Matson on Music
Listening to Paul Barman will make you smarter than listening to Mozart
Posted by Andrew Matson
Paul Barman (R) and Michel Gondry (L) photo by Tangentialism
On "AIDS," New York City writer/teacher/artist MC Paul Barman raps about AIDS with a human touch.
"How your family reacts'll set the tone / Some are disowned, even thrown out the home"
Near the end of the track, Dr. Joyce Wallace talks with Barman about her pioneering studies in the relationship between AIDS and women. The track ends with Wallace explaining it was difficult to find women who'd had promiscuous rectal sex.
"I can't find them, either," Barman jokes.
Since 1998, Barman's mixed crass humor with smart-guy toungue-twisters, and remains the only person in the world who'll rap stuff like "God enjoyed the schadenfreude." Early releases "It's Very Stimulating" (2000) and "Paullelujah!" (2002) are minor classics in modern hiphop, major ones in "nerdcore," a genre he wants nothing to do with. "Thought Balloon Mushroom Cloud," his first album in seven years, came out at the end of November and shows a new large-hearted bent to Barman's content: "AIDS" is followed by a song encouraging all types of troubled people to seek help ("Get Help") and another song explaining how drugs can rip friends apart ("Drug Casual-T").
Syntactically, the album packs hefty surprises. Barman raps in Morse Code on "Science," and on "Back On a White Horse" uses a double-acrostic rhyme matrix that's so complicated, it requires a written and verbal explanation via YouTube video. Barman is patient and enthusiastic in the clip, acting like he's teaching hiphop to New York City high schoolers (which he does once a week).
"Thought Balloon Mushroom Cloud" ends with a grand WTF. Famous French film director Michel Gondry ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") plays optigan and piano while Barman speak-sings about natural disasters ("It Can All Be Taken Away").
The list of unusual things about Barman's art is infinite, and the level at which he requires his audience to think is unparalleled in popular music. It's a terrific vote of confidence that we're expected to keep up with what he raps, overflowing as it always is with phonics tricks, big ideas, and jokes.
Everything that's novel about Barman comes from his observance of one classic hiphop value: Thou shalt copy no one. He takes it to the extreme and represents himself to the billionth degree. The results are so strikingly different from everything else in rap, Barman makes obvious how many copycats are out there.
He is a man, yes, and an artist. But Paul Barman is also an indictment: When it comes to feeling, thinking, and creating, we could all try harder.
I've been listening to "Thought Balloon Mushroom Cloud" nonstop for five days and I'm nowhere near soaking up everything. Do you have any idea how much time somebody should spend with your album in order to get it?
First of all, I hope that since you're recording, you can transcribe that sentence and make it...the 'lede,' is it called? Second of all, I have always strived to make something timeless. Something that will work forever, for an infinite number of listens. I think that I have now been most successful at that.
Of all rappers?
No, of all my projects. Thirdly, one way to make something that works on repeated listens, not that this is the most original idea, but it's something my collaborators and I think about all the time, is making it multi-layered. I think for a lot of people, the main comparison point for multi-layered culture is "The Simpsons," simply because it hits different age groups in different ways all at the same time. But I'm a student of multi-layered stuff, and I have infused this record with many, many, many layers. So there's a paradoxical answer because, on one hand, you should quote-unquote get it right away. There should be something to appreciate on the very first listen, moment by moment.
Oh, it's totally entertaining on the surface.
Excellent. So there's that. Then there's all the layers of life, you know? Every emotion that I'm able to identify and express, there's crazy mathematical structures interwoven through it, and I'll be explaining one of those in my video tomorrow which is kind of my first one, kind of my second one [from this album]. It's going to be an explanation of the structure from "Back On a White Horse," which has a really cool double-acrostic matrix, you might say.
So then the last comment I would make on the denseness of it is, for the first time last night I listened to it at very low volume. Which kind of blew my mind, because that's what I used to do with "3 Feet High and Rising" to fall asleep to with my headphones on really low.
I guess I kind of experienced it in a new way, and it even made me think, "Oh my gosh, this is a lot to process."
Why did the low volume have anything to do with that?
The low volume helped me listen in a new way. I've heard these songs so much, sometimes they're hard to listen to.
It gave a fresh ear. Listening to it from start to finish as a new listener, I realized that it would take a while. And I've been asking my friends, "How come there are no reviews on Amazon or iTunes?" And my stromie Memory Man, who helped me put this record together...
...did you just say "stromie"?
Yeah, that means "strong homie."
Actually, I just made up that definition. It's just slang.
[Prince Paul says "stromie" on De La Soul's song "Rap De Rap Show" from "De La Soul is Dead."]
I didn't know it.
For now, let's say it means "strong homie." A contraction. He said, "Paul, it would take at least a week for someone to know what they wanted to say in a review." And I guess that's true.
In one way, I feel like I had to jump at the chance to do this interview, and I'm glad you're so good at explaining yourself, but in another way I feel I'll never be prepared to talk to you about your material even though I listen to it quite frequently for pleasure.
I'm really, really happy that you've been listening to it nonstop. Very happy. Really glad to hear it. And I think anybody should be prepared to talk about it. I mean, why not?
Well, it's so clearly the product of a lot of...work. And, you know, I write. And you write. And I see it as a super-complicated tangle. These songs seem exactly the way you want them.
I hope they're not too complicated, because in a way, I consider rhymes to be mnemonics for life.
What do you mean?
