Underground Rap Veterans Paul Wall and Termanology Are Still Full of Surprises

Music

Paul Wall and Termanology are back where they first met, at Brooklyn’s Hub Studios. Before our hourlong conversation starts, various people in their circle shuffle by Termanology’s studio room to greet Wall, the amiable Texan who’s visiting the city to promote the deluxe edition of Start Finish Repeat, their second collaborative project.

Wall is clad in all-black attire, including a Houston Texans hoodie. Lounging on a couch before the interview starts, his demeanor is as chill as his beaming platinum grill looks. Lawrence, Massachusetts, native Termanology is similarly showing hometown pride, wearing a Celtics hat, a matching green sweater, and a whopping eight gold rings to pair with his chains. With so much jewelry between the two, you wonder which one of them will rhyme first about being able to do interviews with the lights off. 

The two first crossed paths in 2018, when Paul Wall visited his friend (and producer) Statik Selektah at Hub and began collaborating on songs that became their Give Thanks EP. Termanology, whose studio is next door to Statik’s, heard what they were cooking and jumped on “Are You Willin” with Mia Jae. The two artists built such a creative rapport that they kept sending each other tracks, eventually compiling enough songs to release Start 2 Finish in 2022. And now they’ve dropped a deluxe version of the follow-up, a 19-track project similar to its predecessor in its artwork — as well as its focus on lyrical exercises over Statik Selektah beats. 

Neither artist is the first person that their die-hard fans would have expected the other to collaborate with: Paul Wall is a SwishaHouse veteran renown for floating over smoky, 808-laden beats, while Termanology is a quintessential East Coast wordsmith who wraps assonant lyrics around at-times dusty breakbeats. But the two are bonded in their passion for hip-hop. Neither man has to record at the rate they do in their 40s, but they’re always invigorated by the next beat they hear, as well as going bar-for-bar with each other and album features like Bun B (“Houston BBQ”), AZ (“Palm Trees“), Big KRIT (“Do It for the Ghetto”), and CL Smooth (“It’s Magic”). The entire project is a glimpse of two men trying to consistently create the sharpest verse they can.

Wall acknowledges that he’s always loved Statik Selektah, DJ Premier, and other purist favorites, but his label would never let him stray far from the “Still Tippin” format. He showed his lyricist lounge leanings during his legendary verse on Kanye West’s “Drive Slow,” and now he’s fully invested in making what he feels is “really, personally, the best work I ever created lyrically.”

He adds, “We’ve always been inspired by Gang Starr, being that DJ Premier’s from Houston, [and] Guru was from Boston. And they made music in New York.” Wall and Termanology are in such a creative groove that they’re already working on the follow-up to Start Finish Repeat, which they say could be out “around next summer.” At one point before the interview starts, Termanology notes that they plan to record later that night. It’s another day at the office for the indie stalwart, who’s released two solo projects this year on top of Start Finish Repeat (and the deluxe). 

Album plaques speckle the walls of Termanology’s space, commemorating his 50-plus releases over the years. He said he was planning to drop another album on Dec. 16 (a day after Wall’s upcoming The Great Wall), but he decided to instead focus on promoting their deluxe project. He’s also figuring out what direction to take their next album in.

“This one we had Large Professor, Diamond D, Buck Wild,” Termanology says. “So I think it’s going to be interesting to see who we get on the next one. We might work with some up-and-comers, we might work with some hit record producers that are more relevant to what’s going on today, or we might keep it classic and work with Boom-Bap Cats. Or we might do a little bit of everything, man. We got a nice formula going. It’s working for us, so we going to keep it going.”

Paul Wall and Termanology spoke to Rolling Stone about Start Finish Repeat, regionalism in hip-hop, and artists being purposely weird in the studio. The interview, lightly edited for clarity, is below. 

How did the first collaboration, Start 2 Finish come together?
Termanology: Covid happened, and then we was doing a lot of shows and sessions. And during Covid you couldn’t do much, so Paul texted me like, “Yo man, send me something. I’ll hop on it.” I sent him one record, I think it was “Thailand,” and he sent it right back, like 24 hours later and I’m like, “Oh, shit. He’s not playing. He’s ready to get it popping.” So once we did a couple records, it felt like it was possible for us to do a project. And then I asked him, “Yo, what you want to do with these records? You want to make an album?” He’s like, “Shit, I’m with it.” And then after that it was really fun, because now it turned into getting features and reaching out to other legendary producers. Dame Grease was on the first one, Pete Rock was on the first one.

Paul, a lot of people were surprised to hear you on that kind of production. What inspired that sonic pivot for you?
Pall Wall: It’s something I always wanted. I always liked those type of beats, but my introduction into the game on the mainstream level was the People’s Champ. Even though I come from the underground and I had albums before that, [my label was] trying to present me as a Southern rapper only. Even if I’m like, “Hey, I’m trying to work with DJ Premier, I’m trying to work with Statik Selektah, I’m trying to work with Large Professor,” they’re like, “Nah, that ain’t happening.” So I had to wait until the timing was right where I had an opportunity to use the production that meshes with the rest of the production on my album. So, it’s something that I could have forced or I could have put more energy into really getting done earlier in my career. But like I say, it felt like it was something I would be forcing to happen instead of something that happened naturally.

