Chris Martin is more down-to-earth than he should be. In the basement of Detroit's historic St. Andrew's Hall, the hip-hop legend known as DJ Premier is running the sound check before a Scion-sponsored show in which he's the headlining act. Dressed in a simple, navy Sedgwick & Cedar tee and black Adidas wind pants, industry adornments like a Blackberry, necklace or timepiece are noticeably absent as he casually chops it up with other local DJs slated to spin before him that night. Everyone's laughing and joking, but chills seem to simultaneously ascend the spines of all the DJs as the trademark scratches found on classic tracks from Nas, Jay-Z, and Biggie blare from the speakers—performed live and in-person by the pioneer himself.
Lately, the 40-year-old has been lacing tracks for deserving veterans like Nas and AZ, handling executive producing duties for the upcoming albums by Teflon and the recently-jailed Royce Da 5'9” (“When he gets out, we'll pick up where we left off,” Primo's manager attests), blessing less-established newcomers like Termanology and Jae Hood, and jumping off his new label, Year Round Records, with a compilation dropping in early 2007. But most notably, Primo has taken what many consider a left turn by working extensively with pop starlet Christina Aguilera on her recent double-disc, Back To Basics. In an interview with XXLMAG.com, Primo talks about working with Aguilera, the importance of his hip-hop predecessors and the real status of Gang Starr.
How do you like heading a label?
It is a lot different because I’m used to being signed to a label: I was signed to Virgin Records for a long time, Chrysalis Records, which is all part of the EMI system. All the stuff I hated about my label, I gotta make sure I don’t do [while] running one. I started off a little rocky, but now I’m totally in gear, totally focused, getting all of our maps laid out...our plan's in effect, and it’s gonna work.
Your style, with an emphasis on scratching and loops, really stands out, especially against today’s hip-hop. How did this sound originally evolve?
That’s from all the people that I looked up to that did it before me and inspired me. Marley Marl is my number one inspiration. Jam Master Jay, Mixmaster Ice and UTFO. Grandmaster B and Whodini. DJ Cheese, Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa. Jazzy Jay, even Cut Creator. Seeing them do what they do. It’s black music, it’s black culture, it comes from the ghetto. How can you not relate to ghetto people when that’s the rawest form of blackness? Even though it’s not a good place in regards to the economy and how bad people have it in the neighborhood, the realism's there, and that's what we were born out of. So I pay respect by doing the same type of music in return.
It’s interesting that you can be so humble, given that a lot of people would probably cite you as their major influence.
I like that they like what I do. That means they’re taking a piece of what influenced me, and it keeps it going. The one thing I gotta keep doing is keep [releasing] music. That’s why I started the label. I’ve been with the same people I’ve been with since day one, when we were talking about getting a record deal. Still putting it down because I love and respect hip-hop.
What’s your daily grind like nowadays?
Very hectic. [While working on the Royce album] we had a day off in Detroit, and Royce was like, “Oh we’re gonna go out,” do this and that. I was like, “Nah, I’m staying in the room.” When we tour, if we’re ever on the road, we never stay in our hotel. We're in every club, we in dudes' houses, out at dinner. For real. A lot of artists—Guru said this a long time ago—a lot of rappers go on tour and stay in their hotels. We never stay in our hotel. We’re going shopping, looking around, even when we don't have any bread on us, just to see how much of an impact I have on the people prior to the show. Just walking around, people recognizing us, all that just makes me wanna keep doing it.
We've gone through that for many years and it’s like, Yo, I’m 40 years old and I still love doing this shit. I haven’t lost any love for hip-hop. I still get excited when a good record comes on, and even the new trends—I like Lil Jon, Slim Thug and Chamillionaire and all them dudes. But I won’t do that style, because the style is just an add on to what the earlier cats were doing. I’m more into traditional hip-hop, the purest form. A lot of that ain’t on the radio anymore, a lot of that people don’t bump in they cars. But since I’m influenced by the game, I’m going to make sure that that side of it still lives through me. That way you have all styles of hip-hop. The South and the Midwest and everybody else, I welcome it, but still somebody’s gotta keep the traditional side out there.
That balance is interesting to hear from you, since a lot of your fans would adamantly declare that Lil Jon isn't “real hip-hop.”
