Large Professor Broke More Than Atoms 25 Years Ago. He Broke New Ground.
By the early 1990s, Wild Pitch Records proved to be one of the most exciting labels in Hip-Hop. It was their logo at the center of the record that made key introductions for Gang Starr, Lord Finesse, and Flavor Unit lyricist Chill Rob G. Stu Fine’s label appeared to be largely hands-off, creatively speaking. Guys like Gang Starr’s Guru (and later 3rd Bass’ MC Serch) functioned as unofficial A&Rs), and hot talent submitted demo tapes to an imprint with growing respect. While short on marketing and promotion, Wild Pitch was a home run outfit for releasing exciting Hip-Hop from relative unknowns, and taking broad chances. Between its first wave of late ‘80s success and its ‘90s run that would include The Coup, O.C., and a new home for the Ultramagnetic MCs, the Manhattan-based label welcomed Large Professor and Main Source to the fold.
In July of 1991, Large Professor had recently turned 18 years old. Just out of high school, the Queens, New York producer was a living example of paying serious dues professionally and personally. It had been just over two years since the artist born William “Paul” Mitchell lost his mentor, “Paul C.” McKasty, to a 1989 Rosedale, Queens murder—one that remains unsolved today. While Large Pro’ had an ear for grooves found in the dusty records he amassed, Paul C. tutored the teen on the groundbreaking E-mu Systems SP-1200 sampler, and how to take those elements, break them down and re-purpose them accordingly. As Hip-Hop sample memory capability expanded thanks to technology, a teenager had the tools of war. As legend has it, the two Pauls spent day after day in the studio together, with the younger studying the onetime Rock musician and understated producer/engineer for Ultramag’, Stezo, and Biz Markie, among many others. As Large Professor suddenly mourned his mentor, he was reportedly approached to complete the work started on Eric B. & Rakim’s Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em album. Leaving school everyday, P. and engineer Anton Pukshanksy would largely craft the beats to arguably Hip-Hop’s biggest group and most-revered MC.
Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em is the stuff of folklore. Rakim, Eric B., Anton, and others involved all say different things surrounding the MCA Records album and who did what, when. One truth is evident: Large Professor’s name is nowhere to be found on the LP. In a culture where names like Grandmaster Caz, Colin Wolfe, and Jazzy Jay can live in the shadows, Large Pro’ seemed destined for the same. By 1990, the ever-shy Paul started to get his name up. From one supreme lyricist to another, P. moved to Kool G Rap & DJ Polo’s Wanted: Dead Or Alive. This time sharing the tasks with two high-profile producer-personalities (Marley Marl and Eric B.), the professor started getting his name published. Within the Cold Chillin’ Records gem, Large Professor got credits—even if they were secondary. Singles like “Streets Of New York” and “Death Wish” showed that the other Paul Mitchell could make tracks smooth like shampoo, against G Rap’s primal ricochet-style delivery. Also on Wanted: Dead Or Alive, Large Pro’ broke the ice on his own rapping abilities. “Money In The Bank” placed the lyrical unknown alongside G, Freddie Foxxx (n/k/a Bumpy Knuckles) and Big Daddy Kane’s right hand (and Eric’s brother) Ant Live. Known for his docile demeanor, Paul spit with a confidence—going for his (to set off the song) surrounded by imposing lyrical personalities. The kid out of Flushing started looking like Dwight Gooden in his rookie year.
After plausibly heavy hands on two incredible Hip-Hop albums, Large Professor would step to the front. Boogie Down Productions affiliates like Ms. Melodee and D-Nice got albums, while Juice Crew, N.W.A., and EPMD also were able to promote offshoots. Commercial Rap craved product. In 1991, after building a proven exciting catalog as self-sufficient and exciting as any, Large Professor was recruited to join a group featuring two classmates, in Main Source.
History has witnessed the challenges of the assembled Rap groups. The Sugarhill Gang, the Geto Boys, Boyz N Da Hood, and the Game-involved G-Unit are all products of labels and movements merging talent together. In each of those cases, conflicts, split-ups, and group-changing inner-turmoil were created.
