“I would never violate the code of how to make my records for my culture,” says Gang Starr's DJ Premier, chilling out on a couch in the lobby of Manhattan's Masterdisk, the studio of mastering maestros Howie Weinberg and Tony Dorsey. “Because I know how my culture really wants to hear it, a label can't tell me how it's supposed to be done and radio can't tell me how it's going to be accepted.”
The producer of tracks for hip-hop icons from the Notorious B.I.G. to Jay-Z to Jeru the Damaja — and even jazzbos like Branford Marsalis — Premier has earned the right to tell it like it is, and from the moment you meet him, you can tell the Texas native and longtime New Yorker, quite simply, takes no shit.
And why would he? After more than 10 years in the hip-hop game, he and his partner, the groundbreaking rapper Guru, have perpetrated some of the most influential music in the genre — along with artists such as A Tribe Called Quest, Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, Gang Starr gave birth to the jazz-rap symbiosis, which Guru further explored on his Jazzmatazz project. And the duo has sustained a viable and respected career in a business that notoriously burns out performers. With all of this in mind, we find the group casually gathered in the studio, gobbling jerk chicken, trading blunts and adding the final touches to the second single from their new, four-years-in-the-making LP, The Ownerz (Virgin, 2003).
“The Ownerz represents that people are renting and leasing a version of hip-hop,” says Guru (an acronym for Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal), whose lyrics on 1994's “Mass Appeal” decried long ago the commercial lust of rap's Johnny-come-latelys. Although Premier and Guru tip their hat to newer artists such as Jadakiss, Nas, Ludacris and 50 Cent, they don't mince words when it comes to the many groups, radio stations, labels and press outlets that have let corporate culture invade what they see as the sanctity of hip-hop culture.
“Rap's being exploited,” Guru spits plainly. “It's corny, and it's getting more watered-down all the time. Motherfuckers can rent it, but when the time comes, they got to return their shit. But we own our share — we don't have to give it back, because we earned it. We've been here; we're still here. We're in it for the right reasons.” Guru trumpets that pride of place on new tracks such as “Skills,” “Natural” and “Rite Where You Stand,” with defiant battle-cries from an elder statesman of rap: “Gang Starr keepin' it real / Just like a gat'll do.”
If that sounds a bit righteous, consider the many exemplary hip-hop acts that came up in the same late-'80s second-wave era as Gang Starr and whose profiles have dipped well below the popular radar or disappeared completely: Arrested Development, The Pharcyde, De La Soul, Digable Planets, Black Sheep, Jungle Brothers — all of those acts are bursting with creativity: brilliant rhymes and badass beats. Is hip-hop's quick turnaround time just a generational change, cultural moments coming and going in the same way that grunge gave way to nu-metal or acid-house gave it up to trance and two-step? In a recent MTV interview, even man-of-the-moment Eminem explained that adapting to the changing flavors and currents in hip-hop was the key to staying afloat in what is a very competitive milieu.
Even for acknowledged originators like Gang Starr, the maxim holds true. “Absolutely,” Guru says. “You're only as good as what your latest shit is in this game. Though I appreciate the cats who look at me as a legend, it doesn't pay my bills; I've still got to spit.” Sure enough, as Guru's flow has morphed to reflect new styles and vocabularies, so has Premier veered from swing loops to electro sounds to straight-up head nods — all, though, demonstrably faithful to hip-hop's pioneers (see the sidebar “Credit Is Due”). “That's why I don't have a lot of sympathy for older-school rappers who are bitter at the game and hating on the young dudes,” he says. “I don't hate on the young dudes, but I think a lot of them forget about the history. Then they fuck up because you can't have longevity unless you respect the origins of the art form. There needs to be a balance, and I think me and Premier represent that balance.”
Guru and DJ Premier (born Keith Elam and Christopher Martin) began striking that balance back in the late '80s after Guru — caseworker for troubled teens, graduate of Atlanta's Morehouse College and son of Boston's first African-American judge — relocated to New York “with $1,500, a duffel bag and a dream,” he says. After hearing a demo from a Texas group called ICP, Guru contacted the group's young producer and DJ, who was then going by the handle of Waxmaster C, and eventually the two began living and working together in New York. They released the seminal jazzy hip-hop single “Manifest” with producer DJ Mark, “45 King,” for the Manhattan-based Wild Pitch label. Shortly thereafter, Waxmaster C changed his name to Premier, and a new production star — and sound — was born.
