DJ Premier: The XXL Icon Interview


“Yo, let me see that?” DJ Premier asks. He was just talking about the changes he made to the old D&D Studios—now rechristened HeadQcourtez Studios after his late friend—since buying the space in 2003. Then he got distracted after seeing a copy of Kanye West’s new album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Premier rips off the plastic packaging, opens the booklet and goes silent for the next five minutes, immersing himself into the esoteric rap-nerd world of liner notes. At times he mutters to himself, almost as if he is memorizing the list of cleared samples and production credits.

Premier, born Chris Martin, is a rap savant. He spent his formative years in Houston, Texas but is synonymous with New York hip-hop, and in the late 1980s, he joined the late Keith “Guru” Elam in Gang Starr. The duo released six albums and never went platinum, yet they were beloved by fans. Outside of the group, Premier produced songs for Biggie, Jay-Z, Nas, Fat Joe, Rakim, M.O.P, KRS-One, Group Home, Mos Def and Jeru the Damaja. In short, any East Coast artist that mattered in the 1990s worked with DJ Premier.

Nowadays, his collaborators aren’t as high profile; The NYG’z, Khaleel and Nick Javas are the featured artists on DJ Premier Presents Year Round Records: Get Used to Us, Premier’s new compilation highlighting his label, Year Round Records.

Premier is wearing his de facto uniform—a champion sweatshirt and baggy jeans—as he sits down for the inaugural XXL Icon Interview. Over the next two hours, he will discuss every major moment from his long career. He will talk about the end of Gang Starr, his role in the short, but super entertaining, beef between the Notorious B.I.G. and Jeru the Damaja, the real reason why he hasn’t landed a track on a Jay-Z or Nas album in nearly a decade and why he cursed out Chuck D in a 7-11. Mostly, however, he reminisces about Guru, who passed away on April 19, 2010. Even though they hadn’t spoken in over six years, almost every topic leads back to Guru. Premier has his own way of coping with the loss. “When I miss Guru, I bump one of our records,” he says. “Then I shed a tear and get back to work.”—Thomas Golianopoulos

What did you contribute to Kanye’s album?

I did a beat for him but he ended up not using it. He came here in the early stages of the album. It was me, him and Showbiz. He played us everything, even the one on Rick Ross’ album, “Live Fast, Die Young.” He was in here dancing around and was all into it. That’s Ye, man.

You also did some cuts on [the unreleased Kanye West song] “Mama’s Boyfriend,” right?

Kanye gave me instructions but it was just as a guide. He let me play around with it. I was cutting a break and releasing it on the drum. He had this voice going, ‘I’m your best friend.’ I didn’t really like it but I made it work for me. I put it in my Serato from his acappella. He had it going through the whole song over his rapping and I thought it was a little cluttered. I just did my own version.

When was the first time you made one of your signature cut-up choruses?

My crew used to listen to “Taking It to the Top” by Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. My MC’s name was Top and it was just doing variations of that word. “Top.” If you listen to the old Gang Starr records it was just one line like, ‘Money’s growing like grass with the mass appeal.’ “DWYCK” didn’t have a hook, just a transition. Part of it is my DJ memory. I know almost every lyric from every artist; DJ’s memorize because we cut and want to double copy shit. That’s how we remember so many lyrics. That’s why when I hear a line or a title, I know what I want to cut. It just comes to me. Sometimes I just hunt for lines. Then I have to figure where it should go – first bar, second bar. Do I repeat it? Or do I use it once in the whole 8 bars? Maybe it shouldn’t be the first bar even though it’s fly. I’ll see where it sounds better depending on where the sample lands.

How about chopping a note down like what you did on Biggie’s “Unbelievable?”

The S950 only holds 60 seconds of sample time so I’m limited. My drum takes up memory, dope samples take up memory and when I want to add more it runs out of memory. I could just print that and add more but I don’t like that. Now, with technology with Fruity Loops and Logic, you can sample a whole album worth of stuff. People don’t have the same creativity. This worked for me so why take it away? It’s like The Edge from U2. He has so many sounds but you know its U2 before Bono even starts singing. Same with Rush. Alex Lifeson plays a certain way. My musical knowledge goes beyond hip-hop. I love heavy metal, Metallica. I’m into Jefferson Starship and acid rock. I used to pop acid when I was young.

Really?

I’m 44 years old. I was around before crack. I was around when cocaine was normal like if you didn’t have coke, you weren’t cool. It was like, ‘You aint got coke? You a sucka.’ It was part of our scene.

  • Magnetic

    Dope interview. Gangstarr has got to be the sureshot

  • mick

    the greatest producer of all time. premo when you coming to scotland?

  • Worley

    Salute to Preemo. A Nas/Preemo album and tour would be epic. Some Fresh Fest type sh!t.

