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Prince Paul gets cinematic

By Kelefa Sanneh

MARCH 15, 1999:  Let's face it: hip-hop movies are a joke. At least, that's what people tell me. Rattled by dire warnings about Master P.'s I'm Bout It (translation: no budget!), Hype Williams's Belly (translation: no plot!), and RZA's Bobby Digital (translation: no script!) I haven't had the temerity to investigate the recent crop.

These movies seem almost too preposterous to parody, but Prince Paul -- hip-hop's most consistently inventive producer -- has never been known to turn down a good joke. An absurd soundtrack to a nonexistent movie, his new A Prince Among Thieves (Tommy Boy) is a send-up of the genre. But when asked what inspired it, Paul is decidedly diplomatic. "I parody almost every movie I've ever seen," he tells me over the phone. "I parody the crooked cop, the gangster guy, the organization leader, the gun runner. It just so happens that everybody else bases their movies on those things."

Prince Paul has long been considered an eccentric visionary. He began his career with Stetsasonic in the '80s, produced De La Soul's groundbreaking Three Feet High and Rising in 1989, invented horror-core rap with the Gravediggaz in 1994, and then won a Grammy for his work on Chris Rock's Roll with the New. None of which prepared anyone for his 1996 solo debut, Psychoanalysis (What Is It?), a disconcerting sound collage unified only by the underlying theme of mental illness. Some of his earlier work had been weird yet accessible, but Psychoanalysis made no concessions -- it spliced together intentionally unfunny stand-up comedy, strange snatches of dialogue, farcical raps, and a song that went, "It's a beautiful night for a date rape."

In contrast, A Prince Among Thieves is a coherent album with a unifying theme. Where Psychoanalysis used sounds and voices to bewildering effect, the new disc tells a story that Prince Paul says was inspired by the movie Grease. Its protagonists are Tariq and True, two young hustlers portrayed by indie-rap veteran Breezly Brewin and newcomer Big Sha. While working their way toward an inevitable shootout, they encounter a wide variety of ghetto stereotypes: Big Daddy Kane as Count Mackula, the ladies' man; Kool Keith as Crazy Lou, a gun dealer; De La Soul and Chris Rock as crackheads; and Everlast as Omaley Bitchkowski, that most familiar of hip-hop archetypes, the racist white cop.

It's a star-filled cast convened to address a novel problem in rap music: how do you get a dozen MCs to rhyme in character? Well, by and large, you don't. If, for example, you want to use Kool Keith, you just create a character around the things that Kool Keith tends to say ("Bounty hunters with camouflage/Green alligators/Straight from the Barbados/Chewing sweet potatoes") and incorporate that into your script.

A Prince Among Thieves is held together more by music than by words. The project is full of filmic incidental noise, as well as Paul's trademark bargain-basement synthesizers and off-kilter strings. Imaginative sonic distractions are a necessity because Breeze and Sha aren't the deftest lyricists. Paul is most successful on "More Than U Know," which features the album's catchiest beats underneath a spirited ode to crack by De La Soul.

None of this would mean anything if the story itself weren't compelling. But through the thicket of awkward couplets and extraneous guest stars, Tariq and True emerge as sympathetic characters. True sets up Tariq to be arrested by the police so he can swipe Tariq's record deal while Tariq languishes in prison. The two settle their differences with firearms, and only the treacherous True survives. Further confusing matters, the title track is an epilogue in which True recounts a completely different version of the movie's plot, making persuasive claims for his own innocence and eulogizing Tariq as a cokehead who just couldn't get his life together. When asked about the cynical ending, Prince Paul just shrugs, as if he didn't quite understand what went wrong. "Rappers always exaggerate stuff in their rhymes. I believe that good always prevails, somewhere along the line. But a lot of evil people get ahead in the meantime."

Prince Paul's idiosyncratic vision has always required a lot of self-reliance and a little blind faith. "If I said I didn't care about hip-hop," he acknowledges, "that would be cruel. But I don't know where it's headed in the future. I just know that wherever it's headed, I'm going to be in my own world, making music." A pause. A giggle. An afterthought. "Yeah! I can be the hip-hop cowboy."

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