William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” The hip-hop group People Under the Stairs takes that axiom as a mantra. Thes One and Double K are forward-thinking traditionalists extraordinaire, and their latest album Stepfather reaches back into hip-hop’s past and stitches it to the future Moebius-strip style. The past and the future thus blend together into an eternal present, and what can you do in an eternal present? Simple: party like there’s no tomorrow.
A party might be in order no matter what Stepfather sounded like — it’s been nearly three years since the music world last heard from the Los Angeles-based duo. That time didn’t go to waste, from the sound of things; if anything, the expanse of time between releases allowed PUTS to make everything just right. There are twenty tracks on Stepfather, and not a single one of them is wasted time (not even the sample snippet “4 Dollar Afro”). All the bottled up creativity stored over the past years comes flooding out in a mad blast of funky energy. It is physically impossible to sit still while listening to this album.
Much of that can be credited to the fantastic production. PUTS handle all their own production duties, and they are staunch analog loyalists. (It could be said that this makes them the Steve Albini of hip-hop, though similarities between this and Songs About Fucking end there.) The diversity of the sonic palate is overwhelming — Stepfather careens from the minimal glitch-crunch of “Pass the 40″ to the hyper bounce of “Pumpin’” to the laid back party-hop of “Jamboree Part 1″ and the mellow, introspective funk of “Reflections.” PUTS comes off as a loose-limbed twosome willing to try anything in the service of the beat. This is especially impressive is the tidal wax-and-wane of the chorus in “You” and the snappy sample collage that kicks off “Pumpin’.”
This try-anything vibe extends to the lyrics as well. Thes One and Double K both possess a rhythmic flow that rides along on their beats like a gaucho on a Palomino. While not as complex or wordy as, say, Aesop Rock, PUTS’ verses move at a relaxed pace that is agreeable and inviting (a nice contrast to the modern logorrheic standard in backpacker hip-hop). Their lingual dexterity is also matched by their breadth of topic; the two are comfortable rapping about whatever pops into their heads, whether it be a heartfelt ode to the families that raised them on “Days Like This” or the joys of gluttony on “Eat Street.” Pop culture seems to occupy a special place in their minds, as it does for so many hip-hop artists (in “Flex Off”, Thes One name-checks Miami Vice, Purple Rain, and Frank Lloyd Wright all in one breath). The main thrust, though, of many of their songs is finding ways to have a good time.
PUTS cast their nets back to the days when hip-hop was a celebratory art form. They aren’t just rappers — they’re historians, and they wish to encapsulate the history of hip-hop into one grand album. The two wear their influences on their sleeves; NWA and the Pharcyde get shout-outs in “LA9X,” while “Letter to the Old School” sees Double K going back further and singing the praises of Kool Moe Dee (among others). Going back even further than that, George Clinton shows up for a bizarre and wonderful guest shot on “The Doctor and the Kidd.”
Their room-rocking party anthems would fit nicely up against their old-school heroes, but this isn’t mere recreation. By taking the old funk, soul, and hip-hop records (as well as the movie and TV soundbites that serve as seamless transitional material between songs) and reconfiguring them for their own purposes, they transform and breathe new life into the sources. Thanks to increasingly strict copyright law, what Thes One and Double K have created here is about as close as we may ever get to a kaleidoscopic masterwork like De la Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising. This album shows us what we have lost over the years.
With Stepfather, PUTS announces their intention to celebrate hip-hop, celebrate art, celebrate life, whatever — as long as a good time can be had doing it. As the penultimate song says, they do this for you. Buy Stepfather and shake your ass in appreciation.