A to the B

After a soliloquy whose family shtick might be parodying a Wu-Tang kung fu sample, the opening track's bodacious soul-funk groove kicks under a jump-cut montage of further kickoffs: genial host warming up a catcalling crowd; DJ IDing himself ("Automator on the fader"); horn burst from the start of a 20th Century Fox film. Another voice, ethnically indeterminate and playfully sleazy, proclaims the chorus: "rock 'n' roll could never ever hip-hop like this." Kid Koala takes a turntable solo. There's a funky bridge, possibly sampled from Stetsasonic's "On Fire." A Valium-calm corporate voice, maybe off a department-store training record, says: "Dear Miss Blauers...Although you have not used your charge account for some time, it is still at your service....Our spring dresses..." Outro: some rapper going off about sucker MCs. Rock 'n' roll could never ever hip-hop like this.

Since hip-hop is being used as a verb on this track, and since I agree with the sentiment, it's worth asking what this successor to rocking out consists of. Not just a killer old-school grind—too much else is going on. Certainly not rhyming: there hardly is any, or much else that a DMX fan would recognize as hip-hop. No, it's got to be the A to the B to the C to the D of the thing. Generate this much confusion, this many barely legible signposts, dance them together, smile like it's effortless, and you'll hip-hop harder than everybody. You'll whisk up a whole scene, folks weaned on Beasties and Basehead albums, on zines like Grand Royal and Ego Trip, who are multiracial and open to other styles, ready to laugh instead of wince at hard core rap excesses and pop's evil empire.

There are cuts as bounding as "Rock n' Roll" all over the new Handsome Boy Modeling School album, a collaboration between Prince Paul, Dan the Automator (a West Coast collegiate best known for helming Kool Keith's Dr. Octagon revival), and their many clever friends. Taking its concept from an episode of the Chris Elliot sitcom Get a Life, the premise—nerd fashion hustlers—bubble-bathes in the glamour of underground hip-hop. Mike D, Oakland's Del tha Funkee Homosapien, digital hardcore's Alec Empire, they're all here—even Father Guido Sarducci shows up. There are mad-scientist moments (Miho from Cibo Matto impersonates Octagon), trip-hop crooning from Moloko's Roi sin, brainy rappers who want to be "Shakespeare's peer," a DJ Shadow explosion (I love his current James Brown fixation) that ends with a koto player. It's a cornucopia. And, probably thanks to the Automator, it's an easy listen, unlike A Prince Among Thieves, Paul's more conceptually daring 1999 album—a radio drama throwback about an aspiring rapper betrayed by his friend.

But I bet I know who made it fun. Paul Huston hip-hops by making everything around him iller than it might have been, by turning digressions into concept albums, by satirizing rap bluster from within, by having the gapingest mind. For his demented interludes on the first three De La Soul records, which he produced, he's the father of the hip-hop skit, too limited a title for an heir to mocking conceptualists like Frank Zappa, Randy Newman, and George Clinton. He's neither rapper nor singer (uses so many guest vocalists, I've no idea which voices are his), turntable whiz nor any other kind of musician (needs his pal Don Newkirk), though he's a DJ in the thrift-shopping college radio sense. "On ad libs, Prince Paul!" says Chris Rock on his current, Paul-steered album. You could call him hip-hop's leading slacker: emerging in the 1980s rap group Stetsasonic, he was their token nerd. But he's influenced the bigwigs, too: before RZA was RZA, Paul hooked up with him to make a Gravediggaz album of so-called "horrorcore" raps, and the new, vaudevillian Ol' Dirty Bastard album might well be a Prince Paul tribute.

What keeps his cameofests from dissolving into self-congratulation is what kept Paul from dissolving into solipsism after De La Soul cut him: indie hip-hop remains a battle medium, even when there isn't a gun to be found any where. Compare Prince Paul's 1996 Psycho- analysis (What Is It?) album, diseased-mind games that he set down after dropping to the fringes, and Alex Chilton's 1970s Like Flies on Sherbert, another major talent gone under. Chilton wants to know what's left to him when all ambition has wasted away: he doodles "Boogie Shoes"; he writes "Rock Hard," which doesn't nearly. Paul is still talking himself up, to the point of pretending he's selling his therapeutic services (the Handsome School's predecessor as infomercial), including a testimonial from "another satisfied customer!" To prove he's the illest around, he's selling his outsider ness, not wallowing in it. Pick which enormously insular and sardonic man made the bigger comeback.

This has been Paul's most successful year ever, as he rode one wave of hip-hop intellectualism—basically, everyone who worships Biz Markie as a patron saint. Next up is a project with the Automator, a Dust Brother, and more big names. Maybe it'll get too celebrity clogged, but for now I'm enjoying the approach as beefed-up counterjamming to the blockbuster-obsessed entertainment complex. Albums like this one or the compilations Quannum Spectrum, Funky Precedent, and the harder-edged Soundbombing II are by definition not great personal statements, nor even necessarily artistic peaks for the acts involved. But they keep going, A to the B to the C to the D, and right now that's more than enough.

 
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