At that time, Guru explains, “Everyone was wondering what was going to happen after all the James Brown breaks were taken! You had the generation of producers and DJs like Marley Marl, 45 King, Jazzy Jeff and Stetsasonic, who'd done so much great shit. But then it was like, you ran out of James Brown, now what? Guys like Premier, Pete Rock, Diamond D, Large Professor and Lord Finesse started finding jazz grooves that blended right with hip-hop breaks. They weren't trying to create jazz-rap; that's just the way they started using these sounds. From a DJ's perspective, it wasn't jazz-rap. It was a way of taking it all to the next level.” Guru couldn't have picked a better running mate than Premier, who not only boasted serious production skills but also was one of the few producers who had the chops to rock a party old-style — cutting between two turntables and scratching samples the way hip-hop intended.
In 1990, Spike Lee asked the band to contribute a track — ”Jazz Thing” — to the soundtrack of his film Mo' Better Blues, in conjunction with jazz-trumpet great Branford Marsalis. That led to soundtrack appearances in White Men Can't Jump, Training Day and Trespass. But as the jazz-rap buzz increasingly took hold, Guru started looking for a way to simultaneously exploit its possibilities and escape its clutches. “We never wanted to be categorized as jazz-rap,” he explains, “because we figured that if that happened, when jazz-rap was finished, we'd be finished. And truth be told, there's no one else from that era who's still around. Those are all my peoples, but I didn't want that happening to us.”
Around 1993, Guru notes, everyone was “fiending” for Premier's beats and production style, wanting to “get a piece of the Gang Starr sound.” Guru asked himself, “What I can do as a solo project that will both protect Gang Starr and claim my own turf in the hip-hop jazz evolution?” His answer? Go to the source and make music with the jazz players who everyone had begun sampling in the first place. “The first guy to contact us was Dr. Donald Byrd,” Guru recalls of the legendary Blue Note and Verve trumpet player. “And he really became a mentor to me. He put the word out in the jazz community about what I was trying to do, and since then, I've worked with Courtney Pine, Roy Ayers, Herbie Hancock and Lonnie Liston Smith.”
With Premier at the helm for several tracks and with help from singer N'Dea Davenport — the sultry chanteuse for jazz-funk revivalists the Brand New Heavies — Guru's Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1 (Chrysalis, 1993) was a watershed album for alternative hip-hop, with tracks like “Loungin'” and “Slicker Than Most” opening the door to the more mainstream success of acts such as US3. Guru followed it with Jazzmatazz, Vol. 2 (Chrysalis) in 1995 and Streetsoul (Virgin) in 2002, featuring duets with Macy Gray, Big Shug and even Isaac Hayes.
But despite Guru and Premier's many outside projects — including the independent labels that both own, Ill Kid and Year-Round, featuring artists Krumbsnatcha, Panchi and NYG's — their chemistry in Gang Starr is ultimately their most crucial and public contribution to hip-hop, best sampled on the Virgin anthology Full Clip: A Decade of Gang Starr (1999). From early joints like the funky, chamber-string-orchestrated “Soliloquy of Chaos” (from 1992's Daily Operation on Chrysalis) to the slow, Wurlitzer-woozy backbeat of “Betrayal” (from 1998's Moment of Truth on Virgin), Gang Starr has maintained a working relationship and signature sound that ought to be the envy of any MC-DJ alliance.
GOODBYE, JAMES BROWN
“A lot of producers just throw a beat at you,” Guru says, “but Premier is more like a tailor. Once you hear the basic tracks, you can already hear the rapper's voice over it.” Indeed, Premier says, his overall philosophy is “to make the track identify with the way I hear a person's voice sound over my music. I try to make the track fit their tone and their attitude. Like with Jeru the Damaja — he wanted more of that dark, dense vibe, so I was shooting for that. So I always like to really know the artists, themselves, and what it is that I like about what they've already made.”
