Few people in Hip Hop music love Hip Hop music as much as People Under the Stairs.
In the process of their 14-year career, the duo has sold hundreds of thousands of records while remaining fully independent and done over a thousand sold out shows across the country. But even with all the accolades, both Thes One and Double K are as hungry as they were from day one to give their fans something unique and straight from them. Their latest release Highlighter was exclusively available from their website, limiting the reach of the record whilst putting fandom over Franklins. The project was even excluded from Spotify, something Thes has been critical of over the last few months.
It may be admirable what the duo is doing, sticking it to the big man upstairs but let it be clear, they both are excited about the direction of Hip Hop music. For Thes One specifically, it’s not the music that has changed as much as it is the experience of music. Thes explained that, “The record store as a point of reference or a geographical context of who you are and what you do as a music consumer is gone,” powerful words for music generations to come who may never pay for an album in their lifetime.
HipHopDX talked to emcee/producer/manager Thes One about touring, Highlighter, his upcoming project Wonderful Radio and the musical genre he lives for.
HipHopDX: You and Double K have put out eight albums over a 14-year period. What has motivated you to keep putting out so much product in a relatively short amount of time?
Thes One: Honestly, like at this point in our career the biggest motivation has been the fans. When we started, you kind of go through different phases so like when we came out, we had something to prove and we felt like we wanted to make our mark or at least help facilitate putting an album out and putting an album out was a way of putting out something that we had been working on. But then as it became bigger and we were touring, we found that there were a lot of people that were kind of interested in what we were doing and so them being into what we do, it kind of compelled us to work harder and faster and actually put stuff out. Me and Double K, we’d be doing this regardless but the releases of the album and the event that we make out of it is definitely something that we do for the fans.
DX: Right. To me you can always tell when people are making music for the sake of music or for the sake their wallet. Moving on though how has the response been on Highlighter?
Thes One: I think it’s been really great. I’ve been pretty happy with it and like I said as long as the fans are excited about it and you know every once in a while there will be someone, “Well you know, what happened to the Jazz loops? Yo man, how come it doesn’t sound like your first three albums?” There’s always going to be that contingency but I think the direction we’ve gone in our career and kind of how we’ve progressed. I think our fans appreciate the direction we’re going in. Both myself and Double K have been really happy about what we’ve read and the fact that people are willing to follow us and trust us on a record. We didn’t release anything. We didn’t leak any songs, we just put the record out and everyone bought it (laughs) you know? So that was cool.
DX: Speaking of Double K, how has your relationship been over the years and how is it now after all this time?
Thes One: Absolutely, man, this is a family affair and that’s not just lip service you know because I remember when EPMD would say that and then a year or two later someone is getting threatened with a gun you know what I mean so it really is like that. When we were 15, we went to my mom and me and Double K went to Las Vegas together, it’s family. I call his mom “Mom” and same with his sister you know what I mean? We would never put the career or money in front of our friendship or in front of our families or whatever. It’s cool man, it’s the same. My kids, that’s uncle Mikey right there you know?
DX: You put out 2,000 Gatefold vinyls for this one but also you had the HD sound for the digital release; A huge difference in technology but not in sound necessarily. What was the process for ways people could get their hands on this?
Thes One: Well I think everyone in the industry has been struggling for some sort of strategy or way to do this and still have it mean something and kind of be somewhat financially feasible and for me, the focus being on the fans, is like try to put it out in a way that’s still giving them something different or forward thinking. So instead of just putting it out there or just putting a mixtape out there or something, we wanted to give them a product and if it was digital, we wanted to give them something that was worth their 10 bucks. We didn’t charge more for it but when you buy the digital album directly from us not only do you get the HD version, but you get an MP3 version that is a custom conversion and you also get Serato tagging and there’s like five loop points for every song. So I feel like even for the digital, we’re trying to give them a little more than just, “Hey here’s the MP3, if you don’t like it, just put it in your trash can.” Of course with the vinyl, I spared no expense. I went to the plant and was like, “What’s the craziest thing we can do here?” and they were like, “Well we know how to die cut,” “Yeah I want die cut what else can we do?” “Well we can do foil samples.” “Yeah I want foil samples,” you know what I mean? So it was basically just give me everything. I want to give the fans everything. I want to give them something that’s completely crazy.
DX: You’ve been critical of Spotify in the past. What are your thoughts though of music distribution in the last two, five or even 10 years?
