Always On Time
Every rapper talks that stay-true-to-the-hood, I’ll-never-sell-out crap. But only one has truly stuck to this guns. He’s LARGE PROFESSOR. Back with Nas and finally, that’s right, finally ready to drop his solo album. By Noah Callahan-Bever
Ask a dumb question and you’ll usually get a dumb answer. Ask “What’s the deal with large Professor?” and you’ll always get the same answer: “Large…um, he’s an artist.” Ask peers like DJ Premier, or protégés like Nas or industry A&Rs who’ve dealt with the rapper-slash-producer, and you always get the same elusive answer: Artist.
To be specific, Large, born William Paul Mitchell, is an artist who has taken over 10 years to follow up the classic debut album by his group Main Source, Breaking Atoms. This is despite the fact that Large has been one of the most acclaimed beatmakers in hip-hop. In a genre where making money is the measuring stick of all achievement, there is simply no other way to understand a man who spent almost five years in self-imposed exile, refusing to compromise the integrity of his vision to compete in hip-hop’s ever-changing marketplace.
Hunched over a weathered MPC 3000 in the vinyl-saturated basement of his modest Jamaica, Queens home, Large Professor surely looks like an artist. As he triggers sounds to demonstrate his creative process, he swells with an enthusiasm and unadulterated joy that is almost indescribable to those raised on the nonchalant floss of today’s crop of fabulous rappers. He truly feels the music. “The average person would call me stupid for not getting paid, but I got a lot more,” he says. “I got a life.”
And life is good. At 30 years old, he is finally releasing his long-awaited solo debut, 1st Class, on the indie rock label Matador this spring. He defines his life as simple, meaningful existence that involved making the music he loves, spending time with his family and, as the song goes, just hangin’ out. It does not entail any of the activities expected for rap star, like schmoozing with record executives, posing for the cameras or, most importantly, creating a watered-down version of hip-hop palatable to radio.
“I’m not industrialized,” he explains of the difference between himself and his early ‘90s contemporaries, many of whom padded their pockets playing the game. “It’s not like I’m gonna make music any certain way because I think that I can make millions of dollars. [I make it] according to the roots of hip-hop culture. A lot of people, they be so fuckin’ pure, rah rah about keeping it real, but once the industry starts buttering their toast…it’s over,” he says with mild disgust. “If I were to abandon all that I know from the days that I was breakin’ and writin’ on the walls, that would be…” he pauses searching for an analogy before simply shaking his head. “I just can’t do that.” Then comes the old-school accent which Extra P, as he often refers to himself in rhyme, uses to finalize almost every thought: “Word!”
* * *
Growing up in the early ‘80s in Flushing, a lower-middle-class melting pot situated near the center of Queens, Large Professor fell in love with hip-hop in its infancy. He didn’t look at rap as a hustle or means to anything other than respect and self-expression. The MCs he grew up loving weren’t rapping as a stepping stone to acting or writing screenplays or being an executive. They just wanted to be the best.
“It was like the Olympics out there,” he explains of the corner competitions which sharpened his skills. “If you were a breaker or an MC or even just riding your bike, everyone was trying to spin the longest or flow the tightest or jump the highest.”
Born into a two-parent household with a sister 11 years his elder, P took the competition seriously, especially since his sis, who wrote the tag Lofty Times, would egg him on. “She’d always be like, ‘Paulie [he goes by his middle name], show ‘em how to do it!” he says. “She was the amp. Word.”
By the time he entered John Bowne High School, P was obsessed with hip-hop, religiously taping any and all rap radio shows and collecting the trickle of vinyl releases available. He developed a close friendship with a Canadian-born DJ he went to school with, Kevin “K-Cut” McKenzie. In ’88 all rappers had DJ partners, so the two decided to form a group, and it didn’t hurt that K-Cut’s mother had bought him an SP1200. Main Source was born.
But McKenzie’s mom, who became the group’s manager, had an older son, Shawn, who wanted in. Shawn’s sensibilities were often at odds with those of K-Cut and Large Professor. “Sir Scratch always had an R&B style,” explains LP. “I had to be like, ‘Yo man, you gotta take those shoes off! The gator belt [too].’ We used to have serious group meetings about it.”
