Purism in Hip Hop music has a boundary that becomes easily blurred as rap artists compete and tread towards fame, success, and artistic integrity on the same playing field. It’s a fleeting pursuit. Yet the few artists that are able to maintain financial stability after decades carving their own niche in the rap game know how illusory chart success can be. It’s the approach that several artists take as a career choice, and find respect from their peers and audience as their success rather than brand marketing and endorsements deals.
That’s the same approach Los Angeles duo People Under The Stairs have taken since they released their seminal debut album The Next Step in 1998. The PUTS hail from the second-wave late 90s LA underground rap scene which boasted underground mainstays such as Freestyle Fellowship, Living Legends, Fat Jack, Visionaries, and Dilated Peoples to name a few. The dogma of the underground rap scene is similar to that of hardcore punk rock, in which artists eschew musical pragmatism and embrace a fun yet malcontent approach in their creative process. People Under The Stairs have strayed from diluting their sound for commercial appeal, sticking to East Coast-oriented boom bap while striving for Hip Hop greatness in with every album release since online chat rooms initially were the communication forums for purist rap fans during the early 2000s.
Since coming into their own with seminal albums such as Question In The Form Of An Answer, O.S.T., Fun DMC, and Stepfather, Mike Turner and Chris Portugal (aka Double K and Thes One, respectively) have been able to continue pushing the boundaries of rap while remaining steadfast in the edicts of b-boy culture and old school Hip Hop. After their recent sold-out Boston area performance, PUTS spoke with HipHopDX about staying relevant after nine albums, how they define their success, their disdain for Afrika Bambaataa amid his child molestation allegations, how trap beats are the new pop music, and how they want their legacy to reach beyond Hip Hop.
When PUTS Made Their “Next Step” Into Rap Industry
HipHopDX: Outside of their festival fan base, your biggest claim to fame beyond Hip Hop is Thes One winning that furniture set on The Price Is Right game show. That lyric of Thes saying “I’ll play the Rob Roddy” on “San Francisco Knights” was quite clairvoyant on his part.
Double K: Yeah, I sat on that couch, and have gotten beers out that refrigerator he won on that show. [Laughs]
DX: When you see the newer generation of LA rap artists like Kendrick Lamar, YG, Nipsey Hussle who are flourishing in their mainstream success now, does it make you harken back to that time to when that LA underground audience grew across the world towards today?
Double K: Yeah, because you know what? The internet did it. With all these young cats, when you say Kendrick Lamar, YG, Nipsey Hussle, and gangbangers who are poppin’ now, back then you had to make a demo tape and hand it to a record company. Whereas now you can make a song and put it on SoundCloud, and people make comments about the shit and you keep going. So I do definitely see a root in the same tree that grew Project Blowed, that grew N.W.A. It’s all the same thing, and God bless Eric Wright, Eazy E, it’s him. We all have a voice now because he started West Coast Hip Hop, coming from Compton. We have a voice because we’re up under that, too. I’m the biggest King Tee fan. Ya dig?
DX: King Tee had a major influence on a lot of people, unsung to his credit. His Likwit Crew proteges Tha Alkaholiks even told the Beatnuts that when Biggie Smalls was on tour with them in 1994 that King Tee was heavily influential on his vocal delivery.
Double K: Yeah, and The Beatnuts were one of [my] biggest influences. Those dudes are from Queens, nahmean?
DX: You’re now nine albums deep into your catalog. What was the hardest challenge you faced when you were making your first LP?
Double K: Realizing that we were making [an album]. Because we didn’t set out to do that. We just set out to make beats, hang out, smoke weed with each other, and chill. Then all these songs started piling up and then we said, “Oh shit, we’re making an album.” Now we have a group title, a name for the group then “Uh-oh,” it’s getting bigger than us. That was hard. And once I saw the CD, that was really hard. But I proved my mom wrong.
DX: What was the moment that you realized that this was your career and that you couldn’t stop while you were ahead as professional artists?
Thes One: I think for me it was when we played Glastonbury (UK Festival) in 2001.
Double K: And seeing people sing along in the crowd to words. That was like “Whoa, they actually listen to the music instead of just thinking there are dudes up there just rapping.”
Thes One: Plus, dudes that we looked up to come and give us props. Like some people were who were supportive, and some were cool. But there was the contingency of old crusty dudes who never want to give you props no matter what. I’m not going to name no fucking names, but when a Biz Markie and Chuck D recognizes you for what you’re doing, you realize that I’m a part of this shit. But I would like to put on the record that even now on Instagram, on like King Tee’s page or some shit, he’ll repost something like a heart that someone drew saying “I Love Hip Hop” with all these groups in there, and they never fucking list us.
