Making Something Out Of Anything: An Interview With Thes One Of People Under The Stairs

People Under the Stairs

Since its formation in 1997, the hip hop duo of Thes One and Double K, collectively known as People Under The Stairs (or PUTS for short) has put out eight critically acclaimed albums and toured an estimated 400 venues worldwide. Even more noteworthy, however, is the fact that they have achieved this success largely by themselves, taking on both the creative and business ends of their profession to ensure complete freedom in an industry not known for its cooperative attitude.

The last year has been particularly busy for the group: they released their eighth studio album, Highlighter, which critics and fans have deemed their most mature album to date, and opened for crowd-drawing acts such as Mac Miller and Girl Talk.   Other creative projects include the maturation of Piecelock 70, an artist collective formed by Thes One in 2004.

After a sleepless night in Seattle following a late performance and 4 a.m. flight back to his hometown of Los Angeles, I talked to a surprisingly congenial Thes One early Monday morning. One his way to pick up records with Double K and seemingly unfazed by the busy schedule ahead of them, it seemed like just another day in the life of one of hip hop’s most acclaimed and truly independent acts.

Check out the interview after the jump and pick up tickets to see People Under The Stairs live in Madison tonight (Tuesday, November 27) here.

So you’re on your way to shop for records?

Thes One: Actually, I’m going to pick up records that we’re having made right now. I would never jump off a plane and go record shopping. [Laughs]

It might be cathartic after a terrible plane ride.

To be quite honest with you, much to the chagrin of most of our fans, I haven’t really been buying that many records lately. It’s all about making new stuff now for me, you know? So I don’t really spend any time looking for the old stuff. I have so many old records.  I’ve actually pared it down to under 10,000. Now I just spend the majority of my time helping artists around us getting new material or vinyl made and released.

I forget where, but I once read about a contest that Questlove of The Roots had with another producer, where they picked out the most outrageous records for each other with the challenge of who could make a better beat from it. If you were in that position, are you confident that you could make a beat out of anything?

Oh yeah, I can make something out of anything for sure. One of the reasons I got burnt out on record collecting a little bit was that I started buying records in a period of time before eBay, before breaks and funk records became monetized and were like a commodity. And when that happened, you saw people kind of measuring their worth in the value of their records, somehow thinking that that would equate to a good beat of make them a better producer, which I don’t believe is the case. I believe that anyone who is talented can make a beat out of anything, really. I don’t think that equipment or anything like that makes something great.

Plus, there’s probably all the duds you had to burn cash on to find the one record you were looking for.

You go through a lot. And then we started getting portable record players in the early 90’s, and that really cut down on the amount of chud you ended up buying. You were able to test it out before you got it. But really what it comes down to is that there was a period of time when I felt that there was a competitive element to it. I felt like if I was the first person to sample a particular record, then that was worth something. In this era, this era of YouTube and all this other stuff, it doesn’t matter anymore. So that’s fine–it’s not a good or bad thing. It’s just accepting the reality of it and moving on knowing that you can make a dope beat out of anything. It could be the rarest record in the world or it could be the most common record in the world. It’s the talent and the theory that you put into it.

Tell me about your travels overseas. What are the hip hop scenes like in different countries?

It’s different in every country. Some countries are culturally lagging behind the United States just due to the lack of exposure. Their hip hop is in an equivalent era, if that makes sense. We went down to Africa, and I felt like hip hop in Africa, with the show, the vibe and the community, it felt like what America was like back a few years ago. And its nice to see people that aren’t burnt out on [hip hop] or over it, you know what I mean? Especially on the internet, where people are so snide about the whole hip hop thing. There are still a lot of countries where people genuinely love it, and they use it to organize communities, they feel the power in it, and it’s not really something to laugh at. It was refreshing, for sure.

I imagine the fans were more appreciative and present in the moment because of the lack of exposure you were talking about. It’s not something they see everyday, and it may be one of their only chances to see a hip hop show.