  • http://www.bboycult.com Don mcCaine

    “I’ve heard you say that Group Home’s Livin’ Proof was your toughest project

    Yup.

    A lot of people think it’s your best work.

    I had to make it that way [because of] their lack of lyrical ability and technique”

    ^ BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA…AND WE STILL SUPPORTED IT…’Baby Pa’ is my fave song on ‘Livin’ Proof’.

    good read here…Can you “fans” see that there was no rap cumbaya holding hands sh^t? None of that “I’m too good to respond” bullsh^t. Anyway…

    “I’ve done Wal-Mart commercials that you wouldn’t know I did. I’ve done Back to School instrumentals for Wal-Mart”

    ^ I have a blog up about the ‘The Rap Alphabets’ that speaks on stuff like this. There are other ways to get you’re music out there…

  • Q461

    Wow. My thoughts.

    # 1 Primo is the best producer in hip-hop history. Pete Rock, Dre, Rza are all up there but Primo’s sound defined a whole era, a whole coast. Greatest of all time that’s my word.

    # 2. I’m disappointed his work wit Kanye wasn’t on the album . I was looking forward to that shit.

    # 3. I always thought it was ironic how Primo is from Texas and Guru is from Boston, yet Gang Starr epitomizes the whole New York sound of the mid 90′s.

    # 4. Crazy had Primo pretty much outright admitted Grouphome was wack lyrically, but that it was widely considered his best work ( the Livin Proof album).

    # 5. I remember when Chuck D was swoll about that Biggie sample. Crazy how Primo went off on dude at a 711 lol.

    #6. For someone wit only a few albums, Jeru the Damaja had beef wit a lot of niggaz. Dude threw darts at the Fugees, Threw subliminals at Puff and Biggie and hinted that he thought Death Row and Foxy weren’t “real hip hop” Must have been crazy for Primo to produce Kick in the Door knowing Big was throwing shots at Jeru (Not to mention Nas, Ghost and Rae). Respect to Primo for having Jeru’s back even when around Biggie and Puff.

    #7 Crazy how dude didn’t hesitate about the question Who’s the best MC Biggie, Jay-Z or Nas? If anyone would know it would be Premier.

    # 8. Funny how far back some of Jay-z’s shady business dealings go.

    # 9. That album Premier vs Pete Rock got me souped! That will be some historical shit yall.

    # 10. Premier’s sound ain’t stagnant. I think dude is like Michael Jordan, he makes any nigga sound better over one of his soundscapes. RIP Guru. Gang Starr one of the best groups to ever do it, fuck going platinum, those niggaz are legends. Period.

    • http://www.bboycult.com Don mcCaine

      Q whaddup? you know I was aggy there were only 4 comments…

      #1 will be debated to the death (tho’ I agree). #3 is on point. heads are gonna overlook #8. #10? his sound ain’t stagnant, cats are fickle trend followers, no longer trend setters. So with that said…

      ‘Moment Of Truth’
      ‘Beyond Comprehension’
      ‘Come Clean’
      ‘Nas Is Like’
      ‘My Mind Spray’
      ‘Whateva’
      ‘Mental Stamina’
      ‘Da Realness’

  • SAIGON

    yo, this interview is one of the MOST f*** UP .
    Premo dropped a bunch rap secretzzz..s***

    interview review 10/10

  • Q461

    @ Don McCaine

    What up nigga? Yeah tere were zero comments when I first read this, but 4 by the time I finished my novel lol.

    In keeping with tradition:

    Krs one-outta here
    Jeru The Damaja- D Original
    Das Efx-Real Hip-Hop
    Fat Joe-The Shit is Real remix
    D an D All stars- 1, 2 pass it ( one of the best posse cuts of the 90s imo)
    Bahamadia-3 tha hard way
    MOP and G Rap-Stick to ya Gunz
    Rakim-Been a long time
    Gang Star-Mass Appeal
    Ludacris-MVP
    Bun B-Let em know

    I can keep going lol… dudes got a million classics….

  • Sha

    You know what? I would love to read a whole book about behind the scenes convo with Preemo, Pete Rock, Dr. Dre, and any other mega producer. I’ll bet they have hella stories. Preemo did XXL a solid. He could have made a book with this info. Just goes to show you how down to earth dude is. A true legend. Take notes young producers.

  • http://www.bboycult.com Don mcCaine

    Sha I see you ova here…name some songs homie…

    ‘Classic’-
    ‘Salute pt 2′
    ‘Robin Hood Theory’
    ‘Who Got Gunz’
    ’1st Of Tha Month (rmx)’
    ‘Next Level (rmx)’
    ‘Lady (rmx f/AZ)’
    ‘I GAVE YOU POWER’
    ‘Ten Crack Commandments’
    ‘Rap Phenomenon’
    ‘Devils Pie’
    ‘Recognize’

  • Dick B.

