Artist: People Under the Stairs
Released by: Piecelock 70 (http://pl70.net/)
Release Date: September 29, 2011
Review by: JappyJohn
Introduction: Meet the P!
If you have ever heard of the People Under the Stairs, then you should know that the L.A. hip-hop duo never compromises on their sound. Their latest release, Highlighter, takes it a step farther in this direction. Highlighter is the groups’ eighth studio album after 14 years of music production. After so many releases over the course of a decade and a half, you would expect them to be somewhat known. Well, they are and aren’t at the same time. According to Thes One (Chris Portugal), half of the duo, “We’re the most successful unsuccessful group of all time.” The People Under the Stairs have sold well over 100,000 copies of their releases since 2000 in America alone, yet you’ll never catch one of their songs on the radio or on MTV. That’s because their latest release was done completely independently by an artist co-op they started, called Piecelock 70.
Production: The first commercial HD music release ever.
Recorded in a state of the art studio he hand built over six months in his garage, Piecelock 70 B, as it is called, is surprisingly retro. Built using state of the art methods and reflecting what he saw in the greatest recording studios across the world, he made amazing use of the small space. Another defining feature of his studio is the equipment, its all analog, circa 1969. The People Under the Stairs have always sampled and scratched on vinyl, and recorded to tape for the master copy for the vinyl release before moving it all to the digital world. Mastered and delivered to fans from their own server, Highlighter marks a very revolutionary precedent in the music industry. Not only was the album produced and commercially released solely by the artists for the fans, it was encoded using a revolutionary music format, HD-AAC. The music industry has long been using a relic of the 80s, CDs, due to their incredibly low production cost (about 10 cents). All professional music is recorded using a minimum of 24-bit resolution, only to be hacked down to 16-bit resolution, which is all a CD will allow. To put that into perspective, 16-bit resolution is equivalent to 65,536. 24-bit resolution is then equal to 16,777,216. The People Under the Stairs refuse to comply with an outdated technology based on greed. HD-AAC preserves the 24-bit resolution that was used to record the album to the master tapes to your iPod. Every little nuance picked up in the studio is on the album; nothing is lost or added, as you find in mp3 compression. You can even hear the piano pedal release at the end of a song. HD-AAC is also future-proof, as audio technology progresses; you will only hear more of what was recorded. Sonically, the album is perfect. A real pleasure for the ears after listening to the usual low quality mp3 format usually offered by the modern music industry for the Internet. In addition to the HD electronic release, P.U.T.S will also carry on their traditional HD release: Vinyl. Records have always been the HD format, as they preserve everything that was on the master tape. However, the P never seem to cease their increase in quality on Highlighter; the album will be housed in handmade cardboard record sleeves that haven’t seen commercial production since the 40’s instead of the typical paperboard sleeve found on most vinyl releases. The album has yet to be delivered to my house, so all I can rely on is their word from their website and the pictures they took while in the production facility.
Sound: Always bringing the Funk
The record begins with a spoken word introduction, a feature common to a P.U.T.S. album, and when the beat drops your head automatically begins to nod. Their exclusive use of samples lifted from vinyl is still greatly apparent and appreciated; you can hear all the little pops and crackles found in vintage vinyl if you listen closely. Deep, rich and full, their music keeps you interested with its perfectly meshed multi layered tracks. Their samples range from a baroque clavichord piece, “The Second Track” to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Talkin Back to the Streets”, and of course their usual range of funk and jazz. There is a little something for all fans of hip-hop, from the newer sound of “Can’t Hold it Back” to “Electric Tookie”, with a sound they must have used a time machine to go back to the 70’s to bring back as fresh as it is. As always, Double K (Mike Turner) rips it up on the tables. If that last sentence didn’t make sense to some of you, it’s a reference to the traditional DJ art of scratching. It really seems that it’s become a lost art, yet you can find masterful examples abound throughout, just as any People Under the Stairs release. Thes One continues to be the primary producer of the duo, and sticks true to his smooth, jazzy sounds. The drum breaks are new and complex thanks to the HD format, and he uses it to its fullest advantages. Highlighter features other strong L.A. local talent such as Headnodic (Ethan Personage) playing bass, Eric Palmquist on string arrangement, and Kat Ounao on the keyboards, something of a new thing for the P.
Lyrics: A true story telling experience
Lyrically, Highlighter is typical of what you would expect of a rapper that attended USC on a scholarship for poetry, participating in their prestigious Honors English program- Amazing. (Chris also received the Seibert Fellowship for poetry, was accepted into the Golden Keys Honors Society and walked in 1998 Magna Cum Laude with Dean’s Honors.) Complex rhymes, creative metaphors, and a smooth, conscious, intelligent flow. As incredible as the lyrics are, they are not all big fancy words that no one can relate to. The P have always been L.A. locals, and their speech reflects such. Vulgar language isn’t uncommon, drinking and drug references are also present on occasion throughout the album. But it is all used tastefully, never fully glorifying their use, as can be the case on a lot of popular music. The song “Foolish People” is a good example of this. In the song, the duo is getting ready to go on stage, only to be followed by a bunch of hippies trying to get them to do a whole variety of psychedelics. They both refuse, however Double K drinks one of their beers. As the show starts, he begins to trip. He made a fool of himself on stage for a little bit, singing a random song. The show went on all right after that, and the song ends with him laughing the whole thing off. This song is also a prime example of what the People Under the Stairs are all about; having fun and making music, and that is what they rap about. You leave the album knowing more about them each time, and this is true for each of their albums. They never take themselves too seriously, and were quite surprised when they learned just how seriously the individuals in the popular rap industry take themselves.
Impression: Always true to their roots
Highlighter is a revolutionary album in many respects. It shows that there are major artists who are sticking to their ideals, making the best music possible. Having survived a somewhat tense relationship with Om Records, Piecelock 70 allows the People Under the Stairs to do what they have done the best possible way; themselves. After 14 years, they have never had a “flop” and have never had an album that alienated the fans. Though in all honesty, they haven’t changed much. The P started on a 4 track recorder in his bedroom for their first album, “The Next Step”, which was distributed out of their backpack for ten bucks; now they’re recording in a state of the art retro studio in his garage and available online for ten bucks. Their true dedication has always been having a direct connection to the fans and making music that stays true to themselves and their listeners. The fans have come to expect this, and the People Under the Stairs have always delivered and brought something extra. As Double K says in the last song, “Ambien Hallway Music”
“I can’t express to all of you how good it feels to be recognized,
as those who specialize in keepin it true, and funky for you…
Eight albums deep and ain’t cuttin no slack, through the ups and downs,
and all the smiles and frowns, whether broke or rich we play at the same pitch”