Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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DJ Premier: Scratchin’ the Surface

DJ Premier
DJ Premier DJ Premier DJ Premier

“One thing I love about hip hop is you have to understand how to listen to it. Just because he’s speakin’ in English, doesn’t mean that you understand. Everybody from a different generation have their own slang, but again, it’s still English language. It’s communication: real clever because that wordplay is what makes a good emcee anyway.” – DJ Premier on producing Jay-Z’s “D’evils” (Reasonable Doubt, 1996)

Hip hop culture has always been a game about braggin’ rights and earnin’ respect for skills. Whether it was havin’ clever wordplay in verse or bein’ able to manipulate the music on the turntable, at the end of the day, it was all about keepin’ both the crowd’s attention and the party hype.

It’s Tues., May 29, 2012 – hot as hell I might add – and about three hours prior to the National Finals for Red Bull EmSee in the basement of Atlanta’s premier rock venue, The Masquerade. Premier is runnin’ a tad bit behind gettin’ to the club but still takes roughly five minutes (some urgent cameraman behind me makes all of these revolving hand signals with his index finger) to speak about his life’s dearest subject and doin’ so with a straight face, humility and passion in his voice. Even as I take a bow as if he was my sense and thank him for providing contributions to the soundtrack of my life (especially Gang Starr’s 1994 epic LP, Hard to Earn, which remains to this day as one of my absolute favorite albums across any genre of music), he thanks me and reciprocates the bow, too!

Beside other multi-talented hip hop artists Big K.R.I.T., David Banner, 9th Wonder and Phonte, this collaborative’s elder superlative is one of three judges on the panel – stressin’ the importance of makin’ a strong finish in any style of performance -- for this freestyle battle. The evening marks yet another pasttime that Premier is all too familiar with – siftin’ through novice talent to find the ones spittin’ hot bars on the mic. As one of hip hop’s forerunning producers and greatest contributors, DJ Premier (birth name Christopher Edward Martin), knows he’s an asset. For three decades and takin’ his cues from some of his predecessors (Marley Marl, Whodini’s Grandmaster Dee, Run DMC’s the late Jam Master Jay, Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa), his productions are argubly their own canon of music: featuring some of the hardest hittin’ boom-bap, bass-laden snares that sparsely pound hard enough to make the vinyl split in half. He’ll sample a crisp jazzy, funky and soulful melody (whether it’s a horn blare, piano loop or even a memorable hook) over the beat and layer both elements under an impressive bed of cuts, scratches and chopped vocal refrains.

Born in Houston in 1966 but now calling Brooklyn home, Premier (or Premo or Preem), now 46, made his name as one-half of Gang Starr: producing all of the group’s landmark recordings over the course of six studio albums and two compilations with his partner-in-rhyme, the late Boston native Keith “Guru” Elam (died in 2010). The group produced notable singles including “Words I Manifest,” “Step in the Arena,” “Just to Get a Rep,” “Mass Appeal,” “Code of the Streets,” “Royalty” and “Skillz.” Even being at the root of the collective ensemble, the Gang Starr Foundation (i.e. Jeru Da Damaja, Big Shug and Group Home), their partnership earned them the status as one of the most iconic and consistent groups in the history of hip hop.

What other producer in hip hop can time the scratches precisely enough to match an emcee’s flow and lyrical delivery? And what better way to expand a brand than to also create some of the most memorable moments in the hip hop canon outside of your own unit? Premier’s musical trademark is so infectious, it becomes inevitable for the prolific hitmaker to bless some of the most popular (and underground) acts in all of hip hop and popular music (some on more than one occasion): Bun B., Canibus, D.I.T.C., The Notorious B.I.G., Big L, Fat Joe, Game, Jay-Z, Nas, Mos Def, Busta Rhymes, Mobb Deep, Rakim, Kanye West, The Beatnuts, Buckshot, KRS-One, Immortal Technique, REKS, M.O.P., Method Man, Lord Finesse, Eminem, Showbiz & A.G., Jermaine Dupri, Warren G., Limp Bizkit, Common, D’Angelo, Xzibit, Snoop Dogg, Christina Aguilera, Royce Da 5’9”, Joell Ortiz and Big Daddy Kane among others.

When talkin’ about hip hop, Premier – always one to wear a fitted cap to the front -- has seen the best of times and the worst of times (i.e. deaths of Notorious B.I.G., Big L and his musical co-hort), but he is still committed to keeping his craft in tact. Rightfully so, he’s made an abundance of appearances on critics’ picks list over the years as one of (if not) the dopest producer(s) in all of American popular music, so rest assured that he’s earned his alphabet soup. He also owns a record label, Year Round Records, with a roster of talent including NYGz, Khaleel, Nick Javas and Blaq Poet. He hosts a weekly two-hour (former SIRIUS Satellite Radio) show on Fridays, Live From HeadQCourterz. His Twitter handle, @realdjpremier, carries around eighty-two thousand followers while he also posts insane amounts of content on his own self-titled blog. Take note (as well as I did) ‘cause Preemo is one of the best to ever do it.

In so many words (as with the case of our brief conversation), Premier is one of hip hop’s esteemed organic intellecutals, too; he gives up the goods on “classic” hip hop, the criteria for timeless emcees, the artists that keep him interested in hip hop, his feelings regarding his iconic status and even shares a few stories about recording Hard to Earn.

…on hip hop classics.
“It sounds just as good anytime you play it. It still sounds as ill as it did when it came out. We don’t know when it’s a classic until people choose that. Our fans kept bangin’ it and bangin’ it, and we didn’t have to pay radio to play it. It took off and did what it did.”

…on “DWYCK” (from 1994’s "Hard to Earn").
“We made that to have fun; all of a sudden, it became one of our biggest hits ever. That was a B-side; it wasn’t meant to be on an album. We were just havin’ fun with Nice & Smooth. We were returning a favor because they did ‘Down the Line;’ they wanted to use the ‘Manifest’ sample. So we went to the studio with them. They put GURU on it; it took off and became a mega hit. We really didn’t expect that. We did it just to enjoy making hit records.”

…on what makes a great emcee.
“Just originality. They gotta bring their A-game: the way they look, the way they spit their rhymes. Are the rhymes being pre-written or off the head? I’m gonna size them up head to toe: look at their jeans, look at their shirt, look at their hat. Are they wearin’ jewelry? Do they have props? They might throw confetti on you. You have to come in with that much of a hunger to win. If you do, that’s usually how the winner is gonna be picked by all of us: respect for the hungriest. I’m lookin’ forward to that and for that.”
…on his respect for young artists.
“Joey Badass. He’s raw; I was already feelin’ his music when I got put onto him by a friend of mine. He showed me an article they just did. These kids are in high school, but Moment of Truth made you wanna rap? That’s so flattering because I like him based on what he’s doin’, puttin’ out there and being different. Just like Odd Future is doin’ the same thing: to say that Moment of Truth made them wanna rap. These are young kids that weren’t even around when I was doin’ my career. That lets me know that my classics have influenced a whole generation of youngsters who are not even out of their teens yet: lets me know I gotta keep on goin’.”

…on his contributions to hip hop culture.
“It’s the best feelin’. At the end of the day, that’s what we all wanna be looked at: as icons, legends and Hall of Famers. I’ve already earned that, so I know I can stop now and never do it again and still be good to go, but I’m addicted to hip hop. Like Bumpy Knuckles says, ‘I’m addicted to hip hop. That’s my bitch; I’m gonna keep on fuckin’ it.”

Photos: Carlo Cruz (solo), Jeremy Deputat (group shots)
Words Christopher Daniel

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