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.
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.
What were your acid trips like?
The first time I tripped on acid was right out of high school. I went to this rock concert, the Texas Jam. It was Uriah Heep, Styx, Ted Nugent, a big line up like a Summer Jam. When Uriah Heep came out, I was tripping a little too hard and the guitarist was making devil horns. It seemed like they turned into real horns and he turned into a red devil. Then it looked like his tail came out and was slapping me. I was sitting in the front row. I took off and went to get some water. While I was trying to find water, it seemed like they were following me. Another time in college, one of my suitemates was tripping. We had empty 40 bottles of Olde English everywhere. There was one lying on its side and he said it looked like Jesus was in the bottle saying, ‘Come here.’ He was trying to get into the bottle, like trying to put his feet in the bottle. I tripped the next day and saw the same thing. It wasn’t Jesus though, it was a guy in the bottle. Everybody’s trip is not the same.
Legend has it that you stole your first set of turntables during college.
Yes, it was a college dorm thing. This guy had some 1200’s. We thought he was a sucker and we stole his turntables. He never did a thing about it.
When did you decide that you were going to pursue music full time?
It was 1985, '86 when I decided to try and make it. I decided that if I couldn’t make it in New York, I would be a fan and just buy records and go to concerts.
Around 1987, you met Guru. What were thoughts after first hearing him rap?
I thought he was unique.
Each Gang Starr record, from your debut, No More Mr. Nice Guy, until 1992’s Daily Operation, got better and more successful. Then, in 1993, you branched out, doing production for other artists. I think KRS-One’s Return of the Boom-Bap was one of your first high profile freelance projects. Why make the jump?
Ice-T’s “Lifestyles of the Rich and Infamous” was the first but that was just a remix. I didn’t really want to be in Gang Starr. I just wanted to be a guy who made beats. I wanted to work with Gang Starr though so when Guru gave me that chance, I didn’t want to sign. I got a lawyer and he was like, ‘You’re signing your life away if you sign this deal.’ But I wanted to make a record so bad so I signed it. We found a real good lawyer, who is still the Gang Starr lawyer, and he got us out of that contract with Wild Pitch. We never dissolved our contract. We are still signed as Gang Starr.
You’ve previously spoken about how you and Guru had some differences. Did those arguments inspire the art?
Yeah, I’ve had songs written about me when we were having problems. “Now You’re Mine” was written about me. Guru was a lot of personalities. Not “was,” he has a lot of personalities. He goes from the coolest fun guy to the meanest, most dangerous guy. He is so many different moods. I used to think he was bipolar but it made our stuff great. We both had three different houses, cars and more cars and our homies are driving our old cars. We had Benzs, BMW’s, Jaguars and we did that with underground Gang Starr money. That’s why the last time we spoke, which was on April 1, 2004, we were on a good note. I still have this email stored in my inbox. It was a disagreement about a show in Vail, Colorado that he didn’t want to do. We already got paid for it and he didn’t want to give it back. He was like, “You can’t do it without me.” So I did the show. We got the money. It went to the Gang Starr account anyway. He sent me a letter after that saying he wanted to record [elsewhere]. I could mix it here though. That never happened. We even had some royalty issues. We were fighting with people who we sued in 1991. The money had been on hold for 18 years and we just got the money a year before he got sick. We had to correspond with each other because we both had to sign off on it. We got a nice fat six-figure check. We got to divvy that up. It wasn’t none of this, “My ex-DJ.”
I interviewed Solar for a story I wrote on Guru [“Lost,” XXL, June 2010]. He said that Guru was upset that you didn’t get him on those tracks you produced for other artists.
Whenever I was hired, I always pushed for Guru to spit a verse. If they are like, “Nah,” I can’t force them to do it. That’s why when he got the Jazzmatazz situation, I let that be his gig. I could have done that with him. He was getting all these big budgets and that was all him. He actually caught up with me financially. I was cool with that like, “Yeah, now he won’t complain about who is making more money.” It was never a secret that his drinking was out of control. That triggered a lot of the jealousy too. Liquor makes you either violent or happy and he was both. He is both. I’ve lived with that for 23 years. I know the last six years we weren’t seeing each other face-to-face and he cleaned up his act.
How tough was it these last few years?
When I would see the stuff with him and old boy, I would be like, “That’s not him.” He didn’t look like he was in command.
Everyone has a theory about their relationship. What’s yours?
