“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.
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.