“For a group like us, we have zero swagger. We’re just dudes who are really good at putting on a rap show. For us, we have to get out there and tour and we found we’ve built fans for life.”
The concept of grinding hard through performing and shaking the hands of fans versus relying on hype and image to promote music is not lost on rapper Thes One (Christopher Portugal) of L.A.-based group People Under the Stairs (PUTS).
“There are artists that exist solely on the Internet and they appear to be huge, but when they actually get out on the road, they can’t put 50 people in a room. And it’s easy to promote swagger in a YouTube video, but it’s a lot more difficult to get onstage and entertain people for an hour.”
Live shows have always been a point of pride for PUTS; they’ve packed in almost 20 years’ worth, touring with a ton of influential artists like De La Soul and releasing a number of self-produced LPs. Thes One and the other half of the duo, Double K (Michael Turner), are known for their laid back, clever lyricism covering a lot of topics from summertime barbecues to their L.A. pride and catchy beats with jazz-filled samples (check out fan-favourites “Acid Raindrops” from O.S.T. or cult-classic “San Francisco Knights” off of their first album). Even today, their classic sound continues to prove popular with heads – they’ve toured with Mac Miller, introducing their music to a new generation of fans – but this is a tried and true formula Thes One says an artist should stick to.
“The fundamentals and the outline of what we’re doing is very simple, and it’s the same as it’s ever been; be good, make good music that people can engage with and feel a certain way about, tour and sell records: it’s that simple.”
Even though these days it’s pretty easy to throw on some marijuana-leaf-patterned socks and a Supreme hat and call yourself a rapper, he says there’s another type of performer surfacing: the type of rapper who actually raps.
“Six or seven years ago, if you would have told me that lyricism was going to make a comeback, that people would actually put some effort into writing rhymes – I would’ve laughed because we came out of the flashy Ma$e and Puffy ‘Bad Boy’ era. And to think that a platinum album would ever have complicated, well thought-out lyrics like Kendrick Lamar’s albums – that’s just great, man. Now we have a generation coming up from L.A. who rap their asses off.”
With the birth of new rappers and ways to promote their music, he also feels the label itself of “underground rap” is losing its relevance. “It may have [been relevant] in ‘96 when it was like ‘PUTS aren’t Tupac or Bad Boy – they’re underground and unsigned,’ but in the era of YouTube and Soundcloud, everyone makes the same level playing field of exposure. There is no such thing as underground anymore.” Being labelled as such for years is something that has never sat well for PUTS. “We don’t want our music to be for one type of group. We try to make music for everybody and we want to be remembered as being part of the full dialogue of music. We want to be known as two guys who contributed something in the bigger picture of music. That’s all. It’s music for everybody.”
The group is continuing to make that happen with their ninth studio album, 12 Step Program, out May 6th. “In some ways it’s a return to our origins because it’s all sample-based, there’s no live playing on it. There’s this young generation coming up who are amped up off of loops and breakbeats and we’re like, ‘Dude that’s us! You’re rapping over our instrumentals and you don’t even realize it.’ So we’re going to bring it back.” Thes One continues, “When we found out that Mac Miller was rapping over our instrumentals and we went on tour with him, we were like, ‘Damn, this 16-year-old generation is not only about lyrics, but they’re about hip hop, like breaks and shit.’ And that’s what we do! We got you.”
Thes One also has the backs of artists who find themselves struggling to get decent exposure for their work, so he formed the artist collective Piecelock 70 back in 2004. “The idea was to help other groups who are talented and are in the same position; maybe they can’t get callbacks from press agencies, or can’t get a book made or whatever. We’re basically like a union. We’re a self-maintained union of artists who are sharing resources, and I think that’s truly the independent spirit right there; when the shit hits the fan, and all of the chips are down and no one is willing to help you out, you don’t stop. You just look for an opportunity or solution, and then you keep going.”
As the conversation turns back to the benefits of touring, his smile can be heard through the phone when describing hitting up Vancouver again: “If only so we can meet our fans and shake hands and feel the vibes. That’s what keeps us going. During our darkest hours when no one cared about underground hip hop and it wasn’t about lyrics, just being on the road and meeting fans kept us going during our darkest days when there was no money, no revenue and no sales. Things are turning around, but we’re forever thankful for everyone.”
And we’re forever thankful for you, too.
Throw your hands up to People Under The Stairs, live at Fortune Sound Club, on Thursday, May 22nd.
By Katharine Sawchuk