Definitely brainwash. I know Guru. Even when he didn’t like something, he spoke his mind. Now, he was told what to do. I almost wished that he drank a 40 and spazzed out. Even his face didn’t look the same. It looked like something had been taken away from him.
Do you remember Solar hanging around while you were recording The Ownerz?
What was he like?
He would speak like he does in all the interviews I see but not to the degree of the controlling part of how Guru seemed to allow. It is what you allow. That’s why I can’t be mad at Solar. I’m not mad at him. If Guru allowed this stuff he has to blame himself. People were like, “What are you going to do?” I don’t need to do nothing because Solar is not my enemy. We weren’t there to witness it.
What do you wish you had the chance to tell Guru before he passed?
Let’s make another Gang Starr album. We could have done it independently. We could have shared it – 7 Grand and Year Round. I wish I stepped to him with enough time to snap him out of that zone.
I spoke to Big Shug for that story and he said…
About him being his real friend and all that stuff?
Yeah. He said that you and Guru were business associates and not friends. Was that true?
Half true. I called Shug the next day after reading it and said, “Damn, thanks for throwing me under the bus.” He said, “Yo man. You know I wouldn’t do that.” I know how he said it. That statement can be taken the wrong way by readers. I had the right to step to Suge about it even though he originated Gang Starr with Guru. They were friends from Boston. He even said, “When I said it, I meant it in that context.” But I was like, “Shug, when you say that to a reporter, it’s going to be looked at like we didn’t have a friendship in the world.” Shug and I are cool. He’s my family but I was offended when I read that. Guru wasn’t my friend that I grew up with but you have to have a friendship to have that [business] relationship. We’ve shared two or three girls in a bed, shared hotel rooms because we were on a budget. I knew him like I did grow up with him.
I’ve heard you say that Group Home’s Livin’ Proof was your toughest project
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. Guru brought Lil Dap into the picture. Melachi lived on my block when Guru and I moved to the Bronx. Melachi was my little buddy. He was crazy and a violent kid. I mentored him to keep him out of trouble because he was 7:30. When he said “I’ll hit your mother with a metal pipe,” he will do it. I’ve seen him do stuff I won’t say on tape. He would only listen to me though.
It seems like you surrounded yourself with all these loose cannons. Why?
My loyalty to Guru. He gave me the opportunity to get to that point in my career. Any smart person would have left Guru and Gang Starr and done their own thing and that’s because I was tired of the negative energy but I stayed loyal to him. I still love Jeru [the Damaja]. We speak. We just spoke about doing music together again. I held a grudge for many years. Now I’ve learned to let go of that. That is poison in your body. I let go of that grudge I had with Chuck D over “Ten Crack Commandments.” [Writer’s Note: Chuck D sued Premier over sampling his voice on “Ten Crack Commandments.” He objected to his voice being used on a song about drugs.] He said he would dead the issue and when we got home from the Smokin’ Grooves tour, he changed his numbers. Back in 1998, 1999, I ran into him at the 7-11. He had his kids with him and we got into it. I told him, “I can’t believe you lied to me.” This is Chuck D, one of my idols, and I was cursing him out in front of his children. We got the lawsuit and it said Works of Mart, Bad Boy and the Estate of Christopher Wallace. I was like, “Have a heart and let her breath, man.” She lost a son but he doesn’t like his name or voice associated with drugs or alcohol and I respect that. Just tell me, “Fuck off, I’m suing you.” Don’t tell me that you are going to dead the issue when we get home from tour, and Don’t worry, you’re not going to pay the money and then I have to pay the money. Puffy helped me out and said he would split the costs. That’s why I’m cool with Puff because he helped me deal with that.
Did you ever resolve the issue with Chuck?
When we were leaving Jam Master Jay’s wake, I was dapping up certain people and then I turned around and it’s Chuck. I just hugged him. I was like, “Chuck, I love you.” I apologized for yelling at him. We’re cool now and kick it. Even though he got that money—$85,000 to be exact.
Did “Ya’ Playin Yaself” strain your relationship with Puffy?
