People Under the Stairs
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People Under The Stairs
Double K (left) and Thes One (right)
|Origin||Los Angeles, California, United States|
|Labels||PUTS Records, PL70 Records, Tres Records, Om Records, Gold Dust Media|
People Under the Stairs was an American hip hop duo from Los Angeles, California, formed in 1997 and disbanded in 2019. Since their inception, the group has consisted solely of Christopher Portugal (Thes One) and Michael Turner (Double K). The group employs a DIY work ethic of sampling, MCing, DJing, and producing all of their output.
Despite difficulties achieving mainstream or chart successes, the group has rejected the idea that they are an "underground" group. They have achieved prominence and acclaim, and praise from fellow musicians.
While attending high school in Mid-City Los Angeles, group members Thes One and Double K were independently sampling music, creating "beat tapes", and DJing local events. Thes One attended Loyola High and was making a name for himself through his production work and his collaboration with a local, short-lived hip hop group, Spiritual Madness. Meanwhile, Double K attended Hamilton High and was a part of the Log Cabin Crew, a hip-hop collective that also included fellow Hamilton High students Murs, Eligh and Scarub (of Living Legends).
Despite never having met, Thes One and Double K developed an unseen rivalry through gossip spread by their friends, and the two were wary of a confrontation. Eventually, they randomly met while looking for sample material in Martin's (a now-defunct record store on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles) and ultimately decided to listen to beat tapes in Thes One's car. The two were impressed by each other's work, and formed a friendship, characterized by a focus on the production of music, and a shared interest in multiple genres of music.
For the first few months after the two met, Thes One and Double K were primarily interested in creating instrumental hip hop (possibly for other rap artists to use). However, the duo were wary of rappers and backpackers who were more interested in the lyrical side of hip hop and did not understand or have an interest in the music they were creating. Eventually, Thes One and Double K made the decision to rap over their own material out of a desire to keep everything self-contained.
The group decided to use the name "People Under the Stairs" because they felt it represented their music aesthetic. During a time when most other rap artists were forming large crews or collectives and making a lot of guest appearances to help establish themselves, Thes One and Double K wanted to stay out of the spotlight and concentrate on the music, only coming out from "under the stairs" to perform before they went back again.
Thes One and Double K would occasionally invite other local artists to perform on the tracks that they were producing at home, but with the exception of their friends Smile-Oak (who appeared on People Under the Stairs' first album, The Next Step, and their first compilation album, American Men Vol. 1) and JazMak (who appeared on Question in the Form of an Answer and joined them on their 2000–2001 world tour), People Under the Stairs has never really come close to having a third member.
The group's name does not originate from the 1991 Wes Craven film The People Under the Stairs. While the duo have seen the movie and enjoy it, they were not aware of it when conceiving the group. Nor is the group from San Francisco, California, despite the song "San Francisco Knights" on their first album; the group wrote the song after a good time in the city.
1998–1999: The Next Step
In 1998, while Thes One was attending the University of Southern California, People Under the Stairs used Thes One's student loan funds to create, package and release their first 12-inch single, entitled The Next Step II. Nearly 500 copies were pressed, although many copies omitted a b-side, "Live At The Fishbucket, Pt. 1", when the record stamper broke half-way through, and a different master had to be used. Just weeks after the 12-inch was released, a large portion of the singles were bought by the shopkeeper of the (now closed) Mr. Bongo record shop. When the owner played the single in the store, it sold out within 7 minutes. In an attempt to get more material from the group, Mr. Bongo's owner contacted the only person he knew in the music business, Chris Smith, the CEO of Om Records in San Francisco, and urged him to get in contact with People Under the Stairs.
In the meantime, the group had independently released their first album, The Next Step in 1998. Although they were initially reluctant to create a full-album (being more focused on song production), the group decided to take the chance. The album was recorded on an 8-track ADAT digital recorder, mostly at Thes One's home in Los Angeles, and Thes One and Double K produced and engineered the album entirely by themselves.
With the aid of a local L.A. producer, DJ Dusk, the duo performed their first live in-store appearance as a group at the Beat Non Stop record store (also now out of business) on Melrose. Despite the assistance from friends, the Los Angeles hip hop community at large was still unwilling to accept or play their music on the radio or at club venues, and to their surprise, the group found a larger fan base overseas in Europe, which was instrumental in their decision to begin their first world tour.