Right. We definitely get that overseas, but I think we’ve also taken that feeling of being over there and other places and brought it here. Like last night when we were in Seattle, if we see someone in the front who is just standing there, we are a live show and we bring the party. We make sure that every single person is participating in the show. We’re not up there like, “Yo, check out our raps, check out our beats!” I feel like it’s more of a communal experience with the audience.

I’ve never seen you live, so I’m excited to see you come to Madison.

We’ve never played Madison. Unbelievably, in fourteen years of touring, we’ve never played Madison.

Why is that?

Well, unfortunately I think a lot of fans believe that we have some sort of choice over where we want to go, but that’s not the case. We go where we get booked, and for whatever reason, we were never asked to come play there until now.

Historically, I think Madison’s city officials haven’t been the most enthusiastic supporters of hip hop coming through town. The last year or so was particularly bad, but I think things are getting better.

It could be because of that. Unfortunately, I hear that story again and again in different cities, with venues getting shut down and local police not letting shows go on or giving everyone hell. It’s important for us to go to places like that, though, because the way me and Double K got into hip hop was by going to live shows. Everything that we learned to bring to our live shows, we learned from groups we went to see. Seeing what we liked about them, what we didn’t like about them, and then making our whole emcee persona out of that. It feels good to know that we’re going to a place where we might influence a younger generation.

You’ve spoken about music theory and are known for being very knowledgeable of music history and the more technical aspects of the craft. For a younger generation of artists wishing to make a living at their craft, which do you feel is more important, historical knowledge of your craft or creative output?

I think the word “art” or “artist” is at odds with the term “making a living.” Look at the career trajectory of [Black Eyed Peas’] will.i.am. I’ll be the first to tell you that I know that dude, we come from the same scene here in L.A., and I don’t respect a single thing that the dude has done. But he’s made a lot of money. Now does that make him a successful artist? I don’t know. I don’t think that making a living or measuring success monetarily is really related to art. With that said, studying your craft and output are two different things as well. A guy who has a million YouTube videos doesn’t necessarily mean he knows jack bone about what the hell he’s doing. So it’s easy for people to say “saturate the scene.” But ultimately, if people have something to offer and it’s good, often times it’ll pick up steam and people will like it. It may not be for everyone; I mean, I don’t like certain music videos that have 20 million YouTube views, but someone does. So I don’t know man. As far as we’re concerned, me and Double K probably know more about hip hop than the average bear, but that’s because we love it. We felt like we needed it to perform, but then again, that knowledge makes us better performers.

A deeper knowledge and appreciation of your craft also allows you to not repeat what’s been done in the past.

Yeah, like I said earlier, when watching groups come through, we took more away from watching groups we didn’t like or didn’t like the performance of than from groups we did. Because we learned what we weren’t going to do. And the groups we did like, we weren’t just going to bite their style. But the groups we didn’t like…For instance, I try to never turn my back on the crowd. Why? Because I went to a ton of hip hop shows where dudes just turn around and rap to the wall. And I don’t like that; it’s a pet peeve of mine. I think it’s poor performance. And I learned that by being a fan.

As a last question, the year is coming to a close. What do you and Double K think is the best hip hop album of the year?

I think we would both agree that it is by and large, hands down, the Kendrick Lamar album [Good Kid: M.A.A.D City]. Probably the west coast release of the decade, I would say. He’s an extremely talented young cat from L.A., so we’re inclined to support that. But with that said, there’s a certain brilliant honesty to the record. He’s an amazing writer, the production is top notch, and it really captures what’s going on here in L.A. I wouldn’t expect anyone from any other city to really understand it, but that album most closely captures what we’ve grown up around. It captures L.A. better than, say, Odd Future or whatever. The Kendrick album is really what’s going on. Obviously, I’m inclined to promote our stuff as well, but we haven’t released a record this year. Highlighter is a great record. People should check that out. [Laughs]

–interview by Austin Duerst

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