I have other albums coming out. I got an album coming out in [six weeks]. But it feels like all of those things are just to prepare me for these moments when I’m with Term, when I’m with Statik, when we here doing something. God willing, we plan on doing this, continuing the collaborations. Because I want to get J-Dawg, we want to get Slim Thug and Z-Ro and Lil Keke. I want to get Rich the Factor, on the song with Termanology and Statik Selektah. This is the people from my era or my crew. I want to bridge the gap further where it’s not just me. 

Term, how often do you feel like you play an A&R role on your duo projects?
Termanology: All the time, bro. TrillStatik, the first album from Statik and Bun — I sequenced that album and I named five of the songs. Statik’s first album I got A&R credit. I wrote seven songs on that album. The Statik and Curren$y album that they put out, Gran Turismo, I named that album. I’m really good at being an A&R. I know my way around the studio. So I think that that’s something that doesn’t really show up on the scoreboard, but that’s fine. We don’t do this shit for props, we do it to make good music. I like producing. I like ghostwriting. I like being in sessions with other people and just getting inspired by what they’re doing. And I’m doing all that stuff behind the scenes.

How do you feel about regional boundaries and hip-hop in 2023? What do you think they actually mean nowadays? Does being from somewhere inherently say anything about an artist these days?
Pall Wall: I think it can. It doesn’t necessarily have to. It was a filter before where if you were from somewhere, you were in a box that you couldn’t go outside of. Even if you went outside the box, it was unwelcome. Now you can go outside the box or you can be true to the local aspect of it, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with [either way]. You got to follow your path. I personally like the local. 

Snoop Dogg is as local as it gets. That’s Long Beach to the core. Same with Biggie. Everything he rapped about was local to Brooklyn. It became worldwide. Same when I think of Bun B. 

I appreciate when I go to certain areas and you get to eat their local cuisine, where they’re the best at this particular cuisine. There’s Texas barbecue in every city. Well, it doesn’t taste the same as when you go to actual Texas and eat the Texas barbecue. [Laughs.] Clam chowder in New England tastes different than clam chowder in Houston for a reason. So I love all the local aspects that hip-hop represents. In this day and age, you can be whatever or whoever you want to be. And people got to follow their path.

Termanology: Also, just to add on to that, I think that traditionally people got stuck in the local scene and then they couldn’t make it out of it or couldn’t break out of it. But with the internet now, a lot of times it don’t even matter where you’re from anymore. If you don’t care, if you’re not a person that cares about community or you don’t care about the scene or you don’t care about linking with the legends, you could be a young kid and make a song and put it on SoundCloud and just blow up and you don’t got to sound nothing like your region anymore. You could be from anywhere. I think all the Houston artists have a similar blueprint except for Travis Scott. His generation was able to just make music and sound like an alien.

How is that dynamic in Boston? How is it seeing how things were when you first started rapping versus now with younger artists sounding like “aliens?”
Termanology: I think that Boston has never truly had an identity globally. I don’t think that the world has ever said, “Man, you sound like a Boston rapper.” We’re only three hours from New York, so we always just did whatever New York did. All of our music we’re using the same producers, we’re talking the same slang. It’s East Coast shit. Now, with the internet, you don’t even have to have a sound that’s directly a Boston sound. Bia’s a major star, she’s doing whatever comes to her heart and her mind. Same with Joyner Lucas. You don’t hear Joyner Lucas and be like, “Wow, he sound like a Boston rapper.” He raps like Bone Thugs, Twista, and Eminem all mixed up. With the new generation, you don’t have to stick to that blueprint of what’s local. As long as you make hot music, you make good music.

What is y’all’s studio routine? 
Termanology: Very simple: We need beats, weed, and water. Maybe a little liquor for me. I know Paul don’t drink. Real simple. We’re not one of those dudes who need yellow M&Ms and the temperature’s got to be exactly 71. We not like that, bro. We hip-hop dudes. Put on a dope beat, give us a little something to smoke, and we going to give you a classic.

Have y’all ever had a session like that where you’re with an artist and they’re very particular? Termanology: Oh, hell yeah. Paul could tell you because he was on a major label. I’m sure he bumped into his fair share of that shit.

Pall Wall: The people who are the weirdest usually are not the dopest. The people that are the weirdest in the studio, they’re going out of their way to be weird, because they heard somebody else’s weird. Like, whoever their music hero was, they heard they did this or that, so now they got to do this or that times 10. The ones that are weird, like, “Oh, [the] lights are too light. Oh, they’re too dark—”

Termanology: [They’re] making it weird. The people that are making it weird, it’s like they’re forcing it.

Pall Wall: Yeah. “I can’t rap unless the lightbulb is green.” [Laughs.]

Termanology: I heard a story recently that an artist said they won’t come in the room unless you have a certain amount of fresh flowers for them. They like the scent of the flowers, so they will not come into your studio unless you got 12 dozen roses, 12 carnations, some shit like that.