But Ms. Mackenzie bankrolled the high school juniors’ independent debut 12-inch “Think” b/w “Atom,” and as a result Sir Scratch would remain. Group tension would subdue as the single became a hit, which at this early stage of hip-hop meant spins on Marley Marl and Pete Rock’s In Control show and Chuck Chillout’s show on 98.7 KISS.
“I remember hearing ‘Think’ and wondering how he made that beat,” recalls a raspy-voiced DJ Premier, who met LP through Queens rapper Joe Fatal. “Me and Guru and our dancer ended up living in a one-room studio on 183rd St. in the Bronx and Large used to come through. We’d sit around listening to beats for hours.”
Extra P remembers it like it was yesterday. “That was when I met Lord Finesse, too. At that point I still had standard records and [Premier[ had records, records!” he says of the Texan’s collection of obscure platters. Premier put the Professor up on records while LP taught Preem how to maximize the SP’s potential, specifically showing him how to filter out basslines, a trick Pete Rock had passed to LP only weeks earlier. Preemo also hooked up Main Source with Stu Fine, owner of Wild Pitch Records. Within months Main Source joined Gang Starr at the label.
While recording “Think” at the indie hip-hop Mecca, Studio 1212, Large Professor meet a man who would change his life, Paul C. “The first time Large Professor came by, Paul saw something special in him and they bonded instantly,” remembers CJ Moore, the rapper-producer-engineer of Black By Demand fame, who along with Paul C managed the day-to-day operations of Studio 1212. “Large was so good at programming, Paul even lent him his SP so he could make beats without having to take the bus.”
“At first I couldn’t believe this White boy was makin’ beats that was iller than Black niggas,” explains Extra P of his first impression of the Irish-American engineer, who produced classics like Ultramagnetic MCs’ “Give The Drummer Some” and Superlover Cee and Casnova Rud’s “Do The James.” “At that time a lot of Black niggas was fronting on me, so seeing Paul do his thing and get that acceptance, that showed me that this hip-hop shit was bigger than all that.” But it was Paul’s technical skills that truly impressed the teenaged Extra P. “I saw him chopping up James Brown’s ‘The Chicken’ with the horns and shit. And then he starts to play it, but without the horns, and I was like ‘Oh shit!’ Word.”
Unfortunately, in July of 1989, just as their friendship and creative partnership blossomed, tragedy befell Paul C. “Joe Fatal came to my house,” recalls Large Professor, his mood dampening noticeably. “We were about to go to the New Music Seminar so I [suggested], ‘Let’s go stop by Paul’s house.’ He was like, ‘Man, Paul’s dead.’”
The groundbreaking engineer-turned-producer had been shot to death in Rosedale, Queens the night before. The circumstances of his death remain a mystery. In a show of loyalty, Extra P named his production company after him, Paul Sea Productions. “To this day, I know that certain beats that I do, they’re Paul,” says Large with a warm smile. “For real, sometimes I just know that it’s a beat that he woulda done.”
Before his death, Paul C had started working on the technical side of beat-making for much of Eric B. & Rakim’s third effort Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em, though he was never officially credited for his contribution. After Paul’s death, it seemed only appropriate that the 17-year-old Large Professor pick up where his mentor had left off. Large ended up programming the lion’s share of the duo’s third opus. Like Paul C., he received no credit, though he maintains it never bothered him. “I was young, so I played my part,” he explains diplomatically. “I was just honored to be invited to work with an artist like Rakim.”
P still had to attend high school every morning, even as he made beats for the best. Soon, Kool G Rap reached out to him to work on Wanted Dead Or Alive. Then a friend of Joe Fatal’s, Melquan from Queensbridge, brought a talented MC named Nasty Nas to meet LP after school.
“I was like 15, putting together my demo at the time,” recalls Nas of first meeting LP at John Bowne H.S. “I had heard of this cat from Flushing with disgusting beats, so I asked Fatal and my DJ at the time, Melquan, to take me to meet him.” Extra P instantly recognized the youthful poet’s potential and began to bring the nasty one to Rakim and G Rap sessions, hoping he’d soak up some greatness.
