What Happens When Hip-Hop Semi-Stars Burn Out?

Adult Rappers director Paul Iannacchino Jr. speaks to J-Zone
Adult Rappers director Paul Iannacchino Jr. speaks to J-Zone
Paul Iannacchino Jr.

With hip-hop being identified for over 40 years as a youth culture, it begs the question: Do rappers grow up? Do they grow old? Does being an MC have an age limit, or does making a career rocking the mic entail no limits? Director Paul Iannacchino Jr. explores this question through his debut documentary, Adult Rappers. Iannacchino has a bit of an inside knowledge on the subject -- longtime underground hip-hop fans may remember him as DJ/producer DJ paWl, one-third of Hangar 18 and the producer behind Mr. Lif's "Front On This" as well as tracks from Aesop Rock and Sadat X. We spoke to the director about the transition from the turntables to the director's chair and what makes an "Adult Rapper."

You're originally from Boston, but moved to New York in 1999 as the indie-rap/underground scene began really bubbling. Around that time you produced "Front On This" for fellow Boston native Mr. Lif. Did you know him prior to relocating? We knew of each other. Being from Boston, he was underground-rap royalty. Anybody that had a record in that era, we all looked up to. "Man, you're in Boston and you have a record? You really must be making moves." A guy who was in one of the bands that I played in who was the bass player/manager knew [Definitive Jux founder and Company Flow MC] El-P's manager Amici, and I used to big the shit out of him once a week in the hopes he would listen to a beat tape to get connected with somebody. He was the one who heard "Front On This" and wanted to put Lif on it. The irony is that Lif fronted on that beat the first time he heard it, and wasn't super into it. Amici really pushed him and it turned into "Front On This." I'm still really proud of it; it was my first record on the wall at Fat Beats.

How did you choose the name DJ paWl? It was a joke that stuck, like everything in hip-hop. A really good friend in college who was in [my] first-ever rap group. I started landing DJ gigs before we were performing anywhere. I needed a DJ name and was opposed to some weird moniker that didn't mean anything that I would eventually wind up hating. He was the one who was like, "You should go by DJ Paul, but spell it with a W." It sounds even worse coming out of my mouth. It happened and it stuck.

You've discussed Adult Rappers as being a tribute to the rap artists who live the touring-rapper style. When did you decide you wanted to make a documentary about rappers? We [Paul's former group Hangar 18] always talked about as a group that we would stick with [rapping] as long as we were moving up the ladder, the shows were getting bigger, the slots were better, and the opportunities were good. Once things started to slide, we agreed that we would stop. That's an easy thing to say and a difficult thing to commit to in practice, and I think watching guys hang on to that longer than they probably should was hard. I felt I was very lucky that I could go, "I'm not going to do music, I'm going to do this other viable career," and it made me think long and hard about, not everybody has that choice or the same opportunities. Having some real conversations about where we were at, the three of us went in different directions. I had a daughter in 2006 and I was lost in being a first-time dad, so making rap music wasn't really a priority. When I first started thinking about the film, it was as a love letter/epitaph to my short, middling career as a hip-hop artist.

I had a beat CD with my name and number on it, and years later somebody called me up and said, "Yo, I dug this CD, is any of this still available?" I said, "I got too many adult rappers in my life," and it was that moment I began talking about how funny that would be, to tell that story about grown-up rappers trying to live life but hang on to those glory days. I interviewed J-Zone, and he gave me his book [Root for the Villain] and that was the watershed moment between parallels in the book and the narrative I was trying to tell. The stories we get about rappers are the amazing success story or the underdog that made it with slow-motion shots of the crowd going crazy. That's all great, but I've seen it over and over again and there's a lot of guys who, that's not reality. And there's another story of the long, hard slog before that story. I was really intrigued by the untold part of that story, the myths and misconceptions.

Were there any interviews you were particularly excited about having in the film? I really enjoyed talking to Breeze Brewin because, probably more than anyone else in there, I was a fan. But also, he came into it really eager and anxious to tell his story. He's a super great dude, I really loved talking to him. R.A. the Rugged Man was amazing -- he has no filter to talk about anything.

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