People Under The Stairs (Contemporary Musicians)
While hip-hop stars like Sean "P. Diddy" Combs spent the late 1990s building lucrative hip-hop empires, some hip-hop purists went underground. The duo People Under The Stairs did just thatiterally. They recorded three critically notable releases, The Next Step, Question in the Form of an Answer, and OST (Original Soundtrack) in a basement bedroom. Moved by their mutual love for and intense knowledge of hip-hop music, they build their characteristic jazzy beats and soulful rhythms from thousands of obscure samples. The two maintain a respected, though low-profile, identity in the underground hip-hop community.
The two members of People Under The Stairs, rappers and deejays Thes One and Double K, met in a Los Angeles record store in 1996. Although the two competing deejays first eyed each other warily, they soon started talking and realized how much they had in common, including a shared passion for vinyl records. "Vinyl is without doubt a wife" to the duo, critic James Poletti commented online at dotmusic, "or maybe more like a harem." Between them, they have more than 15,000 records, which fit into about 100 crates. They store them in various rooms in their respective homesouble K keeps some of the overflow in his mother's garage. They so love their record collection that they have thanked their crates on their album liner notes. Both are inspired by their hometown: Los Angeles culture is the most profound influence on the music they make, Thes One said in the interview with Poletti at dotmusic. Thes One also cited as an influence the hip-hop music that came out of the early-to-mid-1990s, including that of groups like D.I.T.C., Beatnuts, Pete Rock, Fellowship, Pharcyde, and Souls of Mischief. "Hip-hop taught me how to love old records and it taught me how to appreciate old music," Thes One said in an interview located online at Spinemagazine. He wryly noted that the fertile period of hip-hop came to an end when enterprising hip-hoppers such as P. Diddy discovered the wealth to be had by churning out hiphop hits.
Also known by their fans as "the P" and "PUTS," the duo is clear that they did not get their moniker from the 1991 Wes Craven horror film of the same name, which neither of them has seen. Rather, they say the name conjures up an appropriate image of them, both figuratively and literally: the former because they are part of an underground music scene and the latter because they do all of their recording downstairs in Thes One's bedroom. The two are devotedly low-tech, as evidenced by their humble recording studio and their refusal to use such synthetic means as keyboards and synthesizers in their work. Instead, they keep it simple with two turntables, a mixing board, and an eight-track recording system. "It's professional underground," Double K is quoted as saying in their Om Records biography online. "No matter what we use, we're never more than a step away from two turntables and a microphone. It's homemade funk." Although they share all responsibilities on their records, Double K does most of the rapping, and Thes One handles most of the producing. Their lyrics are notoriously humorous and easygoing.
As hip-hoppers went the way of major record labels, expensive cars, and rich lifestyles, however, underground hip-hop acts were galvanized into "keeping it real." Motivated in part by that notion, Thes One and Double K began making and recording music together. They hit it off so well, and recorded so prolifically, that it did not take long for them to stack up 12, 60-minute master tapes of material. They had created a dozen hours of music, but they hadn't a clue what they would do with it. The next step for the pair was to release a full-length album, aptly titled The Next Step, in 1998. They selected material they had recorded over the two previous years, and the result was a critically acclaimed debut effort, which they produced and released themselves. They even pawned some of their recording equipment to bankroll the album's release.
People Under The Stairs received record contract offers from several record companies based on the underground success of The Next Step. They considered none until San Francisco-based underground music label Om Records offered them a completely hands-off deal. Unlike the other companies' offers, which promised to devolve into a nightmare of creative control and marketing battles, Om suggested the duo simply keep making music as they had been. "Om basically told us to keep doing what we do," Thes One is quoted as saying at the Om Records website, "and when everything was how we liked it, hand it to them and they'll release it. Their complete trust in us made for an [irresistible] offer." People Under The Stairs signed the contract at the end of the summer of 1999.
Question in the Form of an Answer is "occasionally brilliant," Onion A.V. Club critic Nathan Rabin wrote in his online review. Rabin noted the album's "blissful, gorgeously produced highlights" that include the songs "Zignaflyinblow" and "Youth Explosion." All Music Guide critic Nick Pfeiffer wrote that Question was a "very solid hip-hop album from top to bottom," citing the duo's beats, which he described as "very on point," and their "creative" rhymes. Both critics agreed that, though the majority of the album's 22 tracks are notable, the too-long LP could have been edited down, putting more emphasis on the strongest songs. Regardless, dotmusic critic Poletti cited the strength of the duo's production style as "informed more by their love of dusty records than the urge to bite the latest beats on the block," and declared the album "one of the year's best hip-hop releases."
The average People Under The Stairs album can contain thousands of samples of other artists' work. Thes One and Double K are reluctant to name their sources; not all of the samples have been cleared with the original record labels, despite the duo's efforts. "The publishing companies and the record companies that own this stuff have made it impossible for us to clear it properly," Thes One said in the dotmusic interview. He went on to add that he would be happy to pay the artists directly for their work, but that legal red tape and record company policy often ensure that the artists themselves never see any of that money. As a result, People Under The Stairs face a greater creative challenge. In order to keep themselves out of trouble, they must dig deep to create their beats and use very obscure samples that aren't easily recognized. Thes One used one sample from a record he found from Peru.
Between releasing Question in the Form of an Answer and touring the United States and Europe to support it, People Under The Stairs found time to release a some-what obscure compilation album, American Men Vol. 1. Typical of the duo's style, the album contains "tight, jazzy beats littered with classic samples," wrote critic Brad Mills in an All Music Guide review. Mills noted, though, that the apparent use of keyboards and synthesizers on the release was highly uncharacteristic of the pair. Rappers such as Murs, Scarub, and Sam Spade also appear on the work, which Mills felt was not as inspired as People Under The Stairs' two solo efforts. They released their third solo album, OST (Original Soundtrack), on Om in 2002. OST is a "tumultuous and ultimately enjoyable experience," critic Mosi Reeves wrote in a review that appeared in Urb magazine. People Under The Stairs "give fans their uncensored and unedited thoughts, emotions, and aspirations, proving that just because two young hiphoppers crafting joints in a bedroom studio are content to please no one but themselves and their friends doesn't mean the rest of the world shouldn't listen."
The Next Step, PUTS, 1998.
Question in the Form of an Answer, Om, 2000.
American Men Vol. 1, PUTS, 2001.
OST (Original Soundtrack), Om, 2002.
Entertainment Weekly, June 16, 2000, p. 90.
Music Week, May 25, 2002, p. 26.
"People Under The Stairs," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (July 2, 2002).
"People Under The Stairs," dotmusic, (July 2, 2002).
"People Under The Stairs," Om Records, http://www.omrecords.com/artist_bios/puts.html (July 2, 2002).
"People Under The Stairs," RollingStone.com, http://www.rollingstone.com (July 2, 2002).
"People Under The Stairs," Spinemagazine, http://www.spinemagazine.com/music/interviews/puts.html (July 2, 2002).
"People Under The Stairs," Urb, http://www.urb.com (July 12, 2002).
"People Under The Stairs: Question in the Form of an Answer," The Onion A.V. Club, (July 2, 2002).
Additional information was provided by Om Records publicity materials, 2002.