Biggie and them took that it the wrong way. We weren’t making that record to diss them. “Playin’ Yaself” had popped off but Puff had power and got [the song] shut down on Hot 97. We weren’t talking about Kim [with the line about] skimpy ass dresses. It was a bigger scope than that. I wouldn’t have made a record like that and then played both sides of the fence. “One Day” is what set the whole thing off. That was talking about the state of hip-hop and how hip-hop had a Versace suit on. We weren’t doing that to diss Big. Big took it that way. I was like, “Dude, why would I work with you and then diss you with my crew?” Same thing when Foxy got mad. Jeru had a good point, he said, “All I said was that she had fake alligator boots on. I said nothing else about her.” She said that she was disease infested on “I Shot Ya.” Jay Black got the worst of it. Jeru said, “We snatched up Jay Black and beat his bitch ass down.” Jay Black would be cool with Jeru to his face but then behind his back to this girl, he would be like, “Why you hanging out with that punk motherfucker?” She said, “What?” And put the phone next to Jeru’s ear. He said, “Why you hanging out with that punk motherfucker?” So Jeru heard him say it on the phone. Next time we were at the Tunnel, Jay Black was right there and Jeru got in his face. When Jeru did “One Day,” he was like, “Let’s throw that dart.” I wasn’t against that.
Did you get the phone call from Puff afterwards?
Oh yeah, Puff called and left the numbers to his house phone, cell phone and boat phone. Him and Jeru kept arguing. It was like, “Word is bond, don’t ever say my name on no more records.” Jeru was like, “Word is bond? Do you know what ‘Word is bond’ means?” Puff was like, “Yeah, I know what that means. Like I said, Don’t ever say my name on no more records.” Jeru was like, “I can say whatever I want on my records.” It didn’t end right. That was around the time I gave Big the track for “Kick in the Door.” Puff didn’t like it and told me that I ain’t hitting it like I used to. He said that with a security guy next to him so I thought he was trying to play me. Big called me the next day and told me to come to the studio. I was like, “Sure but I have to make a new beat first.” He goes, “Nah, I want the one you did.” I said, “Puff don’t like it.” He said, “Fuck Puff. I’m going to kill it. I got some things to say though. Your man really got me tight.” I was like, “Do what you got to do.” I remember the night we held the session, it started off just me and Big. Slowly, throughout the night, more people came in. All of a sudden it looked like they were ganging up on me. I was there by myself on purpose because I [thought] if someone is going to act funny, it’s better if I go alone so if they move on me, we deal with things afterwards. I told Big, “Anyone move on Jeru, I’m coming back with him.” And I meant that. Gutta was there. D-Roc was there. Jay Black was there and I had to cover my laugh because I snickered.
What did you think when you heard “Kick in the Door?”
I was blown away by the first verse. Second verse, when he said, “Son, I’m surprised you run with them,” I stopped the tape. I was like, “That’s how you feel?” He goes, “I told you I had to get back at your man.” Just on some real nigga shit, I said, “Go on and say what you have to say. I’m going to let that one go.” Puff was there. I told Puff, “You and Jeru had your talk already.” Big interrupted and goes, “Preme that wasn’t a talk, that was an argument. Nothing got solved.” I was like, “That has nothing to do with you.” He goes, “C’mon man, Versace suit.” I said in front of all of them, “Anyone has a problem with Jeru then you have a problem with me, so move on me. Beat me up. I don’t want to get beat up but if that’s what I got to do to show you how loyal I am to my team and that we’re not dissing ya’ll. You’re making a big mistake if you do it.” I’ll never forget Puff. He was there at Daddy’s House like, “Yeah, we’re coming after Jeru the Damaja too!” I’ll tell you an ill story. The day after Suge did that at the Source Awards was a New Music Seminar convention. [Writer’s Note: Suge Knight dissed Puffy at the 1995 Source Awards.] [People thought] that Suge needs to watch him himself because he’ll get jumped in New York. No. We were at a panel with Buckwild and a couple other brothers. Then Big walked in. At the time, [Death Row] wanted Lady of Rage to work with me, I was like, I can’t do it until I get back from my tour. Rage and I were friends for a long time. But Suge’s brother was like, “If you can’t do it now, you can’t do it at all.” We did the songs and they didn’t accept them. Me, Big and Buckwild are kicking it, laughing, chopping it up. All of a sudden, we hear someone go, “You.” We look and it’s Suge Knight. We were all leaning against the wall. I go, “Me?” He goes, “You.” He comes over and goes, “Yo man, I didn’t really like those songs you did for Rage.” I was like, “Yo, I didn’t want to do the songs but your staff told me I had to. I didn’t have time to do it but that’s my homie and I want to be on her album.” He goes, “Don’t worry about [it]. When can yo do some new beats?” I go, “Couple of weeks.” He goes, “Well, Dogg Pound is coming out first so you got another month.” He was talking very civilized. I gave him a hug. Big walks up to Suge and says, “Ayo, I want to get in touch with Dre to do a couple of songs on my new album Life After Death.” Suge just looks at him and goes, “Yeah, aight.” And walks off.