Chris Smith and Om Records had taken Mr. Bongo's store owner up on getting in contact with People Under the Stairs and were initially prepared to offer the group a one-song deal for Om's compilation albums, Deep Concentration and Mushroom Jazz. Om was a music label generally known at the time for electronic music and club music, but Smith, upon hearing more of the duo's material, offered them a four-album deal, which the group accepted in 1999.
In August 1999, the duo embarked on their first world tour in support of Om's "Deep Concentration" project. The tour provided People Under the Stairs with a respite from the impenetrability and apparent disinterest of the Los Angeles music scene's key players. The European leg of the tour evolved into a solo act for People Under the Stairs, with local artists opening for them.
2000–2001: Question in the Form of an Answer
Fresh from the excitement of being on their first world tour, and funded by a music label, Thes One and Double K were anxious to try new sampling and recording techniques that they had learned since the first album. They also took the time to refine their lyrical style with less battle raps and guest appearances.
The result was their second full-length album, Question in the Form of an Answer, released in June 2000. Like The Next Step, the album was nearly 75 minutes, self-recorded and used an eclectic and diverse range of beats rooted in jazz and psychedelic rock. However, the album used a much larger degree of filtering techniques that Thes One had learned from studying analog sound equipment.
The lead 12" single for the second album, "Youth Explosion", sold the full run of 15,000 copies pressed in its first month, and was not repressed in order to promote the second and third singles, "The Cat" and "We'll Be There", which also went on to sell 15,000 copies each. Om later released white-label, "limited edition repress" versions of "Youth Explosion" and "The Cat" without covers.
People Under the Stairs embarked on a second world tour to support the record, this time adding Japan and Australia to their routing. A highlight of the tour was taking part in the UK Glastonbury Festival in June 2000 as the opening performers in the Dance Tent with Dilated Peoples and the Saïan Supa Crew. The tour culminated in a July 2001 performance at the Essential Music Festival in London where the group joined with Biz Markie, Ice-T, Gerry "Jeru" Mulligan, Masta Ace and De La Soul on the final Sunday of the festival.
While People Under the Stairs was on tour in 2000, they also packaged and released a limited run of their first compilation album, American Men Vol. 1, sold at concert venues. Om Records also re-released The Next Step in 2001.
2002–2003: O.S.T and ...Or Stay Tuned
During 2001, while on tour in Europe, Thes One and Double K had been utilizing their tour income and their Question... album profits to steadily amass a large supply of vinyl records. Back at home in Los Angeles, Thes One and Double K were also beginning to see more exposure on the local scene, and Thes One took part in a live DJing "beat battle" against fellow Los Angeles recording artist will.i.am on April 25, 2002. Using this new-found material and the life experience they had gained from touring and shows, Thes One and Double K began piecing together their third album in between tour dates.
The album was released in June 2002 as O.S.T.. The album was again produced in Thes One's home by the duo and released on Om records. O.S.T. proved to be more complex than the group's first albums, using a larger variety of samples (culled from vinyl collected all over the world), and the samples were pieced together in more intricate ways. For example, the track "Montego Slay" used over 20 minuscule sections of music from Jamaican tourist souvenir records, cut and reorganized seamlessly into a new rhythm. The group also used live instrumentation for the first time on a release by having musician and producer Headnodic (of the Crown City Rockers and The Mighty Underdogs) play electric bass on the album closer "The Breakdown".
In the fall of 2002, People Under the Stairs supported the release of O.S.T. by playing at the Reading and Leeds Festivals, and also by taking part in the second-annual US Cali-Comm hip hop tour with Del the Funky Homosapien, KutMasta Kurt, Planet Asia, and the Lifesavas. During the supporting tour for the album, the songs "Acid Raindrops" and "L.A. Song" became fan favorites, and they are performed by the band live regularly.
After receiving a funding advance for the final album with Om, Thes One purchased a Neve 5116/32 mixing console that ended up being used for the next two releases, as well as other albums that Thes One produced for other artists. The console was so large (1,300 lbs) that he had to enlist the help of Giant Panda and cut a hole in a wall to get it up to the second floor of his home recording studio.
