Published Dec 22, 2010DJ Premier's status and reputation as one of the most important and influential producers in the entire history of hip-hop culture is unquestionable. From his contributions as the sonic force behind Gang Starr to his production work for the likes of Nas, Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z to name a few luminaries, Premier's name and his instantly recognizable gritty style is unquestionably attached to dozens of hip-hop classics. But Premier, or Premo as he is affectionately known, is still determined to continue to contribute to hip-hop music through his label Year Round Records. With the recent release of his compilation Get Used to Us on his own imprint showcasing many of the new artists the acclaimed producer is working with, Premier is clearly issuing the message that he isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Exclaim! got the chance to speak with the producer about that new project and his new artists as well as his sonic legacy and his relationship with Guru, his late partner in the pioneering group Gang Starr who passed away earlier in 2010.
You've probably been doing a lot of interviews and hearing people telling you how great you are. Does that stuff kind of get old for you?
Does it boost your confidence or is it kind of overblown?
It definitely boosts my confidence. It definitely makes me feel good that I'm still looked at that way after all these years y'know, 23 years professionally doing this. It's a beautiful thing. Every day, no matter where I go, somebody stops me and is like "Oh shit! Oh my god!" Even sometimes their girlfriends don't know, but they're like "Damn, who is that?" and [the guy is] like "This is..." and they're even looking at their girlfriend like "This guy is the ultimate!" and it's just how crazy people get. Even females have done the same thing, more guys do it, but females like know everything you do. It makes you want to do more. Big time.
This compilation you are putting out, why now? You've had Year Round Records for a long while now. Why did you feel now was the time?
I should have had already at least two albums out this year and didn't, and instead of disappointing the artists and myself I said "Let me do a compilation of everything that's coming next year," and pull a little bit from each project and let people know that we are coming with some material. The singles that I planned on setting up were so that these new artists would be able to drop on their own. I ended up saying "Let's make more singles" coming off of a compilation where you can pull as many things as you want. And we're independent, so we don't have to follow any map. We can do what we want when we want and not be the same. So why not drop four singles? I have MC Eiht from Compton's most wanted dropping "Fine By Me." I can work the West coast with that, but he did it over a boom bap style of a beat. His man Brenks produced [it]. The whole album is produced by me except for the MC Eiht record and the Khaleel record and the Khaleel and the NYG'z record that's produced by Showbiz. The rest of the album is produced by me. Of course the single for Khaleel, "Hot Flames" was produced by me, and the other single that's coming out is a single by the NYG'z called "Policy." I leaked it out earlier at the end of the last year and now we are going out with the video because I produced the entire NYG'z album called Hustler's Union: Local NYG and its my first all-produced album since the Gang Starr's The Ownerz album. The group said we don't want to leak a few songs we just want to wait , wait, wait 'til we have really set up the album so with "Policy" there's a lot of commentary on what's relevant right now and what's going on. It still fits as a single, even video wise, 'cos the concept matches the lyrics of the song. Me, myself, I'm making myself very present ― I usually like being in the background of videos, now I'm like making myself all over the place. The [Hot Flames] video has me in it. I'm fully in it where it's almost like I'm part of the group with Khaleel, me and him as a duo. And then I have Nick Javas, who is from [New] Jersey, he is my Italian MC. He can spit and he has a whole different swag to most artists and he doesn't wear the saggy jeans, trying to look like he's black or nothing. His jeans are a little tight though. He's a former athlete, played at Rutgers University for four years in college, he graduated and he blew his knee out and that was the end of his season and recovering from that, he knew he wasn't going to make it to the NFL and he wanted to go that far. He used to rap around his friends and they were like "You're pretty good, you should try it professionally." Then some mutual friends got cool, we clicked and he's very different from many artists out there. He wants to be mainstream, but we always reckon we can go underground a bit more so he gets some variety of styles to put out to the public so they can accept him. And then plus he does something called the NFL rhyme reel where every Monday he posts a recap of all the NFL games that went on and then his Monday Night Football prediction. All the artists I chose and [then there are] all the specialty projects like Pete Rock vs Premier, the KRS-One and Premier album, Return of the Boom Bip, and I'm doing a Freddie Foxxx album called The Collection, the collection of all the stuff I've produced for him and then beats from artists they turned down. I'm also executive producing Heather B's project Over Raw. By the way, the Nick Javas' project is called Destination Unknown, Khaleel's album is called All Ready. A lot of stuff, man.
