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.”

DJ Premier jeru the damaja

Premier had been introduced to D&D the year before by his homeboy Showbiz, who was often in the house hanging out and cracking jokes. It was there where I met with Jeru a few weeks before his joint was set to drop. "D&D is special because of the sound we get in here,” Jeru said back then, passing me a blunt as we chilled and talked. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he came from the wild boy streets of East New York. Back in those days, many of those old blocks resembled something out of a dystopian sci-fi flick directed by Terry Gilliam and Spike Lee; Jeru had not only made it through the dysfunction, but he came bearing knowledge as well.

“I’d always wanted to have a dope Brooklyn artist that could rhyme, and Jeru could really spit,” Premier explains now. “He was a smart rapper who didn’t just talk about himself, but also what was going on where he came from." Indeed, like most hip-hop fans at the time, I couldn't get enough of the funky stuff that was “Come Clean.” Opening with the Shelly Manne sample “Infinity” that was the aural equivalent of funky Chinese water torture, Premier mixed in a little bit of Onyx (“Heads up, ‘cause we droppin’ some shit...”) with the raw soul of “Kool Is Back” and created a Frankenstein monster of a beat for the song that still sounds dope 20 years later.

“Jeru came over and we recorded 'Come Clean' in one day,” recalls Premier. “I knew it was hot, but I didn’t know it was going to take off like it did, but we were happy with it.” Originally released with Premier's partner Guru on Ill Kid Records, their manager Patrick Moxey signed Jeru to his label Payday Records.

"Guru was the person that introduced Jeru to the Gang Starr crew, along with the future Group Home dudes Lil’ Dap and Melachi the Nutcracker," Primo says. "It was his vision that we have our own hot crew in the same way as the Juice Crew, Boogie Down Productions and the Wu-Tang. At the time, Jeru was the most ready, so we picked him to be first. He had a dope voice, and the day after we cut ['Come Clean'], Hot 97 was playing it on the radio.”

With the rush on to complete the project so they’d be able to ride on the success of the song, Premier was perfecting his precise production that would, years later, lace the voices of Jay Z (“Bring It On”), Biggie (“Kick In The Door”) and Christina Aguilera (“Still Dirrty”). “At the time, [I] was still listening to Criminal Minded, Ultramagnetic M.C.’s, Public Enemy and Marley Marl,” Premier says. “My goal was to make my music that sounded like that without biting their styles.

“And that’s exactly what I did. I used the same equipment as Marley Marl or Mantronix or Rick Rubin, but I just approached the equipment in a different way. But, my only criteria when producing a cut was, 'Is it dope?' That’s the only thing that matters.”

If that was the really the only thing that mattered, then Premier got his wish, because, from the prophetic album cover of the World Trade Center in flames, shot and designed by photocentric genius boy Daniel Hastings, to stand out tracks like “Brooklyn Took It” and “Da Original,” the record was on point, as Jeru dropped metaphoric rhymes that were hard poetics for a new generation of hip-hop fans who were more than ready to keep it real.

Now, 20 years after the world’s best producer and one of New York’s most promising golden era MCs teamed up for the first time, The Sun Rises In The East remains the gritty gem it has been since the day of its release. Indeed, the black noise these dudes put down is eternal. —Michael A. Gonzales

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