The final album released through the contract with Om Records was ...Or Stay Tuned, released in the fall of 2003. This is the group's shortest album, clocking in at 43 minutes, and it was originally marketed and labeled as an EP release, due to contractual issues. While it contains several new tracks, it has a pseudo-compilation feel due to the inclusion of several remixes and outtakes from the O.S.T. sessions. In the years since the album's release, the group has counted it among their main album catalog, as it was released on double-vinyl and meets the criteria for being full-length. After the release of ...Or Stay Tuned, People Under the Stairs embarked on another world tour.
2004–2006: Side projects and Stepfather
In 2004, Thes One and Double K found themselves free of their record contract with Om Records. In an effort to expand his knowledge of production and the music industry, Thes One began work on a number of side projects. He co-founded Tres Records with Chikara Kurahashi from Giant Panda, and released two 12-inch singles on the label, Noonen (an ode to the 1980 comedy film, Caddyshack) and Doin' It (with Raashan Ahmad of Crown City Rockers). In May 2004, he coordinated the Bloquera project, a trip to southernmost Baja California to record an EP with members of Giant Panda and shoot a video on Super 8. Following this trip, he began executive producing and mixing the debut album of Giant Panda, Fly School Reunion.
Now that People Under the Stairs were not protected by the safety net of being signed with a record label, the group felt personally responsible for the direction and success of their music. As a result, the group started to move away from the "party life" they had enjoyed while making the previous albums, and the musical and lyrical themes that would be present on their next record reflected that growth.
In 2005, People Under the Stairs inked a deal with a smaller, local Los Angeles label, Basement Records, for domestic release of their next album (with overseas distribution by Tres Records), and they returned to the studio to begin production. Feeling that sample-based hip hop was becoming stale, repetitive and single-oriented, People Under the Stairs made a conscious decision to completely change everything about their sound and image for the new album. They wanted to create a cohesive album with a broader, less-jazzy sound palate. They even went so far as to strip down the album cover to a minimalist look and change the branding and logos that had been present on the previous albums. They also invited Double K's idol, George Clinton, to perform on an album interlude.
Just before the release of the album, the group grew annoyed by the internet music piracy and peer-to-peer file sharing that was in full force by the mid-2000s. In a move that was equal parts a precautionary measure and a joke aimed at over-eager fans, People Under the Stairs decided to "leak" a fake version of the album onto the internet in the month preceding the album's release in 2006.
When the real album was released in April, Stepfather debuted at #32 on the Billboard Heatseaker Chart and #35 on the Billboard Independent Albums chart, and the album was met with widespread positive reviews and received more coverage than the group's previous efforts.
Stepfather also drew the attention of a new audience. At initial in-store concerts in support of the album, Thes One and Double K noticed that the average age of the people coming out to support them was much younger than they were expecting. Excited that they were reaching a new generation of hip hop connoisseurs, the group asked for their United States tour dates to be "all ages" shows and in-store appearances at record shops in an effort to reach out to the new young fans.
They toured the US through Spring 2006, taking along the then-unknown rock-rap group Gym Class Heroes as their opening act. In the Summer and Fall of 2006, the group embarked on another world tour, visiting Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Europe. For the Europe leg of the tour, they were accompanied by Giant Panda.
2007–2008: Fun DMC and The Om Years compilation
In the period following Stepfather and before People Under the Stairs began work on their next album, Thes One released his debut solo album (and experimental project of three years), Lifestyle Marketing, on Tres Records, and the album was well received in the hip hop community. Double K also released a solo instrumental track, "Face to Face", on a split single with Los Angeles producer Olde Soul.
In 2007, the group performed additional concerts in the UK and the Western United States, and in the days leading up to 2008, the group kicked off another tour in Australia. Having played concerts in Australia many times since 2004, Thes One and Double K wrote a new song, "The Wiz", about their experiences in the country. In Spring 2008, the group worked with director Matt Bird to film a video for the song while on location in Bondi Beach. The filming of the video involved underwater cameras, cranes, and a helicopter shot, and was the group's first music video.