    Premier’s the best, what else is there to say except why doesn’t he have XXL cover?

  • Q461

    @ Sha

    Co-sign dog. I think a Behind the scenes book on producers would be crazy to read… So many hidden stories niggaz don’t know about …

    @ Don

    Gang Starr- Royalty
    CNN-Grand Royal
    Rakim-New York ( Ya out there)
    Rakim-When I be on the mic
    AZ- the format
    Pitch Black-It’s all real
    Xzibit-what a mess
    Snoop Dogg-the one and only
    Royce da 5’9-Boom
    Common-6th sense
    Mos Def-mathematics
    Limp Bizkit and Meth N 2gether now
    Jay-Z- a million and one questions

    • http://www.bboycult.com Don mcCaine

      OK my niggg…I quit…I’ma put one in the air for ya…knickerbockers almost had them…’bout to 2 check blazers/mavs at the bar…

  • Q461

    lol Word we can be here all night with Primo’s hits…

    Yup My knicks showin some heart though…Amare’s a monster and if we get Melo it’s fuckin on for real….

  • http://www.smirnoff.co.in/catchthebeat.aspx abhishek denzil

    nice interview!

  • http://www.bboycult.com Don mcCaine

    word Q…

    if this post don’t reach plat status, on everything I’ma throw DARTS…there will be a 100 comments on BULLSH^T media PRESS RELEASES, BUT there will be few comments on HIP HOP MUSIC.

    Hip Hop music lover>>>>>>>>>>>>>mainstream rap fan

    p.s. them my Knicks 2 n^gga…shouts 2 my homie Black Just (Melo’s physical)…

    #BKalumni

  • ell

    this interview made my whole day man premo..some info whe would have never heard about..one of the best interviews

  • scjoha

    Great anecdotes. Probably the best of all the recent Premo interviews. Thanks and respect to Premo and the XXLmag reporter for this interview. This is how hiphop history is to be covered!

  • SenghorChild

    This GOTTA be one of the BEST interview I ever read from anicon. In comparison the DRE interview which drops this month is weak…

  • sb

    one of the best interviews i’ve read on this site all year!!!!

  • http://www.emcdl.com EmCDL

    That was a dope interview, and I think thats the first one I’ve read from him…ever. Them albums he working on got me hyped…Nas and Preemo? Lets Goooooo!

    Brainstorm!

  • Sha

    What up $yk!

    1. Baby Pa— I love the Dice skit. That beat is so sick! The way he brought in some Spanish Music on that shit. Preemo is the master of the Intros and Loops.

    2. B.Y.S.—– The way Preemo cut up that Slick Rick and Dougie.

    3. Invasion—- Don’t need to say anything about that one

    4. Rappaz R. N. Dainja ——Kris slayed that one

    5. Unbelievable—- Flippin R Kelly was some shit I never thought of. Definitely from another angle.

    6. New York (Ya out there)—– The way he sliced up New York was on some mind blowin stuff

    7. In Memory Of..—– Seems kinda prophetic with Guru’s passing

    8. 2nd Childhood—— Nas and Preem. Dope!

    9. Represent—— Another Nas joint

    10. New York Ryder Music —— He HAS made some new classics. Agallah killed that one.

  • Curtis75Black

    This is one hot interview. Straight thorough. Premo went thru a lot of shit. That background book would be hot. Funny how homie is surrounded in a studio taking up for Jeru !! What’s crazy is didn’t Nas say “Kick in the door” for him ?

  • SAIGONDAKAR

    premo is a legend, a true king on this rap s***.Dude blessing us with affiliattions like I GAVE YOU POWER,NAS IS LIKE,KICK IN THE DOOR,UNBELIVABLE,MASS APPEAL,ABOVE THE CLOUDS,WHATEVA…

    nobody can t touch him,bro…. =_= ( good ***d ) !

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  • caino

    See XXL, you can pull off real hiphop if you interview the correct person! Dope interview, Preemo coming across as a straight up guy, with enough stories for that novel , like sha suggested! .

    The sun rises in the east – full album
    Memory LAne
    NY State of Mind

    like everyone else l could go on!

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  • oskamadison

    Dammit!!!!!! I was late as hell seeing this joint. It looks like y’all covered evrything there is to say about Preme. Most of y’all even share some of my top 5 favorite Preme joints (Gang Starr’s Speak Ya Clout, Unbelievable, Kick In The Door, Royce Da 5’9′s Boom and Rakim’s New York.) Peace to all the TRUE heads that really know and can comment on the MUSIC, not just all the b.s. As always, $yk, what’s up!!!! Q, I see you too. 75 Black, ain’t seen you in a minute, what’s up?

  • TUMI

    FUNNY STORIES THERE ABOUT BIG AND SUGE. WOULD HAVE LOVED TO BE A FLY ON THE WALL ON THAT DAY