“When Guru and I got together,” Premier says, “I was trying to make tracks that fit his voice because he sounded a lot different than other MCs at the time. I was free to do stuff that had a different sound but still sounded like a hip-hop track. I started messing with jazz samples, based on the fact that they were more instrumental and didn't have a lot of vocals on them. It was easier to experiment and try different things, compared to what he had been rhyming to, which were a lot of James Brown loops and samples.”
Gang Starr tracks, such as the minimalist “Natural” or the stuttering “Skills” from The Ownerz, always begin with Guru giving a title to Premier. Premier then uses that inspiration as a springboard into the track. “The drums are usually my first setup,” he says, “and I'll make the beat match the vibe of the title, meaning the drums have to snap a certain way based on what the song's going to be about. Sometimes, it needs to be more laid-back, and I'll look for a softer snare that still has the effect I need. But I'm looking for that match even if it means I'm digging in the crates all day, man. Most of the time, the producer sends an artist the beats, and they do the lyrics separately, but we do the music like this,” says Premier, clasping his hands together.
Premier samples and sequences from vinyl into a first-generation Akai MPC60 — “the Roger Linn original” — and into an Akai S950 (at one point triggered by an old Alesis HR-16 drum machine). Before that, he cut his samples on an E-mu SP-12 — “the blue one with the giant 8-inch floppy disk” — and later, an SP-1200. But when Premier started working at Manhattan's D&D Studios in 1992, where he still tracks most of his music, a D&D engineer enlightened him to the virtues of the MPC. “He said, ‘The MPC is like a tape machine without the tape machine. Instead of layering track after track on tape, you can do it all on the MPC.' And that was exactly what I needed.”
For Premier, vintage samplers are necessary because they keep him in check. “The old Akai is cool because there's limited sample time,” Premier says. “It keeps me from going overboard. That's the way we've been doing it from the beginning, at least since Daily Operation, though I've added an E-mu Planet Phatt module for occasional bass lines and classic keys.”
Those funky, skewed piano lines — a hallmark of the Gang Starr sound from early joints like “All 4 tha Ca$h” to 1998's “Work” to fresh tracks such as “Put Up or Shut Up” — are either sampled or played live by Premier. He even imports live tracks into his samplers so that they fit in with the textures of his sample-based productions. “I love piano, and I do like to play it,” he remarks. “On ‘Put Up or Shut Up,’ there are some keyboard sounds, a nice harmony over the chords, which I laid down along with a sample. You can hear the difference between them, but it still fits with the samples. It's not like, ‘Oh, here's where he plays the keyboards.’ It still fits into my overall guideline for the song, stylistically. There's a lot of more of me playing keys on this record, but, again, it's being imported and arranged into a sample form. But I'm laying it down raw; it's not MIDI when I play it.”
WIDE OPEN SPACES
Premier says producing is a little bit like cooking. After getting the beats together for a song, he keeps adding elements and stirring the pot. “I keep working up the layers until the concoction is boiled and ready for drinking,” he says. Although plenty of Premier's finals boast upward of 13 or 14 tracks, they never sound cluttered. His is one of the cleanest — you might say the most minimalist — sounds in all of hip-hop, a combination of smart compression, clever arranging and an awesome ear for separation and relative EQs.
“It is minimalist, actually,” Premier says. “But minimal in a good way. If a tune sounds good with one strong element, then you don't need anything else.” Leaving space also means leaving room for the MC, and Guru extols Premier's ability to “bring out the lyrical side of any rapper. You'll want to push yourself when you're doing a Premier joint. There's a science to his shit, to the way he weaves the cuts. He keeps it pure.”
That spare approach leaves plenty of space for Guru to lay it down, and the technique of tracking his “king of monotone” vocals — close-miked with a Neumann U 87 or an AKG 414 — is another aspect of the process that he and Premier have down to a science. Generally, Guru writes his lyrics in the studio, focusing his attack with a style of brainstorming that he calls “freestyle writing.” “I'll write under pressure, but the goal is that it won't sound like I'm reading when I spit,” he explains. “Sometimes, I'll do it all in one take. ‘DWYCK’ with Nice & Smooth was like that. I came in all mad, and I was like, ‘You ready?’ But the way it usually goes is that Premier will let me have at it for a few takes. I'll freestyle it out loud just to get the flow that I want; then, I'll write six to eight bars and then say those eight bars to see how it's feeling, and then I'll continue from there. It's cool because Premier coaches me on my vocals. He'll make me do it over, and he'll fuck with me, man. He'll be like, “C'mon, man. Do you rap? The good thing is that by the time I'm done in the vocal booth with him, I'm out, man — it's done.”