Double K: I’m guilty of that. I be looking like (whispers) “Hmmm where’s it at? Where are we at?”
Thes One: It will be like a microphone made of group names, and I see that we’re definitely overlooked to this day, I think.
DX: It’s like looking at your own stats during a basketball game to see where you compare to everyone else, if you have access to the statistics book near the scorer’s table.
Thes One: Yeah, it’s like counting your money before you leave the merch table. But all that with Biz Markie and Chuck D knows who we are and respects what we’re doing having blessed us saying “Hey, you’re doing a good job.”
Double K: We’re the bare bones of Hip Hop. Deejaying, emceeing.
Why PUTS Wants Their Legacy To Transcend Hip Hop
DX: Do you feel like Hip Hop is in a good place, even if you are not mentioned amongst the best by some of your heroes and rap fans?
Double K: I don’t want to be down with just Hip Hop. The thing that we do is that we’re a funk band. You know what I’m saying? When you come see us, you tell us what we are. That’s what it is. I’m not trying to be up there with everybody else. I know that we’re not going to be any of those people. When you hear our music, you know where we come from if you know music. That’s basically what it is. We’re Mike and Chris, People Under The Stairs. Call it what you want. I call us rock-n-roll. We didn’t just grow up listening to Hip Hop. We grew up listening to Prince, and Led Zeppellin, Van Halen, and all that stuff. Earth, Wind & Fire. Parliament Funkadelic. We were born in the 1970s. All that stuff was being played. Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. That type of stuff, Bob Marley. And everything you think of was in the house. And then you heard Run DMC, then we heard “Rockit” by Herbie Hancock. Then we heard [scratching], and The Fat Boys. I identify with that more than the dudes before them who were rocking all that leather.
Thes One: We always felt that we were a part of a music scene. Yeah, we make Hip Hop and yeah we’re down with Hip Hop. But we’re not down for that Zulu Nation shit, we’re not fucking down with that. And the shit that’s going down now, we’re not down with that. It’s just easier for us to say this is the way we’re going to express ourselves, but we’re musicians. We want to be talked about in the same breath as rock musicians, reggae musicians, and other people not like “Oh they were an underground Hip Hop group. Whatever.” I love Radiohead.
Double K: We love Hip Hop, but we gotta listen to other things other than Hip Hop. Whether it’s Ariel Pink, Radiohead.
Thes One: Remember when the Beatnuts had that press photo and they had the Nirvana shirt on? I thought that was the dopest shit because these dudes were kind of making a statement. They were like saying yeah we’re the best Hip Hop producers—at the time that we looked up to—and were basically saying that this is bigger than even [us]. They didn’t have a fucking Afrika Bambaataa shirt on. They had a Nirvana.
Double K: [Laughs] I don’t think anyone’s had an Afrika Bambaataa shirt on.
Thes One: [Laughs] Aight. Bigger than Hip Hop.
Double K: Word up. It’s definitely bigger than Hip Hop. And we love Hip Hop. Keith Cowboy. Paul Winley.
Thes One: We celebrate these cats, man.
Double K: But it goes deep, man. You know? Peter Brown.
DX: Peter Brown who produced “Santa’s Rap Party?”
Double K: Tricky Tee!
Beastie Boys & Kid N’ Play Are Disco Rap
Thes One: You know a big part of us is, like, if you remember when ego trip Book of Rap Lists? Nuff respect to all the ego trip crew. My man Josh Stern who was an editor or art guy at WaxPoetics, he sent me a file of every song from the Rap List in order for all those years. So we’re on tour in Europe, and we had from like “1978,” twenty songs. “1979,” twenty songs. We put our driver through hell because every day it was like Peter Brown. We listen to like tons of disco rap.
Double K: Disco rap is the shit! Between me and him, we knew about it before that whole list. But between me and him, we have about 90 percent of all that on vinyl.
Thes One: But the point is that we were playing non-stop while we were on tour. If you listen to The Kool Out Crew, and all the Enjoy (Records) shit and then you get up onstage, all of a sudden you’re grabbing your nuts, and you want some leather, and you’re showing your palms to people. I can’t help it. [laughs] That’s the legacy that we want to be a part of. But we’re not a part of it going (sings in an old school rap cadence) “bawitdabaw-bah-dang-a-dang” and all that, but we just take our art and put a modern form to that. We’re not trying to copy that exactly or whatever. But I feel like with “disco rap” they try to forget about it, and sweep it under the rug.
Double K: [They] didn’t try. They did.
