Q&A: DJ Premier on Where Rap Went Wrong and How to Fix It
If New York hip-hop has a spiritual gatekeeper, it’s DJ Premier. Along with being part of definitive ’90s rap duo Gang Starr, Premier has balanced crafting songs for certified rap royalty Jay-Z, Biggie, and Nas with supporting the city’s more varied and underground scenes. His upcoming label compilation, Year Round Records: Get Used To Us, sticks to that credo, showcasing life-time Big Apple rhymers Freddie Foxxx, Blaq Poet, and KRS-One alongside more recent home town talent like Papoose, Saigon, and Joell Ortiz–three artists looking to re-ignite their careers after floundering on major labels. Here’s Premier’s take on where New York rap went wrong, why it needs to be destroyed in order to recover, and how he’s warming to his role as elder rap statesman, to the point where he’s creating old school mixtapes to educate upcoming rap cats.
On your new label compilation you feature songs with Papoose and Saigon. A few years back both of them were tipped as future superstars capable of re-asserting New York’s rap credentials, but their careers quickly faded. Why do you think that was?
Papoose had a million dollar deal at Jive but I knew Jive wasn’t going to let him drop all the street shit he was doing. They’re not the same Jive that had Whodini and A Tribe Called Quest and KRS-One and the Fu-Schnickens and all that. Even though they had R. Kelly and Britney Spears and N-Sync, the Jive of old was very eclectic and rooted in what we love about music. They’re not that any more. So when you have a Papoose, he can do some commercial records, but that’s not what he is and that’s not what he does to make you wanna hear more stuff from him. You can’t all of a sudden convert him into a commercial artist. They’re going to force him to make those commercial songs and when they don’t work they’re gonna drop him.
Same thing — they’re not going to let the grimey, ‘hood, chase-you-with-a-knife music out. They’re not releasing that shit. Sai has more of a commercial appeal, but a street artist has to be broken in the streets first and then developed in the mainstream. You can’t force every artist down someone’s throat. Be realistic with it. I already know what the outcome’s going be when certain artists get a major deal. I mean, they did it with us [Gang Starr]! But we didn’t have to take that commercial commercial route cause we proved to them that we can move units and build up. We went from 280,000 sales of the first album to 320,000 sales to gold to gold again. Consistency was there with everything we released. Even when I produced for other artists, like Jay-Z or Nas or Limp Bizkit, the songs were popular on the street. The street is where you want to get broken at first if you want to be a hip-hop or rap artist.
Do you think that’s something the major labels will ever understand?
They did in the beginning, just cause they were allowing people to take chances. Then when it came down to the money piling in, and it was so cheap to make, the love and passion went away. Then they see the slips in the sales and they panic, like, “Don’t do that street shit, we need more commercial stuff!” No, you don’t. Public Enemy were never commercial but they were commercial as far as their sales cause people wanted it raw. N.W.A. was raw, Ice Cube was raw. Most kids in those white suburbs were out buying raw black music!
Will we ever see rap music that raw being popular on such a wide scale again
Absolutely. We’re just readjusting to the building that collapsed. Not every brick fell — it wasn’t a Twin Towers situation, cause there’s still a lot of life in hip-hop. It’s just going through the destroying phase. I don’t mind that, cause it got saturated with the nonsense. I love gangsta rap, and I have an album project with MC Eiht, from Compton’s Most Wanted, coming up, but there’s still a limit to doing anything. Who regulates it? The people in the structure of the culture. So I’m glad I’m in a position to help fix the problem.
So is there a healthy underground New York rap scene at the moment?
Absolutely, and I’m part of it. Man, it goes deep. I can play a new record on my radio show from Hell Razah, who’s down with the Wu-Tang Clan, and you probably wouldn’t even know he had an album out if it wasn’t for me! There’s a new record from Dysfunkshunal Familee, who are down with the Beatminerz, and most people are like, “Dysfunkshunal Familee? Who the fuck is that?!” J-Live has a new EP out with some hot stuff; Buckwild, who produced “Woah” for Black Rob, he’s got a new album with Celph Titled that’s hot. There’s a guy called Math Hoffa, who’s an upcoming artist, and Illmind and Skyzoo… It’s so much stuff that just doesn’t get regular radio play. Thank god you have me and DJ Eclipse, who does a similar show to me on Sundays. We don’t have a playlist — we make our own choices. If everyone was like that, hip-hop would still be a billion dollar business. Now, it’s just a million dollar business.
What has changed most about the record industry since you first came out?
I’m 44-years-old so I remember when the majors had passion and cared about music. That’s gone now, which is why they crumbled so tremendously. They want to blame the internet but that’s not the main culprit–it’s the lack of passion for what you’re signing. And there’s things like putting an age limit on rappers, like you can’t be 44-years-old and sign to a major label. Come on! When you’ve got an upcoming 18-year-old, the difference is they haven’t experienced the lifestyle of hip-hop when it was fresh and new. The kids today that are born into hip-hop don’t appreciate the history: “Those artists are old so I don’t listen to them!” But if you’re not gonna care about the history of something that’s a culture, then you’re gonna lose down the line. I see that every day. I see when they’ve gotta tour just to pay bills–I’ve been through it. I’ve had money and lost money. My experience is 23 years in the business and there’s nothing I can really be schooled on unless it’s something higher than I’ve experienced.
Why are young hip-hop artists so reluctant to learn about the music’s history?
Well thank goodness for Google you can find out on your own now if you’re curious! I feel if an artist really cares about what they’re doing, they should want to know who the people they like are influenced by, even if it’s 2Pac. There’s plenty of viral footage. There’s so much research you can find now. When I was coming up you had to hunt and look worldwide to find things. They can ask me! Like with Royce Da 5′ 9″, who’s signed with Eminem, cause his rhyming’s so ill I was like, “I know you’re into the Cold Crush [Brothers] and Just-Ice.” And he’s like, “Who’s that?” I’m like, “You don’t know who Just-Ice is? What about Mantronix?” He’s like, “Who’s Mantronix?” He said he was brought up on Redman and Ras Kass, and even though those are great MCs, I was like, “I thought you went back further.” So I told Royce I was gonna make him a CD of some stuff. I did the same with my artist Nick Javas, a white kid from Union, New Jersey, who can rap his ass off but didn’t have any knowledge of the past.
I mean, I stay up, I still study. I know who Waka Flocka Flame is, I know who Gucci Maine is, I know who Nicki Minaj is, and Fred Da God, an upcoming New York rapper. You have to do your research if you’re into your job. Even though I’m into more than just hip-hop–I’ll listen to rock, new wave, The Smiths, all kinds of crazy left-field stuff–I still stay up on rap.
What sort of songs do you put on these CDs you make for rappers?
On that one CD I put T La Rock’s “It’s Yours,” Davy DMX’s “One For The Treble,” Just-Ice’s “Going Way Back.” I put him up on T Ski Valley’s “Catch The Beat,” all the Sugarhill stuff, Spoonie Gee, Sparky D, Roxanne Shante, the Juice Crew, even the Wild Style soundtrack. These are the building blocks of what I do.