DJ Premier [Interview]
Brooklyn, NY – As a seminal figure, and avatar for the art form of hip-hop it doesn’t get more major than DJ Premier. Though not old school in the Kool Herc, Grandmaster Caz, Sha Rock sense of things, he has come to represent a certain fundamentalism in the music. His status is such that most fans even cringe at the sight of his name being mentioned in “Best of…” or “Hottest…” type comparisons. While those kinds of lists are good for comparing current stars, and “come-lately’s”, Premo’s music almost has a quality of existing outside of time.
Running down his catalogue is an exercise, listing both classic and obscure records, as well as both classic and obscure artists. There aren’t any consistent trends that can be linked to popularity or sales. DJ Premier is not one to watch trends; he’s one who makes music. And that’s where you’ll find the consistency, in the sound. Be it for Christina Aguilera or Sauce Money, his sound is indelible. His almost stoic dedication to boom-bap and his perfectionism in working with artists has been second to none, bringing performances out of them that in many cases are unfortunately never seen again. That’s what makes him the cultural touchstone that he is. If you ever forget what hip-hop sounds like, listen to a DJ Premier record. You’ll remember.
Before the interview I prepared two sets of questions: One set mainly centered on production and one set focused more on DJing. I’d let him choose his own adventure, so to speak. What I wish I could have chosen was the time of the interview: 10:30PM Monday night, right in the middle of when I DJ at Carleton University. I certainly appreciated the irony. When I told him about it, so did he. That’s the thing about Premier –despite his legendary status, he is an incredibly regular-ass dude. No pretensions about his status in the hip-hop pantheon. No sign of the, “I-just-won-a-Grammy-with-Christina” glow one might expect to see. What you see is a guy who is grinding, always looking to perfect his craft further, and, moreover, is living what he believes in.
While we talked for a good length of time about a range of topics from wack DJ’s to Whitney Houston, as well as a wild incident where Preem had to knock out a bus driver: “I hit him with the one… not even the one-two, and laid him out… right out on West 151st Street, yo!” Publicly, he has said more with his hands than he ever will vocally, performing routine surgery on his unfathomable body of records to create Frankenstein choruses and refrains that often have longer lives in our memories than the songs that they’re a part of. This is part of his gift to music. To sum it up, he’s the DJ’s DJ. So, without further ado, we present DJ Premier.
HipHopCanada: What’s your first love, DJing or producing?
DJ Premier: DJing is number one. Definitely.
HipHopCanada: Okay. Well I was talking to a local DJ who plays in a lot of more Top 40 type clubs. He was talking a lot about how he’s a great DJ because be plays “better Top 40″ than the next guy. I was trying to let him know about all the DMC champs we have here in Ottawa, and dope DJ’s who are putting it down thoroughly but all he was trying to hear was about the size of the club and the massive Top 40 crowd. As a DJ, when you’re playing, is it about the crowd or is it about you?
DJ Premier: Well, a DJ should be playing the crowd what they SHOULD be hearing. You can’t stress DJ’s like that because more often those other types of DJ’s undercut DJ’s in the city who are trying to do their thing. So in the end they don’t really get any love and they don’t have any clout outside of that club. Not with the girls, not with the dudes on the street. Outside of that club they’re not really anybody. You’ve got to play real music for real people.
HipHopCanada: Word. Plus as a DJ, your role is kind of being an educator/knowledgist too, right?
DJ Premier: Exactly. No doubt. As a DJ you’ve got to know ALL the music. Not just what’s hot now, but you’ve got to go back. Because we can have a conversation about music, but it would have to stop at a certain point. If you’re not on that level where you can have that conversation then you can’t really talk to me about music. Can you name an Aretha Franklin song? And don’t say “Respect” either. I can do that and I mean, I know what’s out now. I know all the new music. I know “A Bay Bay”. I know Young Berg. I know Souljah Boy. I know music from the now’s to the 90′s on back. That’s what a DJ’s got to be able to do.
HipHopCanada: Word up. So I see you’re getting your face out there more and more. That was a great cameo in Jeff’s and Peedi’s “Brand New Funk” video. In a lot of ways, it was cool that they put you in the position of bouncer. That’s how a lot of people see you –as hip-hop’s arbiter.
DJ Premier: [Laughing] Word, Jeff called me like, “Yo, I want you to be in the video. I want you to be a bouncer.” I was like, “A bouncer?!” But Jeff is my man, so I just said fuck it, I’ll do it. Even if I look like an idiot, it was just some fun shit. Peace to Jazzy Jeff and Peedi, that’s what’s up. Jeff taught me a lot with the cuts when we were coming up in the 80′s and 90′s with all the sounds he was getting out of those turntables.
