wax Poetics
Photo by Maya Hayuk

DJ Premier Takes It Personal

Legendary hip-hop architect breaks it down

published online
Originally published in Issue 8
By Andrew Mason

Maya Hayuk
Maya Hayuk
Maya Hayuk
Maya Hayuk

Early Beginnings

DJ Premier, beatmaker extraordinaire and defender of hip-hop culture, is late. Two hours and change after our scheduled meeting the man rolls in to the downtown offices of Empire Management with an apology and a smile. A veteran of the hip-hop game and a man who’s been through the media wringer enough to be jaded, he was nevertheless open and ready to talk. Premier is passionate and deadly serious about what he does, and on this evening he was relentless in articulating his philosophy of hip-hop, to the virtual exclusion of other topics. Preem doesn’t want to teach you how to make a beat, he wants you to understand where he is coming from and what you need to know before you can approach the stage.

DJ Premier: I was born in Fifth Ward, Houston, Texas, home of the Geto Boys, Lockwood Avenue. What Brooklyn is to New York, Fifth Ward is to Houston. Both of my parents were teachers. My father was a science teacher and my mother’s an art teacher. They both had jobs at a college that’s just outside of Houston called Prairie View, where we moved when I was young. Prairie View is a small Black community. It’s semi-country, I used to go to the livestock shows and rodeos every year at the Astrodome. I was into everything like that, and I still am. My father grew up on a farm, and he’s really pro-Black, he wants to see our people make it. That’s why he’s an educator. Growing up, I felt like I was opposite of him but I see now that I’m really similar with what I do with hip-hop. My teachings just go through that type of art form. 

My mother’s father was a Brooklynite. We went there on the holidays and every summer. I already wanted to live in a big city as a kid. Me and my grandfather were real tight because he played in a band. He understood what I was going through. By the time I was twelve or thirteen I started going to New York on my own. I was always the kind of guy who wanted to be independent. After a while I had friends in New York, and we’d stay in contact and a lot of them had family in Texas so they’d come visit me too. I’d already started establishing the crew I run with now in New York all the way back then.

Growing up, music was everything. My mother used to paint to music—she’d have it playing while she painted. She did a lot of abstract stuff. She’d see a picture she liked in a magazine and copy it, but just the part she liked, and add her own stuff on top. I was always mesmerized by the records she’d play. Marvin Gaye and anything Motown: Smokey Robinson, Jackson Five, Diana Ross. I actually used to be fascinated by the way the label looked. I wasn’t even grasping the concept of the music, I was just fascinated by the way the label looked spinning around, and the way the record would drop and the needle would move over to the record. That’s when automatic players were out. 

I was fascinated by the way the label looked spinning around, and the way the record would drop and the needle would move over to the record.

For some reason, the music sounded the way the logo looked. Tamla, Gordy, Soul, even Hot Wax. The record sounded like the label. I knew if the label looked fly then the music had to be fly. And honestly hip-hop used to be the same way! When you saw a Def Jam label you knew it was guaranteed. You didn’t have to second-guess it. Now you have to second-guess a lot because they sign a lot of bullshit. Def Jam ain’t the same Def Jam. And none of these labels are. But she used to play the Stylistics, the Chi-Lites, Grover Washington, Stanley Turrentine, Shirley Bassey, gospel, old Aretha Franklin, you name it, my moms had it. Earth Wind and Fire, the Commodores, Cameo…and we ain’t talking about “Word Up,” this is way before “Word Up.” We’re talking about the ’70s. Parliament-Funkadelic, Bootsy, James Brown, Roy Ayers. Even all the old jazz records, you could put Milt Jackson in there, Count Basie. I’m up on all that from my mother.

I appreciate those very elements that built rap. I’m thirty-seven years old and I was raised and introduced to it on a different level than most of the generation that’s out there now. Their influences may not be my influences. There’s a lot that goes along with being involved in this hip-hop shit. You could be a fan, but there’s different levels of that. You could be a fan that just buys the CDs, goes to concerts, or you could go deep into it top to bottom like myself and try to understand the makeup of this whole art form. This rap shit is very serious. Well, to me it is. It’s a movement.