One of the things I wanted to ask you about was that you are from Houston originally. Do you ever find it ironic that you've kinda become the epitome of what people say is the East coast hip-hop sound.
Yeah. The only difference was that when I came up here [to New York], I came here in '86. It was so different then, you had to be top-notch even to be accepted. One of the only guides was being in New York so in '86 in order to have it really down pat I wanted to go and challenge ― I'm just a very daring person ― I just packed up all my stuff and told my parents "Look I'll come back to school, but right now I gotta do this." I always followed my heart and if my heart said I gotta pack up and go, I'm gone. I said if I don't make it I'll just go back home and regroup, but I believe in myself and I took a shot. Another shot and another shot and another shot even with all those doors slamming in my face. And I still kept pushing and I got on.
It didn't happen overnight for you and one thing I notice about you is that you seem very loyal to the people that you work with. You've worked with everyone, some of the biggest stars that have ever come out of hip-hop culture, yet you always have time for people who are coming up and are new and you do a lot of production for these artists. I don't think other producers in your situation have done that as much.
Um, it's just because ― it shouldn't matter. What should matter is "Are you going to get good music out of the whole situation?" Y'know if you're going to get some music out of the situation why not pair up with MC Eiht. He's not washed up just because he's older. I don't need to hear his demo. I'm like "Yo, you want to do an album, let's do it." It's not gonna leave the studio until it sounds right to me anyway.
You've got these amazing tracks and you know sometimes people could be like "He could have sold that beat to Nas or to Jay-Z and could have got ten times more money for it."
Sometimes that did happen and they turned them down. That's why I made [the] instrumental project I put out digitally called Beats That Collected Dust. I did Volume 1, which is available now and Beats That Collected Dust Vol 1 now has a hit record on it, "Sing like Bilal." that was a record I did for Bilal's album. He didn't like it; I thought he liked the heavy bass line and beat shit and now "Sing like Bilal" is a hit Joell Ortiz record that's popping off.
So that Pete Rock and Premier project, what can we expect from that project. A couple of years ago you came to Toronto for the Manifesto festival, you guys did that performance together and people were kind of hyped up for it, but that was playing in a club, what can we expect on a record?
What it is, when we did Pete Rock vs Premier in Tokyo we did it in Manhattan Records store and when we were going out there and when we were catching our flight Pete disappeared. And I'm like "Yo, Pete better not make me miss my flight man." We're on our way in with Corey Smyth and Nick Javas and we're like "Where is he?" and he just pops up and it's like "Dude, we're gonna battle for real in a minute" and Cory's like "You need to battle and make a record off it." And we looked at each other like "Wassup?" and I'm like "You want to do it?" and he's like "Yeah. I'll do six and you do six but we can't tell each other who we have on the album. And we just do six songs each and we just put it out." And I'm like "Cool, I'm with it." We started and he actually did one in my room and he shouldn't have left it there 'cos I know who one of his artists is. This whole project, who wouldn't want to hear that, though? I think it's an easy sell because you get banging Pete Rock beats, banging Premier beats and the artists that we've chosen. I have four of my artists already, I have two more to go.
I am calling you from Canada and I do remember when [the Gang Starr single] "You Know My Steez" came out ― we didn't have a whole lot of attention when it came out ― that you had actually sampled Choclair in the chorus of that song, using the phrase "Keep it Live" (from "Just a Second"). I don't know how much attention you've been paying to the Canadian hip-hop scene, but now it's a bit more in the spotlight right now, Toronto anyway. Are there things that you've been following since that timeframe?
Well, no but [producer] MoSS is signed to me through Works of Mart and he puts me on to a lot of newer stuff that I need to be up on. He's very proud to be from Toronto and there's something about y'all, y'all are very proud about where you're from and he's very pro-Toronto. It's not like I wish I could be in New York, or O wish I could be from here, he's very pro-Toronto. I will be up on the latest. The only people I know who are already seasoned are like the Choclair, Saukrates. I wish Thrust would do more stuff. I like him, I always did like him, I know he had a slight Biggie style of a voice, but he was dope. and I'm a big Drake fan, I like what he's doing. And Kardinal. Always animated on stage, I saw him perform back in the '90s and put it down with me and Guru when we did a show years ago together and we can even go back to Dream Warriors and Michie Mee.
