The People Under The Stairs have been a grinding movement in hip-hop since 1997 where the group first formed with Thes One, (Christopher Cesar Portugal) and Double K, (Mike Turner). Two rhyming MC’s that created an independent tidal wave with their debut feature release, The Next Step, which was entirely funded by Thes One’s student loans to independently press and release the first single, “The Next Step II.” A few weeks after, almost every single copy was purchased by Mr. Bongo record shop owner, David Buttle and played in the London store, selling out the single in just minutes. From there on, Buttle contacted Om Records and eventually led to People Under The Stairs receiving a full contract, despite not planning on making a “full-length album”
Opening with “Intro / 4 Everybody,” the actual intro consists of a man talking to a mayor of his town, asking, “Mayor, you spoke earlier about, like, the frustrations, that black people have been going through and are going through. I’m frustrated to the point where, uh, I’m ready to give up on the system, but like I am a black youth… so can you, well, what would you tell me to do in terms of whether following the system as is, or going on off and developing… a new system.” The Mayor then kindly responds, “Let me tell you as a brother…” this is the first glimpse into some of the topics that People Under The Stairs will cover. Topics that are still prevalent today and still matter, as people move toward or away from the government, The Next Step sees into the future and explains how they will, “Start a new system.”
A system that focuses on hip-hop and expression, with Double K and Thes One as the leaders of the new world. The first musical aspect of The Next Step starts with the second half of “Intro / 4 Everybody” where Double K and Thes One can trade lyrical smacks, covering an authentic sounding instrumental with acoustic bass and percussion that also balances horns that add a smooth jazz-like layer and set the tone of the The Next Step. Both Thes One and Double K effortlessly in an onslaught of both speedily, aggressive rhyming schemes and a slowed method where the abrasiveness can be toned down and exchanged for a lovely selection of spoken word.
Double K is the first to break the microphone in as he starts his verse off with, “Yo, I want to see you dead in the worst way, ain’t no way I’m about to let you down without a crown on the top of your dome.” He then moves on to say, “You better off quitting homeboy, you ain’t dope with this. You got something else to say, fool, put up your fists.” Then as quickly as he begins, Double K passes the wire to Thes One where the two of them can come together to create the chorus or hook of the track, “We got the beats and the rhymes and dimes. We create the classic breaks from the crates. We come in with horny horns and the funk, we put in the work to make the cuts you love.” All while both lyricists shout “For everybody” at the end of the chorus’s lines. Thes One comes in with witty lyricism, explaining, “We on the ball like Globetrotters, I do this for your father and your mother. Your parents who’s apparently, inherently talent you inherit.” Surprisingly, for being a completely independently funded and produced record, The Next Step is promising in its first moments and continues to reward the listener with slick instrumentals and clever rhymes to create a double package in both musical performance and on-stage personality.
A sudden Latin dance transition segues “Death of A Salesman” into the frame and is instantly a mood changer when the first horns are heard that create the primary backing section of the instrumental. They are extremely depressed and sound more like funeral horns or a mixed section of a silent film, noir feature. Extremely bleak sounding, but mixed with the repeating lyrical sample, “Wack MC’s is dead MC’s” creates sustenance to the “funeral” sound that becomes portrayed from so early on. There is also story-telling behind the instrumental as Double K explains, “So I stepped to this nigga, looked him dead in the face. Was like, ‘You’s a disgrace to this race.’” Then as Double K finished, the bass kicks in with hard aggressive punches, almost simulating a fist-fight or a gun being fired which would relate to the “Wack MC’s is dead MC’s,” that plays continually throughout both verses from Double K and Thes One.
