Prince Paul on Hip-Hop for Kids

If you're a parent with a child of a certain age, you're probably familiar with the Baby Loves Music brand—the Baby Loves Disco dance parties, the Baby Loves Jazz record, Baby Loves Death Metal mini-mosh pits (OK, we made that last one up). Well, now add hip-hop to the ever-expanding list of genres that baby loves. This week sees the release of "Baby Loves Hip Hop Presents: the Dino 5," a concept album about a quintet of kid dinosaurs played by an aging A-list of headliners: Chali 2na of Jurassic 5, Ladybug Mecca of Digable Planets, Wordsworth, Scratch of the Roots and Prince Paul. As the album unfolds, we hear the story of a prehistoric rap crew as it learns to embrace its newest member and competes in the school talent show. You can just count the branding opportunities here—the Dino 5 concept is clever, catchy, fun and never cheesy.

And, bonus, the album was produced by Prince Paul. A founding DJ of Brooklyn's Stetsasonic in 1981, Paul (né Paul Hutson) was among the first wave of rappers to promote a positive black consciousness. In 1989 he produced De La Soul's quirky, witty and soulful "3 Feet High and Rising," ushering in hip-hop's Daisy Age with a kaleidoscopic array of samples—rock, country (the album's title is taken from a Johnny Cash song), disco and French pop. His career since has been as eclectic as his record collection: swinging from hardcore hip-hop with Gravediggaz to co-producing avant-garde guitarist Vernon Reid to comprising half of the ironic hipster rap duo Handsome Boy Modeling School.

NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker caught up with Paul, who turns 41 this week, to discuss his first full-length children's album, fatherhood and his take on hip-hop today. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: My three-year-old daughter loves the Dino 5 theme song.
Prince Paul: Yeah. Kid-test it! I have a daughter. She's five. I'd just watch her to see if she responds to whatever I do: "That one doesn't work. But this one works. And that one made her sad."

I have a colleague with a toddler and I played him the theme and he said, "Hey, '3 Feet High and Rising'!"
[Laughs] At least that's a good thing.

What brought this about? Was this because you have a daughter?
Baby Loves Music contacted me about doing this a while ago. I remember doing this from "A Prince Among Thieves." The key is having the vocals match the visuals. Picture what a kid would think in his head what the dinosaur might look like.

How do you do that? What's the first thing that you do?
I just think of a sound that will give a universal feeling. If it's sad I ask, "What instruments would make me feel sad? Violins. That might work." Or what's the tempo? A lot of times you just draw from records you've heard before, what something made you feel. There's a lot of psychology involved with certain sounds and frequencies. You know, Public Enemy came on and it was, "Eeeeeh, eeeeeh, eeeeeh!" and the horns are going crazy and it's going real fast. You wanted to dropkick somebody. [Laughs]

You're sort of known for having a hugely eclectic background. You were coming out with crazy samples early on, like the Turtles and Serge Gainsbourg and Schoolhouse Rock.
That was me and De La. Collectively we had an almost competition going on—who could reach the farthest.

Were you exposed to a lot of that growing up? Or were you just digging through crates and pulling out crazy-looking records?
For the most part it's what we were raised on. It's the beauty of being raised in the '70s. You listened to the radio back in the '70s and it was Hall and Oates to Aretha Franklin to Kool and the Gang to Rick Dees's "Disco Duck." We drew from all of that. So you dig deeper into the history, who they worked with, and you research and expand. It's a big difference from nowadays.

What effect do you think that will have on your kids? There's no radio like there used to be. There are no record stores like there used to be.
I just play it. To me that's the best way to really make your kids well-rounded. You could talk till you're blue in the face, but if they don't like it and they're not used to it, they're not going to listen to it. So if we're in the car I'll slip in some James Brown, slip in some Pharcyde, some Marvin Gaye. After a while they recognize it and they sing the songs. Of course, you have to play Hannah Montana or whatever. [Laughs] My son's gotten into DJ'ing, and his music knowledge is far beyond what I thought it would be.

Does he have a future as a producer?
I'm honestly not really into my kids pursuing any type of music career. But if it is what it is, go ahead. The business is just so unstable. It's just weird. You get your feelings hurt. It's hard to take your kids to the sharks.

You mentioned Hannah Montana . So even Prince Paul gets dragged to the Miley Cyrus movie?
[Laughs] You know, my mom endured me listening to "Free to Be You and Me" and all them other albums that came out back in the day. It's part of growing up. So I just grin and bear it. Plus, now making kids' records, it gives me a chance to show what I would do or what I wouldn't do.

What else are you working on?
The most recent thing I've finished, which I'm hoping to get out by the end of the year, is I produced an album for the Souls of Mischief. It's been a challenge. I haven't worked on producing a whole group on an album in a long time. I kind of drew from a lot of styles from the early '90s.

The golden era.
Yeah. I hate to say "real hip-hop," but if you're really into stuff of that era, because that's what I try to draw from, I think you'll like this album a lot.

I hesitate to ask, but people talk a lot about the State of Hip-Hop Today. And every year someone writes the "death of hip-hop" story. What's your take? What excites you and what depresses you?
Back in the day I used to take hip-hop very personal. Being from Stet, I was in the era of proving that hip-hop wasn't a fad. [Laughs] It was the movement of the youth and blah blah blah. Once I saw I couldn't really change things, I just threw my hands up and said, "Eh." It's not like I don't care about it. But when everybody's like, "What do you think about hip-hop?" I get agitated. It is what it is. I do what I do. And I don't change it.

Would the Stetsasonic-era Paul be surprised to see what a business it's become?
I would be probably happy in a way, just because of the financial gains but sad in the way that creativity is just at a minimum. I have a son who's 16, so I get a chance to see when his friends come over, through him, what they like and what they don't like and why. For me, honestly, a lot of stuff now isn't really hip-hop. It's a derivative of hip-hop.

What do you mean? It doesn't have the spirit?
To me it lacks the spirit. It lacks where you're coming from. I'm not saying all of it; I'm saying a good majority of it. When we did it back in the day there was more passion, it was more, "I can make a better song." Now what I see as the drive is "We're going to make up a new dance and call it the whatever." It's all marketing. It's just kind of butchered hip-hop. So I'm not totally offended, just as long as I can pay my bills and the kids are happy and I can make the records I like to make and maybe sell two or three.

Do you watch " Run's House " at all?
Yes. It's funny. One thing that freaks me out is I identify with Run in his younger years as him being so cool. Now I see him, it's like, "Yo, he's a dad!" His kids look at him like, "Yeah, OK, whatever." And I'm like, "That's Run!" But he's not Run. So it is a process of us getting older and getting … older. [Laughs]

But, hey, what's cooler than being a good dad and raising kids right?
Yeah, you can't beat that. And his kids love him. And the overall concept is great. But I look at him like, "Wow, that was Run with the leather blazer on and rock box and talking about slapping girls at a party!" Now he's Reverend Run chillin' out, embarrassing his kids with hokey stuff. [Laughs] Prince Paul from Stetsasonic would never have seen that. I would have bet every dime I had back then that wouldn't happen.

Well, and then you have Ice Cube, who plays the dad in all the movies.
Yeah, he plays the dad and he's hokey and happy. But it seems like he could put on a skull cap and still look dangerous.