I’ve seen so many people enjoy what I enjoy about it, and that’s why I keep doing it. I mean, I hate what rap sounds like now, but I know that’s a temporary ride for all those cats that’re doing it. All these labels, you fold when you fuck up. And I don’t fuck up when it comes to handling this shit. It’s very serious to me. 

I’ve seen how powerful hip-hop is from traveling the world and going outside of where I live. Going from Texas to New York, and then traveling to parts of the planet I never thought I’d see, I totally understand how this thing works. And I saw the business blow from where there was no money to now where there’s mad money. So I know where I fit in and I know how much I deserve to get out of it, and I’ma bust my ass to get it too. 

There’s about to be a bumrush, a balancing out of the industry again. All respects to where I come from, I’m proud of where I come from as far as Texas is concerned but I respect the roots of this game. New York is the Mecca.

Photo by Maya Hayuk
Photo by Maya Hayuk

Moving to New York

Tell me what the scene was like when you first moved to New York.

When I moved here in ’87 it was already booming. That’s when it was really grimy. Cats with the dukey gold cables, the mock necks, the Playboys, the Ballys, the gold fronts, the Pumas, British Walkers. I had that stuff. I know the gear that was popping around that time. I had Aberdeens and all that shit. I remember when the first Ewings came out, I would visit New York over the summer and bring them back to Texas. On the first day of school everybody would be jealous! The Cazals…you gotta know about that stuff, if you don’t, that means you know about rap music, not hip-hop. 

How important is it when you’re making hip-hop music to be well rounded in the culture?

To me, it’s very important. That’s why I keep it funky like I always do. I don’t care if people criticize and say my stuff sounds similar to this or this, it don’t bother me none. I’m a true DJ and I know a good record when I hear it. Everybody doesn’t have the ear for this. I have an ear that’s beyond most human beings’ ears when it comes to music. My library, all hip-hop put aside, what I listen to at the crib, you can’t front on it. I play nothing but raw shit. I like rock music, all that. AC/DC, Rush, Pat Benetar, Joan Jett, Simple Minds, Yes, Led Zeppelin, the Cars, I know my shit! Blue Oyster Cult, I can go any direction! 

I used to be one of the only people in my high school who would wear the punk rock gear, with the double belts, the boots and all that! I wasn’t afraid of that at all. At that time, that was the rebel style. That went into hip-hop culture too, because I remember how Flash and them was dressed, with the leather and spikes and all. That punk rock and New Wave era was dope. You can’t even compare it to the “punk” that’s out now, you gotta know about groups like Fad Gadget, Tones on Tail, Bauhaus, old Depeche Mode, the Smiths. Morrissey is gay and I understood his lyrics for what they were saying, but at the same time I liked his music. It was dope and you can’t front on it. I respected him with an open mind. Most people who are homophobic have some problems that way anyway, so I wasn’t really afraid of it. They’re just human beings and that’s their preference. But I was into the Smiths, I was into Souxsie and the Banshees, Devo, the B-52s, Talk Talk, I went to all those concerts. As a matter of fact, I found my memory book from high school and I got mad concert tickets of all kinds of shows I went to. I’ve been to see AC/DC millions of times, Iron Maiden, Van Halen, Genesis, all that. 

Primo as a punk rocker! Do you play any instruments?

I can get by on the guitar, bass, keyboards, drums. I can get by, but I ain’t ill. For what I’m doing in the studio, just to add my thing to a song, I can do that. But I wouldn’t do it onstage! I do more of that now than before, but I’ll always sample. I like the purity of those [sampled] sounds. People don’t even make those sounds anymore. But again, I know music from that standpoint of appreciation and that’s why when it comes to hip-hop, ain’t nobody who can fuck with me when it comes to making joints, I can do it all the time. 

I want to be like James Brown was, as far as putting out mad music and representing for my people and anybody else who just loves the culture.

So having this larger perspective on things, how did you approach it when you got the chance to make music yourself?

