When the music producer Prince Paul received a call inquiring if he’d be game to host a podcast for Spotify, his immediate reaction was shock. Why, he wondered, would the company want him to host “The 33 ⅓ Podcast,” its new show exploring individual works of classic albums, based on the Bloomsbury book series?
Never mind that Prince Paul is considered a music nerd’s music nerd, best known for his influential studio wizardry with the hip-hop trio De La Soul. His eclectic, seemingly haphazard, career trajectory may not have made him an obvious choice for the show. Though he’s produced albums for Vernon Reid and MC Paul Barman, assembled the horrorcore group Gravediggaz and released albums of his own like “A Prince Among Thieves,” his music credits over the past decade and a half had slowed to a trickle. One of his more-prominent roles during this time: serving as the co-host of “Ego Trip’s The (White) Rapper Show,” a short-lived reality competition program on VH1.
Prince Paul, born Paul Huston, didn’t bother asking the Spotify emissaries why they chose him. He said he didn’t want to ruin the moment with too much probing. But the first episode of the show, which debuted in September, illuminates the company’s thinking. Prince Paul welcomed Posdnuos from De La Soul to chat about “Aja,” the 1977 album by Steely Dan, known for its meticulous, jazz-inflected rock compositions. What might seem at first like an odd pairing of host, guest and album is actually an inspired one.
On “3 Feet High and Rising,” De La Soul’s debut album that Prince Paul produced, the band sampled the duo’s song “Peg,” not a particularly common, or welcome, move in the rap world in 1989. As the two men banter and reminisce, listeners get a sense of Steely Dan’s influence on De La Soul and how sampling “Peg” made perfect sense for the album they were creating.
“What made you pick that song in particular, especially for our first album?” Prince Paul asked.
“Just as a single it was a song that we heard and we felt, and it felt good, and it felt happy,” Posdnuos said, remembering how “Peg” just clicked for him when he first heard it as an 8-year-old in the Bronx. “But it was also very rhythmic, like the bass driving. It felt like an R&B record, to be quite honest. You could easily connect to it.”
“Did it feel dated or anything at the time?” Prince Paul asked in a follow-up question.
“Not at all,” Posdnuos said. “It felt like a classic joint; it’s timeless. I look at that song as a timeless record to now be applied to what we were doing. I didn’t look at it as an older record to now breathe some life into it.”
“33 ⅓” is the latest music-focused production from Spotify, joining the likes of ““Black Girl Songbook” and “No Skips with Jinx and Shea” and fitting snugly into Spotify’s larger podcast ambitions. Other episodes in the 12-episode season feature an eclectic mix of albums and guests including Janet Jackson’s “Velvet Rope” and the singer-songwriter Victoria Monét, David Bowie’s “Low” and the rapper Danny Brown, and Metallica’s “Metallica” (best known as the Black Album) and the Hole drummer Patty Schemel.
Deciding which albums to feature — there are more than 150 books in the Bloomsbury series — was not “super calculated,” said Yasi Salek, the show’s producer. Instead, the focus is on “what would be really fun to bring to life.” Choosing the guests, however, involved a more thoughtful process. Salek said she looked for guests who knew the artist, were involved in the making of the project or have talked about the album’s influence on them. In the “Velvet Rope” episode, Monét tells Prince Paul how Jackson was a role model for her. “I needed to see that as a young girl just to be able to look at her and see myself,” she said.
In keeping with his uncalculated approach to his career, Prince Paul is hands off when it comes to the decision-making process, saying he’s open to whatever is sent his way. Which helps explain the riotous, and expletive-filled, exploration of Guns N’ Roses’ “Use Your Illusion” I & II with Sebastian Bach of Skid Row and Riki Rachtman, co-owner of the Hollywood nightclub The Cathouse (a magnet for heavy metal bands till its closing in 1993). It’s a record that doesn’t quite fall in Prince Paul’s wheelhouse — he opens the episode by letting the audience know that his “knowledge of metal and rock are limited” — but the choice underscores his willingness to be a student.
Hosting the show, Prince Paul said, is “forcing me to learn classic records and appreciate music all over again.”
That willingness to try something new seems to be the fuel that has propelled him to each juncture in his career — whether that’s producing comedy albums for Chris Rock or a hip-hop children’s concept album about kid dinosaurs, serving as one half of the genre-bending duo Handsome Boy Modeling School or composing the score for last year’s six-part documentary “Who Killed Malcolm X?”
“Everybody wants to do whatever’s cool,” Prince Paul said. That’s not his style. “This is what I feel like doing,” he said. “And as unpopular as it is, as nerdy as I am, I’ll just be that, but I’ll be me dictating me. And that’s, I think, the most important thing.”
“There’s something to be said about going out there and not knowing where this path will take you,” he added.