Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1099

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DJ Premier: Scratchinâ the Surface

DJ Premier
DJ Premier DJ Premier DJ Premier

âOne thing I love about hip hop is you have to understand how to listen to it. Just because heâs speakinâ in English, doesnât mean that you understand. Everybody from a different generation have their own slang, but again, itâs still English language. Itâs communication: real clever because that wordplay is what makes a good emcee anyway.â â DJ Premier on producing Jay-Zâs âDâevilsâ (Reasonable Doubt, 1996)

Hip hop culture has always been a game about bragginâ rights and earninâ respect for skills. Whether it was havinâ clever wordplay in verse or beinâ able to manipulate the music on the turntable, at the end of the day, it was all about keepinâ both the crowdâs attention and the party hype.

Itâs Tues., May 29, 2012 â hot as hell I might add â and about three hours prior to the National Finals for Red Bull EmSee in the basement of Atlantaâs premier rock venue, The Masquerade. Premier is runninâ a tad bit behind gettinâ 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 lifeâs dearest subject and doinâ 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 Starrâs 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 collaborativeâs elder superlative is one of three judges on the panel â stressinâ the importance of makinâ 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 â siftinâ through novice talent to find the ones spittinâ hot bars on the mic. As one of hip hopâs forerunning producers and greatest contributors, DJ Premier (birth name Christopher Edward Martin), knows heâs an asset. For three decades and takinâ his cues from some of his predecessors (Marley Marl, Whodiniâs Grandmaster Dee, Run DMCâs 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 hittinâ boom-bap, bass-laden snares that sparsely pound hard enough to make the vinyl split in half. Heâll sample a crisp jazzy, funky and soulful melody (whether itâs 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 groupâs landmark recordings over the course of six studio albums and two compilations with his partner-in-rhyme, the late Boston native Keith âGuruâ Elam (died in 2010). The group produced notable singles including âWords I Manifest,â âStep in the Arena,â âJust to Get a Rep,â âMass Appeal,â âCode of the Streets,â âRoyaltyâ and âSkillz.â 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 emceeâs 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? Premierâs 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, DâAngelo, Xzibit, Snoop Dogg, Christina Aguilera, Royce Da 5â9â, Joell Ortiz and Big Daddy Kane among others.

When talkinâ about hip hop, Premier â 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, heâs made an abundance of appearances on criticsâ picks list over the years as one of (if not) the dopest producer(s) in all of American popular music, so rest assured that heâs 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) âcause 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 hopâs esteemed organic intellecutals, too; he gives up the goods on âclassicâ 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.

â¦on hip hop classics.
âIt sounds just as good anytime you play it. It still sounds as ill as it did when it came out. We donât know when itâs a classic until people choose that. Our fans kept banginâ it and banginâ it, and we didnât have to pay radio to play it. It took off and did what it did.â

â¦on âDWYCKâ (from 1994âs "Hard to Earn").
âWe made that to have fun; all of a sudden, it became one of our biggest hits ever. That was a B-side; it wasnât meant to be on an album. We were just havinâ fun with Nice & Smooth. We were returning a favor because they did âDown the Line;â they wanted to use the âManifestâ sample. So we went to the studio with them. They put GURU on it; it took off and became a mega hit. We really didnât expect that. We did it just to enjoy making hit records.â

â¦on what makes a great emcee.
âJust 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? Iâm gonna size them up head to toe: look at their jeans, look at their shirt, look at their hat. Are they wearinâ 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, thatâs usually how the winner is gonna be picked by all of us: respect for the hungriest. Iâm lookinâ forward to that and for that.â
â¦on his respect for young artists.
âJoey Badass. Heâs raw; I was already feelinâ 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? Thatâs so flattering because I like him based on what heâs doinâ, puttinâ out there and being different. Just like Odd Future is doinâ the same thing: to say that Moment of Truth made them wanna rap. These are young kids that werenât even around when I was doinâ 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 goinâ.â

â¦on his contributions to hip hop culture.
âItâs the best feelinâ. At the end of the day, thatâs what we all wanna be looked at: as icons, legends and Hall of Famers. Iâve already earned that, so I know I can stop now and never do it again and still be good to go, but Iâm addicted to hip hop. Like Bumpy Knuckles says, âIâm addicted to hip hop. Thatâs my bitch; Iâm gonna keep on fuckinâ it.â

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

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