HipHopCanada: Plus inventing that transformer…
DJ Premier: Word, Jeff is the man. As a matter of fact, I was just talking to him. I was trying to call Rhymefest because I’m supposed to be doing some joints for his new album [El Ché] and I called him and Jeff answered his phone. I was like, “Hello?” and he was just like, “Yeah”. I said, “Who dis?” and he said, “Jeff”. I said, “Jeff who?” and he was like, “Don’t worry about it.” [Laughing]
HipHopCanada: [Laughing] Man, you were looking kind of diesel in that video though!
DJ Premier: [Laughing] You know… It’s just what’s going on these days. I mean, I saw Dre at the VMA’s last night –he was looking jacked. Even dudes like Busta Rhymes be bulking up. I’m not doing it because of that though. I mean, I’m 41 years old and it’s about just keeping it healthier these days. Just watching what I eat a bit more. I’m trying to become more of a chicken and fish man. I’m eating a bit of red meat here and there. I eat a little pork too, I ain’t going to front. I ain’t no Rasta or a Muslim so I eat a bit of pork. But, I’m slowly cutting all that down. It’s about being healthy these days. I’m in the gym but I don’t have a trainer or anything like that. I just know what to do… I’m drinking a lot of water these days. I’m addicted to water…
HipHopCanada: How do you define your relationship to hip-hop? You’re obviously protective of it, but how? How do you define your relationship with the culture?
DJ Premier: My relationship with hip-hop is great because I’ve still got love for the art form. I’ve still got that hip-hop in me. I still wear my Adidas with the fat laces and all of that. I’m a b-boy for life. I used to be out there poppin’ and lockin’, and all of that, so I keep those styles and that music alive. Plus, I don’t get caught up in all the nonsense. A lot of people get caught up with this and that, trying to be stars, but that’s not me. I keep it real regular. I couldn’t want to be a star. I don’t really have a pop presence… except for Christina Aguilera and even then. It’s not like I get calls to do work from anyone in the pop world, and we won a Grammy for that single [Ain't No Other Man]. Really, that’s not my focus –I keep it underground. See, there are certain sounds that no one is doing. No one is still doing that boom-bap! boom-boom bap! I’ve got to keep that alive. Plus, hip-hop for grown adults! Like I said, I’m 41 years old. I can’t be listening to “A Bay Bay”. [Laughing] No disrespect to the song, but that ain’t for me at 41.
HipHopCanada: Can you let us know what’s going on with the podcasts? We’ve heard your rants on Gang Starr albums about the way you feel, but can you talk about the way copyright laws affect hip-hop?
DJ Premier: Hey man, I don’t get too involved with all of that. It was basically that someone was taking my show on Sirius and putting it out as a podcast. It wasn’t anything that I had direct involvement with. It was cool that the music was getting out to more people, but you can understand how people who actually subscribe feel.
HipHopCanada: MoSs is a Canadian producer who helped with Big Shug’s record. Canada has had a long standing hip-hop history, down to Kid Cut being down with the Main Source. What do you think Canada brings to the North American hip-hop scene?
DJ Premier: MoSs is bringing that funk right now. I heard MoSs’ shit and I was feeling it to the point where I said, “Yo, why don’t you help handle the Shug record.” He has such a different style that is totally opposite to mine, but it compliments it too. His shit is just so funky. Right now we’re in the process of signing him to my production label, Works of Mart, to take on some of the projects that I can’t take on right now.
HipHopCanada: Oh word? What kind of projects are coming across the table?
DJ Premier: Well, I’m executive producing the Royce the 5’9” album. Christina got back at me because she’s doing a duet with Aretha Franklin. I heard some of Whitney Houston’s new shit and I might be taking on some new stuff for her.
HipHopCanada: Woah, woah, woah Preem… pause. Whitney?
DJ Premier: [Laughing] Nah, I know what you’re thinking but the voice is still there. Man, trust me. It wasn’t even a scheduled type thing either. You know how it happened? I was up at the label and Clive Davis heard that I was in the building and said, “Premier is in the building? Send him in here.” He asked me to listen to a few things. I heard 3 or 4 songs and was like, “this one is a good jump off… this has potential…”
HipHopCanada: So are you working with her then? Because, yo, that is someone people want to see win. I remember her from the self titled album days, with the short hair and the pink album cover. She’s mad nostalgic for people and Bobby brought her down…
DJ Premier: [Laughing] The voice is still there man. Trust me.
HipHopCanada: I got the opportunity to speak to KRS ONE earlier this year and he always makes a big deal about the way the word hip-hop is spelled and things like that. He’s very into cultural preservation. What to you is important about preserving hip-hop culture?
