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An Interview with People Under the Stairs

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Thes One and Double K comprise the Los Angeles hip-hop duo known as People Under the Stairs (PUTS for short). They’ve garnered a significant amount of acclaim over the past few years on the strength of their LPs Question in the Form of an Answer and OST and their energetic live shows. Their excellent new (and long-awaited) album Stepfather releases on April 18th. I was fortunate enough to be able to talk to the pair this past March 17th via telephone.

First off, how are you today?

Thes: Good, man. It’s kinda cold, but good.

Where exactly are you right now?

Thes: L.A.

Cold in L.A.?

Thes: Yeah, it is.

[ADBLOCKHERE]Damn, things changed since I left. Anyway, I suppose I should get down to it. So you have this new album Stepfather coming out. Reading the press release, it talks about taking your sound in a bit of a different direction – kind of letting the sound evolve. Was this the intention all along, or did it just happen?

Thes: I think just a little bit of both, in the sense that it happened ’cause Double K and I have been doing this for a while, and every time we get into the studio… we don’t really try to do anything, but since we’re getting older and thinking about things different, I think it just came out of us differently and we’re less hesitant to try new stuff. We don’t have to prove that we can make it more hip-hop – I think we’re just comfortable making music and whatever makes us happy.

I can understand that. I’ve heard some of your songs and I like your use of samples. I mean, you’ve got a lot of eclectic things on there. When you go crate digging, do you specifically look for certain things or is it more just looking for something to hit you? Is there a process of trial and error, like you buy a whole bunch of vinyl, spin beats and see what works? Or does something just fall out of the sky, like bam?

K: Well, both of us, we’ve been doing this for a long time, so we usually know what we’re looking for when we go in. You know, we just don’t pick up a whole bunch of records and take ‘em home and check ‘em out.

Thes: Some stuff we use for inspiration, some stuff actually gets used and gets manipulated into the actual music, but I think as we’ve gotten better as producers, we’ve basically learned how to take less and use the influence more instead of just taking the record.

Is there a particular style or genre of music you feel works best? Or is it just situational?

K: Good ol’ funky music, man! Anything superfunky… if you got the funk, you can find a South American record that’s hella funky.

Speaking of funk, I heard one of the new tracks off the album, and George Clinton was on it. What was it like to work with him? How’d you get connected with him?

K: It was a crazy experience, man. Something I’ll never forget. And just having it on here, that’s a blessing right there. I hooked up with him through a friend of mine who used to tour with those guys. He was a roadie back in the day, did some things, running around for those guys. He’s still connected with them, and he knows how much I talk about him, how much I listen to him, I build shrines… I’m really into the P-Funk, so he made that happen for me.

Cool, cool. It sounds like you had a good time on that. So I did wanna ask, I suppose you’ve been getting this question a lot lately… it’s been a few years since your last release – the Or Stay Tuned EP came out in ’03. Any particular reason for the delay?

K: No reason at all, really. I mean, we were staying busy the whole time, whether it was going overseas or touring out here – we were still working on the music, taking care of family business, you know, all kinds of stuff. We had planned on releasing [Stepfather].

Something else I wanted to touch on: A lot of the music you make, even the more serious songs… there’s still a sense of fun in it. Like a sense of play. How do you manage to maintain that?

K: This is who we are, man. We take some of the darkest situations and make light out of it. So there’s always gonna be some fun behind it, where there can be the most serious song that makes you want to cry – it’s sad, but we’ll crack a joke with it so you might laugh.

Thes: Yeah, usually when things get bad – you know, me and Double K, that is me and Mike, when we’re on a tour, we spend a lot of time away from home and stuff can get pretty bad. So we just keep laughing about it, just keep a smile on our faces. It’s the only way to deal with life sometimes.

Do you find that’s a difficult balance to maintain, or does it just happen?

Thes: Having fun with the music? I don’t know, I think that’s one of the things – we love making music, and I think part of that just comes through whenever we make it. We love the fact that we’re able to even do this. So I don’t think we really feel like we have to be something or somebody when we get in there. We’re jokers, so we get in there and we joke around. I don’t know, it just does.

That’s cool.

Thes: It’s a little bit different than the usual hip-hop, though, because a lot of guys, they have a persona that they have to be tough, you know?

K: Gotta be tough every day. Sometimes you gotta give that shit up.

Thes: Yeah, those dudes don’t call their moms and be like, “Yo mom, wassup?”

Ha! Goodness Lord, I should hope not!

K: There may be some out there. It is America.

Heh, you never know. One thing, I’ve been looking at the website a bit and I’ve noticed that you guys are really into analog recording. How difficult is it to stay with that? I suppose the question is, what is the appeal for you?

Thes: I think…

K: Warmth.

Thes: Yeah, there’s a certain warmth that comes with it, but I think the real appeal for me is that the less that we rely on all of the digital or high-tech stuff, the more we have to rely on being clever and creative. And we can’t fall back on taking a chord and basically copying and pasting it into other parts of the song. We have to be able to actually perform in the studio. I think that a lot of people have fallen back on technology a little bit, and it’s hard to find records that sound different now because they all come out of the same digital world and factory.