Despite all the work P was putting in behind the scenes, he still was without an SP1200 of his own. His mother was a clerk at Bloomingdale’s and his father a messenger dispatcher, so the family lived on a tight budget. Understandably, Large was convinced his mother would say no when he asked for an SP for his 18th birthday. To his surprise she agreed, putting the large purchase on several credit cards. Speechless, P promised to repay her in one month.
That same week Fatal brought by Tragedy (the Intelligent Hoodlum), who had literally gotten out of jail that day. “If you don’t know P you might think he’s bugged, but he was just quietly intense, and playing these ill beats, recalls Tragedy, who brought a beat for the title track of his debut album. “One week after I got the SP,” recalls P, “they had [my] check for the Trag beat. They hit me and I just blessed my Moms. Word.”
As P made beats for others, Main Source had begun work on Breaking Atoms, which was coming together beautifully. “K-Cut would come through with beats and we’d hook them up together,” he says. “I was putting the chick-a-boom with the Donald Byrd and the shit was combining into some shit you’d never heard. I was like, “We gonna get’em!”
The trio worked at Large Professor’s parents’ house, where P had an open-door policy. While Extra P sculpted his masterpiece, young bucks like Havoc and Prodigy (of Mobb Deep) and Busta Rhymes visited regularly, picking up production tips and putting in time on LP’s various equipment. “Large Professor was the first to really school a nigga on how to program drums and sequence beats,” says Havoc.
Breaking Atoms was released in 1991 to critical and scored a huge hit with “Looking At The Front Door,” perhaps hip-hop’s most honest take on frustrated love. Fans were blown away by the album’s precise programming, richly layered loops, elaborate arrangements and Extra P’s commanding raps. Songs like “Just A Friendly Game of Baseball” and “Peace Is Not The Word To Play” still stand among the most intricate in hip-hop’s history. The album would go on to move modest units, but helped to score Wild Pitch’s EMI distribution deal.
Main Source soon set off on tour, along with the UMCs and Jaz. One particular night of that tour came up recently in the very public catfight between Jay-Z (then Jaz’s hypeman) and Nas (who rolled with Main Source). During a show in Washington D.C. the sound system cut out, forcing the artists to do the same. The angry crowd rushed the stage and chased the rappers back unto their tour bus.
“We were figuring we were gonna have to knuckle down,” explains LP of the incident, which Jay has used to attack Nas. “Jay came outta nowhere, reachin’ in his gym bag like, ‘Don’t even sweat these niggas. I got that.’ He didn’t show [Nas] the gun like, ‘I’m gonna shoot you,’ but we were all just like, ‘Whew!’”
Back in New York, relationships within Main Source rapidly deteriorated and Large Professor left the group. “I didn’t even know where [K-Cut, Sir Scratch or Ms. McKenzie] lived, for real,” explains Extra P. “Then I find out that they living on Columbus Circle and I’m still living at home with just my folks. Then I see Sir Scratch has a jeep and I don’t even have a car. I’m like, ‘There is some nepotism here,’ ‘cause all the checks are going to the manager, and who’s the manger? Their mom.”
P wasted no time in contacting his lawyer to extricate himself from the group. Meanwhile he negotiated a major label deal with Geffen, and kept busy producing jewels for Biz Markie, Akinyele, Mobb Deep and Slick Rick, among others. Perhaps most flattering, P was sought out for beats by usually self-produced artists like A Tribe Called Quest, Diamond and Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth (to whom he passed the excellent horn break for “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)”).
But Large Professor garnered his highest praise for the work he put into Nas’ revered debut, Illmatic. “I wanted to be Paul’s artists going into all that,” explains Nas. “I wanted him to executive-produce that record, but he told me that I had to do it on my own.” Extra P concurs. “People be like, ‘Yo, you didn’t sign Nas to a contract?’ But that’s not hip-hop to me. I’m no s’posed to sign Nas. He’s s’posed to go out there on his own and make his own money.”
Things got off to a rocky start at Geffen. For starters, the Professors seemingly large deal was sliced up by an assortment of parties, leaving only a modest pot for Paul himself. But the mains source of trouble was the changing sound of rap. Paul finished his debut—entitled The LP—with no guests and no outside production, by early ’96. The label was not satisfied. Geffen insiders close to the project, who preferred their names not to be revealed, explain that, “the whole label was behind Paul until he delivered the album. It came in sounding like something from ’92 and they just didn’t know what to do with it.”