Back in Los Angeles for the summer, Thes One and Double K started recording sessions for their next album. While they were hard at work in the studio, Om Records took the opportunity to release a retrospective album, The Om Years of the group's most popular songs from their first four albums, and a bonus CD of b-sides and rarities was also included.
People Under the Stairs finished recording in fall 2008 and released their new album, FUN DMC, in September. Like the previous album, Thes One and Double K had tried another independent record label, Gold Dust Media, and the album received positive reviews. The album debuted at #6 on the Billboard Heatseekers List in October. The name of the album is partly a homage to the group Run–D.M.C., but also an expression of what the group felt that they provided to their listeners: a relaxing party album, with bits of introspection mixed in. For the first time, the group decided to create a concept album involving the daily life of someone living and enjoying themselves in the Los Angeles neighborhoods where they have lived and grown up. They brought recording equipment to a South Central summer house party and barbecue, and used the ambient noise from the party to supplement the "daytime" songs on the new album.
On FUN DMC, People Under the Stairs featured the reggae artist Odell, and their long-time drinking buddy, Blvme, on the sultry, uptempo jam "California". Blvme is the only engineer to record People Under the Stairs on the mic in the booth at the same time.
Following a nationwide tour of the US in support of the album, People Under the Stairs celebrated their 10-year anniversary with a sold-out show on December 19, 2008, at the historic El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles, performing multiple songs from every album. The performance was released on DVD the following year.
2009–2010: Carried Away
People Under the Stairs dedicated the first half of 2009 to more touring in support of Fun DMC, and even celebrated several touring "firsts". In February, People Under the Stairs became one of the only independent American music groups to tour China, selling out shows in both Beijing and Shanghai. Thes One and Double K also performed on the opening days of both the Coachella Music Festival in April and the Bonnaroo Music Festival in June. Spin Magazine was particularly impressed with People Under The Stairs' Bonnaroo performance, declaring them one of the 25 "Must-Hear Acts" of the year, citing their performance as "the most crowded" first-day act, and branding them the "Best Party Starter." Feeling inspired by their touring success, the group immediately returned to the studio following their Bonnaroo concert to begin recording more tracks.
Due to a backlog issues with Gold Dust Media and incentives offered by Om Records, People Under the Stairs made a return to Om for their next album. Om helped the group obtain licensing from Colt 45 for a 7-inch single and Vans for a remix contest. Released in October, Carried Away debuted at #5 on the iTunes hip hop charts and at #23 on the Billboard Heatseeker Charts.
Though demand to tour the US following the release of Carried Away was strong, People Under the Stairs embarked on another world tour, including visiting Brazil and the southern cape of Africa for the first time. In late 2010 and early 2011, they did a limited tour-date run through the Western US on a "Secret House Party" tour.
2011–2012: Piecelock70 and Highlighter
Still disappointed with the way that the various record labels had handled the duo's product during the first decade of their career, Thes One made the decision after Carried Away to take complete control of the production process for the group's albums from start-to-finish and release all new material under a new business entity, Piecelock 70. The name "Piecelock 70" (also styled as PL70) has existed as Thes One's corporate touring account since 2004, but Thes One took the opportunity to actually construct a whole new recording facility in downtown Los Angeles and make the name a label and a brand.
Piecelock 70 released the future People Under the Stairs albums over the following years, and also material by other artists, including Headnodic (of the Crown City Rockers and The Mighty Underdogs), DJ Day and Doc Delay. Thes One made the decision to run Piecelock 70 under a worker cooperative business model, and allow hard-working artists to retain complete control over their output while pooling and sharing resources and taking advantage of the label's facilities.
On June 17, 2011, People Under the Stairs joined a large and eclectic group of musicians, including Girl Talk, Big Boi, Pretty Lights, Mac Miller, and Empire of the Sun, to kick off the inaugural Governor's Ball Music Festival in NYC. While on stage at the show, Thes One and Double K announced the name of their eighth album: Highlighter.
Released on September 30, 2011, Highlighter was the first album on the new Piecelock 70 label, and it was released on limited-edition, yellow-streaked audiophile vinyl, in addition to the standard CD and iTunes release formats. Like Stepfather, the album was one of the more experimental releases for the group, employing alternate time-signatures, live instrumentation, and even a string section.
