Happy 15th Anniversary to People Under The Stairs’ O.S.T., originally released June 4, 2002.
“In a world of swirling disevolution, it’s nice to know some things never change,” Chris “Thes One” Portugal, one half of People Under The Stairs, writes in a brief essay in the liner notes of their 2002 album O.S.T. “This music and its culture, our culture is older than most of us who carry its torch…Some things are so fundamental to an art form that they are not true-schoolisms, they are the very rules by which we define our music. Sampling is not ‘old school,’ it is our medium; as a sculptor uses clay or a painter uses paint, we use old records to make our music…The rules never change.”
If you’d read those sentiments in the liner notes of an album made in the late ’90s, you might reasonably think the artist was responding to the over-commercialization of rap music in the mainstream, and decrying the sacrifice of hip-hop’s principles in the pursuit of material gain.
But that’s not the case here. The targets of Thes One’s ire are some of the artists who occupy the left-of-center hip-hop scene. He believes that in their attempts to reject the mainstream, they have strayed much too far from the music’s core values.
“Somewhere along the way it seems most critics decided that just making hip-hop wasn’t good enough,” he continues, “and praises were hailed upon those who were ‘experimental’ and ‘progressive.’ Yet while everyone spun out towards the fringe, a void was created in the center: a timeless origin where dope beats and rhymes are simply good enough.”
French director and film innovator Jean-Luc Godard once said that “In order to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie.” O.S.T., released 15 years ago on the independent OM Records, was People Under The Stairs’ perfectly packaged criticism of an underground scene that they saw as crawling up its own ass. But they don’t spend the majority of the album raging against these type of artists and albums. Aside from a goofy minute-long skit that pops up towards the end of the album, they barely touch on the hip-hop that they found “sterile, timid and tired, weird.” Instead, they craft a response by making a better album. They create a back-to-basics, straight beats and lyrics, digging in the crates approach to making a hip-hop album that succeeds by simply just being “good old hip-hop.” And the result is one of the better albums of the ’00s.
People Under The Stairs (P.U.T.S.) is the product of the Crescent Heights neighborhood of Mid-City Los Angeles. Thes One and Michael “Double K” Turner grew up listening to hip-hop artists like Diamond D and King Tee, as well as Parliament and Earth, Wind, and Fire. The duo were mainstays at the Unity jams thrown by Bigga B and DJ Mark Luv throughout Los Angeles during the ’90s, soaking up the live music and performances. Eventually releasing their first album, The Next Step, in 1998, the group were contemporaries with Dilated Peoples and Jurassic 5. Like those artists, they earned a reputation for being serious crate diggers and beat-makers, as the pair produce all their albums on their own.
The group first achieved notoriety with the song “San Francisco Knights.” They followed up The Next Step with the excellent Question in the Form of An Answer in 2000, before following it with their magnum opus, O.S.T. Through it all, they’ve cultivated and enjoyed their “analog lifestyle,” never quite embracing the new digital age.
P.U.T.S. is as successful as any group out there at channeling a vibe through their music. Thes One and Double K are top-notch beat diggers, drawing from Vietnam era soul, jazz, and funk albums and molding the samples into something new and unique. They are immaculate at creating soundscapes that are sometimes mellow with a relaxed feel, and other times upbeat and exuberant. In that sense, they’re very much like a Los Angeles version of A Tribe Called Quest, and O.S.T. is a combination of their classic albums The Low End Theory (1991) and Midnight Marauders (1993). A key difference being that while these two Tribe albums sound like summer albums, they were released in the Fall, while O.S.T. dropped just as summer of 2002 began. P.U.T.S. gave listeners a perfect album to listen to while chilling in the park, grilling at a barbecue, and riding around during the warm summer nights.
O.S.T. starts off strong with the first single “Jappy Jap,” a tribute to rap lyric-fest tracks of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Taking its name from a line featured in MC Shan’s “The Bridge,” over a solid, bottom-heavy bassline, the pair each kick solid verses establishing their often-underrated lyrical abilities, with Double K leading things off with “Busting through the swinging doors with aggression galore / You learned your lesson before, I hope they keep you on tour,” and Thes later dismissing those who “claim ghetto fame, that same game, another buster / Crashing through your tracks, I'm the wax claim adjuster.”
At its core, O.S.T. is a fun album, with Thes One and Double K sounding like they had a blast while recording. “The Hang Loose” explores the group’s longtime fascination with and love for old school (as in late ’70s/early ’80s) hip-hop. It’s a goofy and infectious disco-influenced track, with the pair emulating the rhyme skills of party-rocking shocking to the block emcees like the Furious Five and the Fearless Four. However, it’s also made with tongue firmly in cheek, as the pair rhyme their “gold-plated pitbull made out of ice” and their “leather Cadillac” while they “up jump the boogie like Scooby-Doo.” The song has remained a mainstay of their live show, with the group usually performing it for their encores.
“The Double K Show” is a lyrical and musical salute to the art of DJing (never turntablism). The track is very much in the vein of hip-hop golden age celebrations of the man on the 1’s and 2’s, like Public Enemy’s “Terminator X To the Edge of Panic” and Compton’s Most Wanted “Mike T’s Funky Scratch.” Thes sings the laurels of Double K’s aptitude, where Double K himself pulls double duty, praising his own scratching abilities, and then showcasing them on the chorus, keeping things easy and on beat.