Well, I remember you did a song with Dream Warriors and that was around the time people were trying to box you in to being a jazz hip-hop group.
The Jazzmatazz stuff protected Gang Starr from being pigeonholed in that box.
Well, that worked too. That was a whole franchise in itself. Another thing i'm interested in is how did the sampling laws of the '90s change what you produced. I'm thinking of songs like Group Home's "Supa Star." When I actually heard the record you chopped up ["Hangin' Downtown" by Cameo] I flipped out. Because you had used it backwards and forwards and then added a speed change. Was this approach just because you were being creative or was the reason you started doing things like that because obvious [uncleared] samples were being sued?
No, totally to be creative, man. I don't think about the suing aspect of it man. I'm just showing our family how you can be artistic and how you can make a slow jam into an ill 95 bpm record and be a hit.
What do you get out of doing these kind of things?
It's almost like being an evil little scientist. I'm like [evil laugh]. Wait 'til you hear this shit. I'm like that 'til this day. I'm 44 years old and I'm still like, "Woo! Wait 'til they hear this shit!" it's almost like Ghostface was on his first album [Ironman] when [Ghostface was talking about his wallabies in an interlude] "I got the blue and cream, I'm killing 'em!" Or when I hear a sample and then when I lock it with certain drums, all of that. When O did "Nas is Like" and "New York State of Mind" [for Nas] I was like, they're gonna die when they hear this.
People hear things about these projects. For example The Black Album with Jay-Z was supposed to be all you and Jay-Z at one point. The fact that at one point Nas was gonna do a whole album with you. Do you dwell on these things when they don't come to pass, I get the sense people feel like you should be doing more stuff with these guys. Is there any reason why these things break down?
Nah, I just saw Nas at the last Rock the Bells concert. He came on stage with Lauryn Hill, then came on again with Wu-Tang and did "Verbal Intercourse" with Raekwon and he pulled me to the side and I hadn't seen Nas in over a year. But we decided we 're still gonna do this. And I'm like "Of course, let's do it, let's do it." And he's like, "Aight, I'm gonna be reaching out to you. So I'm waiting and that's literally a few months ago, so I hope he gives me a call. I ran into Jay-Z the other day. I was in the studio with Mary J. Blige and I'm working on some beats for her. And Jay walked in, y'know. Everybody freezes, like "Oh! Jay-Z." I see Jay more like "Aw, what up, nigga?" because we have that type of relationship and I know him well, so I don't get all star struck like "Oh my God, Jay-Z!" It's more like "What up, dude," we just know each other that well. We started bugging out and tripping and there was just a natural conversation where I'm telling him "What's up? You always grab me right when the album is getting turned in. You called me the day before, what's up? Let me start it for once." And he's like "Yo, I'mma reach out to you and I'll reach out to you earlier this time." And I'm like "Thank you," 'cos then if I got something you don't want I got plenty of time to make another one 'cos I know how he works. Jay don't wait for nobody. if I only got a day, don't think I'm not busy too, I got shit to do too. If I gotta do a Jay-Z beat I want to stop everything. Tell everybody hold my calls, everything. I don't want to do nothing but work on Jay's shit. So to call me last minute I attempted to do it and I did make a banger for The Blueprint 3 but it didn't fit the concept so I don't get mad, it's all good. I got mad at him in the past, but we've always patched things up. We've always been straight forward with each other. He knows how I am. I know how he is and I told him get at me earlier and I'll bang out some shit.
I get the feeling people come to you for that grittiness. Do you know what people want from you when they actually approach to work with you?
Most people when they ask for a joint, from those artists you've mentioned, they always say, "I need that gutter joint." They don't need that mainstream record, they need that ruggedness. That's why I'm glad I got the compilation record coming out because it's straight ruggedness, there's nothing commercial on there.
I get the sense you don't shop beats for people, people come to you.
I don't shop beats. That was never my method coming up. I think it's very strange to have a CD of 30 or 40 beats and then just pick one. I've always gone ahead and made it. Every beat you've ever heard me do with all those artists, I go in and make it for them.
I heard you also worked on the new Kanye record too.
Just some scratches on a [bonus, unreleased] track called "Mama's Boy," but other than that we did do some beats. He said "Let's save them." Y'know him and Jay are doing an album as well together and he said "Let's save them for that."
