Negroes on Ice. That's the name of producer Prince Paul and his son's new hip-hop play. The title is provocative; it evokes scathing images of mainstream millionaire rappers with Bambi-like spindly legs slipping and sliding around on the slick ice of the modern hip-hop world. But the title was chosen less for its subversive suggestion than off-kilter comedy kicks. "I wish I could sit down and tell you about how there was this 1920s figure skater," says Paul, "but, well, it's just a name that me and my son came up with that seems to make people smile." Fittingly then, Negroes on Ice is a good-time hip-hop play that delights in poking fun at the genre's often po-faced figures — but does so while leaving behind an earnest message about the bond between a father and his son.
Paul describes Negroes on Ice as being "a one-man show that has music in it — sort of like if you've seen John Leguizamo's Ghetto Klown, but more ghetto and like an Adult Swim version of it." It stars his son, who performs as P Forreal; the duo spent a year on and off penning the production before finally testing an early version of it at Manhattan's Upright Citizens Brigade comedy club in late 2010. Onstage, their relationship takes the form of P Forreal hogging the spotlight with the main acting duties, while Paul sits stage left, triggering the original music score and sound effects. Breeze Brewin, an independent rapper who won critical acclaim as part of the Juggaknots back in the '90s, offers support in a recurring role as a helicopter pilot; a video screen flashes up images of artists RZA, Ice-T, Erick Sermon, and Freddie Foxxx, and actors Chris Rock, Rosie Perez, Michael Rappaport, and Tim Meadows — plus porn star Jack Napier — as their voices play cameo roles. (Sacha Jenkins, the rap journalist and founding member of the cult Ego Trip zine, also came on board as director after Paul mentioned the project to him at a conference in Los Angeles.)
In common with Paul's prior projects — which include the Psychoanalysis: What Is It? album and his own hip-hop-play-on-wax A Prince Among Thieves — Negroes on Ice skews wonderfully toward the absurd. In capsule form, Paul describes it as, "A day in the life of my son, from the time he wakes up in the story until he reaches the present time in the show." As P Forreal catches up with real time, the details include him "waking up in the morning with this girl, going to the RZA's house, going to Freddie Foxxx's house, having Ice-T chase after him — just a whole lot of bizarre events." (Paul says that an early scene that involved a car chase with Arnold Schwarzenegger was cut due to it being "just horrible.")
The story clearly aims to make the audience laugh. It's a common goal for a musical, but the hip-hop world often shies away from outright attempts at humor in favor of taking up a tough-guy stance. "I think that taking hip-hop too seriously is probably like the death and stagnation of hip-hop itself," reasons Paul. "More so than any other genre, it's pitched around being cool and trendy, and now a lot of the artists are so in character that they don't realize, and it becomes like wrestling. I mean, look at Nicki Minaj — how extreme can you get? And DMX was barking like a dog! But people get stuck into character. There's humor there, but they're too serious to see it."
Paul appreciates both the studiousness and the humor within the music. It's a vision helped by his impeccable veteran's credentials, which began in the mid-'80s with the group Stetsasonic. But it's the fulfilling time spent writing and producing Negroes on Ice with his son that quickly emerges as the play's strongest motif. Paul jokes that the idea for the production was sparked by his son's talent and tendency to tell stories that "basically are lies!" Writing sessions had the duo laughing together and yelling at each other — a process during which they "learned a lot about each other."
After talking to friends about the experience, Paul says he realized there aren't too many father-son relationships that involve two consecutive generations being in the same place at the same time. This is doubly so in hip-hop. "There's maybe Master P and his son [Lil' Romeo], and Peter and Corey Gunz," he says, "but it's not like this where we're working on a project together." So while Prince Paul's humor — which he admits is "kinda out there" — may cast him as something of an outsider to hip-hop's clichés, he hopes Negroes on Ice will inspire viewers to look anew at the bonds and relationships they have closer to home. As he says: "You made these kids, so enjoy them, spend time with them."