“Crate digging” is hip-hop like electric guitar is rock. Either genre could survive without – both saw their beginnings as such – but these are the elements that helped make the music what it is today. Still, sampling another artist’s work, while a determinant in putting the most notable producers on the map, has always generated a great deal of controversy. “Paul’s Boutique” practically forced record labels to start clearing samples, and even Vanilla Ice caught some heat for “Ice, Ice Baby’s” unlawful looping of a Queen hit. Agitated rock fans have debated the art’s legitimacy for years; arguing that good beats rely on a producer’s chance in plucking out that brilliant loop; that beat-making is much more a test of dumb luck than it is a finely honed skill. Unfortunately for those in this theory’s support, names provide great obstacles, and there are plenty to drop. From the “P’s” alone – how’s about Large Professor and Prince Paul? Or Pete Rock and Prince Rakeem? Of course there’s DJ Premier and yes, People Under The Stairs.
If “one of these things is not like the other” trickles from your scathing tongue, stop kidding yourself. Undeniably, PUTS hardly meet the resumes of the legends they’ve been so generously compared, but fans of the Los Angeles duo have laughed at the sleepers for years. When this reviewer finally got his hands on a copy of “O.S.T.” back in 2002, an overwhelming sense of “where have you been” fogged his unassuming head. Well aware of their length of tenure, but ignorant of their apparent progression, I watched the P run away with what I was convinced the best produced album of the year, sonically unparalleled by anyone not named RJD2. By year’s end, it was a permanent resident in the disc changer, and has since seen its ripping onto two laptops, an iPod, and the good ol’ mp3 player.
Instantly satisfying melodies and full, crisp breaks are just a small fraction of what makes a PUTS composition so great. In between are the little things most beat makers never find time to add; a slamming door after a voice that says “back in the studio;” using Gang Starr clips after telling underground producers to “get off Premier’s dick;” having Mr. Rogers invite us “out on the porch” for a song about toking. If sampling oldies over a drumbox is hip-hop 101, Thes One and Double K might be the Artists of Residence. They’re a supremely skilled duo, adept in producing, scratching and emceeing, and on “O.S.T,” they do it all without the help of a single guest.
Perhaps even more startling than their talent is their versatility. While “O.S.T.” might sound at first to be the prototypically dusty, hard-hitting underground banger it isn’t, it becomes evident that nearly every track serves more than one purpose. In truth, almost every sound IS dusty, and a lot of the beats ARE hard-hitting. But under these classifications, who else can rock solitary headphone heads AND house parties? What could better complement a ride to the beach as well as nights of weed and Xbox?
“Jappy Jap” is college radio gold with its bubbling bass line, snatching the torch from the ill descending piano keys and sprinkled cymbals of the “Intro.” “The Outrage” swells and bumps with waning bass and 70’s organs, and the disco/funk jam “The Hang Loose” is as B-Boy as it is high school dance. Thes One is in a Pete Rock-esque zone for his second-half beats, with bangers “The L.A. Song” and “The Breakdown” doing serious damage to any encompassing spinal chords. “The Dig” is dark and manic, feeling much like the late night in the crates it describes, and the title track chops a number of oddball samples to make one central melody.
PUTS’ main criticism will always be in their lyrics. While it’s true that they rarely push the envelope, it could also be said that their flows are among the most natural in all off hip hop. Both B-Boys are absurdly skilled in production and emceeing, but where one slightly outdoes the other, they balance out elsewhere. While Thes One handles most of the beats and generally brings the most heat, Dub K sounds so tight over them it’s like his parents were snares and Curtis Mayfield loops.
People Under The Stairs were at peak form for “O.S.T.,” making hip-hop the way they thought it should be made. There are no dictionary trips required, and braggadocio is all but unheard of. Being such an incredibly easy listen, it was sure to catch at least a little criticism for sheer LACK of the same difficulty (and boredom) that usually accompanies an underground LP. You can hate on the beats and rhymes all day if you’d like, but if you ain’t down with the philosophy, you might be a little too uptight for your own good.