A year and a half ago, few people knew or even suspected that Paul Barman was a rapper, making a record with Prince Paul. Could this be true? This wacky, academic, white, suburban New Jersey guy, living for a time in Chapel Hill, was working with one of the most innovative producer-performers in hip hop? This unassuming, self-deprecating, gentle soul was writing and recording raunchy, ribald rap over sweet, sampled beats?
But appearances can be deceiving. Not only was it true, but by the time the news hit the street, production work was essentially completed for Barman’s Wordsound EP CD, It’s Very Stimulating, which was set to be released in early January 2000. MC Paul Barman was poised to leave Chapel Hill permanently to return to New Jersey, then tour in support of the release, a prospect that even he found hard to believe, having performed live only a handful of times before.
Barman had entered the upper echelon of hip hop through his self-produced 7-inch, Post-Graduate Work, a diamond-in-the-rough collection of four simply recorded songs that displayed his wit and humor with such lyrics as “that’s the end of my snotty hip-hoppity gymnopedie not by Satie but poignant and it goes clip-cloppity.” After finding its way to the ears of Prince Paul–another playful, intelligent talent who had produced, among others, De La Soul’s groundbreaking Three Feet High and Rising album–a correspondence between the two ensued, culminating in the recordings, made in Prince Paul’s studio, which would become It’s Very Stimulating.
The 7-inch, in its own time, had come into being through Barman’s own immersion in–and love of–the genre. Much as certain British boys of the ’60s had absorbed American blues, Barman had imbibed such seminal hip-hop influences as Boogie Down Productions, Jungle Brothers, Wu Tang Clan, MC Lyte and, of course, De La Soul, learning and reveling in their use of acronyms, phrasing and rhyming. He experienced hip hop as a complex, creative, self-referential system of communication–a system that became a part of him, the source of his passion and love of his art. Geeky, white and suburban as he might be, his impulses were no less valid or real than those of any other artist in the genre … or any other genre, for that matter.
The quality of his creation was real, too. In the weeks and months following its release, It’s Very Stimulating was both noted and praised in the national press. His work was discussed in pieces in CMJ, The Village Voice and The New York Times, and on Salon.com and NPR’s Fresh Air. Mid-March found Barman the subject of “New Faces,” a full-page feature in Rolling Stone, where his CD had earlier been given a four-star review. When his tour schedule brought him and his DJ, DJ A. Vee, back through Carrboro for a show at the Cat’s Cradle last May, a large, appreciative crowd of friends and new fans turned out. Following the show he was repeatedly approached by fans asking for his attention, quoting his lyrics and relating the meaning his words had for them.
Later in May, Deltron 3030 appeared. A collaborative effort from Kid Koala, Del tha Funkee Homosapien and Dan the Automator, it featured Barman in a cameo. In July, Barman’s Matador 12-inch, How Hard is That?, was released to more praise. The first pressing of It’s Very Stimulating sold out, but a second pressing soon appeared, with a new, Barman-designed cover (he’s also known for his cartoons and sketches).
Things seemed to slow down at the beginning of 2001. Despite a February tour with DJ Spooky, Dalek and Prince Paul, little else appeared to be happening with Barman.
But a recent phone conversation revealed that, once again, appearances are deceiving. Barman, if now a bit less high profile (or flavor of the week), is continuing to create. A second Matador 12-inch is in the works and should be available later this year. It will feature two new songs, “Cock Mobster” and “Anarchist Bookstore,” the latter based loosely on Internationalist Books in Chapel Hill. Both songs were recorded with Fish Gulish, a West Coast drum programmer Barman met through Prince Paul. (In a cool twist, it was only after working with Gulish that Barman realized that he’d unknowingly sampled his work for Post-Graduate Work 7-inch years before.)
Barman is also working on material for an anticipated full-length CD, collaborating again with Prince Paul, along with the Automator and Phofo, a younger producer. He says he has some secret weapons to sample and he plans to produce some of his own work at some time, but he also speaks of how production is social creation, giving an impression that collaboration with other producers might nonetheless be a satisfying and continuing part of the art for him. In his new songs he is concentrating on storytelling rather than dance music, because he feels that not only do people want stories, but, as traditional avenues continue to close, they look for them more and more in pop culture. Barman sees the poetry of rap as the remaining essence of spoken verse, a direct, living descendent of the oral tale-telling of ages past, composed for the ear, not for the eye, as is so much of today’s formal, academic and published poetry.
And though Barman insists that acclaim and attention have not changed him, but only made him more seasoned, he does appear to have grown much more at ease with the idea of himself as a performer. He says that despite its weight of concerns–equipment, money, time and travel–performance is now a significant part of what he enjoys. He talks of his realization that giving energy to get energy is how life works, and how awesome it is for him once a show begins and that give-and-take takes over. If even only one audience member knows his lyrics, he says, it is a fantastic moment for him to be able to connect with someone that intimately.
These moments are also when appearance irrefutably coincides with fact, and there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that MC Paul Barman is, indeed, a hip-hop artist.
MC Paul Barman can be reached through www.mcpaulbarman.com, which contains lyrics and links to sound files of his music.