You talk to Lil Jon, he knows the words to a Slick Rick album, he knows the words to a Stetsasonic album, everything. Just like the cats that did “Laffy Taffy.” The dude is like, KRS-One is my number one MC. They made “Laffy Taffy” and are like, “This is how we do it here, but we listen to that KRS-One in my off time because we love Criminal Minded and all that stuff.” So the fact that he said that, you got to respect that because he probably knows more than the people who buy his records. Most of the people who buy “Laffy Taffy” don’t know about KRS or Kane or Rakim or anyone earlier. You know, Nas, 2pac or Biggie is probably as far back as they go.
How did the Christina Aguilera project happen?
We got a call from her office saying that she wanted to rock with us. She flew us out to LA to kick it, and when I chopped it up with her, she was like, “Yo, I love ‘Kick in the Door’ by Biggie, I love Group Home.” I was like, “Word? So, we’re gonna be aight. Let’s do it.” And her husband is a big, big hip-hop fan. He’s a DJ. So I’m sure he had a lot of influence on her, but she was totally with all of my ideas and she knew what she wanted. Every track that we laid down, she was like, “Keep recordin’.” I was supposed to just do one song, it turned into five. And I did the intro to the album. I was honored that she was like, “You’re gonna start the album with a dope intro.” There’s crazy scratching and everything, but not where it’s a hip-hop intro, it’s a Christina Aguilera intro. I kept it like what I do. It’s cool how it starts off because it goes into three different parts before she actually comes on to sing, and then it cuts off after one verse—boom—into another song. It’s dope.
How do you feel when people say working with a pop star is equal to “selling out”?
Selling out is seeing me dancing around the video acting silly, when that’s not me. I’m always going to keep my element in there where I could be proud to say, “Yo, what I deal with is dope.” I worry about that too, like, Damn, I don’t know what people are going to think with me working with Christina Aguilera, like, “Is he starting to sell out?” No, as long as I don’t water down what I did production-wise.
When you hear it, you gonna be like, Okay, he kept the breaks in there, he kept it within the hip-hop box. But still, it was smoothed-out to where she could do what she does. The bottom line is this: I make records that I would buy. The record I did with her, if I heard it right now, and I wasn’t me, I would be like, “Yo I’m gonna get that.” A lot of the people that say they love hip-hop, they listen to hip-hop, but they don’t love it and live it. I live it, so I’m never going to be wrong when it comes to hip-hop, unless my love for it starts to decline. My love for hip-hop will never decline because I was there from the very beginning of it. I was around before it even started. So I’ll never sell out, because I know how hip-hop is supposed to sound. The sound that sounds good to me is raw, pure and uncut. That’s what I’m making and that’s what I continue to make. The stuff I did with her is that same style.
Do you think that veterans like yourself get the respect that they deserve?
They get the respect they deserve from people like myself. This isn’t just how I live—I’m still a consumer. Most company people aren’t consumers anymore. They’re just like, “How did we do this week? How much did we sell?” My heart’s still in the music, so as a label, an artist, a DJ, a producer and a consumer that buys records, I’m totally confident with anything that’s coming through my pipeline now, because I’m deeply embedded in seeing how the culture lives. I’m the type of person who misses all the artists who used to knock. I gotta make some shit so that I know I’m not the only person that misses it. Maybe artists come out of the woodwork, wanna get back in the studio and do some shit.
I don’t want to disappear. Some of the audience don’t want to buy the younger cats, because they can’t relate to it. Even if it’s about the streets, you can’t relate to it in certain ways if they doing in a way you can’t relate to it. I make stuff people can relate to, young and old. But I do it in a way where the older generation can say, “He ain’t forget about how we do it.” The new kids obviously don’t care about the style that we do. That’s why I work with some of the younger dudes, so they’re gonna get the pure way. It’s like getting some moonshine versus getting some alcohol that’s only 20 percent. I’m straight moonshine.
A while ago, you had said Gang Starr was on hiatus because of a situation with Virgin. But in an allhiphop.com interview, Guru said you guys weren’t working together at all anymore. Have you spoken to him about that?
Nah, but this is what I always say: Gang Starr is forever, number one. Neither of us can ever leave Gang Starr. He can’t leave and I can’t leave. And when the time is definitely right, no matter what he’s saying, there will be another album in effect. We don’t know when that time will be, but I will never confirm that we are broken up. And if I confirm it, then it’s official. If I don’t confirm it, then we still together. Believe that. That’s on the really real. Gang Starr is still together. Don’t let AllHipHop.com get you all messed up. It’s good.