Can y’all speak to just both of your creative relationship with Statik? What makes him such a great producer?
Termanology: Him and I got seven albums together and we’ve done hundreds of songs together. So it’s just very easy to rap on a Statik beat. It’s mad fun. He gives you these cool samples and there’s scratch hooks and all this cool stuff that you might not get from any other producer in this era. Statik is definitely a producer that is half old-school, because he kind of took the formula of DJ Premier where he chops samples a certain way and makes sure his drums is tuned a certain way, but he gives you a scratch hook with it. But then, at the same time, he might give you a beat that’s all instrumentation and new vibes and different, switch up drums and modern drums. So he’s very eclectic. I hold myself to a certain standard when I get on a Statik beat. I really want to outdo my last verse and make sure I kill it.

Pall Wall: No doubt. It for sure feels like that. When you hear the Statik beats, like, “I’m bringing my A game.” There’s never a time where you’re like, “Oh, I can just do whatever.” It’s like if it’s the World Series, you’re going to have that certain excitement and energy in you that is not the same as if it’s spring training. And that’s just how it is on a Statik track. It’s a certain type of respect. And then being able to watch him produce or scratch, you get to take a peek behind the curtain and see all that goes into it. He’s not just taking a sample and adding some drums to it. He’s using a sample as a tool to create a completely new beat. So it’s definitely something that’s more intricate than just push-and-play and then tapping a button a few times.

So Term, I was reading an article in January that said you had 46 projects. It might be more since then.
Termanology: It’s like 50 now.

How do you maintain that pace?
Termanology: I’m going slow, because you can’t promote them all. As much as I would like to drop an album every month, they won’t be successful. You need lead-ups. You need to give the fans a break and make them miss you a little. You need to work on artwork, you need to work on videos, you need to clear samples and get big producers. But to be honest, I got 10 albums done right now. They’re sitting in the cut, because they all can’t come out at once. Paul got collabo albums he’s dropping on his side. He got The Great Wall, his solo album coming, a whole bunch of videos on there. So it’s like, shit, if it was up to us, bro, me and Paul could sit here right now and make 10 songs in two days and just do a cover and drop it.

But what we try to do is make classic music that’s going to last. So we try to space them out a little bit. I think the way I was able to make so much music is because back in the days, you would sign a deal and that would be the only album you dropped for that year, because you’re working with producers and A&Rs and labels and a budget. And they don’t want you to drop projects that overlap each other. But in this era, where there’s no labels really involved, you could make as many albums as you want and just drop them. Back in the days it was like, if you didn’t sell well, you flopped and you couldn’t get another album out. So I think the cool thing is that, especially in this era, you can drop as much as you want and nothing’s going to stop you.

Paul, how did you feel about the response to your “Johnny Dang” verse with That Mexican OT? Was it weird to see people be like, “Oh, how is he still so good?” when like you said, you’ve been spitting all this time at a quality level?
Pall Wall: When I did the verse, I didn’t think it was that good of a verse. But a lot of times that’s how it’ll be. The verses that I don’t think are that good, it’ll be the ones people just really are like, “Oh, I love this verse.” And then the ones that I think are like, “Man, this is the one,” no one cares about it. I learned early on that my taste is very unique. And it’s fine. I just learned that I need to let someone else pick what’s going to be the single. So that’s what I did.

But yeah, I didn’t think people were going to really take to [the “Johnny Dang” verse], definitely not the way they did take to it to where it went viral. It just went gold. I always joke around with That Mexican OT. I tell him that he brought me back out of nowhere with that. Even though my career has always maintained in the mainstream, that song just put me right back in the spotlight. Shout-out to my boy for that one right there.

Termanology: I think it’s really cool that Paul’s able to drop a 14-song boom-bap album in the same year that he drops a gold single with a new artist on more of a trap sound. So, that’s really what’s fucking people up. Paul’s a veteran in this game. 

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Paul, I saw the video when you were talking about your white hair and said, “Once I hit the 40 mark, I felt like it was age-appropriate. When I was in my thirties I think it was just something I was dealing with personally, but I’m loving it in my 42.” What are you feeling in particular that’s different in your forties?
Paul Wall: I think some of it is the restrictions we put on ourselves. Whether it’s something that our parents would say, or something that we would see on TV, or something that other kids or whatever would say as we grow up, there’s certain stigmas that stick with you, and gray hair is one of them. My grandfather had a full head of gray hair when he was like 17, 18 years old. So I always knew that it was coming, but as one or two come you think, “OK, can’t nobody see it but me.” And the next thing you know you got a whole lot of gray hair. So some of it, I wonder how much of it was just a personal restriction I put on myself, a limitation of, “OK, I’m 38, 39 years old, but I got gray hair. OK, that’s whack. But if I’m 40 with gray hair, that’s player.” [Laughs.] What I put on myself. My wife told me for the longest, “Just grow your hair out, let your gray show,” whatever. But I always thought she was just hating on me. [Laughs.] I thought she didn’t want me to be great. But [now] she’s like, “See, I told you you was going to look good with gray hair.”

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