DJ Premier is hip-hop royalty.
His signature production sound is immediately recognizable: Loaded with beautifully filthy drums and scratched hooks, his trademark sonic template has been emulated by many others since he started, yet no one has come close to matching it. When you hear a Primo beat, you know it instantly — from his mind and ears comes the essence of pure hip-hop.
While so many artists put out a few records and quietly fall off or fade away, Premier, only 38 years old, has been in the game nearly two decades and has continued to evolve while retaining his magical touch. He is that extremely rare breed — a pioneer who was around when rap music started, who steered clear of current trends and who never lost a step. One of the most revered and respected figures in the industry, he has produced classic material for legendary MCs such as Jay-Z; Biggie; Nas; and, of course, his partner in Gang Starr, Guru.
When not touring the globe, he can usually be found hard at work in the lab, banging out new music for a wide variety of acts. After D&D Studios closed in 2003, Premier bought the place and renamed it Headqcourterz in tribute to a longtime friend who was murdered. Now, he's building up his label, Year Round; developing new acts; juggling projects for known artists; working on his solo album; and producing one unexpected high-profile project.
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A SURPRISE PHONE CALL
For Premier fans, 2006 promises to be huge. Perhaps the biggest, most unforeseen hookup is between Premier and a certain pop princess. In an unusual turn of events, he has had several fruitful recording sessions with — yes, this is for real — Christina Aguilera. “When her agent called and said she was looking for some production from me, I was like, ‘Wow, that's strange,’” Premier (aka Chris Martin) admits. But he was up for the challenge to do something out of his normal hip-hop comfort zone. Aguilera sent Premier two “inspiration CDs” with some old favorite soul tracks by artists such as Nina Simone, and with that direction, Premier worked on some ideas. Aguilera chose five to work on for her as-yet-untitled album due in 2006. Although the five songs came about quickly, the process wasn't without its challenges.
Working on a bridge — or B section — for a song, Aguilera insisted on changing a part. “She was like, ‘In the changeup, take the bass out,’” Premier says. “And I was like, ‘Nah, it's banging right there because of what you're singing.’ And she was like, ‘Nope. I don't want it there.’” It didn't help Aguilera's mood that she was dealing with some disagreements with her label. “I'm no stranger to that; label people can be out of their minds sometimes,” Premier says. “But she was already pissed off about that, so she delivered that same attitude to me. So I am who I am, and I command a certain way of being dealt with, plus I'm so used to having my way when I do my records because I'm a producer — I have a good ear. So I pulled her aside, and I was like, ‘We have to have a compromise.’ So I did something where I chopped it and put echo on that section. And she was like, ‘That's hot.’”
But because Aguilera came up in the music industry as a teen and had her fair share of bad working relationships, it took some time for Premier to gain her trust. “And I don't blame her,” Premier says. “She told me she's worked with other producers where the vibe was really, really shitty. But after the first two days of having a lot of disagreeing with each other, we were supercool. We really hit it off.”
All subsequent debates were in good humor. “Another reason we butt heads is because when she does her vocal, she's like, ‘Let me do another one,’” Premier reveals. “It could be just one word, and she's like, ‘Let me fix the of.’ And I'm like, ‘No, it's good! It's right!’ And she's like, ‘No! Can't you hear it? It's not clear.’ It's back and forth, but at the end of the day, the vocals are tight.”
And despite the lengthy discography of albums that he's crafted, Premier even learned a little something about pop arranging from Aguilera. Working for so long on hip-hop, Premier never had to write a B section for a track before. “I'm used to that with any MC, from LL Cool J to Jay-Z on down,” he says. “But [Aguilera] likes to change key and all that other stuff before it gets to the hook, so [the first time] I was like, ‘Fuck, I gotta come up with something.’ But now when she asks for a B section, I totally get it.”
REWIND THE BEAT
Working with Aguilera may not be something that Premier could have predicted. But it's not such a huge shock considering his diverse musical upbringing in Texas (and frequent visits to his grandparents' house in Brooklyn, N.Y.). Between his art-teaching mother, who used to take him record shopping, and a neighborhood lady named Mrs. Whiting, who gave him a record every week until she ran out, Premier received a hard bite from the music bug. What's more, his two older sisters opened his ears to new bands and took him to concerts.
“My older sister was really into The Eagles, Carly Simon, Bee Gees, Rush, Van Halen,” Premier says. “My other sister was into Con Funk Shun, Parliament, Prince. I was a Jackson 5 and James Brown fanatic. I was amazed at how James Brown could do splits and do all these crazy moves.” Soon, Premier was hearing Jimmy Castor Bunch, Liquid Liquid, Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force, Kleeer and more. “We used to rock that Cybotron record Missy [Elliott] used for ‘Lose Control’ at parties,” he says. “I was going to New York all the time and started to get mixtapes off the radio.”
