So … How’s Your Girl? , the latest release from Prince Paul, hip-hop deejay turned producer, begins with the sonic equivalent of a demolition derby. The first thing you hear is a vintage sample: an Irish brogue introducing a group of musical siblings. But instead of the Clancy Brothers, the listener is assaulted by a gaggle of disembodied voices (“What the-?” “Are they crazy?” “Check it out, y’all!”) swirling above an overstuffed, butt-shaking beat. But, of course, with Prince Paul at the mixing board, it all falls apart as you begin to tap your foot. Brass bands, air-raid sirens, and then the groove kicks in again, this time with a Gilbert Gottfried sound-alike chanting a phrase that is part manifesto, part non sequitur: “R-rock and roll could never, ever hip-hop like this!”
We’re only one minute into So … How’s Your Girl? , a joint effort by Prince Paul (a.k.a. Paul Huston) and San Francisco-based electronica mix-master Dan (The Automator) Nakamura, and we’ve already been treated to more surprises, gags and musical intelligence than anybody has a right to expect from a pop recording these days. There’s plenty more to come as the two producers are joined by familiar faces like Mike D of the Beastie Boys, Father Guido Sarducci, Sean Lennon, Dave of De La Soul and underground rappers EL-P, Encore and Sensational.
So … How’s Your Girl? purports to be the musical curriculum from the Handsome Boy Modeling School, a fly-by-night trade school operated by former cover-boys-turned-jet-setters Chest Rockwell (Mr. Huston) and Nathaniel Merriweather (Mr. Nakamura). The two producers appear in costume on the cover (Mr. Huston in a flimsy Guido Sarducci mustache), lounging on a nightclub banquette, sipping martinis, smoking cigars. (There’s even an inspired faux Vanity Fair profile of the two modeling school proprietors on the Tommy Boy Web site.)
The Handsome Boy Modeling School seems to be the brainchild of that comic genius-idiot Chris Elliott; the school was featured on one episode of his short-lived Fox sitcom Get a Life , and the new record includes a few recurring samples of Mr. Elliott’s Get a Life character on the perils of the trade: “I am a male model, not a male prostitute!” Mr. Elliott says at one point.
The listener also finds a group of ugly-duckling rappers, turntable spinners and singers who share a disdain for stylistic boundaries and a passion for subversive irony. You’ll probably never see this crew on the cover of The Source wearing heavy gold jewelry and affected scowls. But these are artists who are keeping hip-hop from calcifying into a collection of worn-out grooves and predictable poses.
So … How’s Your Girl? isn’t as ambitious as Mr. Huston’s two previous Tommy Boy outings, A Prince Among Thieves , an aural blaxploitation flick about the perils of the rap business featuring cameos by Chris Rock and Big Daddy Kane, or Psychoanalysis (What Is It?) , a lost-in-the-fun-house journey into the mind. But, song for song, it’s about as satisfying.
There is Del Tha Funkee Homosapien’s wry lament on “The Projects (P Jays)” about ghetto hopelessness: “We got to make it better/ Don’t take my sweater!” There is “Sunshine,” a ballad about a departed lover with some tongue-in-cheek commentary by Father Guido: “Everybody’s been wondering where you been, and now that we know what happened, we’re all wondering where you are.” Then there is “The Runway Song,” a turntable workout in which Mr. Huston and Mr. Nakamura are introduced by boxing announcers as dueling models: “Wearing a topless jump suit with cut-away buttocks and a see-through crotch panel-Prince Paul!”
Underpinning it all are Mr. Nakamura’s psychedelic beats and Mr. Huston’s Dadaist touches-the samples from thrift-store-salvaged children’s records, goofy blown takes, answering machine conversations with his fellow hip-hop artists.
Mr. Huston: “Yo, did I tell you about this new project me and my man Automator is doing? It’s called Handsome Boy Modeling School?”
Biz Markie: “What the f– is that?”
Mr. Huston: “Yo, I didn’t tell you about that? It’s ill!”