Paul Barman is all over the place. During our 20-minute phone conversation he’s directing traffic, navigating for his driver and constantly distracted by the women of Santa Monica. For instance, when asked how he managed to hook up with esoteric producer Prince Paul, his answer went “I made a 7-inch single called ‘Post Graduate Work’ that had a song called ‘Enter Pan Man’ on it … um, there’s a very beautiful girl walking right next to me. I just drove by one that was totally causing traffic problems.”
His rhymes and flow are equally all over the place, but more in the manner of a Jackson Pollock painting: chaotic but compelling. And while some may consider his gratuitous use of pop culture references, well, gratuitous, it’s a welcome relief from the same old bling-bling chatter that permeates contemporary hip hop. Much like the iconoclastic composer John Cage, whom Barman name-checks, his work isn’t accessible to everyone. But in terms of sheer lyricism, Barman doesn’t seem to give a rat’s ass about who gets what. It’s doubtful the Beastie Boys gave much consideration to the fact that their reference to having “more hits than Sadaharu Oh” wasn’t going to be grasped by those unfamiliar with the Japanese baseball legend. “My lyrics can be regarded as a superficial story or a philosophy that goes underneath it or the unusual rhymes that make it up or the beat that lies behind it or the mathematical wordplay underneath all of that,” says Barman.
And rhymes aren’t the only literary device Barman is occupied with. “Bleeding Brain Grow” from his sophomore effort Paullelujah, features elaborate palindromes and, despite their front-to-back-to-front spelling, he actually succeeds in making them fit the scheme. “I saw a palindrome on the Internet by this guy named Mike McGuire,” he says. “He had these amazing poems that were awesome as poems and they just happened to be extremely long palindromes. They put to shame all of those one-sentence ones you read about in English class. I was obsessed with rhyming on It’s Very Stimulating and I became obsessed with palindromes on this record and I tried to apply all of my rhyme criteria to my palindromes. Have I ever heard them before? Do they rhyme well? Do they make sense?”
All this isn’t to say that Barman is the profound, “thinking man’s” rapper. In fact, the hyper emcee busts juvenile sex rhymes and scatological jokes as often as he name-drops pop culture figures like Jeff Koons and Margaret Sanger. He’s the intellectually charged, hormonally driven punk kid who warns “Winona Ryder? Goin’ inside her.” But it’s not just sex that Barman is compelled to explore lyrically. Crafting an ode to two of the basic human functions that almost always elicit a chuckle, Barman’s “Burping and Farting” gets right to the point with the lyric “Burping’s from slurping the carbon dioxide in sugar water. Sodalicious, yet less nutritious than a booger snotter.” So how do you reconcile the literate, funny material with the “Beavis and Butthead” stuff? Unless both styles appeal to you, you probably don’t.
“‘Burping and Farting’ was one of the few times that I had the song title simmering for a while,” Barman says. “My initial idea was to be kind of like a Jermaine Dupri and go to the mall and find cute kids and write songs for them. One would get the burping verse and one would get the farting verse and they would come together in the chorus. I had some other song ideas for these hypothetical exploited children but then I kind of got my ‘science guise’ going in my head and I realize that if I approached it from a scientific point of view and just really described what burping and farting were, that would be the best way to do it.”
Barman’s time spent as a resident of Chapel Hill inspired two of the tracks on Paullelujah–“Anarchist Bookstore Part 1” and “Anarchist Bookstore Part 2,” based on Chapel Hill’s Internationalist Bookstore. “Every time I go somewhere I ask, ‘Where is the local Anarchist bookstore?’” he says. “In Anaheim they said ‘It’s Barnes & Noble,’ and that’s kind of a statement within itself. For me it’s one of the requirements of a place if I’m going to live there. I need access to a coffee shop, a good library … can you believe the girls here? … you know Jay-Z talks about ‘Ghetto U.S.A.’ and I’m all about ‘Anarchist Bookstore U.S.A.,’ bro. I’m so grateful to people who create a cultural institution within a capitalistic framework. Essentially saying ‘Please come buy our books so we can pay our rent’ and ‘There’s a cash register but that’s not what it’s about at all.’ My favorite term for them is ‘infoshop.’ What could be better than an infoshop?”
An accomplished cartoonist in addition to his poetry and microphone skills, Barman blanches as the idea that all three pursuits are to be approached differently. “On It’s Very Stimulating I said ‘Superficial distinctions make me go Sacre Bleu.’ It’s all bullshit. There’s no such thing as ‘interdisciplinary studies,’ only if you believe that those disciplines were divided up artificially by the institutions that you’re being controlled by. All creative acts come from the same source,” says the man who boasts “I destroyed my cell phone because I self own.”
But Paul Barman does own a cell phone and he readily admits to his own shortcomings, referring to himself as a “savant-tard.” But with white artists like Eminem rising to the forefront of American popular music on the back of hip-hop culture, is there room for a goofball, intellectual Jew in the game? “Y’know, when I first started out, part of my thinking was “Oh my gosh, I’m going to do the most unorthodox thing and I’m going to walk the fine line between reality and insanity and it’s gonna be a brain buster,” he says. “But since then, the novelty of (race) has worn off for me because now I’m just completely interested in lyricism and so I don’t think in terms of white rappers or black rappers. I just think in terms of lyrics.” And for those who choose to criticize Barman’s unorthodox style, the rapper has a simple retort. “I’m rappin’ son/If you think you think outside the box, you’re trapped in one.”