It wasn't long before Premier got into production; the first group he worked with was called MCs in Control. “I was making beats, but they were very, very … not on the level of what I do now,” he confesses. “I had a Yamaha, a DX7 or RX7 keyboard. It didn't get those rough sounds I wanted, but that was all I had.”
By the late '80s, Premier was rolling with a crew called ICP (Inner Circle Posse), recording, playing shows and working as a 12-inch buyer in Houston at a store called Soundwaves. “It got to the point where my knowledge was so vast, I was into country, blues, zydeco,” he says. Premier then heard Gang Starr on 98.7 KISS FM with Red Alert and got his demo into the hands of front man Guru, who was having problems with his group at the time.
After Premier and Guru recorded their first track, “Words I Manifest,” the two took over Gang Starr as a duo. “At that point, I was using an [E-mu] SP-12,” Premier says. “On the first album [No More Mr. Nice Guy], I didn't really do total production. All the samples were mine, but the programming was me and my engineer [Shlomo] because I didn't really know how to do a record. I knew how to do demos on a 4-track: Let the beat run, lay the next track, let the beat run, then do scratches on it. Then, I started to understand the structure of making a record and took it to the next level.”
DOWN WITH THE KING
In the '90s, Premier had the privilege of working with a couple of hip-hop's most revered MCs, including the late Notorious B.I.G. “We used to go buy our liquor, and Big would be on the corner every Friday with the whole Junior Mafia,” Premier remembers. “He was asking me, ‘What does it take to really blow up?’ I would give him advice 'cause I was rolling in a BMW with rims, and he was like, ‘Man, you're doin’ it. I wanna be like you.' Big was always honest with how he felt about people; he was never funny style.
“When we did ‘Ten Crack Commandments,’ Big was crippled at the time from a car accident,” Primo continues. “He was in a wheelchair and had a walker to get to the booth. He was like, ‘By the time we do the ‘Hypnotize’ video, I'm gonna be dancing.’ He showed me the dance he was gonna do, and he did exactly that dance in the video.”
Although there will never be another King of New York, Jay-Z has made a good case for the title. Premier hooked him up on his debut solo LP, and they've worked together repeatedly since. “The only person that ever tried to be a little … not negative, just ‘Nah, nah, it's right’ is Jay-Z. And I'll fight him on it, like, ‘I'm telling you, it sounds weak.’ Then, he'll go ‘Nah, it's right,’ and then after a few minutes, he's like, ‘Okay, I'll go back and fix it.’ It's not even on some ‘I'm Jay-Z’ shit. If he feels it's right, he stands by it. But his ear is not better than mine. Plus, I've seen him develop from an okay rapper to a great rapper. He knows the history of music; he's a great dude. I love him to death, but, still, his ears will never match mine because he's not a producer. He doesn't make beats; he doesn't DJ. As a real street DJ, that's one thing he can never surpass.”
In fact, DJing has helped Premier learn how to mix his productions better. “I've heard songs where the beat's good and the rhyming's decent, but you can tell that [the artists] just don't have a good sense of how to blend,” he says. “Me being a DJ, you gotta know how much bass to take out, treble to put in or how much to close up the vocal so it'll sound good with the beat that you're blending with. And all that applies to the mix.”
But there are exceptions when the sum parts of the music are more important than the mix. “If you listen to Wu-Tang, all that stuff was really muddy and stuffy, but it sounded so dope with their MCs and the way that they constructed their records that I wasn't mad at the mixing, and it got clearer and clearer as they went along,” Premier says.
SERVING UP SCIENCE
If you listen to Big Shug's “Do Ya,” there's a good degree of separation between the flute and horn sample and the bass and beats. For Premier, EQ and sample treatment are key. “I'm really into the Focusrite EQs to widen or close up the sound on a sample,” Premier says. “I like to use the 6-band when I'm messing with samples. I am an EQ freak with whatever the main sample is and the vocals. And the 6-band really works with that. I'll do a lot of toying around until it sounds like it's fitting in there.”
One crucial, defining element of Premier's sound is the drums. There's a three-dimensional griminess, an intense immediacy that just punches you in the face and makes you nod your head uncontrollably. “I turn 'em up loud when I sample 'em,” he says. “When you're sampling, go the most you can go without distortion. I always go right to the tip of distortion, even with vocals and all that. Tap the red a little bit, and then kinda round out the top when you EQ.”
But Premier mostly allows his beats to take up their own natural space, so vocals and samples are really the only victims of EQ. “My drums are so thick already from the way that I sample them,” he says. “Every now and then, I might thin one out, but I always use the same type of 808s, and sometimes I use the short ones or the long ones. I have some real weird 808 stuff, and I already have some ideas that I'm going to bug out [for my solo album].”
Aside from the EQ, Premier loves messing around with all kinds of plug-ins — and sometimes blind experimentation yields great results. “Sometimes, I don't even know what the hell they are, but when I see the name, I'll put it up and just turn the dial and see what it does to effect the samples,” he admits. “I always experiment until I get the twist that I'm looking for. Even with the beats, the way I get 'em to bounce so funky is just trying different ways.”