I had my corny shit. I got all my demos and they sound corny as hell. You gotta start from the bottom and learn how to develop. But honestly I didn’t think they sounded dope then anyway. I was imitating, but they didn’t sound like the records I wanted to imitate. I tried to get as close to the stuff I liked as I could, but not bite. You can bite and just completely rip off a dude’s style, or you can be original with it. That’s why I took jazz samples; there was less vocal and more instrumental so you could take more pieces and chop it up. That’s one of the only reasons why I did it, even though I appreciated the music as well. I always like to listen to the original record from top to bottom to see how that band put it together, and how they made all these sounds. I was watching a James Brown documentary and it was amazing how he would sing lines to the band and you just had to understand it and play it. I want to be like James Brown was, as far as putting out mad music and representing for my people and anybody else who just loves the culture. It’s that simple. I’m not here to impress anybody. 

What was the first group you got down with?

I was in a group called MCs in Control. Me, Topski, Sugar Pop, and Stylee T. This was at my college, at Prairie View. From there, we changed the name to the Inner Circle Posse, ICP, with the same people. That group just dissolved slowly when I moved to New York. Top was from Boston, ironically, just like Guru was, so he was close enough but the other two cats couldn’t make the move. Me and him moved in with my cousins in East New York, that’s how I got my stripes and my credentials there. We went through hell. Good times and bad times, on a major level. A lot of things happened during that stay, but it was a good learning experience and I’m glad I stayed there. 

What equipment did you first get comfortable with? 

Before I started sampling I was using a Yamaha RX-11 drum machine. As far as sampling, I started making beats on the [E-mu] SP-12. It didn’t have a disc drive. You had to buy a separate disc drive and plug into the back and it took forever to save music. They used the giant floppy discs, the ones that were actually floppy! By the time the SP-1200 had come out, I’d already moved on to the Alesis HR-11 machine. I also used an [Akai] S900 sampler, because King of Chill, who produced MC Lyte, Audio Two, the Alliance, and all them, he taught me how to loop a sample on that. I was mainly using the Alesis until I met Eddie Sancho, my engineer, at D&D Studios. Lord Finesse had a mix that needed some scratches, the “Return of the Funky Man” remix, Showbiz did the beat. I went to D&D to lay my scratches, and that’s where I met Eddie. He was actually an intern there. When Finesse played me the mixdown of the song in my car it was bangin’, and that’s the main thing that made me want to go work on the Gang Starr record there. Eddie saw how I was always doing my beats through the Alesis drum machine and told me, “You should get an [Akai] MPC-60 to program your stuff, you can even separate tracks on it.” He showed me how to work it and I bought one. Bought his, in fact! That was the straight 60, not the II.

What about “DJ Premier in Deep Concentration”? 

It’s really crazy, because that’s just a piano loop that I was always feeling because it was solo, just playing that little riff, and I’ve always liked [Kool & the Gang’s] “Summer Madness,” and they just happened to go together. So when I did that I just overlapped the two. That was a time when all the DJs had their own tracks and I was like, “I want to do one too.” It just happened that everybody made a big deal out of it and a lot of DJ records came out of that. 

So in between the first album and Arena you started doing preproduction at home?

Yeah, “Step in the Arena” was actually the first beat I made for that album. I was still using the Alesis. It really wasn’t until Daily Operation that I started messing with the MPC. I met Eddie in late ’91, early ’92. Basically I went from the SP-12 to the HR-11 to the MPC-60. I’m still using that same old 60 today. I had it serviced, she’s nice and clean and ready for duty.

Photo by Maya Hayuk
Photo by Maya Hayuk

Production Process

What kind of process do you go through when you’re making a beat?

I like to judge and make the record as if I was a fan. I figure, with my name and [the rapper’s] name united, how can we make a record that’s going to jump out and not be like anything else out there? I never give cats a beat tape to choose from. Never. I make it right there on the spot, they can watch me come in and I’ll have nothing there. No beat, no snare, no kick, I start fresh. All these other producers do that, they come in and start with a CD of twenty-five beats and you pick one. That’s cool, that’s their method. Mine are freshly made, I’m like a gourmet spot. Everybody else is like a franchise, to get mine you’ve got to come to me. And I’ll change it if you’re not liking it. That’s the thing, I’m making it right there. 

Do you create new drum sounds every time or do you have libraries of stuff?

