Ed Note: The following is an essay and interview with DJ Premier remembering Jeru The Damaja’s classic album The Sun Rises In The East, which celebrates its 20th anniversary tomorrow, May 24.
Watching the fantastic feature film Big Words the other night on Netflix, which explores the broken lives of a former mackadelic Brooklyn rap trio who might’ve been large during the 1990s “golden era of hip-hop” if not for a big mistake that caused the end of their music careers, made me recall the days when I used to cut imaginary albums in my head.
Although I’ve never been a rapper for real, back in those days when the boom bap was fresh, I used to bluntly tell anyone who listened that, “If I ever do make an album, I’m going to get RZA or DJ Premier to produce it.” In reality, even if the disc was a figment of my overworked hip-hop imagination, I knew that those were the two studio wizards who made the boldest, freshest, dirtiest beats that were coming out of New York City at that time.
In other parts of the country, while the south was bubbling like a pot of grits, Midwest b-boys were repping in Chicago and Ohio and the West was perfecting their g-funk attack, in my hometown of New York City, the hardness of that crazy metropolis could be heard in music that came out of the respective sound factories of those two break beat heroes. Back in those days, the city was still gritty, and these cats composed the perfect soundtracks to the madness.
In various hoods throughout the town, one couldn’t walk down the mean streets without hearing the furious pounding of Wu-Tang or Gang Starr screaming from a beat box or an open car window.
Yet, while RZA had the persona of some kind of musical madman, DJ Premier was a pure b-boy who, in 1994, was having a really good year. With his own clique Gang Starr releasing the brilliant Hard To Earn in March and his Illmatic track “N.Y. State of Mind” a standout on Nas’ debut in April, Brooklyn rapper Jeru The Damaja was set to drop his completely Premier-produced album The Sun Rises In The East a year after his extraordinary single “Come Clean” first dropped.
Composed entirely inside the dingy sound compound that was D&D Studios—the weeded wonderland where Premier crafted most of his hardcore masterpieces—The Sun Rises In The East was a groundbreaking album that was simultaneously influential and under-appreciated in the year that brought us Ready To Die and Illmatic. “Jeru had a fierce flow and delivery that was just dope,” DJ Premier says 20 years later when reached by phone from his crib in Brooklyn. “His wordplay was right, his rhymes were relevant and my production was tight.”
Recently, while walking down 37th Street towards 8th Avenue on the road to Times Square, I passed through the block where it all went down back in the day when D&D Studios was becoming known as Primo’s other home. It was there where they worked for two months, maybe three, hammering out The Sun Rises In The East between matches of pool and video games. “Premier is the dopest producer,” Jeru said back then. “No offence to any other producer, but they can’t fuck around.”
Jeru was all of twenty-two years old when he recorded his debut. A hip-hop fan since he was seven, he told me at the time, “I used to go to the park with my aunt, and when I heard hip-hop for the first time, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. Even when I was a shorty, I had a feeling that I was going to be famous.”