Thes One: Those dudes just wanted to rock tuxedos, and have sex, and do drugs, at the same time. They weren’t trying to fuck with little boys at youth centers in the Bronx. They wanted to go to parties with grown people. Hip Hop got changed, and they swept disco rap under the rug. That’s why the shirt I’m wearing says “People Under The Stairs, World Famous Disco Rap Group From Los Angeles.”
DX: Who would you consider disco rap? Let’s throw out names and you can say “yes” or “no”: Beastie Boys.
Thes One: Oh hell yeah. In fact, Double K is the biggest Beastie Boys fan. People might not even know that.
DX: Digital Underground.
Double K: Digital Underground—that’s funk right there, man. There’s nothing disco rap about that. That’s funk. Now Kid N’ Play, that’s disco rap.
Thes One: That’s go-go rap. They tried to sweep go-go under the rug, too, though.
Double K: But guess what? I know cats from D.C. and go-go is still [their] shit. Chuck Brown, rest in peace.
Thes One: That’s a beautiful thing about that shit. A regional sound, and a region that got behind it. Like when Freestyle Fellowship came out, that was our Chuck Brown. Project Blowed was our Chuck Brown. Regional was our shit. And people who weren’t from there likely weren’t into it. I love regional and that idea. But Clear Channel and these corporations are killing that. Back then, cats represented their certain sound, and then you had like MC Hammer. And now, you got A$AP Mob coming out of New York sounding like the history of the South.
Double K: They came out and said, “We love Houston, and we wanna sound like Houston.”
Thes One: Right, but no one is saying “you sound like a pop group” because that’s basically the sound of pop music right now. And people are like “oh they’re so hard.” And so with the dudes in New York, some of them get upset and are like “That’s not New York’s sound,” and no one is willing to say they make pop music. Yeah, they cuss, talk about drugs and such. But shit sounds like Britney Spears.
DX: So you feel like trap is the pop standard-bearing genre now?
Thes One: Trap is part of the accepted American… My kids listen to a lot of pop music. But about 90 percent of today’s pop music comes from trap beats.
DX: Trap derivatives.
Thes One: Right, trap derivatives. But whether it’s the Swedish House Mafia or you know, anything with that fast hi-hat. [Mimics trap drum beat] Bddddddddddd!
Double K: Bddddd! [Laughs]
“A$AP Mob Is Like MC Hammer”
Thes One: All I’m saying is in that sense, A$AP Mob is kinda like MC Hammer because that’s the accepted pop music no matter where you’re from. But A$AP Rocky’s album had good beats on it, too. I’m not trying to point at them in particular, but when people talk about New York’s sound they always point at A$AP Mob now. But let me say this on record, though. Joey Bada$$’s new song is a hot, steaming garbage terd. That shit sucks. See, that’s the example of a dude jumping on trap-pop sounds.
Double K: He’s trying to get that EDM crowd to do festivals.
Thes One: Yeah, if you can hear a song, and you can see right through it, and what the motive is behind it is for making a song in the first place, that’s fucking garbage.
The Alpha to No Omega For PUTS
DX: One of your songs that I find to be the most emotional is “July 3rd” off Question In The Form Of An Answer, but I’ve seen you perform multiple times over the past 15 years. Do you ever have songs that fans want but you never perform?
Double K: That song was actually based on a true story. And that girl I’m talking about in the song, I’m married to her now. [Laughs] But there probably will be a bunch of great songs we have that we’ll never perform. I mean, there are just so many to remember.
DX: Who was your favorite rapper as a kid?
Thes One: LL Cool J. I wanted to be LL Cool J.
Double K: When you walk into his house today, the first thing you see is a big ass picture of LL Cool J over his dinner table.
Thes One: My kids have to sit and look at a picture of LL Cool J when they eat dinner at that table. [Laughs]
DX: What are your favorite albums in your catalog?
Double K: I’d say O.S.T., then Next Step when we were babies, and then the last one that just came out The Gettin’ Off Stage. Every single one is special because every single one is made at a different time in life.
DX: After 18 years together, have you ever been jaded from the stresses of being on tour to make you wonder why you’re still doing this?
Double K: Oh my god, I thought about that [this morning]. No shit. But we make good music. Not just on some non-humble shit, but there’s never a “why am I still doing this?” I’m supposed to be doing this. I was born to do this. Now it’s like “how can I make money from music?” I have to tour to make money. Music is for fucking free now. You know? It’s free. If you’re a fan, you don’t have to buy it. Even I listen to music for free, I’m guilty of the shit, too. So now it’s like no more records stores, no more going to buy shit. And I’m not mad at it. But touring wears your body down, yet I’m in it for the long haul. This is the funk, and I’m on the mothership. Until that motherfucker crash, I’m not off of it.