Thes One: Well I mean on one hand, anything that topples the corporate-run music industry is a good thing. I think now we’re seeing the whole Occupy movement but the independent movement and independent artists have had our own Occupy movement by chipping away because we’ve been dealing with the corporate interest in Hip Hop for years, for decades. So you know independent distribution, independent releases have been something that’s gone against the grain of that and I’m happy to see it topple but I think it’s frustrating to see it topple and not see anything viable in it’s dust. It’s not really toppling the corporate music industry by releasing free mixtapes. It is in theory kind of, but then no one is getting paid so we’re just struggling to find a happy medium and there’s a youngest generation of fans of hip hop coming up who haven’t bought anything in their life. They’ve never been in a record store, they’ve never been anywhere. They go on YouTube to listen to the music and everyone is trying to make music worth something to them whether it’s a dollar or two dollars so that’s kind of the struggle. I think we’re in a good place. I’m not one of those crusty dudes who’s like, “Everything used to be better,” or, “Back in the day.” I never got $20,000 to do a remix for somebody so I don’t know, maybe it was better. I don’t know. All I know is I’m excited at where we’re at and I think it’s a positive thing not having these corporations running these people’s careers. I think it’s really going to start to accelerate because next year for 2002 and we’re going to enter the 20th anniversary of a lot of classic records and I’m sure we’re going to see a lot of re-releases of these records and it’s going to remind the artist and everybody that they don’t have any control over it. Like if Delicious Vinyl [Records] wants to re-release a record or somebody wants to re-release a record, they don’t even have to tell the artists ’cause the artist has no say in it and they aren’t going to get any money off of it you know?
Thes One: Yeah we just got off tour with Mac Miller. Being out on the road with him and seeing all that he’s built over the course of the last year or year and a half, it’s truly unbelievable. I mean people would have to witness being in Corvallis, Oregon and seeing 4,000 people come out in a rodeo arena to see a show. I mean and this is without any really big push behind it like you would have seen traditionally with like Lady Gaga or something. But then again once that happens, the corporations are getting smarter at playing that game too. The industry and the labels are getting smarter so what they’re doing now is they’re infiltrating ways and just making it opaque and unapparent as to how they’re doing it. So you think you’re supporting this independent artist, some kid in his bedroom, but you don’t realize that he’s been signed to Universal [Records] like a year ago and that’s the reason he’s on every blog. I’m not saying this is for Mac Miller, I’m just saying in general. Now the labels are smart and when they do get with an artist, they hide that fact and they muscle through the blog pale and they get it like so that they’re huge on the Internet and they’re this grassroots movement when in reality they were signed like a year ago so that’s the flip side of that coin right there.
DX: Yeah speaking of Mac Miller, he really does have an appreciation for older artists and the underground. What has your touring experience been like with him?
Thes One: It was crazy first of all when we got the call to be involved with the tour we didn’t even hesitate we were like, “Hell yeah,” because it’s a big deal for us and our career to be able to represent ourselves to a new generation of kids. But aside from that the fact that Mac and his camp are not only extremely cool, everyone in the camp is real respectful. I mean that’s why he’s rapping over Lord Finesse beats and my beats and other beats. He’s doing it because he’s coming from a genuine point of respect and it might get lost from the fame he’s received but the fact of the matter is the kid can rap his ass off and he truly does love Hip Hop and I didn’t feel that it was a compromise to go out with him at all. I mean it was dope and hopefully we’ll be able to work together in the future not because I think it would be beneficial for us or him or anyone but just because I respect the music he makes and I know Double K does too and we had a damn good time on that tour but it was weird being the only ones on that tour over 21. [Laughs] And in the audience too like there’s 2,000 kids here and no one’s at the bars. It’s crazy you know?
I mean we were backstage every night at the club because we’ve got beer and vodka and all that kind of stuff and they were like, “Sorry we can’t give you this stuff because everyone is underage, so if you want to drink you have to go out to the bars.” [Laughs] The whole tour you’re on is underage.
DX: Yeah I mean he definitely appeals to a younger audience and you can tell though who his influences are whether it be Lord Finesse or Big L. I want to ask you though do influences actually play a big part in an artists style creation or is that all a bit overplayed?