I don't think i could do this properly without asking you about Guru...
I just wanted to ask what do you think his enduring legacy will be to hip-hop based on now that he's gone in the physical presence.
Just all the music that he's left behind is still powerful and it will be powerful forever. I mean, whatever controversy he had... people can go on the internet and say all these funny things. The funny stuff that I read was so minimal, so all the people said "Hey, whatever's going on, however you feel we don't care his legacy is too big to care about all the drama and everything." And that was most of the comments were on every site. You had a couple of knuckleheads that tried to say some slick shit but they're the kind of people that wouldn't say it to your face, so they do it behind a keyboard. To all of that, even those that said "It's fucked up how he died but who cares, the legacy is so great that's all we care about" and that's the way it should be. Because everybody's personal life is their personal life. We don't owe you that part anyway, we only owe you the part that we give, our music and our personal lives are ours.
How are you processing it now months removed from it as opposed to right when it happened?
I'm good now as i got to see him in the hospital and I got to have a private funeral for him. You know I was there with his father, his sister, all the Clark family, all the Elam family. His son Jeru tha Damaja, Freddie Foxxx, the whole Gang Starr Foundation was there, Guru's remains were there. I took personal pictures with his ashes in a gold box with his name engraved on it, saying Keith Edward Elam and all of that and I have pictures of me with his ashes because his father told me I could do that. And I spoke at the funeral, his father asked me and [Big] Shug to speak and that's an honour, if you were asked by his father. You know his father was the first ever black [municipal court] judge in Boston. I got my closure and then I got my rights to Gang Starr back. I sat with my lawyers and it was based on who had the most activity. Besides Guru it was me when it came to Gang Starr and I will split all proceeds of anything I do in the future like a Gang Starr foundation album or a Gang Starr DVD. I have tons and tons and tons of footage of us from our very first performance all the way to 2004 of our last performance. I have all of that on video tape and I'm compiling that together right now and it's the best footage... I still cry every now and then, know what I'm saying, because we got so much history 'cos i believe he shouldn't be gone. He should be here, man. I can't believe he died so quick. So, yeah, I still cry every now and then and shed tears thinking about what we did and all of that but my closures are here. I got my closures. God knows I'm a good guy, I'm known in the industry as a good guy. I'm not known to be a foul, evil dude that you've got to watch out for and my name is not muddy in the industry. and on top of that, me and Guru loved each other.
I don't care what controversy or what false ― and that [alleged Guru deathbed] letter was bogus anyway, it didn't exist, it wasn't even real. I know how Guru writes, I know how he talks. He's not gonna call me his ex-DJ, that's like saying an ex-girlfriend. He'll say 'Premier is not allowed.' It does not say that. Who talks more of another person than his own child in a letter? And if you count, it's like 11 times he mentions somebody else and not your own child y'know and this is also from the eye of the fans. Guru's not a foul dude. Yeah, he had a very big alcohol problem all his life and that was definitely a very major issue because that caused us to have major tension because he was very violent and very dangerous and you never knew when he was really going to go extra, extra, extra crazy on you. But I still stuck with him because I'm loyal and any time he had drama or problems in the street, I always, always, always went on a hunt to find who the culprit is to make sure he's good. Even when he got robbed that time and they were saying I set it up and all that stuff. Domingo, one of the producers he was working with was there and I didn't know he was there and I ran into him recently, and he was like "Dude, I was there when he got robbed and all he kept saying was 'Damn, Premier's gonna be mad at me,'" because I bought him a Rolex for his birthday. They stole the Rolex, y'know when they robbed him. And plus, why would I want to have him robbed? I want to be able to work and have fun. I don't want him to be upset, because when he's upset, he's a problem, and plus setting someone up for robbery isn't even my style, like I'm not even thugged out like that, I mean, know what I'm saying? Guru and I have had so many fistfights, it's not even funny so we could just fight. "I'll fight you with my bare hands, I'm not gonna have you set up" ― he'll lose out. I'd rather. if i was going to have somebody near close to [me] robbed I'd rather it be some 6 foot 7 foot big bodyguard giant motherfucker that look like he can't be taken down. Little Guru, he's 5'9.
That's right. He told us.
[Both in unison] "Five-eight and three-quarters." I'm gonna have him robbed? It doesn't make any sense. We got a show to do.