Geffen asked for new material again and again. There was the thoughtful but jazzy “One Plus One,” a collaboration with Nas, who had just blown up with “If I Ruled The World.” Even that was problematic. “I never discussed [doing a song] with [Nas],” LP explains. “Then all of a sudden he showed up at the studio. They went behind my back to get him there, at least that’s what I think.” But Nas and Geffen insiders deny that story, maintaining that Nas got involved on his own, and never even took money for his contribution.
As Extra P struggled to create a product the major would back, he grew increasingly disappointed with other friends. “Niggas flaked on me,” he says, sounding confused. “All the time I spent showing niggas what buttons to press, how to perform, I never felt that they put that back to me.”
One peer who especially disappointed him is Q-Tip, whom P stepped to with the idea of a song called “Ps & Qs.” “He didn’t like the idea; he didn’t like the beat,’ P says. “I don’t think Tip like the way I look and shit. I don’t know, it’s just in his eyes when I look at him. He gives me this funny look. I guess that translates into him not being able to do a song with me. I just stopped trying.”
Even Geffen insiders point to that as a turning point in the project. “Tip came by to do the song and just ate and broke out without explaining why he didn’t want to do the joint,” says one. “That hurt Paul a lot.”
Things continued to go downhill as Geffen tossed out 12-inches for both “Mad Scientist” and “I Justwannachill,” neither of which caught on at radio. “I was just too hard for [radio]. Too gutter,” he concedes. “Puff and them was comin’ out and my beats didn’t sound all jingly. But that’s the way that I liked it.”
By 1997, P was released from his contract and the album was shelved permanently. As if that were not enough heartache, in the following years Extra P lost both his wonderfully supportive parents to heart failure. (“My folks liked to eat well and party and all that,” he says sadly.)
“The last words my pops said to me was, like, ‘Get ‘em, Paul!’ and he gave me a pound,” he remembers with a smile. “He’d always big me up. On his [tombstone] it says ‘…and he loved his son’s music.’ And he did. Word!”
Disgusted with the industry and disappointed in many people he’d called friends, in 1997 Large Professor disappeared into the hood. “Fuck all the heartbreak,” he says of the moment he let go of his baggage. “That’s dead to me now. Don’t nobody owe me anything, otherwise they wouldn’t have acted how they did.”
LP was finally free to take the vacation in the ghetto that he had often spoken of on records. “I get my energy from bein’ in the hood and the love I get there,” he says. “All these niggas with this fuckin’ debutante shit, man, get the fuck outta face with that. I’m on some straight-up Jamaica Ave., Guy R. Brewer shit.”
He confesses his vacation was financial strain, but one former Loud Records A&R kept his head above water. P sold records to Loud artists through Schott Free (mostly for demos and remixes), though many were never released. In addition, Large put out several 12-inch on High Rise/Matador Records, which resulted in his current album deal. Nas reached back out to P in ’98, after curiously not including him on his mid-‘90s albums. Large blessed Nas with the beat for Stillmatic’s shinning star, “You’re Da Man,” though Nas choose to hold onto it for three years.
“Large Professor brings a nostalgia to his tracks ‘cause he captures a sound from an era, and that’s why I had to hold that one until I was ready to do Stillmatic,” explains Nas, who credits P with overseeing his comeback. “He’s not trapped by it either. He’s not one of these old-school, player-hater niggas that’s on they own dick.” Nas promises LP will produce more on his next album. With two standout tracks on Stillmatic and a new album deal, things finally seem to be looking up for Extra P.
But the question remains: how can so loyal a man not be bitter at the hand he was dealt, watching those he came up with—Nas, Q-Tip, Busta, Mobb Deep, and so many others, still his friends—cash in and blow up? “Not to point to anyone in particular, but some of them are not happy,” he states without even a tinge of bitterness. “They got the money, the jewelry, the bitches, all that shit. Lovin’ that life. But there is still an unhappiness. Like, honestly, I be kinda feelin sorry for them. Word.”
As he puts the finishing touches on 1st Class, Large Professor is largely unconcerned with the future. But he knows one thing for sure. “No matter what I’m doing or where I’m at, I know I’ll have an ill rhyme and an ill beat for you.”