In 1989, Large Professor was a key emerging sound creator in Hip-Hop. John Bowne High School classmates K-Cut and Sir Scratch and their managerial mother stepped to the producer—searching for a Rap platform. In turn, Main Source was formed, and Wild Pitch sealed the deal in place with paperwork. According to later interviews, manager Sandra McKenzie paid for the studio time for the group to record much of Breaking Atoms. However, other accounts suggest that Large Pro’ plugged away at his baby for approximately a year while Warner Bros. and MCA Records had booked expensive studio sessions for Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em and Wanted: Dead Or Alive. Using high-end equipment, with crates of records and a mind full of concepts, Large Professor got cozy in his laboratory.
“Main Source is unique, I feel, ’cause there’s three different styles in the music. Me, I listen to Reggae, Soul—all type’ of music. We all combined different styles,” K-Cut would say in a rare 1991 video interview with Slammin’ Rap Video Magazine, shot in Queens. In that same interview, Large Pro’ admitted, “I always wanted fame. Any way that I could get fame I would do it.” That quote is surprising from the shy triple-threat. Even in that video—whether shtick or not, there is a bit of tension between Paul and his two band-mates over broken equipment. As N.W.A., Geto Boys, and Stetsasonic were crumbling to individual interests, so was the trend.
The division of labor on Breaking Atoms appears to be weighted heavily towards the group’s MC and key producer. “Scratch & Kut” was the DJ interlude, not unlike “The House That Cee Built” or “DJ Premier In Deep Concentration.” In the years that followed, producer/DJ K-Cut and DJ Sir Scratch proved themselves on Main Source’s sophomore LP (1994’s F*ck What You Think), as well as records by Maestro Fresh Wes, Queen Latifah, and Shaquille O’Neal. The two other members of Main Source were more than stand-ins or Hip-Hop hopefuls looking for a meal-ticket—as biased history has somewhat portrayed them. In 2012, appearing on DJ Eclipse and Torae’s Rap Is Outta Control radio show, Large Professor credited his Main Source partners and engineer (believed to be Pukshanksy) for their roles in “layering” the album with samples. In that same video interview, the star of the group did admit he did “most” of the tracks himself. They were merely double DJs for a group who did not necessarily need them. To complicate matters further, Large Pro’ has proven himself as a great DJ in the years that have followed (mentioned in that ’91 interview above). However, from the artwork to the album’s handful of music videos, history shows that Large Professor tucked in his role. However, just as he had presumably done in the previous three years, Large Pro’ did make others not only look good, but sound incredible.
Starting with October 1990 single “Looking At The Front Door,” Main Source made its first attack on the Rap scene from an elevated plane. Going back to those Paul C. days of sample-clinics, the record employs more than six different sound sources. For starters, it slices surgically into Donald Byrd’s 1975 Disco-Jazz record “Think Twice.” Beyond the basic looping and grabs of early intro-breaks, Large Pro’ isolated a tucked-away part of the record, maintained its integrity, and brought it to life in his rugged concoction. For an undeniable kick-and-snare arrangement, Paul went to The Detroit Emeralds. The vocals came from the depths of Large Pro’s listening library. Beyond simply creating a song that had the composition complexities of a curry recipe, P. turned around and wrote and recorded lethal vocals to the music. “Looking At The Front Door” joins Pharcyde’s “Passin’ Me By” and Gang Starr’s “Ex Girl To The Next Girl” as one of the finest breakup songs in the genre. In creating the record, Paul refused to compromise his rugged dialect or street slang; he even brought it up in his exit letter. The same way Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5 went above Bronx blight in “The Message,” and Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s “T.R.O.Y.” transcends mourning Trouble T-Roy, “Looking At The Front Door” is heartfelt and insightful, yet something that still spawns dance moves and smiles.
B-side (and subsequent sophomore single) “Watch Roger Do His Thing” showcased the DJs’ scratching. Before N.W.A.’s Efilzaggin was released, Large Professor rolled up his sleeves and squeezed Hip-Hop juice out of Funkadelic and Sly Stone records. Again, on the lyrical side, the song went against the grain. The record is basically in defense of the straight path. At a time when MCs were hustling “by any means,” Main Source highlighted a neighborhood figure who got his Mercedes-Benz care of a W2, blue-collar, and later white-collar jobs. The self-proclaimed “fly guy with glasses“ was redefining the image of Rap cool in lyrics just as he was in style.