I mean, take the mnemonics you learned for math class. OK? Then take the poems that you were supposed to memorize a hundred years ago for some literature class. Then take the rhymes that you do memorize because you're a hiphop head and it's fun to know the rhymes. Then take the quotes that you interweave into your conversation when something hits you as appropriate or pithy, or should I say a condensation of wisdom that helps who you're talking to. Then take all those moments in life when you wish you had a wise person to tell you how to react or deal or contend with a situation. That's where I want my record to come in and give you a little bit of solution to a shared struggle. You can use it as a resource and feel nourished.
Your hope is this will happen organically, that the right rhyme will come to mind at the right time?
That's kind of beautiful.
Well, take "Get Help." I hope that song is heard. And I hope it makes a difference in somebody's life.
That song stood out to me because there's such a big focus—and I know I don't have to tell you, I know you know—in American rap and quote-unquote urban music on a man putting all types of responsibility for his life and other people's lives on himself and himself only. And that whole anti-psychiatry and "men don't have mental problems" thing. I remember seeing billboards in Germany that, instead of being anti-pedophilia, had a picture of a boy and said something like, "If you ever have an urge, call this number." It wasn't a demonization of a person, it was, "If you need some help, it's OK to ask for help." And I remember thinking how far away America was from doing that. I think it's really important you made that song.
Thank you. Some people might say that this country is in an extreme form of denial, which is the antithesis of a modern Germany, which is militantly anti-denial. "We had our holocaust as the formation of our country, and it's very hard for us to deal with." Even to this day, say what you will about "politically correct," it's not like kids are taught the true meaning of Thanksgiving. I believe that denial infuses the culture.
That leads into my song "Lidgeon," where I say "deca-caust." That's my word for sixty million. It's common knowledge that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Although there are other millions that were killed. What's not common knowledge, because history was erased, is how many natives were killed. It was this guy Matthew Polashek who helped me record the demo for "Go Sane." He studied with a professor who seemed to have access to literature that did try to count how many were killed. I guess that number was sixty million. It struck me that that number was times ten.
What else is "Lidgeon" about? How a salad bowl metaphor is better than a melting pot metaphor?
That's true. I think that song has four segments. The first one is a celebration of the diversity of New York. The second part is about the stuff I was just talking about, and the third part is straight-up comedy, very short. And the fourth part is about religion. What's the definition of religion? I actually asked my name Josh Neuman, the publisher of Heeb Magazine, who also used to teach theology at NYU, "Can you define religion for me?" And he wrote me a kind of generalized definition of religion. And I applied my rhymeslation style to that, which is basically where I take other people's ideas and simply apply my wordcraft to it. I don't know if you heard "Oil" from my mixtape. Have you heard my mixtape? I gotta send you that if you don't have it.
I don't. I only found out that it existed by going to your website to check for your new album.
It's really awesome. I've been listening to it a lot actually just because I need some refreshment. There's some rhymeslation on there. And then "Power" from the album, those aren't really my ideas. They may have my take on something, but that's all from the book, "The 48 Laws of Power."
In the song "Props," your adversaries are "hate-to-laugh novelty acts," and you talk about how they like shoes, don't like gays, and act in a manner they believe is hiphoppy. I want to know if all that's a rhetorical device, or if you're talking about real people.
Both, and some of them are my closest friends! Not everyone has to agree about everything. The crushing conformity in hiphop is...is...unacceptable.
I gotta imagine you'd see more of that in New York City, where people can actually say, "Oh, no: I invented this s__t and get to tell you how it is."
That's my attitude. I think if I get what you're saying, I don't agree. It's people who are trying to act New York that are applying very misinformed judgments and rules on others.
You're right. I see the difference.
It's pervasive. Whatever that is, it made its way out to Seattle, too.
It's insecurity. Simple as that.
Did you hear that rap song out of New York, I think it was last year, that was all about how important it is to always wear baggy pants?
Yes. No, I didn't hear that. I know there is a contingent that cares about pants, to which I have two responses. One is: lyrics. Two is: lyrics. And I guess I have a third response, which is that not everyone whose weight fluctuates can afford a new pair of jeans to accommodate that. There should be a class sensitivity.
Did you write "AIDS" because you have a personal connection to the topic, or strictly for educational purposes?
[In a truly unfortunate accident, the computer program recording the interview stops working. It does this when it detects a very long pause, and Barman is taking long pauses. While I set up the recording again, he mentions we're talking on World AIDS Day and starts talking about his motivation for making his song "AIDS." In what seems to be typical fashion, his explanation comes in kind of bullet-ed/outline form.]
And last, I guess it was the comedian's sense of the taboo. I was like, "How come this stuff isn't explained straightforwardly?" It's really basic facts, but no one's put it together and made it one little package. Like I said, a mnemonic for life. This one is more on the surface of facts than, ah, more complex situations. But, you know, it wasn't that long ago that anything straightforward was pretty revolutionary. And say what you will about Obama reaching his potential or what his true intentions are or whatever, it wasn't that long ago - I know we don't like to remember it - that the concept of truth had a very dark shadow over it.
You think people are already used to trusting again?
I think that they're gun shy for trusting the government, but I think a sort of wide scale sense of depression and hopelessness has lifted.
I hope you're right about that.
I hope so, too. I mean, the economy is in shambles, but whoever didn't predict that the first day of the war needs to jump down a sewer drain. On that note, I gotta go.
I do! I can talk more not-now if you want.
Do you think Prince Paul's gonna get sued for that Creedence sample [in "Hot Guacamole," the song he produced on "Thought Balloon Mushroom Cloud" that rips off "Down On the Corner"]?
That's not a sample.
He played it? It's an interpolation?
Scotty Hard played that.
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