Yeah, I’ve noticed that with a lot of the releases I’ve been listening to lately. There is a sort of processed sound. So what you’re saying is it keeps your records feeling more organic?

Thes: It keeps them feeling more organic and it keeps us more creative because we can’t rely on the technology to do the job. If we want a shaker on a song, we might have to go in there with a can, a soda can filled with beans or something like that, or find a record with a shaker on it. We just gotta be creative and keep using our wits, I guess.

It opens you up to more challenges.

Thes: Yeah, and I think it takes the music in directions it would never go in if we didn’t have to work around that sort of stuff.

It’s like instead of, I need and can get this sound effect now here, you kinda have to work for it.

Thes: Yeah, because of that, you appreciate it more. It’s the same reason people can’t really appreciate… I mean, people are starting to appreciate music less because they’re downloading it, and it’s becoming more disposable. Whereas if you buy the CD and you look at the artwork, you’re less likely to throw it out the window if you don’t like it.

Interestingly, that brings me to my next question. On one of the message boards on your site, I noticed you guys have been having a bit of a problem with Internet leaks.

Thes: Aah. Yeah.

It’s unfortunate. How do you feel about the whole situation?

Thes: Well, it’s funny. These kids, some of the kids on there, they say, “Oh, we’re such fans, we went out and downloaded [the new album].” They don’t have any grasp of what it’s doing to the industry and the artist. I try to explain to them on the forum that, as flattered as you may think we are, you’re hurting the people who are taking the risk by putting this out – the record label. And if record labels don’t want to take the risk by putting our music out ’cause they think all you superfans are gonna steal it, then it’s gonna leave us in a position where we can’t put anything out and that hurts everyone. So it’s tough, man.

I do notice that you’re going with the whole value-added thing, trying to keep people from downloading it — you threw in a DVD and a poster. Do you see that as the future in preventing downloads, offering more?

Thes: That was the idea behind this, but I’m not sure how much more we can offer.

Yeah, I guess if a DVD doesn’t entice you not to download it, you’re kinda beyond help.

Thes: Yeah, we’ve been proactively putting fake copies of the record on the Internet. We got some tricks brewed up for these cats. We’re trying to have fun with it and fight back in a way where we just release really ridiculous stuff on the Internet and make it look like it’s the real record. Double K had a nice country singing debut on the Internet earlier.

Ha! I almost kinda want to find that. The other thing I saw is that you actually had a contest for anyone who could come up with the best fake. Was there any pan-out on that?

Thes: People are working on it. That’s why I gotta love them, too — they’ll steal the record, but then they’ll try and help prevent other people from stealing it. So I dunno. We’re fighting back the best way that we can and dealing with it the best way we can as an independent. Every record sale counts for us, you know.

Yeah, definitely. Okay, this one’s just more of a general question about something I’m rather curious about as more of an observer. I know you guys are West Coast. I’m living on the East Coast, so I’m getting a lot of [East Coast hip-hop] here. But what I’m starting to notice is that there’s a lot of West Coast artists who are starting to work with people from other regions. Like, you got the Aceyalone CD that just came out, he did with RJD2, and Murs has been putting out records on Def Jux, which is mostly Brooklyn-based. Do you think the idea of hip-hop boundaries is starting to fall apart? Is there more of a communal feel nowadays, or is there still that regional pride?

K: I know for us – I can only speak on what we’re doing, and we’re not trying to go out there and do that. I really can’t say, man. I really don’t think about it. I think it’s cool that dudes will link up. I guess I wouldn’t call it communal to regional pride, because I’m not trying to go out and work with anybody else. I want to represent L.A. at all costs.

Thes: I think we miss those days too a little bit, the regional stuff. I think it’s really cool that San Francisco has a movement going right now that’s completely regional and has been going for a minute, and a lot of people are missing out. Now they’re just catching it. It’s the same thing the South was doing for a while, and now you see it.

Yeah, ATL’s everywhere.

Thes: Hustle and Flow and Oscars being handed out and whatever. But I think that’s something that’s gonna keep things going – people celebrating their local culture.

Just to get back to something I kind of skipped over… you use a lot of samples, and you like funk and soul a lot, things like that. There’s a sort of, for lack of a better word, retro feel to that. Do you feel that’s something that’s kind of missing from the current hip-hop scene?

K: Yeah, I think the whole vibe with samples, or even scratching — dudes don’t scratch no more — it’s definitely missing. So yeah, we’re trying to bring that back. It should be [back], man.

Yeah, I’ve noticed that there are no records that scratch anymore, which is something I miss.

K: Hip-hop was built around the DJ scratching and doing his thing on the turntable. [Most groups] just have road DJs, there’s not like too many groups who’ll be, “This is our DJ right here. He’s in the back with the Gazelles and the gold chains with a Fab 5 Freddy record.” We’re missing that, man.

Well, I suppose I really only have one question left: Where do you see the future of the group going?

K: On tour! More and more tours. We’ve been doing this for five albums. I don’t see anything changing here. All we can do is progress. Going on as a group and as young men.

Anything else you wanna add?

K: Buy the new album! That’s all I can say, buy the new album. April 18th. Buy it so you can get the DVD.

Thes: Yeah, don’t download the album.

Hell, yeah. Thanks.

K: Alright, man. Peace.

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