I’ll go back to the same snares, kicks, hi-hats. Sometimes I’ll use drum loops and sometimes individual hits. It’s all in how you bounce them over the samples, combining them. Sometimes people say I use the same hi-hats, or the same hi-hat pattern, so I started taking it out more, showing that I can do anything. If you’re analyzing my shit that hard, you’ll see it doesn’t matter what direction I go, it’s still going to be hip-hop. That’s the only way I can bring it. I got soul. A lot of people don’t have soul even though they make beats. Just like a lot of people are rappers and aren’t MCs. They’re just rappers. I’ve been in the studio with so many artists that are so phony. I’ve seen them wimp out on a lot of shit, they might be good as artists but they’re not what they claim to be. You know, I test people on every level, because that’s what’s going to make me be able to pull off a joint for them. Don’t call me for the Grammy record, don’t call me for the radio record, call me for the street record. That’s what I like to represent, the streets is the birthplace [of hip-hop] and that’s got to be a major element of the record. Some people can’t keep it street and that’s all good, but don’t try to be street when you’re not. It’s going to show in your record or it’s going to show in your personality when you get approached on the street, ’cause I’m going to check you as a fan. I’m a fan of so many artists and I’m going to approach them and kick it to them.

How much of beatmaking is craft, knowing your instrument, and how much is pure feeling, “soul,” as you said?

The scientific part of [beatmaking] has to come into play, but you’re going to have people who approach the creative from a scientific mentality, and they’re the ones who are in it for more of the I want to be down mentality, they’re not true to it. Then you have cats like Large Professor. When you go to his crib he will sit there over the machine laughing like a mad scientist and people look at him like he’s bugging. But I know, he’s in the zone. It’s like church, when people catch the Holy Ghost. Music be really jumping inside of me and shaking my whole body up. A lot of these cats out here aren’t feeling it inside them. For them, it’s like going to church and not feeling the Spirit. You’re just sitting there like, “Can’t wait till church is over.” That’s what most of these cats is doing. I’m on some reach in and grab you by the soul–type music. If it don’t grab you like that, it ain’t popping. 

There are certain records that move me. I get amped. I’ll get up and dance to it in clubs. I’ll be out with girls who say, “Come on, let’s go out on the floor,” and I’m like, “They’re not playing anything hot.” They say, “What do you mean, they’re playing XYZ,” whatever the hot song of the moment is, but that’s not going to make me dance. It might make y’all dance, but not me. Club records to me are old Kane, “Ain’t No Half Steppin’.” Put that on and I can dance to that. Old Doug E. Fresh, “Keep Risin’ to the Top.” Put on “Don’t Believe the Hype” and I’ll dance to that. EPMD, “So What Cha Sayin’.” I’m not going to hop around doing the Uptown Shake or something, but I’ll two-step, get my little groove on. People see me in the club and are like, “Damn, Preem is dancing?” I’ll be out on the floor. I’ll probably be the only one on the floor, but that’s the shit that really pops, that’s the shit that really moves me. 

You can’t deny a hot record. And most of these records that’re out now are not hot. They can’t even hang with the era of the early ’80s, late ’70s. If they could, I’d bump it just as much. But I understand how phony labels are. They’re strictly about quotas and money, and not about the love and the passion, so even when they know you’re wack they’re going to push you because they already put money behind you and they’re looking for more than just your sound, they’re looking for the way you look. Labels won’t take a singer because he’s heavy and fat, but, yo, if he’s bangin’ like that there’s ways to make him attractive to the public—just don’t falsify the image. That’s my thing: I don’t falsify the image. Because my image is real, both me as Christopher Martin and as DJ Premier. 

That’s why I will never do a bounce record. You know my version of a bounce record? “All 4 Tha Ca$h.” That piano thing. You could bounce to it. But I did my version of it, not like I was trying to do a record like that to keep up with a style. My style is evolving, it always will change, but it still has that signature sound. People will know, “Preem did that.” From the beats themselves to my “clean” sounds, my edits, all that. That’s my sound. When people hear it they know it’s me. 

I like the New York sound, but it seems like nobody’s representing it. New York used to have its own style. You can still embrace outside music that comes from elsewhere, but where’s that New York sound? New York had a sound, just like Philly had a sound back with the O’Jays and all that. Somebody needs to keep that sound going. 

The New York Sound

So give me a definition of the New York sound.