Before being cut off in a near somber like shuffle, “Hardcore” is pushed onto the scene and is more of a boom-bap style of hip-hop track that capitalizes on the guest verse of MC Smile-Oak who provides this lyrical assault where he can rhyme, “Trans-Atlantic, Titanic-type panic and turn dynamic semantic. Galactic syllabics to granite… And leaving nothing but imprints for the next generation, the interpretation of my iteration may lay the foundation.” It goes above and beyond as he quite-frankly attempts to out-rhyme People Under The Stairs on their own track. It balances on a level between trying too hard, and being genuine with his verse.
Then as The Next Step moves on, “Ten Tough Guys” slows down the action and creates a subtle, but engaging track that displays some stories about rap battling where Double K thrashes amateur rappers until reaching Thes One who can deliver a consistently adapting verse that in his similar style, slows and speeds in sections of his flow that keeps the instrumental steady, but the verses volatile, changing for the better. Double K and Thes One keeps every aspect of The Next Move feeling unpredictable and interesting, if the verses don’t thrill then the instrumentals will pick up any unneeded slack and that goes in vice-versa as well. There is not a single aspect of The Next Step that truly falls flat, using both MC’s genius and ability to keep The Next Step soaring from track to track, until the final, graceful end.
Before the end however, People Under The Stairs continue on with another instant movement machine, “San Francisco Knights” is a downright beautiful mix of dreamy guitars, a booming percussion set, and a tag-team like approach to the verses where Double K and Thes One can trade lyrics on both the choruses, but also through the main “meats” of the track as well. “San Francisco Knights” creates a sun-shine feeling where everything in the track just clicks together, and creates a lovely feeling that instantly puts a smile on your face, especially hearing the two lyricists tag-teaming, “Very often we win, yo, very seldom we lose. Spice rockin’ your whole motherfuckin’ city,” is created in a fashion that plays off the friendly chemistry that Thes One and Double K possess.
Another track that fades into frame, but keeps a minimalist style is “Los Angeles Daze,” that uses a boom-bap beat and synth chords that rarely change, but are still substantial enough to keep a consistent attention. The verses here are going to be the primary aspect of “Los Angeles Daze” as they come in much more aggressive when compared to the subtle instrumental component. Thes One drops knowledge about Los Angeles and its hip-hop history in his verse where he explains, “Keep the rhyme moving like the Unity location, rap has been my vocation since before the Japanese owned the radio station…I blow up, rock free shows at the Palladium, afterwards, the crew I’m taking ‘em to Tommy’s Burgers.” Even Double K’s verse throws some of his personal experiences into the mix as well, “Word to MC Ren, I showed them people that you wack. Peace to the real crews defacing walls on backstreets, in the city of set, porch, halls, and swap meets. From the school of hard knocks, the generation passed down. Kaiser Permanente, yo, that’s where I was found. In the middle of the funk era, ‘fros and dashikis,“ finishing the track with a sample that asks, “Where are you from?” that lets the beat ride out and eventually fade into silence.
Then, the big single from The Next Step comes launching in, “The Next Step II” is a bouncy, overly excited instrumental that uses pounding percussion and a huge focus on cheerful piano chords that create an additional layer of that same “feel-good” style of “San Francisco Knights.” Double K opens the track with his verse that explains, “Yo, it’s the West Coast, shit-talking b-boy from the 80’s. Y’all niggas know the name, the game won’t change.” Thes One then comes in stating, “It’s the Next Step, Part Two, slept on the first. Worse if you slumber on the sequel, one verse, versus us, no equal.” Then People Under The Stairs move onto the final act or track, “Play It Again / Outro.”
The finale of The Next Step, People Under The Stairs use a grand-piano and a boom-bap percussive beat that has Double K and Thes One switching back and forth on the beat in a cooperative style that only boosts the track into this chorus-singing match between the lyricists. The two MC’s move together, stating, “Play it again and again… People Under the Stairs… Play it again and again,” until reaching the final moments where People Under The Stairs use a sample that explains, “I took it home that night and analyzed it, rewound the tape over and over, and memorized it.” Before falling into a fading silence from record scratches and a bright look into the forward movement that is The Next Step.