Tonight at the El Rey: People Under the Stairs Come Up for Some Air
"We do well in LA now, but it has been a slow, slow build," says the Peruvian-born, LA-raised Thes One. "We realized early on that to survive, we needed to be on the road. We'd been around the world ten times and done Glastonbury, Redding, and Leeds before people had even thought about leaving LA. And we've never been heralded by any local media." Few things are triter than underground rappers bemoaning perceived slights, but Thes One has a point. Just recently, I wrote a piece for this very publication listing the most notable local rappers of the last 15 years, and egregiously overlooked People Under the Stairs. My bad. But that's been the general rule, despite a discography that ranks as the deepest and most consistent of any of their indie boom-brethren. Indeed, save for the occasional off-hand pejorative condescendingly labeling them "backpackers" or "boom-bap revivalists," the critical cognoscenti have mostly ignored People Under the Stairs.
"We knew from the first time we went to Europe that we'd eventually catch on here," says Thes's partner, Double K, sanguinely. "Urb put us in their Next 100 once, but that was it. It didn't help our stature that we were selective in who we associated with. We didn't just jump on every show bill; we wanted to keep our brand a mystery."
Opacity has been a chief characteristic of the pair since they first hooked up in the mid-90s at now-shuttered Martin's Records on Pico -- when Thes, an up-and-coming producer at Loyola High School, bumped into K, who'd already earned modest local renown for his beats and work in Log Cabin, a loose collective that included several future Living Legends (including fellow Hamilton High classmate, Murs). Tension was rife between the teens, as mutual friends had stoked animosity between the two hip-hop fiends.
"We were either going to fight or sort it out peacefully," Thes One recalls nostalgically. "K had a cassette on him and we opted to go beat for beat. We connected immediately; we were two guys who cared about music surrounded by a million dudes with backpacks who wrote rhymes. No one else around us was listening to Freestyle Fellowship, Led Zeppelin and the
(scene from Wes Craven's original People Under the Stairs)
Opting to join forces -- and thus, keep their beats for themselves -- the pair amicably parted from previous groups and became People Under the Stairs, named after the 1991 Wes Craven horror flick and a shared penchant for secrecy. Keeping their plans discreet, the newly-formed duo rode the tail wind of the glory years of LA independent hip-hop, with the Project Blowed scene and fabled Unity shows providing a fertile womb for the next generation.
Finally emerging with the self-released, 1998's The Next Step, an auspicious, left-field gem studded with esoteric psych, soul and jazz samples and b-boy boasts, P.U.T.S. were met with a lukewarm local reception. While their peers drew major label-suitors, People were forced to beg Fat Beats to sell their debut on consignment. According to Thes, part of it stemmed from their more eclectic aesthetic, a hodgepodge of the jazzy flirtations of Tribe Called Quest, the goofy, laid-back attitude of the Pharcyde and the stoner insouciance of The Beatnuts. By contrast, Dilated enlisted producers like DJ Premier and Alchemist to create an ominous mid-90s New York sound, while Jurassic 5 mined the old-style harmonies of the Cold Crush Brothers and Furious 5.
"People Under the Stairs never had the right promotion," says Mark Luv, the long-time LA radio personality/DJ legend and one of the group's first supporters. "Take a group like Dilated. They had a lucrative deal to have albums released on both Capitol and ABB, so they got double promo. It didn't help that Thes and K wouldn't come into Fat Beats and hang out all day. Plus, Dilated had Babu, J5 had Cut Chemist and Nu-Mark; deejays run record stores and look out for their own." Ultimately hooking up with tiny, predominantly electronic Bay Area indie, Om Records, the group relentlessly toured Europe. Back in the states, Dilated and J5 became the city's standard-bearers and Peanut Butter Wolf and Madlib started to build Stones Throw into hip-hop's best label.
Settled into the role of the quiet, cult favorite, P.U.T.S. churned out a pair of subterranean classics in 2000's Question in the Form of an Answer and 2002's O.S.T. (Original Soundtrack) --two records that set them apart from their friendly rivals, but also shared with them a thorough, atavistic reverence for hip-hop history and culture. While such scholasticism often breeds orthodoxy, Thes and Double K stayed proudly irreverent, lambasting narrow-minded academics trying to over-simplify hip hop into the four basic elements, as well as the "super-lyrical" MC types so pervasive in the underground.
Despite the weak embrace they initially received, few native artists have so diligently paid homage to their hometown. Including at least one LA track on each record, the group name-drop everything from Crescent Heights to San Pedro, the 310 area code, late UNITY mastermind Bigga B, Tommy's Burgers and El Cholo. The local love culminated with September's Gold Dust-released Fun DMC, where the group rigged mics in a friend's backyard at 42nd and Vermont to capture the sundry sounds of the city.
"To us, LA is the BBQs, the dominos, the stories. The BBQ is this city's campfire, the place where everyone comes together to catch up," says Thes one.
Still unsung a decade deep into their careers, the group have finally managed to accumulate a respectable and fiercely loyal, local fan base, one that recently proved their allegiance by besieging Amoeba Records with calls when they initially refused to grant P.U.T.S an in-store. Perhaps equally meaningful to the group have been co-signs from the likes of Chuck D, DJ Jazzy Jeff and Biz Markie, the latter of whom surprised Thes with a phone call on April Fool's Day to tell him how much he enjoyed the group. With solo albums on the docket and no plans to give up the ghost anytime soon, People Under the Stairs' main goal remains unchanged from their humble origins.
"We're still working hard to break through the glass ceiling," Thes One said. "One of these days, maybe you'll see us on MTV or the radio, but if we do, it won't be because we've changed who we are. At the end of the day, it's about being original and making good music. Its been a crazy trip."
People Under the Stairs perform tonight (Friday, Dec. 20) at the El Rey. Also on the bill are Ugly Duckling, Cut Chemist and DJ Mark Luv.