It’s the elements of the music and how it’s constructed. The beat, the vocals, even the rhyme flow. It just sounds like New York, you don’t even have to see the person, you could tell by the way the record sounds. It’s like when a dog barks. You can tell it’s a dog. You can even tell if it’s a mean dog or it’s a little Chihuahua. You hear a deep “woof” and you’re eyes get big, you hear “yap yap yap” and you don’t pay attention. A lot of the records out now bark like Chihuahuas. There’s a lot of Chihuahua rap out there now! [laughs] We’re like pit bull rap. 

We’ve survived every era of hip-hop and still been able to put out Gang Starr records the same way. We just update the formula. It’s like having AOL 5.0 and now it’s 9.0! We still stick to the same turntable/microphone method, that’s the type of record I was raised on, from Stetsasonic, Superlover Cee and Casanova Rud, to Cold Crush, the whole Wild Style soundtrack, that’s all history. Fab Five Freddy “Change the Beat.” You gotta know. 

If you say you’re influenced by Biggie and Tupac, that’s cool, I love those guys, they’re my homies. I knew them. Back when Puffy used to come get Big in a town car, three blocks from where I used to live on Washington Ave. But if you’re just influenced by them, from ’95 on up, you really don’t know nothing about hip-hop. If you’re influenced by them, also be influenced by Flash and KRS and Rakim. You better never front on the person that taught you. You have people who are not from the culture judging the music. 

Speaking of that, you had some difficulties with your previous label, Virgin. We were talking to Eugene McDaniels [Wax Poetics Issue 6], and he made the comment that the music industry is like indentured servitude.

Yeah! It is. Slavery. And I’m free, I ain’t on Virgin no more. I’m free and so happy. When we were on Virgin for Moment of Truth it was a staff that understood hip-hop, they were fans, so they understood everything. They were totally behind everything we pitched for our marketing plans. They followed our lead and we went gold twice. We went gold with the Full Clip: Decade of Gang Starr in thirty days. I remember going into the label and they all applauded and brought in our plaques and I was like, “Damn, this has only been out a month.” Then the staff changed, and the new people at Virgin last year for The Ownerz totally sabotaged our project, they didn’t want to listen to us and they ruined it. They didn’t follow the lead of people who could really help them get on point. I even told them, “If you’re not ready, don’t force me to put my album out.” But they kept pushing me and cut my money off, you know, doing that slave shit. 

When “Skillz” was out they said that they weren’t going to release the video until we had turned in the complete album. Come on, how are you not going to release a video when my 12-inch is in the stores? With artwork? The video should be running to help you start a buzz. They were like, “Not until we get the album.” That’s some posturing shit. Don’t posture with me! I’ve been here, I’ve done more albums than you can count! You’re trying to tell me what’s up? And my new president was thirty-two years old. That’s what really hurt my feelings. He’s thirty-two, producing Matchbox Twenty, he should understand my generation even more, he’s younger than me! He tried to front. I was like, “Okay, I see you’re bluffing, you have no nuts and no dick.” Real men do real things. I’ve been around real men all my life. And I’ve been around fakes. The fake ones I cut off so quick, I can read ’em in a day. The real ones are still with me. And I will carry this music the same way. I understand the process of how shitty the game is, which is why we need to take control and start up the movement all over again, but with the knowledge of what we already know now. 

Does part of your plan include a studio? 

Yeah, we took over D&D now that it’s closed. It’s going to be called Headqcourterz. We’re keeping it real quiet until we have it up and running, but it’ll be in action soon.

Before we’re out, give the readers some of your favorite beats that you’ve done.

Definitely “Boom” [Royce da 5' 9"]. “The ? Remainz” definitely. “Take It Personal” and “Above the Clouds.” 

How about some favorite old school breaks?

Bob James, “Nautilus” and “Mardi Gras.” Grover Washington, “Mr. Magic”; I have a little routine with that intro. Foster Sylvers, “Misdemeanor”; I loved the Jackson Five and [the Sylvers are a J5 sound-alike. Marvin Gaye, “T Plays It Cool.” James Brown, “Funky Drummer,” “Payback,” “Funky President.” AC/DC, “Back in Black.” Rush, “Tom Sawyer.” Queen, “Another One Bites the Dust.” Billy Squier, “The Stroke.” You thought I was going to say “Big Beat,” didn’t you! 

When he’s not DJing as Monk-One, Andrew Mason spends a lot of time patiently waiting for artists to show up for interviews.

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