Highlighter was also distinctive because it was the first commercial album offered with a concurrent digital download in 24-bit HD-AAC format. In addition to the 24-bit files, consumers would also received Serato-tagged 320kbit/s MP3 files. Thes One decided to release the album in the new HD-AAC format after attending an Audio Engineering Society convention, meeting with the Fraunhofer Society, and reading a white paper on the new format. With the 16-bit compact disc becoming increasingly obsolete in a digital market, Thes One felt that it would break new ground for the recording industry. During the first few days of the album's release, the servers providing the music files crashed several times due to high demand and the large file size, but reception to the sound quality and the album was positive.
On July 19, 2012, People Under the Stairs were invited by fellow Los Angeles hip hop musician (and high-school friend) Murs to play at a concert series in support of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Their performance was a stand-out part of the evening, drawing a large crowd response.
2013–2014: 12 Step Program
On January 28, 2014, Thes One announced on social media that People Under the Stairs' ninth full-length album would be titled 12 Step Program (also promoted as 12SP). On April 7, 2014, PUTS released the music video for the lead single, "1 Up Til Sun Up", on YouTube and began pre-orders for the digital album on iTunes.
A week before the album's release on May 6, 2014, pre-orders for limited amounts of physical copies of 12 Step Program (on vinyl record, cassette tape and compact disc) were announced on the band's official website, and over the next 24 hours, the website's server crashed 4 times due to eager fans. The album debuted at #56 on the iTunes charts, #7 on the iTunes rap charts, #11 on the Billboard Heatseeker charts, and #33 on the Billboard R&B/Rap Album charts.
2015–2016: The Gettin' Off Stage
Touring stretched into 2015, including a June 5 performance with special guest Greg Nice in New York at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. During the show, the group announced their next album and that Nice would be featured on the record. Later in the year, the group revealed their tenth album would be a three-part EP comprising six songs each, titled "The Gettin' Off Stage."
In anticipation of the release, the group did a series of live videos on Facebook from their studio and also a pressing plant where the vinyl record was being manufactured. Additionally, the group posted four previously unreleased songs to their SoundCloud account as "American Men Vol. 2." A new web site (PUTS.band) launched as well and replaced Piecelock70.com.
"The Gettin' Off Stage, Step 1" was released Friday, November 20, 2015 on MP3, CD, and vinyl. The vinyl pressing was limited to 1,000 units and quickly sold out. The release was supported by three shows in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago; the group ended the year with multiple shows in Colorado.
In 2016, the group performed in Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Missoula, and Santa Barbara. Thes One then announced on his Instagram account that "The Gettin' Off Stage, Step 2" would be released on 4/20. Shows were subsequently scheduled for 4/20 in Santa Cruz and 4/21 in Oakland.
2019: Final album: Sincerely, The P
In August 2018, People Under the Stairs released the single 'Drinking & Jivin'. In a press release, the duo said of the single: "We dug deep and revisited a simpler time on this one: old Mountain Dew commercials – People waterskiing behind horses, rope swings, bridge jumps, National Parks, camping and the great American promise of a wilderness and outdoors shared and loved by all. This is a song for the last days of summer, for the memories we’ve had and those we’ll still make. We hope the vibe transports you to our campfire where we sit, have a drink and share the last glimmers of August light together as one nation under a groove."
On February 1, 2019, People Under the Stairs released their final album Sincerely, The P on MP3, CD and limited vinyl and cassette recordings. Thes One revealed on social media that 'Sincerely' would be their final album, marking their 21 years in the music industry since they released The Next Step back in 1998.
Musical style and influences
Hip hop influences
During the time before Thes One and Double K met through the early years as People Under the Stairs, the group attended hip hop shows at many of the Los Angeles venues (such as the Good Life Café) that were a part of the explosion of West Coast hip hop acts. In numerous interviews, the group has cited many of these groups that had a direct or peripheral influence on their sound, including Freestyle Fellowship, The Pharcyde, Jurassic 5, The Beatnuts, and many others.
