay. You got your part. Let me put my part in.” But by the time I wanted to put my part in, we had already decided not to work together.

Is there anything from that era, with this rekindled interest in the group and your collaboration, that might see the light of day or you would like to go back and give it new life?

Oh, I would never want to redo what we did. There was a certain magic in a time and space that I really don’t want to touch. But there were beats here and there, but it was just ideas. And there was a reason why they never made it to the albums. And I can’t even see them reconstructed, unless the guys want to take it and put it out and redo it. But I think it’s strange in a time where everybody is really just digging up things, reissue this and do a remake of this. I like to leave things where they are. It leaves a little mystery to it too.

A few years ago you and Automator announced that you were doing more Handsome Boy Modeling School. What’s the status is of that project?

We just actually did a small EP for Fords Gin, a limited release that they’re selling in a package and it has some Handsome Boy vinyl, which really looks amazing. So we did that and discussed about making some more music, and that has always been my intention. But I think as I get older, with other things I feel like it might be time to retire the mustache [he and co-Handsome Boy member Dan the Automator wore]. I want to keep on doing shows and stuff, but I always have to be in a certain head space. And I’m not sure if I’m there yet. I don’t know when it’ll happen, or if it’ll happen. But I have to really feel what I’m doing. But for now, as we speak today, I like where we’re at with Handsome Boy, and I like this EP. Because of the pandemic, we didn’t have a chance to sit down in one room. So I did a couple tracks, he did a couple tracks. And then we looked at them as Handsome, and put it together. So it’s not what we would normally do, but it’s still Handsome. You could hear the Handsomeness resonate.

What else are you working on?

I just finished scoring a documentary for Biz Markie. Just finished that, and watching it and then scoring it was so tough because I’d known him since I was a kid, so it was bittersweet. There were things about him I didn’t even know. And another part that made it bittersweet is it was the first thing I ever scored without my friend [Don] Newkirk, who passed in November. That was way different for me. He’s been there ever since I’ve started making music.

I’m always teetering on wanting to make another record, but I don’t know. I’m just in a really relaxed place. One day I’ll feel inspired. I have a notebook of ideas. And then I’ll look at it a couple days later and go, “Ehhh.” I’m trying to find that thing that sticks constantly and I could just go down and just really focus and get it done. But I got offers to work with different artists and stuff. I just have to hear them and see how that goes, and if it’s something I want to do. But there might be a couple more scoring things. I’ve gotten old (laughs). That’s the bottom line.

As everyone is paying tribute to De La Soul and honoring Dave, do you have any other thoughts or feelings about this moment?

Yeah. I think people don’t realize is me and Dave had a lot of history. Of course I asked Dave to be on Handsome Boy Modeling School, we did the thing with Del (“The Projects (P Jays)”). But Dave and I were going to make an album together. Just him and I. We got a record deal and everything, and it was going through and the label flaked on us. It was a label from overseas — I wish I had the name of it because I’d love to blow them up right now. This was probably about 15 years ago, and we had got the music together and we were pretty excited about it and it just never happened.

But Dave, his impact on me was crazy. He got me to exercise more because I went over his house and he had a 50 pound weight set and I remember he and all his friends were laughing at me because I could barely lift it. So that launched my fitness journey. So it’s a lot of little things that. When I think of him, I smile. And it’s sad that he isn’t around to see all the work we’ve put in to rekindle this whole thing again. It seems divine in a way, because at least it happened: If he had passed away and we hadn’t had the opportunity to do this again, I’d feel some type of way. He definitely will be missed.

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