Thes One: No I don’t think so. Maybe I have a romanticized view of Hip Hop or how it used to be or whatever but influences are everything I think. This has by and large been a culture where things are passed down whether it be neighborhood to neighborhood or coast to coast like west coast artists or whatever. I think influence is a huge thing. We were hugely influenced by the Beatnuts and you can hear that in our beats and our subject content and in our whole perspective of how we look at music. Another thing and this goes along with the question before this, I remember when we started to gain traction near our third of fourth album […Or Stay Tuned], I would run into these people that I looked up to. And some of them were cool and some of them were dicks. I remember thinking about how hurt I was because I was like, “Dude, I was the kid at your concert, I was in the front row and now I’m out here doing my own thing and you’re hating on me.” I just can’t understand that. Some people like Biz Markie or Chuck D would put their arm around us and they were like, “Yo, we like what you’re doing.” So I remember thinking, if I’m ever in that position, I want to be like that to the younger generation. I don’t want to be the dude who’s salty, you know what I mean? That was what was cool with being out with Mac. I felt like I was in a position to put my arm around him [Laughing] and say, “You know what, I love what you do.” He was like, “Yo I always used to listen to O.S.T. everyday in high school, you know that’s cool man you’re doing your thing.” [Laughs]
DX: The experience of music is different nowadays. The experience of going to a record store, listening to music, going through new releases, even getting a record, tape, CD or whatever and then playing it over and over for the next few months because maybe that’s all you could afford at the time has totally changed for better or for worse. What is the difference in the experiencing music maybe 20 years ago and now?
Thes One: Yeah if you were a Hip Hop head, I was probably in the last generation of kids who came up in Hip Hop where it was risky. I remember having enough money for one cassette tape and I would go to the store and there would be good stuff coming out every week. So every week I would go and buy a new tape and some weeks I would get a dud but I would try to convince myself that I would like it because I spent $11 on it. I remember one time I was on a trip and I was like, “Okay, do I want to buy Pudgee Tha Phat Bastard or,” and there was something else that came out but neither of them was that good but I was like, “Okay, I’ll buy Pudgee Tha Phat Bastard.” [Laughs] I was like, “I kind of like this, I don’t know.” But nowadays it’s totally different, you hear the whole album before you even buy it or you hear it on a download or whatever. The record store is like a locus. The record store as a point of reference or a geographical context of who you are and what you do as a music consumer is gone. Everyone is just kind of floating in the wind with data and there has just been so many things that have been lost, not just the record store, not just a place for people to work or do an in store or have a local release but also the fact that it’s a place where there’s a physical product and the physical product has pictures and graphic art that all kind of is a marked moment in time and also credits. I know me and Double K would go to the record store back in the day and look at the backs of them and see who produced the whole thing. And if someone produced it like, “Oh, Buckwild produced that? Aw, I’m buying this. I’ve never heard this Funkdoobiest song, but I’m buying it because Buckwild did the remix,” or whatever you know? Nowadays it’s just data and you’ve got to go four pages into the ID4 tag and hope that they’ll be a producer credit and there usually isn’t, it’s just the artist, it’s just the emcee. I’ve talked to a lot of cats that are producers that are up and coming and they’re like, “Dude we never get credit on anything.” Because there’s no physical product that gives them the credit on it anymore. Now it’s an emcee’s name on a YouTube you know?
DX: Shifting to Wonderful Radio, how is that coming along and is there any sort of release date for that and what kind of musical experience can we be expecting from that one?
Thes One:Wonderful Radio is kind of like my actual type record where all of the stuff that I self-taught myself in music production, not just Hip Hop production but the extension of that where I’m taking that production aspect and integrating live musicians, not making a band record, but just kind of integrating that stuff. It’s going to be a trip man. It’s going to be a complicated record and that will be coming out next year. I’ve been working on it for the last four years and I think part of me is just reluctant to release it at this point but if I say I am putting it out next year, I’m going to have to stick to it.
DX: You’ve done a ton of sold out shows, sold hundreds of thousands of records but I think the aspect I am most jealous of is that you were on The Price is Right. You actually got down to contestants row and got on the show and won a turntable, which seemed like fate. [Laughs] This was also when Bob Barker was the host and no disrespect to Drew Carey but Bob Barker…
Thes One: The real Price is Right. [Laughs]
DX: Yeah, exactly. [Laughs] But how was that whole experience for you to be on the show?
Thes One: You know it was funny because I grew up the son of two working parents and I would just sit and watch Price is Right all day…
DX: Same here.
Thes One: So yeah it so funny man because I’m so good at the games like I was so confident. Like it’s a long story and I’ve documented it here and there but I basically talked my way onto the show and I was so confident the whole time. I remember sitting in the audience and thinking, “I can’t believe they haven’t picked me. No one has called me down yet,” because I totally killed that and they called me down and I was like in the worst position possible from a strategy standpoint. I was the last person that got called in the whole game and so but I went up there. But man my washing machine, my living room set, all that stuff I still have and it’s all from Price is Right. I mean that’s crazy. Being on The Simpsons was crazy. I mean we’ve lived a charmed and interesting life for sure for a bunch of dummies who’ve made Hip Hop music together. [Laughs]