If you’re looking for a perfect example of staying true to yourself in Hip Hop, you need look no further than People Under The Stairs. Thes One & Double K have been going strong for nearly 15 years and have no plans have slowing down. After spending time at various labels over the past decade, the Cali duo has gone back to their roots for their 8th studio album Highlighter. Just a few days after the release of the new LP, I had the chance to speak with Thes One for an in depth conversation in which the veteran emcee/producer dropped some knowledge on a wide variety of topics. In part one of our discussion, Thes speaks on aging gracefully in Hip Hop, the reason you rarely see guests on PUTS albums, the importance of releasing Highlighter in 24-bit AAC HD, why he created Piecelock 70 instead of a record label and much more.
Justin: You and Double K have been at this for almost 15 years now, what’s changed for y’all since you first started out?
Thes: Probably the biggest change is we’re older (laughs). You know getting older, Hip Hop has always traditionally been a young man’s sport and there hasn’t really been I’d say, for a lack of a better term, a role model that can kind of show what getting older gracefully in Hip Hop looks like. You know what I’m saying? If being Jay-Z and being 40 and being a billionaire and still rapping isn’t an option, then there’s not a lot of people out you can look to that are aging, that are having kids, that are starting families and still making Hip Hop that’s not an entire embarrassment. That’s kind of been the thing to feel our way through this, try to find a way to be down with everyone you know what I’m saying? We want to still make music that’s exciting to the younger generation, but not alienate our fans that have been with us with 1998 and not be the 40 year old dude in the room with the fitted hat and Adidas suit.
Justin: Yeah, I hear you. Kind of going along with that, I’ve always felt every time I’m listening to a People Under The Stairs record, I feel like they’re having fun; it’s light-hearted. They’re not taking these big risks on trying to be extra experimental and alienating their fan base like you said. What do you attribute to y’all’s consistency to?
Thes: Well, I think we are pretty honest with ourselves about who we are. Ever since we started, we kind of felt our like our thing was we were gonna rap about what’s going on around us. We weren’t gonna be those dudes who were super, super tough and talk gun talk and “I sell drugs” and this and that, then turn around and get picked up from the studio by your mom. A lot of rappers can be like that unbeknownst to the fans, so we wanted to make sure people knew that we’re just us. You’ll probably like us and you might like this music if you’re just a normal dude. It’s been great for us; it’s been what people come to expect. They know when they hear a People Under The Stairs record, they’re gonna hear personal stuff, inside jokes, things about our lives… kind of like how we looked at groups like De La [Soul] when we were coming up.
Justin: Let’s get into the new album, which is Highlighter. How was the creative process for that going? You were following up Carried Away, so how was it different but keeping with your same style at the same time?
Thes: Highlighter is definitely a little bit more out there. Carried Away kind of showed us that we could really, really do us more so than ever and not really have to worry about any repercussions since the fans have our backs. With this album Highlighter, we really stretched out. I was able to incorporate a lot of elements; do things that I’ve always wanted to do like rap over an odd time signature, have a full string section, have vibraphone, live Fender Rhodes, live players basically and treat it more like a traditional producer. Not like a Hip Hop producer, but like a producer from the 70’s would where I’m organizing studio sessions and bringing people and this and that.
Justin: You’re also kind of doing that style on your solo album Wonderful Radio right?
Thes: Yeah definitely. I put that aside to work on the album, but I had learned a lot about what the possibilities are between using sample based Hip Hop like we do and also bringing in live stuff but not making it sound like The Roots or something, making it still sound like a beat. On the record, I was really able to refine that and we just really wanted to make something that was musically interesting.
Justin: Now you went back and self-released Highlighter through Piecelock 70. Why did you make this decision? You spent a little time on Om Records and Gold Dust Media, so why the decision to go back to your roots and release it by yourselves?
Thes: For one, like you said, that’s our roots. That’s the way we came up, and there was a certain excitement in me being in touch with the plant and calling them saying, “Hey are you guys making our record today?” or driving out there and actually seeing it get pressed. On one hand, I felt like we had lost touch with the product. And we would make the music, we would make the art, but we weren’t in control of the way it was made or the way it was disseminated to the fans. In some instances, the fans got the short end of the stick because the labels, or whoever was involved, were just concerned with their bottom line. They weren’t tied to it like we are. We basically decided there’s a way that we can do this, this is where we come from, let’s just give it a shot selling it ourselves and the response has been amazing. We’ve had a couple of bumps in the road as we’re growing, but the thing is we’re growing. The response to the record is, I would say 10 times what we had anticipated going into it so it’s been amazing.
Justin: That’s great. Now also with this release, you did the first ever 24-bit HD AAC release. Tell us a little bit about what that is and why it was so important for you to make this happen for the fans so they could get that experience.
Thes: I think one of things about being in control of your product is that you’re flexible enough to experiment with certain things and technologies that a traditional record label or that the industry can’t do. Pretty much anyone that works in a studio knows that 24-bit is the sort of minimum resolution that you make music at, that you record music at. We’re still… you know consumers are still getting stuck with CD’s or they get an MP3, which are made from a CD. Basically I saw a loophole in this technology because Apple’s been ready for it, but they haven’t roll it out yet. I’m sure in the near future they’re gonna ask people to buy like the whole Beatles collection on HD. But the players already support it, iTunes already supports it and so in the last sort of like 25th hour, I pulled the trigger and said we’re gonna release it like this. We did a bunch of rigorous testing and we were able to pull it off. It’s been a really, really big file to circulate, especially when you’re doing it independently. We were burning through the internet trying to get it out to everyone, but it’s been going well. And the fans, I think they appreciate it. They know we’re trying to experiment and progress technology, move forward.
