On a balmy summer night, legendary hip-hop producer Prince Paul is finishing his desert across the table -- a thick, fudge brownie, partially wrapped in cellophane. He casually makes a gesture of, "want some?" Billboard declines, so he turns to one of his closest friends, drummer/keyboardist Don Newkirk, and offers the same. Newkirk obliges, and tears a piece off.
It's a small gesture, yet this brief moment speaks volumes of Prince Paul's career: as much as he's done for hip-hop, he's always trying to find ways to give back. Such is Baby Elephant, an acid funk project Prince Paul started with Newkirk and Parliament/Talking Heads keyboardist Bernie Worrell. The trio spent a year collaborating in the studio on "Turn My Teeth Up!," which will hit shelves Sept. 11 via Godforsaken Music.
In a lot of ways, it's Paul and Newkirk paying homage to Worrell, a long-time idol of theirs. "I wanted to do a different approach to Bernie," Prince Paul says. "The styles he plays, a lot of people don't really notice, from classical, to country, to the funk. That's the approach I wanted to take." "We also wanted the album to reflect a biography of Bernie's life," Newkirk explains. "We would pitch emotions and concepts to him. Like, 'how'd you feel when you first joined Funkadelic? What did that inspire in you?' And he would come back with musical ideas, and then we would take it and build, and grow with it that way."
Indeed, listening to Baby Elephant sounds biographical. Skits involving Paul and Newkirk as Bernie's disciples are juxtaposed between keyboard-heavy grooves and playful, structured arrangements. The set recalls Worrell's Parliament work, but also combines quicker, sharper rhythms. It's something Paul thinks will have hip-hop heads scratching their domes. "The initial thing we wanted to do was to get away from making a pseudo-funk record. I wanted to take all different styles, and base it with hip-hop beats," Paul explains.
"It started with the idea of Prince Paul making his Pet Sounds' and for Bernie to work with someone who was intimately familiar with his work -- someone who could give it a unique interpretation," says Phil Di Fiore, founder of Godforsaken Music. "They made something with these vintage sounds that I think is extremely modern, smart and instantly likeable." Back around the table, Newkirk takes the last piece of brownie. "You sure?" he asks. "Take it, take it," Prince Paul says. He turns back to Billboard, and deflects the attention back to Worrell. "The main thing to do in this project was to give Bernie direction," Paul reflects of their approach. "Of course, as great as he is, he can go all over the place. But hip-hop heads need some sort of consistency." Newkirk nods his head in agreement, swallowing the last bite.