Wow. You’ve worked with all three of these artists. Who’s the best MC: Biggie, Jay-Z or Nas?
Biggie. I knew Jay before I knew Big though. We were label mates with Jaz-O so he brought Jay with him all the time.
Why did you stop working with Jay after “So Ghetto?”
Just timing issues. I’m known for being slow. Everyone in the industry knows that.
I interviewed you for The Source in 2003. Back then, you told me that there was a time you had personal problems with Jay-Z. Can you elaborate?
I got mad at him for several things. When M.O.P. was coming out with First Family 4 Life, Rocafella said that they would use their logo on the back [of the CD] to promote but when it came time to do the video for “4 Alarm Blaze,” they wanted $25,000 for Jay to be in the video. But he said non-recoupable to M.O.P. At the time, I was ignorant. He wasn’t charging M.O.P. He was charging the label. We squashed it. I got mad when Big L died too. Jay said that he would get on The Big Picture. We already had Big Daddy Kane on “Platinum Plus.” I gave Jay the reel about a month in advance. I was calling his assistant and she was like, “He’s going to do it. It’s at the studio.” She was telling me the same thing over and over. One day, I saw his assistant and she was like, “The reels are not here.” She got up to go the bathroom so I opened the drawer where I had first put it and it was still in there. We deaded that. American Gangster was just a misunderstanding with getting him the track. They found [the track] and took it to Jay’s house. We were calling, no response. One day it was like, “Oh, he’s MIA.” Next day, no response. I don’t care if you say, “No.” Just let me know.
There are always these rumors about you producing an entire album for Nas. Why haven’t you guys worked together since “2nd Childhood?” Is it just timing?
Yeah. I‘ve been waiting for him to say, “Let’s go.” I just saw him at Rock the Bells in D.C. That was the first time I seen him in a year. He came up to me and these were his exact words: “If you do this album, will you tour with me?” I said, “Hell yeah.” Nas and Premier on tour? That’s going to be a success. The album will bang.
Besides not working with certain artists, what do you consider to be the greatest disappointment of your career?
I wish I obligated my Terror Squad deal with Fat Joe when I was at Atlantic. I told Joe, “I don’t care if you need an album, I’ll do it for free.” They gave me a grip of money and I never delivered an album. When I fuck up, I do make up.
The new compilation, DJ Premier Presents Year Round Records: Get Used to Us, has that classic DJ Premier sound. What prompts you to experiment or to switch styles?
I just liked to always top what I already done. There are always going to be similarities though. I can get away from it without you knowing its me. I’ve done Wal-Mart commercials that you wouldn’t know I did. I’ve done Back to School instrumentals for Wal-Mart. If you listen to them now, you will be like, “Yup, those are your drums, those are your bounces.” When it comes to hip-hop, I just always want to do something that will sound like me but be different from the last record I did. That’s how I think. Sometimes, I will do something and be like, “Man that cut sounds like the way I did it on that record. Scrap it.”
How do you respond to criticism that your sound has gotten stagnant these last few years?
It doesn’t bother me. It reminds of something Angus Young from AC/DC said, “Man, they said that we make the same thing 11 or 12 times. That’s not true. We do the same thing 13 times.” It may be stagnant to an over critical person but to a head, they are happy again.
You’re one of the few big-time producers who never their tried to rap? Why is that?
It’s not my calling. I might do it one day just for fun. I do plan on it.
Looking forward to it. [Laughs] What else is next for you?
Right now is just getting the label up and running. I‘ve had Year Round Records for about six years now. We are finished with the NYG’z album now but we just started mixing so we’re not going to be done by the end of the year. There is the Pete project—Pete Rock vs. Premier. We’re doing six songs each and not telling each other the artists. I already leaked out two artists that I wanted—Beatnuts and GZA. I’m also putting together a Gang Starr DVD. I’m putting out all this footage and sharing it with Guru’s son. We are splitting it 50/50. I went through my legal stuff and I have the rights to Gang Starr with the next of kin, which is his son.
What is the Gang Starr legacy?
The Gang Starr legacy is forever, period. It will never go away. We’ve been crowned icons. We’ve been crowned legends. From Jam Master Jay to Jay-Z to Rakim to Melle Mel to Marley Marl. Every idol that I’ve wanted to like what we were doing, has called us legends. I’m good. And the music never dies.