When Asher Roth released Asleep in the Bread Aisle earlier this year, you could have waved conductor batons to the symphony of Eminem comparisons. In reality, though, Eminem had less to do with Roth’s success than MC Paul Barman. Sure, Eminem taught the world to respect a white MC, but it was Barman who first cast hip-hop’s gaze on middle-class minutiae–albeit from the art house rather than Roth’s frat house.
Barman’s first full-length album, 2002’s Paullelujah!, was a blueprint for a new strain of hip-hop. Was it comedy? Poetry? Performance art? "I’m too original to be pigeon-holed," Barman informed us, and he was right. Back in 2002, hearing him drop the Jungle Brothers’s “pissed-off Jimbrowski” in one line and Red, White and Blue auteur “Krzysztof Kieslowski” in the next felt as exhilarating as your first inhalation of blueberry kush.
When Heeb first spoke to Barman in 2002, the interview was interrupted by a call from his dad. When I talk to him seven years later about his second full-length album,Thought Balloon Mushroom Cloud, we’re interrupted by one of his kids. It’s a reminder of just how long it’s been, but I can tell you without reservation that it was worth the wait.
Featuring a ridiculously wide range of collaborators (Del, ?uestlove, MF DOOM, Michel Gondry, Master Ace, Weird Al, Prince Paul, Heeb Publisher Joshua Neuman, Dr. Joyce Wallace, the first person to study AIDS in women), Thought Balloon Mushroom Cloud showcases Barman’s most impressive work to date. In one song, he rhymes in double acrostics and on another he does so in Morse code, proving him one of the world’s most talented lyricists. Whether fans will embrace this new, more mature work remains to be seen—we certainly hope so.
What do your kids think of their dad the rapper?
They don’t perceive me as that. I’ve never fully labeled myself to them. My eldest son called me the greatest storyteller in the world, which is a title slightly superior to â€˜rapper.’ When they hear my songs they go, â€˜That’s your voice!’ or â€˜You said “stupid!”‘ or â€˜You said “vagina!”‘
Tell us about the new album.
In a way, this record represents several mini-universes, which do have names other than my own. There’s “Hairy Moth Owl,” which is “Hairy Moth Owl,” “The Moon” and “Owl Pellets.” There’s “The Science Gang,” which is “Owl Pellets,” “Power” and “Sampling Law.” Then there’s “Body of Work,” which is just all about the body. “Circumcision (Suite)” and even “Get Help” could fall under that rubric. And then there’s “Kid’s Songs,” which is, again, “Owl Pellets” and “Get Along Gang.”
And how do you hold it all together?
I got to give the cohesion and curation credit to Memory Man, one of my main collaborators. He’s really, really deep on the album. And the cover even has a reference to a Stan Tenen form, which I was totally ignorant of before being schooled by him. Are you familiar with Stan Tenen?
Dude. This guy thinks that he broke the code for . . . should I say ‘Language’? ‘Hebrew’?
So seven years after rapping about yarmulke bras and chocolate Hannukah gelt, you’re still interested in Jewish stuff?
It depends. I once went to the Kaballah Centre and there was a lady who drew a semi-circle with a square in it, and she’s like, I’ve been meditating on this shape. She meant to continue saying, because I have nothing to do. And then there was this other — it seems like a joke — there was a slide show of people doing special facial analysis, and they were like, the square head represents this and that, and the oval head represents this and that. So in a way, you’ve got this sort of Mirabella ‘how to accessorize’ thing — don’t wear an Indian headdress if you’ve got a square head â€˜cuz it’ll make your head look squarer. You’ve got that combined with racism. Because inevitably, the square, malicious-natured face just happened to look Arab or something. And I was just like, â€˜Yo, what am I doing there? This is all complete horseshit!‘ On the other hand, some of these yeshiva people who are lucky enough to devote themselves to scholarly work are doing stuff that everyone should know about. But I’m speaking from a place of ignorance â€˜cuz I have no idea, you know. I’m really just scratching the surface.
Do you think you’re maybe feeling more spiritual now than you were before?
I think the experience of touring, among other experiences, allowed me to address things straight on. When you’re rhyming onstage to people, you want to speak to someone directly, whereas previous to touring I had been more interested in storytelling-type stuff, which is great for headphones or a call. But that’s not the whole story. I think it’s kind of the flipside to that lyric ‘I’m too original to be pidgin-holed.’ On one hand, being called ‘Jewish’ all the time is not incredibly enjoyable when all you’re looking for is ‘dope lyricist.’ On the other hand, you should not let fear keep you from speaking on subjects [because that] might give ammunition to that narrow slot making. Like (in Yiddish accent) â€˜The schlemiel said “dayenu.” Whaddya want? It’s Jewish!’ Like, you know what? Fuck you! Basically, you’ve gotta get rid of all that.
Do you feel that the Jewish world embraces you?
Honestly, I don’t know. The easy answer is â€˜yes.’ I’ve heard fantastic stories about orthodox kids who hide my records under their bed with their Playboys. I think that I’m probably most relatable to a secular Jew who is able to question everything. But then again, my friend likes to say, Jews are the only ones who distinguish themselves as â€˜secular.’ And Judaism is very clever in its integration of questioning as a component of being Jewish. Then again, I don’t know if Judaism gets credit for [all] that. I don’t know if questioning and intellectual curiosity . . . you can also hand that to scientific method. You can hand that to the rebelliousness of punk rock. I can’t just give all the credit to Judaism for that. I’m just saying that the Jewish rulebook is very clever in its integration of questioning. And in a way, I have a theory, and maybe this has been brought up before, but I believe that the so-called ‘wicked’ child in the questions [at the Passover Seder] could easily be the questioning child or the smart one. It seems like oppression to define those four kids. The wicked child should be the pride and joy of the parents. Because he’s the only one who is making progress. He doesn’t need to hide my album, because he’s vocal. He’s the one who’s got my poster on the wall.
MC Paul Barman’s album, Thought Balloon Mushroom Cloud, is now available at MCPaulbarman.com.