DJ Premier: They’ve got to know the history. A lot of people don’t know that hip-hop started in 1973, to name a year. I graduated high school in 1984 so I’ve seen it from when before it was even around. I’ve seen what hip-hop was originally intended for… to diffuse a lot of the tensions in the hoods with all the gang violence and what not. The way the b-boys used to dance was so ill, making all the stabbing motions and what not; just bugging out. You’ve got to know about all of that. It’s like with the cars… you might know your little Chevrolets and Fords, but if you’re not up on all the Porsches and things of that nature, you can’t really call yourself a gearhead, know what I mean? Even in the way you do hip-hop. I mean, DJ’s out there playing Serato… which I do use, but I don’t do it like them. These cats are button pushers yo! I’m still cutting it up, bringing it back… doing all those things.
HipHopCanada: How did you know that the NYG’z were ready for the full album by Premier?
DJ Premier: Well they’ve been rhyming for a minute. They came out as the group Operation Ratification back in the day on the first Ill Kidz [Guru of Gang Starr's old label] compilation. Then again, on the second… actually it was the third or fourth Ill Kidz compilation… Panchini was always a big hip-hop fan. He knew the words to every single song to the point where I was like, “Hey, you should cut a record.”
HipHopCanada: Word, he’s got that voice too; that ill menacing growl. But he sounds like he’s having mad fun on the mic too.
DJ Premier: And you know what I really love about him? How he is on the records? He’s really like that. There’s nothing fake about him. Like you know how some dudes will get on a record and put on a tough guy persona but that’s not really them. Not Panchini. How he sounds on records is how he is in real life.
HipHopCanada: Nas is going to be here in October. Is there any message you want to pass on to him at all, Preem?
DJ Premier: [Laughing] Nah man. I mean, Nas and I were supposed to do his next album… that was the intention when we did the Scratch magazine cover. I was geared up to do it but then the next thing I heard he was on the hip-hop is dead thing. I confronted him about it like, “Yo, why did you tell me that if that wasn’t the case” and he just said to me, “You know Preem, I really had some things I needed to get off of my chest this album” and so he did what he had to do. I just said, “Alright, just so there’s no confusion, when you’re ready to do it, you let me know and it’ll be on.” So that’s the deal with that. When Nas gets at me, it’s on and popping.
HipHopCanada: I’d listened to an interview with Swizz Beats where he commented that he didn’t want to be “the best rapper”; he was just “doing his thing”. I feel like there’s an epidemic of guys just “doing their thing”. Do you feel like there’s a shortage of people who still want to be the best?
DJ Premier: I think there are a lot of dudes who want to be the best. I’m not saying that they are, but they’re going for that. Lil’ Wayne stepped up his rhyme game no doubt but I still couldn’t believe when he said what he said about Jigga. I know he apologized for what he said and everything, but to think that he could step to the lyrics and business sense and just plain hustle of a Jay-Z… I just feel like if dudes like Pac, Biggie, and Pun… and Big L… ooooh… especially Big L, were around, these guys would have a serious problem. But there are guys like Royce who’s still got that in him… that will to be the best.
HipHopCanada: True. That “The Return of Malcolm” joint from the mixtape is a beast! The whole mixtape is, actually.
DJ Premier: Man you should hear some of the joints we’re working on for the album. Right now, we’re getting ready to put out this track called “I Gotta Shake This”. It goes down in 3 parts. When he went in for his bid we were working on songs out here, so when he had to go back for his hearing he flew out of here to Detroit like, “Yo, I’ll be back tomorrow and we’ll keep on working on shit”. I was like, “Bet!” [Laughing] He never came back. They kept him down there. The song starts with him coming out of his mom, being born lyrical, and then the 2nd verse is when he’s leaving me in NY like, “Imma be back tomorrow.” The third verse is him back out of his bid and getting right. It’s called “I Gotta Shake This” because he drinks a lot and a lot of the time that’s what gets him into trouble… so he’s working on that.
HipHopCanada: Sounds dope, Preem.
DJ Premier: Word, we’ve got a lot coming. The NYG’z are coming with Welcome to G’Dom which is the street album before the real album [Pro's and Con'z] where I’ll be producing the entire LP. The first time that’s happened since Group Home so that is going to be big right there. Teflon, from the First Family, coming, plus Poet from Queensbridge.
HipHopCanada: And from Screwball, of course…
DJ Premier: Word up. We’ve got him coming out too. Then there’s my album: the DJ Premier solo album which I’ve been working on for a long time. It’s going to be a busy year.
Editor’s note: For more information on DJ Premier check out http://www.myspace.com/djpremier.
Written by Kwende Kefentse AKA DJ Memetic for HipHopCanada