In addition, other hip hop acts from the 1980s and early 1990s influenced the group's sound. The group has paid direct homage to A Tribe Called Quest on the song "Check the Vibe" on 2009's Carried Away. Double K grew up listening to DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Public Enemy, West Coast gangsta rap such as DJ Quik and Eazy-E, and a large amount of 1980s disco rap. The latter influence is especially apparent in the "Letters" song cycle that stretches over the group's 2006–2009 albums.
Thes One and Double K have described themselves as musicians first and rappers second, but despite that distinction (or perhaps because of it), they have developed a distinctive lyrical style with several recurring themes.
For the most part, the group avoids sociopolitical or activist themes, gangster rap, battle rap, and material wealth. Instead, they tend to focus on personal experiences and enjoyment, including life in (and pride for) Los Angeles, video gaming, barbecues and food, recreational drug use (mostly beer and marijuana), and relaxing. A small portion of songs have dealt with more serious themes, but even these have been tied to gratitude for or remembrance of family and friends.
Throughout their albums, the group also constantly refers to the subject of music and its importance to their lives. They discuss record collecting, sampling, DJing, older music forms or artists that they respect, and the state of the music industry.
People Under the Stairs draw on a wide array of record samples to create their work. During their formative years and all the way through 2006's Stepfather, the group engaged heavily in finding and procuring rare records, and these records covered the genre gamut from jazz and funk, to rock and spoken word.
The group is secretive with regard to their sample sources, and they encourage listeners and fans to do their own music research and seek out sources on their own. The group makes a conscious effort to "clear" all of their samples with the originating artists, but due to the legal complexities surrounding the practice, they have indicated their distaste of fan-based sample posting on the Internet and the hurt it can cause to hip hop artists.
In the years since 2006, People Under the Stairs have re-focused their sampling technique. Reacting to the increasing competition among hip hop artists to find the rarest records, the group decided to focus more on expanding their sonic palette (even going so far as to utilize live instrumentation on their most recent albums).
One of the key differences between Thes One and Double K at the time of the group's formation was the use of different sampling devices: Thes One had recently purchased an Akai MPC3000, while Double K was utilizing an E-mu SP-1200. The differences in the way the two samplers handled data intrigued Thes One, so he made an extensive study of the history of electronic instrumentation and sampling machines, from the work of Roger Linn to improve Akai's products to Phil Collins' efforts to create drum machines. He has incorporated this knowledge into the group's sound and recording techniques. He has even given college lectures on the subject.
Contemporaries and legacy
As mainstays on the Los Angeles hip hop scene, Thes One and Double K have become friends with many other names in the music world. The group has worked with George Clinton (Double K is a member of Clinton's Funk Mob), members of the Living Legends crew, Ugly Duckling, Jurassic 5, Hieroglyphics, and members of the Crown City Rockers.
Despite being considered "underground" and never having achieved breakout mainstream success, they have been lauded by many other acclaimed artists, including Chuck D of Public Enemy, Biz Markie, and Trey Anastasio of the rock band Phish. The group has never been worried about their reception from (or direction of) the popular market, and Thes One has stated many times that People Under The Stairs have always focused on their artistry and music knowledge ahead of monetary success and fame, and in some ways, they still consider themselves two guys who like to make music instead of a "group".
In 2010, People Under the Stairs were chosen as one of the numerous musical artists to appear in and remix the main theme for The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special – In 3-D! On Ice!. The group has also had music featured in Run's House, Entourage, and the feature film Street Dreams.
In October 2011, Mac Miller released a mixtape, I Love Life, Thank You which included a direct homage to the group on the song "People Under the Stairs". As a way to promote the next generation of hip hop and connect with its fans, People Under the Stairs opened for Miller during several shows on his Blue Slide Park tour that year.
- The Next Step (1998)
- Question in the Form of an Answer (2000)
- American Men Vol. 1 (compilation) (2000)
- O.S.T. (2002)
- ...Or Stay Tuned (2003)
- Stepfather (2006)
- The Om Years (compilation) (2008)
- Fun DMC (2008)
- Carried Away (2009)
- Highlighter (2011)
- 12 Step Program (2014)
- American Men Vol. 2 (compilation) (2015)
- The Gettin' Off Stage, Step 1 (2015)
- The Gettin' Off Stage, Step 2 (2016)
- Sincerely, the P (2019)
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