Justin: I know I had a little trouble trying to download it at first (laughs). Do you think y’all are kind of paving the way with this? So many guys are releasing their stuff for free anyway these days without a record label involved. Do you see more artists doing this? Are y’all going to continue doing it at Piecelock?
Thes: We’re definitely gonna continue it at Piecelock and I think that probably over the course of the next five years, you gonna see the whole industry shift. They’re just waiting to figure out, probably, the best way to make money off the technology. But because money isn’t our primary concern, we didn’t jack up the price on the record even though it’s obviously costing us 10 times more to distribute a file that’s a gig as opposed to 100 megs. It’s $10, whether it’s HD or not. We’re just sending everyone the best possible product we can. And releasing like this is one of the ways I think we can thank the fans for support.
Justin: You were talking about bringing in live instruments and I thought especially on this record, the production was outstanding – you and Double K did a great job. What was the process, how much crate digging were you involved in? Where did you strike that balance of live versus your traditional ways?
Thes: Well everything still pretty much started as a beat on my MPC. Then as things would get tracked in, some things I knew wouldn’t have any playing on it and then other things I felt were half finished until we could get someone to play on it; and then it was a matter of writing the charts or getting the right elements in there for the players to know what do. One person, Kat Oauno, who played piano and keyboards and also vibraphone, she’s worked with us in the past so she knows exactly what we’re trying achieve. Hopefully it doesn’t overshadow the sample based music because it still is Hip Hop. We’re not making a symphony rock record or something like that (laughs). We wanted to do it tastefully. We wanted expand that horizon a little bit but still have it production.
Justin: You’ve always kind of kept it in house; it’s always been you and Double K doing the producing and handling the rhymes most part. I’ve never heard an album from y’all overloaded with the guest features or anything. Can you talk about why it’s important to ya’ll to keep it in house and not be filled keep with guests.
Thes: Right. That was one of things that both Double K and I hated about Hip Hop. You never saw that back in the day. Come the turn of the Internet, it was being used as a way to basically sell people’s albums. There was this whole idea of cosigning and dropping a hot 16 on someone’s record or whatever. And that is fine for a lot of people and I know it can be exciting for the fans to follow one of their emcees from record to record, but we always felt like if you wanna hear us you can hear us. So there’s no guest rappers on the record and there rarely is. If there ever was a guest rapper, it was usually the homie who was drunk in the studio and we’re like, “Hey get on the track.”
Thes: We don’t email beats to people. We don’t receive guest verses emailed to us or whatever. It’s a family affair here.
Justin: I wanted to go back to Piecelock 70 because it’s such an interesting thing that you’ve started here. Can you talk about why you decided to start this and how it’s grown in such a short time?
Thes: Basically, as we were coming out of Carried Away and I was dealing with the frustrations of sort of managing the record through another label… you know I always was felt at the end of the day, I gotta do all the work anyways and the label’s basically collecting the money. I was looking at that and then around me, there were a bunch of people that I truly believed in, people like DJ Day, that make amazing music. But, because we had grown up stuck in this mindset that until you get a record label to come along with infrastructure and distribution to pick up your record and release it, you don’t have an album. And the fact of matter was that everyone around me did have material that was ready for release and there were no record labels left to come around and pick it up. So, I said what we should do is treat it like a co-op. Like if you’re a bunch of farmers — you share your materials, you share your tractors, this that or whatever, and when one person’s crop is ready, they bring money into the co-op. And then while their crop is growing, the other person’s is ready and they bring money. And that’s kind of how we’re treating it. The money that the record is bringing in right now is gonna help pay for the pressing of the next record and so on and so forth, and we’ll be all in it together.
Justin: Well so many guys traditionally want just to create their own label, so why did you opt for this alternative route instead of making your own record label?
Thes: Yeah, I guess the other option would’ve been to start a record label and just sign all my friends. That’s a great question. The root of it all is I’m opposed to ownership of music. I don’t believe that a record label should own the rights to the music at all. I think the only person who’s entitled to own the music is the artist. One of the things that is fundamental to Piecelock is we all work together to help get each other’s music, or books, or art out. You’ll never give up 1% of your ownership; you still own 1000% of it. It’s yours and people can step if they’re not happy with the situation. I don’t believe in that, I don’t believe that anyone should be in control except the artist.
Justin: Yeah, that makes sense.
Thes: Plus, I don’t think it’s good karma to making money off other people’s music man. I think the whole industry is filled with that.
Justin: Do you think this is a way that a lot of artists might start switching to as a way to get out of the record label situation? We know that it’s already kind of dying with the way the Internet works right now. Do you think more people are gonna see someone like you succeeding with this and want to try it?
Thes: I hope so man. It’s been a little bit rough, but at the end of the day, we can still sleep good knowing that we’re still in charge. The only other option aside from that… what I hear a lot of times is the record label saying to you, “Well if you don’t sign with us, you just put it out for free, and then you tour and make your money on the road.” But that sort of cycle of putting music out for free and then trying to tour to make up the money means that you’re not in the studio making more music. So what we’re trying to do is keep it sustainable — keep people making a modest, middle class, lower-middle class income off music – but happy and at home in the studio, not out on the road killing themselves trying to make a little bit of money.
Check back tomorrow for part 2 of our interview with Thes One as well as the review for the new People Under The Stairs album Highlighter.