Not quite. “I've heard a lot of people lay down hot shit, but then the mixdown is horrible,” Premier warns. “You're sitting there enjoying the track, but then the vocal comes in, and it just doesn't sit right, or the right effect is not there. So the mixdown is key, and in mastering, you get the chance to fix all the little things you wished you'd fixed back at the studio before you brought them in to be mastered! But in the end, it's all about the head nod, man. It's got to have the boom and the bap, and you can have Pro Tools and make it all easy to do loops, but if it doesn't have soul, it ain't hip-hop.”
“I drive a lot,” he continues, narrowing his eyes, “and I like to drive totally in my zone, where nothing outside of the music I've got on is going to affect me or fuck up my day, where I'm so into the music that I don't care. I'm just enjoying it, and it makes me feel good. So that's the reason I've got to have my head nod first. Then, I'm ready to hear some motherfucker just spray it, kill it, so that I want to sing it back. I want to feel good when a record comes on, and a lot of people ain't doing that these days, so I just got to keep putting out these joints.”
CREDIT IS DUE
DJ Premier's Essential 20 Hip-Hop Albums
“You have to own these records,” DJ Premier insists. “These are lessons in life from the hip-hop world. If you own these records, you will get it. You own these, and you are the man. It's a big deal to have these records in your collection, because then you won't never fuck up the way you make your joints. A lot of people don't know how to make hot joints right now. Stuff out there is being classified as hip-hop, but it ain't — it's something else. To be pure hip-hop, it can't be that happy-dappy shit. It's got to get you in the soul, man.”
Although he'd no doubt add more titles to this elite roster, here's a short and selected list of DJ Premier's essential hip-hop LPs produced by seminal figures such as Marley Marl, Scott La Rock and the Bomb Squad and featuring rappers from Chuck D. and Eric B. to Q-Tip and Kool Keith. Gotta have the classics, son.
Beastie Boys, Licensed to Ill (Def Jam, 1986)
Boogie Down Productions, Criminal Minded (Sugar Hill, 1987)
Brand Nubian, One for All (Elektra/Asylum, 1990)
D.O.C., No One Can Do It Better (Ruthless, 1989)
Eazy E, Eazy-Duz-It (Priority, 1988)
EPMD, Strictly Business (Priority, 1988)
Eric B & Rakim, Paid in Full (4th & Broadway, 1987)
Ice Cube, AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted (Priority, 1990)
Jungle Brothers, Straight out the Jungle (Warlock, 1988)
LL Cool J, Radio (Def Jam, 1985)
MC Lyte, Lyte As a Rock (Atlantic, 1988)
NWA, Straight Outta Compton (Priority, 1988)
Public Enemy, Yo! Bum Rush the Show (Def Jam, 1987)
Run-DMC, Run-DMC (Def Jam, Profile/Arista, 1984)
Slick Rick, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick (Def Jam, 1988)
Special Ed, Youngest in Charge (Profile, 1989)
Stetsasonic, In Full Gear (Tommy Boy, 1988)
Super Lover Cee and Casanova Rud, Girls I Got 'Em Locked (Elektra, 1988)
A Tribe Called Quest, The Low End Theory (Jive, 1991)
Ultramagnetic MCs, Critical Beatdown (Next Plateau, 1988)
THE MANIFEST: D&D Studios
MCI 636 board w/Optifile Automation Sony APR-24 2-inch multitrack
dbx 166 Dual Compressor Gates
Drawmer DS 201
Behringer Autoguard Gate mixer
E-mu Planet Phatt
Korg M1 keyboard
Panasonic 3800 DAT machine
Technics SL-1210MK2 turntables