Music News

Partners in Rime

In February, computer-savvy fans of the Los Angeles hip-hop duo called People Under the Stairs were psyched to discover what appeared to be a leak from Stepfather, a project released in April. But those who downloaded it probably wondered if the group should change its name to People Under the Influence. The track began with an introduction from Chris Portugal, who goes by Thes One: "You got it way before everyone, you're so smart," he said. "Well, enjoy this." Then he launched into a recitation of English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

Sharing "Rime" instead of rhymes was partly a joke, acknowledges Portugal, who's been putting out discs with People Under the Stairs since the late '90s. The stunt had a serious subtext, though. "I was trying to think of a way that I could thwart all of the people stealing the record," he allows. "So I wanted to make something that would maybe fool a few people."

A handful of downloaders didn't realize they'd been punk'd. "They were like, 'The new People Under the Stairs album sucks!'" Portugal says, laughing. And the rest? "Some of them saw the humor in it, and some of them didn't," he maintains. "I think the downloading community as a whole took offense to it, but they can all go to hell."

As this comment implies, Portugal and partner Mike "Double K" Turner are old-schoolers, not techno geeks. They continue to build their songs from music found in their extensive vinyl collection -- an approach that's been abandoned by most of their peers to avoid paying royalties for every borrowed snippet. Still, Portugal feels that the technique is "inherent in the subculture. If you're not using it, you're not really making hip-hop." So on strong Stepfather tracks like "Eat Street" and "LA9X," he and Turner chop samples into unidentifiable bits or utilize sources so obscure that they're virtually untraceable. "There's everything from weird outsider folk records to Bollywood drums," Portugal reveals. "It's not just jazz loops."

Stepfather also includes a bonus DVD that features a brief history of People Under the Stairs, an excellent beat-making tutorial courtesy of Portugal, and a ridiculously primitive film titled Ice Castles that sports what refers to as "possibly the worst acting ever." (That's a rave review in Portugal's book.) The group included the DVD, he notes, because "we wanted to put something in there to get people excited about buying an actual record as opposed to downloading it."

That was the idea behind the "Mariner" leak, too. "It started an interesting dialogue on our fan-site forum," Portugal points out. "People were saying, 'If it wasn't for downloading, I wouldn't know who you guys were.' And I'm like, 'That's fine, but have you ever bought a record? And just because you know who I am, what does that do for me? I know who you are, because you just posted on my forum, but I haven't helped your career any, have I?'"

Probably not -- but he's given a real boost to Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts