DJ Premier: Still The Owner (Interview)
DJ Premier knows how to dougie. “I studied doing the dougie in the mirror so I could have it down in case any kid wants to challenge me,” the 44-year-old Primo says from his HeadQuarterz studio, while previewing his self-produced compilation Get Used to Us on his new self-sufficient label Year Round Records. Premier is using the comp to showcase signees Nick Javas, NYGz, and Khaleel and to also demonstrate he hasn’t lost a step with celebrated collaborators like Freddie Foxx, KRS-One, and Blaq Poet. As the dance of the month gathers dust, Premier is still digging through dusty crates looking for the perfect beat. Here, the living legend talks about technical and personal notes alike with a laid-back demeanor not always expected from a true living legend.
You said that you’ve gone back to the “Gang Starr way,” starting with lists of song titles from an artist, vibing off the concepts and filling them in with beats and sounds. When does your side of the work begin? Is it when you have your tools in your hand? Or are you at such a level that you walk around and hear a whole track in your head?
If I’m not planning, I can be doing anything, like sitting here talking to y’all, and at a point when we’re not really speaking, I might think about formatting tempos, and that I can grab those drums from so and so, and how I can use those and put a twist on them, then look around and start experimenting from there, matching sounds with what I think it should sound like.
I might find some Chinese music, and it might be dope, but it might not fit the song. Then I mark it and put it to the side. I didn’t used to do that but now I know how much I can get done if I stay on top of my job. Crazy Toones, Ice Cube’s DJ, said Bootsy Collins told him that even if it’s just a horn blast, record it and lay it down. Even if I don’t come back to it for a few years, I might [eventually] build off it. I always have ideas, and instead of doing one joint now I focus on three or four a day, and it’s been working. It takes up more time but it gets more done than one every two weeks. I’m glad I’m in that mode right now.
Are you conscious there’s a “Premier” sound? Is it something you can put in words?
I’m not even trying to make the sounds. It’s just a certain way I apply my samples to the drums, they have a certain bounce. I think my drums have a bounce that makes you know it’s me. When you hear “Mass Appeal,” it’s the bounce of how I make my drums and samples collide that lets you know it’s me. ”Dwyck” has this bounce, and “You Know My Steez” has its bounce, and then I can do a Jay-Z record like “D’evils,” and they all have a signature. That’s not me even trying to do that where its noticeable; it’s the way I lock up the samples. They have to be really, really tight with the drums, so the drums I use are a major issue. A dope sample is how you match it with the percussion part. You can use any kick and snare, but there’s certain ones that I use, and then I’ll go back to traditional ones and people will go, “Oh, I know that, that’s Preem.” Marley Marl would do that sometimes. He’d go back to one he hadn’t used in two or three albums, and then you’re like, “Oh that’s the ones he used on such and such, and he flipped it this other way.” I am conscious of that all the time.
When listening to say “Manifest” versus “Kick in the Door,” with the “Night in Tunisia” sample more straight-forward than the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (“Kick in the Door”) coming in at an angle, it seems you’ve really advanced in the ways you sample, even then. Do you hear it differently now? How have you pushed and progressed in using sampling as an instrument?
I experiment more ’cause I got more analog outboard equipment like the Motif ES, the Rackmount [sampler workstation]. What I’ve had for a long time is pads [on an MPC sampler and drum machine]. I used to do my bass lines on just the pads and tune ‘em on the MP like I did on “Unbelievable.” Then I started getting more into doing bass lines on the keyboard with different types of bass sounds, and then that elevated to the Motif and then Mo-Phatt and Planet Phatt [synths], deciding these are gonna be my traditional bass sounds.
I haven’t done a padded bass line since I did the Common record “Sixth Sense.”When you go away from it for a while then come back and use those traditional ones it makes people notice. It’s fun to stray away and come back. Now I’m coming back to straight loops again, which I haven’t done. I’ve been chopping samples for a while now; straight loops are sounding better than chops right now because I’ve been chopping records for eight to 10 years straight. I haven’t done straight loops in years. It’s like when Kanye said he’s gonna back to boom bap for his new project. When you go back to it after leaving it for a while, everyone is looking forward to that, that old pure way but with the mentality that you have now rather than when you were at a younger age. But if I use, say, “Superfly,” it’s an obvious sample, it’s gonna get chopped. I’m known for being an innovator, so I’m gonna do it in an innovative way, chopping it and making it ill.
Where did you learn the dynamics of music? Did you play instruments when you were younger?
I took piano lessons, something you don’t get when you were a kid. I was like, “Mom, I don’t wanna do this. Boys don’t do this.” So I quit. But I found myself knowing where middle C is. When I was a kid I always knew where middle C was and e-g-b-d-f lines of the staff and f-a-c-e the spaces, I always remembered that. Now that I do hip-hop, I’m back to it. I do a lot of hunting and pecking but I can do chords. I play piano, too. I’m not ill or anything but I can do a little something. I play drums, I play bass, I play guitar. I played guitar in church. I played alto sax in school then strayed away. I won first chair quite a bit. I used to challenge one of my neighbors who was ill. She beat me once and I was so mad that I lost that I challenged her that next week and played my heart out just to get my spot back and won first chair. Then I got tired of it again.
Looking back to all those things, you can definitely tell it applies to the way I sample ’cause I’m catching it from a full musical standpoint, not just looking for a sound and looping it. A lotta different things are going into that, I can harmonize keys over that, or this bass line’s gonna bring it out iller, or I can put a horn there. It’s applying instruments and orchestrating the whole band without all the members.
Is it that sense of competition as it exists within hip-hop that accounts for your consistency? Group Home came out 15 years ago, and here we are now. It’s unprecedented in this genre, and maybe any other. What accounts for that?
I love competing with everybody. I believe I’m one of the illest, but I don’t carry myself like that. You‘ve gotta have that type of attitude to make it. When you play yours next to mine on a bangin’ system, your shit ain’t better than mine. That’s how I feel. That’s why I fiend to hear other people’s music. I like to listen to other people even when I DJ, and everybody wants me to play my hits, my underground bangers, but I like playing other people’s records. I wanna play rare records like Sir ABU “Holy War,” which they might not even be into.
But I’ve been blessed to be in the business where people love what I do, and hell yeah I’m competing with everybody. If Dre’s got Detox coming, I better be able to drop an album that he’ll think is dope. I know we respect each other as producers, and he’s on my mind. Jay-Z’s on my mind when I make beats. Even if it’s not intended for him, I know he knows how to judge what I do because we’ve worked together before. Everything we’ve done was good. So when I do other albums with other people, he’s still judging it based on what I do with him. So the competition part is with everybody. Young and old.
You have chemistry with Jay. Particularly with the new projects on Year Round, how do you know when you connect with an MC?
Everybody’s different. Sometimes it’s fun from the gate and other times it’s like we’re gonna get it done to where everybody’s happy. If Nas said tomorrow we’re starting on an album, I’m going super deep because I know how deep he can go. I know it’s gonna come out ill. And then if Jay says let’s do an all-Premier album, I know how deep I gotta go for him ’cause he’s on that level of having proven it. Certain artists haven’t proved it. They can’t go deep. They may be nice to certain degree, but you play them something that’s a little left field, and they don’t get it. That’s one thing I like about Freddie Foxx too. He’s never a gotten a beat from me that I made just for him, except for “Militia,” and that was for him as a special guest with him, Guru, and Big Shug. He’s done a Charlie Baltimore beat she didn’t like. He knew how to take it and make it his and still be him, and some artists can’t do that.
People like Foxx or Poet don’t always get the recognition.
I was a big Poet fan, PHD [Blaq Poet and Hot Day], into them hardbody. It doesn’t have to be hardcore only, but I just love hardcore. Not a lotta of groups really do it right. M.O.P knows how to make hardcore, Freddie Foxx, certain artists can do it, Public Enemy makes good hardcore shit and they’ll even say it. I love Onyx. Aggressive records get me more hype than laid-back stuff, but again Rakim to me is hard even though he had a laid-back mellow voice. That’s what’s fun for me to listen to, and another one of the reasons I wanted to mess with Poet even though I knew he was older. I didn’t care about his age. Is the stuff dope? That was the most important part for me.
I’m like that to this day with any artist. If it’s a Kanye I’m not gonna give the same approach to him, but I know the stuff we’re gonna do together will work. He’s another one I know I can go left field with and he’ll get it. I like people like NYGz [Year Round signees] that have their own vision; I don’t have to think for them. Some artists don’t have it, and you constantly have to shape them. Even if it’s doable or not doable, I still want the artist to see their own visions. I remember when we did the Poet album [Tha Blaqprint, 2009] he wanted just the subway map for the cover, but I asked, “What does it signify? Tha Blaqprint is like your blueprint of Queensbridge. What if it was a blueprint of the bridge when they built it?” I had a vision based on his vision of what he wanted to do with the album. What if we found the Queensbridge plans, the dimensions — I took drafting in college, that whole thing. It became not too tacky but effective in relation to his vision for the music and the title coming together.
You’re from Texas, but did you come out to New York often as a kid? Or was it the Wild Pitch demo that brought you here?
My parents and two older sisters and I, we’ve been going to New York since we were young. My mother was from Baltimore. She had that city mentality, and her father lived in Bed Stuy. We used to always go see him for Thanksgiving and every summer and Christmas, all the holidays. I was his only grandson, and he used to take me to baseball games, even Mets games when he was a Yankees fan. We were both into music, and we were really close through music and baseball. I used to go a lot of places with him while my mom and sisters went shopping. Once I came with two friends of mine from Texas. I was in the fifth grade, and I’ll never forget we were staying at the Waldorf and my boy that came with us was staying at this place called the Summit that doesn’t even exist anymore. We used to go this place called Chock Full O’Nuts — that diner from back in the ’70s — and when we went there a guy committed suicide on the train that we were riding. We saw him when he was dead, right in front of us. When you’re in fifth grade, that’s the story to tell your friends: “Yo, man, we saw somebody kill themselves on our train, and his arm was cut off and it was still moving.” I was like, “I’m coming back here. This is where I wanna live. This is exciting. I wanna see all the crazy action.”
The day before the guy killed himself we went to the Yankees game with my grandfather, and then we went to the arcade. That’s when we saw the DJs cuttin’ up, with two turntables. This other kid would stop and play the boom box, and one guy was playing “You’ll Like It Too” from Parliament. I was like, “Yo, all these records that I have that I just listen to at the house parties my sisters used to throw, the part that we like on the record, the DJ is actually playing that part over and over.” I saw all these cats breakdancing, which reminded me of locking. At the time everyone was doing that locker shit from L.A., pointing and all that shit. We were doing all the dances, too.
By the time I was 13, I started going to stay with my grandfather by myself when he moved from Bed Stuy to Canarsie. As time passed he got sick, and I met Gordon [Franklin, Premier’s friend and label manager] in college and started staying with his family, and that’s when I started shoppin’ my demos in New York. Wild Pitch [a defunct label that Guru worked with] was up on me. I was in a group with homies from college. Wild Pitch didn’t like my MCs but they liked my production and my cuts. I didn’t wanna leave my homeboys, and I stayed loyal to them until the main guy went to the military for four years. Then I was available. Guru said he wanted me to be in a group with him; he felt his DJ and MC then weren’t struggling with him like they should, so he moved on and kept the name Gang Starr. We clicked on the phone. We was just in sync with everything we was into, and we did the “Manifest” track over the phone two or three times and recorded it. It took off. I went back to New York to shoot the video then back to school, and everybody was like, “They’re playing your video on Yo! MTV Raps.” And then I decided to stay in New York permanently. I was gonna stay eventually, but I did it then. Glad I did.
You mention the body on the tracks and kids cutting up records and the impressions that made on you. This sounds like the genesis of the grimy East Coast sound as we’ve come to know it. People really consider you the living embodiment of the authentic hip-hop sound, the one who preserves it. How does that affect you? Are you conscious of it?
It’s always a conscious thing. I don’t wanna get too gassed up to the point where somebody can knock me off the hill, but inside I’m like, “I’m ill.” But I don’t wanna be looked at as an asshole. When I’m around a friend, I might be like, “No one can fuck with me,” but even they know I’m not cocky, they know that’s not my way, I’m not walking around like that. And I was raised right by my parents. My parents are still together, both in their 80s, and they have a lot to do with it. My father still checks me with my language. I say I’m grown now, but my father, he’s on You Tube and all that, and he sees his grandson with me “and Pharrell’s cursing out that Jungle Brothers guy.” I’m like, “I know, that was Kanye’s concert,” and he’s tellin’ me, “Don’t talk that way in front of my grandson.” I tell him he’s not getting everything we’re saying. We communicate in our language. You might speak Spanish around Spanish people, you might speak English around people who speak English. And I tell him we don’t do it just to do it; I justify what I say and he’ll say he understands, but he’s not with it. Still I’m conscious my pops is listening to what’s coming outta my mouth. He raised me better than that, he feels, but we don’t curse just to be cursing. Some people can relate, like some of his friends, who cursed around me when we were little kids. A neighbor, Ms. Webster, cursed probably more than anybody, but she cursed “properly.” She’d say “Shit that motherfuckin’ nigga” at the right time. She knew we were gonna hear it and she was an English teacher. To this day is I can still go see her, and I still feel like that same kid who was like, “I wanna go hear Ms. Webster curse and talk some shit.”
But the beauty of communication is that everybody has a different way of speaking language. I’m more vocal on stage now, too. I feel strong and big. I used to not be like that. I used to just wanna play the music and let Guru do all the talking, and he was one of the first people to tell me I should start talkin’ more. Little by little I got more confident. Now when I’m on stage I’m an animal. I can’t be calm. All those elements that make me love hip-hop — James Brown, Chuck D, M.O.P, Onyx, anybody that’s rowdy, RUN-DMC, all of them — all of that’s in my head when I perform. From the top of lungs I gotta make sure that those people are there with me. I’m here to put out my energy and drain myself for you. Showbiz [from D.I.T.C] was saying at a job people put things in to make something come out. He said we put things out to make people feel something within.
And hip-hop is one of the most universal languages. I’ve seen all the different people that come to the shows. I go to these different countries where there’s not a lot of black people or Spanish people, or any Latino people at all. These people are singin’ the words. The beat comes on, they go crazy, and I’m sitting there like, “Damn, this shit has taken me this far.”
When you put something out there like that, do you feel a personal connection returned? When Guru passed, fans reacted like they really knew the two of you as people. Do you get that sense, this type of relationship that people feel runs so deeply?
I’ve had more than one person tell me I’ve saved their life. That’s not in the same box as, “Oh, your shit is dope,” almost like they know me and they don’t. “I was gonna kill myself and you saved my life.” I almost wanna ask them, “How did I save your life?” Just the fact that they said that, though, I feel like I don’t need to hear more. If whatever I‘m doing is saving lives, I gotta keep doing it. People told that to Guru and me many a time. That’s a steep statement to make. And I know all the fuckin’ up and inaccuracies I’ve done with my life, and these people are feeling that way about me; it’s a different type of a wakeup call. And it’s needed sometimes. if I’m in a bad mood and I’m not feeling right and someone tells me that, I’m just like, “Shit, I’m back, I’m all right.” I don’t need someone to pat me on the back and tell me I’m dope, but when it comes down to it I’ve made them feel something.
What’s inspiring you with Year Round, and what’s gonna keep it going?
It’s always different. Running a label is a whole different headache, but I know how much I can do with it — film, video, so many things artist-wise. I don’t wanna sign anyone else outside of Nick, NYGz, and Khaleel. Just keep it specialty, do a Pete Rock and Premier album; there’s a market for that, and I can put it out and there’s no headaches of promoting it. Do the release with [MC] Eiht [which Premier co-produced]. He wanted a good channel to put it out through, and that’s it. A KRS-One and Premier album is easy to do. Kris might not go platinum or gold, but a lot of people would wanna hear it. Those same fans exist; they’re just older. I might buy Rick Ross, Soulja Boy, Wacka Flocka, but I still need another Jay album, another Tribe. I’m talking about me as a consumer. I need that. If Ultramagnetic MCs have a new album coming out, I’m like, “Oh, shit, good.” Son of Bazerk is dropping a new album and they were left, far left field, affiliated with P.E. and Chuck D and Johnny Juice Rosado, and I’m like, “Word, send it to me.” I wanna hear it ’cause I know what they left behind and where they stopped, and they should hopefully sound like they did when they stopped.
How it was with Gang Starr, every time we stopped, sometimes four- or five- or six-year breaks, the next album always sounded like it picked up where the last one stopped. All of that is just passion and love, man. I’m just passionate about the shit still. It’s still fun to go, “Oh, I’m gonna make a beat tonight that’s ill.” All of that is still a thrill to me. That’s why I do it.