The themes of Breaking Atoms are simple, yet highly original. “Snake Eyes” plays with the metaphor of shooting dice with questionable loyalty and deceit. “Just Hangin’ Out” is pure stream of consciousness—basking in the mundane of a New York City afternoon. “Peace Is Not The Word To Play” was an examination of Hip-Hop’s favorite salutation—amidst a stop-the-violence movement. Even as a lyrical rookie, The L.P. was unafraid to shake things up and drop jewels for your mind.
History tends to gravitate towards one album cut within Breaking Atoms. “Live At The Barbeque” would introduce the world to Nas (and Akinyele plus Joe Fatal). Nas spit at Rap convention—he was wild, arrogant, and gifted with the gab. Reportedly recorded in one twilight studio session as the album neared its completion, the record is more than a starting-point to an amazing career. Before Biggie Smalls, Method Man, or Snoop Dogg had ever been heard on wax by the masses, this moment forewarned the mid-1990s style of excellence.
In 2016, “Just A Friendly Game Of Baseball” is another song within that has grown weightier over time. While Ice-T, Ice Cube and others had long reported on the misdeeds of “one-time” in Los Angeles, Large Professor, Scratch, and K—anything but menacing figures or even street-toughs—chronicled police brutality and profiling in New York City. Taking an extended metaphor of baseball, the record was gruesome in its detail of the objectification of Black men in the Big Apple. In an era when filmed police footage quickly goes viral, the game is in extra innings—long after it should be.
A quarter of a century after its release, it is hard to contextualize Breaking Atoms by 2016 standards. Hip-Hop moves so fast now. However, just like some of the albums of recent years, the Wild Pitch effort was acclaimed, but its critical reception was not matched commercially. The Source magazine would award it 4 1/2 mics (later amending to 5-mic perfection). Still, Main Source was dwarfed in comparison to other groups of its kind, in terms of public awareness. The album spent many of the 25 years since its release out of print, until an EMI Records re-issue in the late 2000s.
Following Breaking Atoms, Main Source would drop a few key songs and features—most notably “Fakin’ The Funk.” Uneventfully, Large Professor would exit the group. K-Cut (and Sir Scratch) would move around, building their longtime ties to the emerging Toronto, Ontario music scene. Large Professor would take his rich sounds to A Tribe Called Quest, Pete and C.L., Organized Konfusion, Diamond D, and Common—in addition to producing all of Akinyele’s stinted Vagina Diner LP. As for Main Source, the group would release its second and final album in ’94. Replacing Large Pro’, was the L.A. Possé’s Mikey D—a Queens veteran who had ties to Paul C. and the L.P. That album would introduce the world to The L.O.X., and Shaqueen. Breaking Atoms and 1991 was a serendipitous intersection of visionary music-making.
In the years following Breaking Atoms, Large Professor’s career continued on a path of most-resistance. His solo debut (under his own name) would be shelved at Geffen Records. The LP (released by Large Professor in the 2000s) was well ahead of its creative space in the mid-1990s, and reminded the world that while Large Professor mentored Nas, he was not an elder torch-passer, but a peer-producer. Illmatic shines in large part due to Paul Mitchell. Not only did the producer help his teenage pupil (one year younger) channel his energies and hone his craft, he gave him a sound as groundbreaking as his lyrical delivery. “Halftime” is defiantly underground, as “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” and its Michael Jackson accents pivot strongly towards mainstream, foreshadowing It Was Written.
By year 2000, the lane that Breaking Atoms and Large Professor paved had become occupied by the likes of Eminem, Mos Def, and Madlib. Like his contemporaries MF DOOM (p/k/a Zev Love X), Preemo, Prince Paul, and Bumpy Knuckles, Large Professor became an elder statesmen within this exciting berth of Rap talent. While Nas’ second, third, and fourth albums were absent of any Paul contributions, artists like Non-Phixion, Cormega, and (Mad) Skillz eagerly called upon the producer later known as “The Extra P.” For all who followed, the way Large Professor manifested a complete vision with Breaking Atoms secured his place on Hip-Hop’s periodic chart of fundamental elements.