P.U.T.S. also show their love for Jamaican music on O.S.T. The title track, the album’s second single, has a solid reggae groove and features the vocal talents of dancehall singer Odell, who would go on to collaborate with the duo numerous times. “Montego Slay” finds the pair musically transporting themselves to the more mellow environs of Jamaica, rapping smoothly over meandering keys and bassline drenched in Caribbean jazzy funk influences.
The pair gets quite introspective on the album. With “Keeping It Live,” Thes and Double K contemplate their life trajectories and musical careers, wrestling with how some family and friends neither believed in their ability to record albums nor perceived recording music as a way to make a living. Over a light piano loop contrasting with solid drums, both reaffirm their commitment to hip-hop culture, with Thes rapping “Same shit 10 years ago I’m doing today / And 10 years from now, so don’t ask how or even why / B-boy for life, fuck a suit and a tie.”
Seeking solace is another recurring theme throughout O.S.T. On “Empty Bottles of Water,” both emcees daydream of being able to escape the rigmarole that can consume their lives. While Double K raps about relieving his stress through smoking some good green, Thes envisions a physical departure, where he can “travel to a beach where each and every wave sounds like an Ultimate Breaks and Beats / And the streets are paved with slip mats.”
The epic “Suite For Beaver” parts 1 & 2 is one of the album’s clear highlights. Inspired by and built around a pair of songs by fairly obscure soul guitarist Little Beaver (both “Get Into the Party Life” and “I Can Dig It Baby”), the song details how Thes and Double seek to relieve the stresses of the work week through enjoying the Los Angeles nightlife. The first half sets the stage, as the pair separately describe dealing with Friday afternoon hassles, only to decide to hit the town. The two eventually connect by chance and decide to head to a spot where they can cut loose. The second part of the track features both members describing the scene at the establishment, from relaxing on brown wicker chairs to the DJ spinning some Eddie Bo. Though the two are definitely in pursuit of liquid refreshment and female companionship, it’s interesting to note that the song is not an ode to getting incoherently drunk and wilding out with random women. There’s a layer of underlying maturity present throughout both parts of the song.
“Acid Raindrops” is the best track on the album and possibly the best track People Under The Stairs have ever released. The album’s third single, it’s also the group’s weed anthem, as Thes, Double K, and guest Camel MC all praise the use of marijuana and good music to help them ease the stresses of the day. The song is anchored by a sturdy bassline, and bolstered by ethereal horns filtering in and out. It remains of one of the group’s most popular songs and has become a solid weed smoker’s anthem. The song has also received additional life as a surfing anthem in Los Angeles as well.
P.U.T.S. have long expressed their affinity for their place of birth. “The L.A. Song” celebrates their city of origin, honoring both the micro and macro of the sprawling metropolitan area. Double K focuses on surviving in Crescent Heights, the neighborhood where he was raised, explaining what it required to grow up in the “home of the bodybags.” Meanwhile, Thes takes listeners on a trip throughout the city, including places off the beaten path, from the World on Wheels roller rink to La Barca restaurant to the Busy Bee Market in San Pedro.
And occasionally the pair do show flashes of anger at the state of things in hip-hop. The pair examine the then-fairly nascent hip-hop internet scene on “The Outrage,” targeting message boards and a prominent online critic or two. As the years have passed, P.U.T.S. remain one of the hip-hop acts that have never fully embraced the online social media scene; the Facebook page and Twitter accounts remain fairly dormant. In keeping with the traditional sensibilities that they extol on O.S.T., the duo seems to favor direct, in-person interaction with their many fans.
The album comes to a close with the melodious and sublime “Breakdown.” P.U.T.S. have always prided themselves on crafting strong endings for their albums, and “The Breakdown” is one of their best, serving as the group’s tribute to the hip-hop artists of the ’80s and early ’90s. Over a smooth piano and vibraphones sample, coupled with a live bassline provided by Crown City Rocker’s Headnotic, the duo describe driving along the streets of Los Angeles blasting music by Three Times Dope, 3rd Bass, and the Beatnuts, reminiscing on what makes hip-hop so special. Plus, the image of Double K getting high enough so that he’s “floating over the city like the Good Year Pimp” is pretty hilarious.
O.S.T. may be People Under The Stairs’ best overall album, but the group spent the next 15 years creating high quality music. Albums like Fun-DMC (2008), Carried Away (2009) and Highlighter (2011) remain personal favorites, and the continued strength of their catalogue has made P.U.T.S., in my opinion, the best and most consistent hip-hop group of the ’00s. They’ve become a front-to-back operation, as they operate the own label and work directly with their manufacturers.
Right now they’re in the process of releasing a three-part series of EPs entitled The Getting Off Stage. The title, coupled with the rhymes themselves, make it sound like they’re in the process of retiring from making music as a group, which would be a shame. There simply aren’t many groups anymore that demonstrate a deep and abiding love for hip-hop culture these days by just making good music, as opposed to being preachy. People Under The Stairs took the ethos with which they crafted O.S.T., and transformed it into the building blocks of a great career. Their love for the music and the commitment to quality has indeed never changed.