Up With People

Stepping up: Thes One (left) and Double K are The People Under the Stairs.

If you tell Thes One and Double K of the L.A.-based hip-hop duo The People Under the Stairs that they sound dated or old-school, they take it as the ultimate act of appreciation.

"That's the best compliment ever," says MC Thes One. "I don't want to sound new. I want to sound old, because that's what I listen to."

Both born in 1977, Thes One and Double K are roughly the same age as hip-hop itself, children of an era when the Native Tongues were still collectively kicking it in New York and Pete Rock and CL Smooth were telling us something about Mecca and the Soul Brother. Today, at a shared and wizened age of 23, Thes and Double K want to bring the old-school beat back. Though every new Jack coming out now is trying to bite the new sound of the day -- whether it be Swizz Beats or Mannie Fresh -- the People Under the Stairs load their DJ crates with the kind of records you might find in your parents' collections, if they were hip to the Fatback Band or Joe Tex back in the day. Yet rather than simply riding a retro tip, the People's nods to the past actually culminate in something live and original.

On their second release, Question in the Form of an Answer (due to hit the streets on June 6), Thes One and Double K dance all over the foundational framework of their heralded 1998 underground debut, The Next Step. The technically superior Question finds Thes and K recording to ADAT for the first time. (Step was, according to Thes, recorded on "analog, just a real shitty eight-track.") Yet the two marry a heightened production aesthetic with their lo-fi studio roots: They may have gone digital, but you still won't find any slick computer studio tricks on this disc. It's all vinyl, baby; they even forsake live keyboards and drums. "The whole album is nothing but a sampler and records," says Thes One. "We never use anything else, not even for high hats."

Though it might be easy to mistake the group's moniker as a nod to horrorcore rap -- a somewhat ill-fated genre artists like RZA and the Gravediggaz attempted to usher in in the early '90s -- there are some similarities between Thes One and Double K and the film from which they cop their name. Director Wes Craven's humorous, horrific slasher fable used an elaborate house as a metaphor for the evil and cannibalism that can linger beneath a veil of wealth and suburban life; though not as macabre, the People Under the Stairs view their name and their latest album title as a commentary on hip-hop culture.

And just what is wrong with hip-hop? The People feel that somewhere along the way, hip-hop lost its way and sold its soul. Without trying to sound too self-righteous, the guys say they hope to lead a new-school revolt and steer the form back on path. According to them, it's all about positivity and having fun with beats and samples. It's about upholding the legacy of legends like Kool Herc.

"We're trying to do something that is working in the larger history of hip-hop," says Thes. "We're not trying to go outside the rules that had been set up by our forefathers."

Such loyalty to hip-hop's past may strike some as overly purist. But you don't have to worship at the altar of Afrika Bambaata to admire the way this group playfully cuts and scratches its samples, from the intro that warps a version of "Scarborough Fair" to "Zignaflyinblow," in which the duo cuts up Billy Joel's "Captain Jack"; after Thes and Double K are finished with the line "And you just sit home and smoke your pot," the Strong Island bard sounds like some crazed MC who just inhaled a balloon full of helium. The silly Billy track is just one example of the group's tendency toward playfulness, a refreshing attribute. A number of the tracks -- "Get Drunk," for example -- have comedic excerpts from actual comedy records instead of the all-too-routine and often corny skits that litter rap records nowadays. "As far as hip-hop guys go, they need to chill the fuck out and stop taking themselves too seriously," says Thes One. "People are 'Rah-rah hip-hop' all the time. But at the end of the day, you've got to take off the five things on your head, the eight doo-rags and the medallions. You've got to be a human being and call your mom and shit."

Elsewhere, Thes One does display a serious side. He speaks with an almost missionary zeal on the importance of maintaining your identity, in life and in art. "Give Love a Chance" begins as a narrative of an aspiring young DJ who needs some nurturing and guidance. His family members kick him out because they don't think his music can pay the bills. But the group throws out these lines to help him: "To all you B-boys, keep doing your thing/Don't let them tell you otherwise because you ain't making no green." The track goes on to speak about remaining true to yourself and the art form ("American cash money keeps rolling with or without/We got a subculture to save and I'll be damned if I'll shout some shit over tracks that's wack to make a fat stack of cheese/Hip-hop is my art. Only myself I can please").  

Aspiring B-boys might also check out "43 Labels I Like," a track on which Thes name-checks his favorite indies and majors for sources of inspiration. The cut is a laundry list of music that Thes One has been exposed to over years of vinyl buying, the foundation of his sound.

"I'm not really genre-specific," he says of his collection. "I have rock records, jazz records, soul records, country records, soundtracks, whatever strikes me -- and if the artist is putting his heart into it and it's a little bit funky, I can dig it," he says. "We feel an obligation to tell people it's okay to be yourself in hip-hop, it's okay to sample records. If you like something, go with it. Don't try to sound like someone else; don't be a biter. Represent yourself and what you know."

On a more introspective tip, the sparse urban jazz of "Earth Travelers" reflects on the group's good-time philosophy but also gives props to all the slain people associated with hip-hop in the L.A. area. "It's a pretty sensitive song," says Thes. "I like that, because it's got a cool vibe to it. It's pretty solemn, because we lost a lot of hip-hop people in L.A. this year. Yet at the same time, it keeps things going, it's reflective. It captures a mood that we have often here when things don't go according to plan, lifewise."

Though Question isn't afraid to broach the occasionally heavy topic, the most pervasive vibe on the album is a party one. Thes One and Double K cook up a funk that's as smooth as New York Knick legend Clyde Frazier, back when he used to sport ankle-length fur coats and wide-brim fedoras in the '70s. The two call their music "homemade funk" -- referring equally to their DIY ethic and their production methods. They handle their business ego-free and share equally in the studio. "It's 50 percent all the way," says Thes One. "Because there are just two of us, we're not dealing with the engineer, we're not dealing with the producer or MCs. It's just us, and we control everything." They work exclusively in Thes One's home studio. "It makes it great," he says. "If it's 1:30 on a Friday [morning] and we feel inspired, we can come in here and lay a song down. We don't have to work on anyone's schedule."

Because of their independent nature, Thes One and Double K initially felt little need to hook up with a label; Step Up was released on their own imprint and sold relatively well. But as most independents eventually learn, distribution can be tricky without any kind of name affiliation. So when San Francisco-based Om Records, an imprint best known for its influential hip-hop/turntablist Deep Concentration series, came with an offer last year, the guys listened. At first the group was just going to contribute a track to a Deep Concentration compilation. "Later, the owner called up and said, 'What would you say if I gave you a new type of contract, something that people haven't seen before? Basically, you guys can do whatever you want, and you give us the DAT and the artwork. We'll put it out for you and help you guys grow, but we'll let you control all the music and everything.'" The decision was easy, recalls Thes. "I looked at Double K, and he looked at me, and we were like, 'Fuck it.' You can't really ask for anything more than that."

Shortly after finalizing the deal, the group contributed the track "Afternoon Connection" to the recently released third installment of the Deep Concentration series. When Question is released next month, it will be an Om -- as well as a People -- concern.

The organic grassroots approach of the People makes the group stand out in a rap industry seemingly obsessed with creating larger-than-life stars with superthug personae. For them, it isn't all about how much platinum you front but about returning the human element to hip-hop. Thes One will tell you that he and Double K "try to present themselves as a group that's just like anyone else. We're just a couple of normal guys who are fans of music."  

Normal guys who just happen to have a plan to resuscitate hip-hop. Normal guys who just might have the wit and the skills to pull it off.

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