Prince Paul’s A Prince Among Thieves helped lay the groundwork for hip-hop’s Broadway arrival
Kick-ass as it would’ve been for Prince Paul’s 1999 magnum opus and rap musical A Prince Among Thieves to have gotten the feature-film treatment, the ten-minute trailer that Tommy Boy did shell out for probably covers it. Though it would’ve been nice to see Chris Rock onscreen in his crackhead role offering to toss protagonist Tariq’s salad — and Rock did purchase those film rights — a scraped-together visual album would’ve undercut the world-historic, purely-audio one.
World-historic except that you haven’t heard of it. To back up, A Prince Among Thieves doesn’t need a thinkpiece; the album very much is what it is. The function of this writing is to introduce you to it, because in the 20 years since its release, it did not accrue a larger standing than its cult status among the type of hip-hop head that reads record reviews. De La Soul, Gravediggaz and Stetsasonic producer/visionary Paul first dreamed up a full-length rap opera not too many years after he invented the rap skit on De La Soul’s 1989 sampladelic landmark 3 Feet High and Rising.
Ten years later, the thing finally saw release, even though the finished product sat on the shelf since 1998. But it did every non-commercial thing it was supposed to do: blew up the 1999 year-end polls (including the definitive Pazz & Jop’s top ten), and put several lost MCs from its immaculately chosen cast back in the public eye: Big Daddy Kane, Chubb Rock and Sadat X to name three. Thieves also helped solidify the comebacks of two absolute showstoppers, Kool Keith (as arms dealer Crazy Lou, whose secret password is “enema bag,” natch) and Everlast (otherwise known as “Officer Bitchkowski,” who kind of shockingly today was permitted call his perp “moolie”). Chris Rock and a pre-Pimp My Ride Xzibit even made appearances as they were still on their way to top. Only the ever-game De La Soul playing a trio of crack-buying clients don’t quite fit in retrospect, just a little too heady in tone and lyrical ambiguity on “More Than U Know,” which is nevertheless saved by its perfectly roller-skate-jam-ready beat.
That’s the kind of album this is, though, one where you can count the flaws on two fingers; the only other one is musical execution of the title track and closer, meant to resemble a contemporaneous airplay hit and failing miserably. Conceptually it’s devastating, but more on that in a moment. The stars of A Prince Among Thieves are far bigger strangers to the marquee: Juggaknots’ Breeze Brewin as Tariq, the aspiring rapper who makes a Faustian bargain, and the even more obscure Sha as Tru, the well-connected friend who betrays him. It’s Tru who takes Tariq through the maze of these wacky underworld characters (Kane’s pimp is named Count Mackula), whom Tariq navigates with a convincing fake-it-til-you-make-it gruff naivete. But Paul’s wicked humor always permeates; when Chubb Rock’s crime boss Mr. Large interviews Tariq for a hustler gig, he actually flips through his résumé (“shift manager at Boston Chicken…hmm, rather impressive.”)
As for that ending, well, it’s still worth hearing even though I feel entitled to spoiling after 20 years to newcomers that the less-gifted rapper who becomes Tariq’s murderer ends up with a record deal and a radio hit paying tribute to his “friend,” which in 1999 makes for a pretty vicious satirical indictment of Puff Daddy. For a 77-minute, all-star, once-in-a-lifetime project, though, A Prince Among Thieves didn’t make big shockwaves culturally, perhaps because there’s so little left to the imagination and thus so little left to build on.
Or maybe because it’s the rare rap classic without a single, well, single to truly plant its flag, though the funky brass of “What U Got,” functionally Tariq and Tru’s demo tape within the plot, is almost as catchy as “That Thing You Do!” In 1999, it wasn’t quite yet fashionable for rappers to admit they were peddling fictions either, though another album came out on the very same day that would start to change that: Eminem’s The Slim Shady LP. In the end, A Prince Among Thieves is what it is, a classic piece of cinema in a whole new medium. If all the truly horrible rap skits to appear in De La Soul’s wake were necessary for this masterpiece to exist, well, Paul made a Faustian bargain of his own.