Premier isn't a huge fan of compression, though. “I only use it if it's a noisy track and needs to be closed up a little bit,” he says. “On Christina's song ‘Thank You,’ you hear a lot of noise coming out of the module that I played the keyboards on. And I'm like, ‘Fuck it. It sounds dope like that. Leave it.’ And I'm going for the dirt, so it's not gonna kill nothing.”
There has been speculation for years about a Premier solo album, though a busy schedule and label politics have delayed the project. As it stands, he plans to release it himself next year after collaborating with various artists and all-stars. “I talked to Mary J. Blige, Jill Scott, Roberta Flack,” he says. “The rest is all hip-hop. I'm going to do some stuff with Nas. It'll probably come out on my label, which might be the best thing. If I do it independently, I'll make way more money, and I don't have to sell as many records. I could sell two or 300,000, and that's like Platinum. If I go Gold, I'm a millionaire.”
In the meantime, Premier worked on eight tracks this year for Gang Starr collaborator Big Shug, who recently dropped his long-overdue debut, Who's Hard? (Sure Shot, 2005). One song in particular, the conceptual “Tha 3 Shugs,” is a perfect example of Primo's beat wizardry.
“I wanted to make a song on three different personas,” Big Shug recalls. “So I said, ‘Maybe if you did each beat different like how you did with ‘Speak Ya Clout’ [from Hard to Earn]? That's how he came up with the three beats. The first one is really hittin' at you; that beat is just gangsta to the chest! That second one is the stickup shit; it's like you're seeing that unfold. Then, the next beat is walkin' into a '70s club — it takes to you back to that Curtis Mayfield pimped-out shit.”
As far as other projects on deck, Premier is working on the new Rakim album and full-lengths for Year Round artists NYGz and Blaq Poet. He's also working with M.O.P. First Family's Teflon and developing acts such as Fabid, Texas MC Khalil and a Kansas City R&B singer named Boy Big. On top of that, he's working on a musical resurrection of sorts, collaborating with Lord Finesse on the third and final full-length from legendary fallen MC Big L. “His mother found a lot of reels in his closet, and she let Lord Finesse take everything,” Premier says. “He put all the a cappellas in Pro Tools, and we're gonna put together one more album of unreleased stuff.”
And if you've been waiting for an official beats-only release, hold tight. “I'm gonna make a DJ Premier instrumentals album, and I'm putting out the instrumentals of Group Home's Livin' Proof,” he says. “That way, all the DJs will get all those beats.”
But no matter how many new records he makes, one thing is certain: Premier will never sell out or abandon his style. On his unwavering dedication to the music, Premier sums it up with a nod to other pioneers: “New Orleans is the originator of jazz; you can go there and still see the purest groups that are truly deep rooted, doing it the original way. That's how I am with hip-hop — I refuse to switch. I'm in that era of Bambaataa, Marley Marl, Ced-Gee and all that. That's what I'm stuck on.”
Additional reporting by Kylee Swenson.
No matter how good of a producer you are, it helps to have an extra set of ears in the mix. Premier's engineer, Charles Roane, has helped out quite a lot on past productions. “Most sessions, Primo will be on his own to create the track,” he says. “He may call me in for a time stretch or some keys. Then, for mixdown, it's 50/50 [with Premier using his HD system and Roane on his Mixplus system].” When beginning a mix, Roane likes to start small. “Get your kick, snares and vocal level on a small monitor, like an Auratone, at low volume first,” he says. “If [the beats are] from a keyboard or drum machine, I like the Focusrite compressor plug-in.”
Recording hardware, DAWs:
Apple Mac G4 computer
Digidesign Pro Tools|HD system, 96 I/O, Control|24 control surface
HHB CD recorder
Panasonic SV3800 DAT Recorder
Samplers, drum machines:
Akai MPC60 sampling/sequencing drum machine, S950 sampler
Focusrite Red 2-, 4-, 6-band EQ plug-ins
Waves Renaissance plug-in: “It brings you back to the old EQs from back in the day, where it's that old more thick, straight-to-tape sound rather than that digital, thin sound,” Premier says. “Renaissance Vox always just really crispens up the vocals where everything blends so well.”
Technics SL-1210MK2 turntables
Numark DXMPro mixer
Instruments, sound modules, controllers:
E-mu Mo'Phatt, Proteus 2 modules
Korg Triton keyboard: “The sounds that I do use are the ones Pharrell and them don't,” Premier says.
M-Audio Oxygen8 MIDI keyboard controller
Preamps, compressors, EQs:
DigiTech VTP1 preamp/EQ
dbx 166 dual compressor/limiter/gate
UREI 813Cs: “I gotta have those,” Premier says. “I can track anywhere — in the bathroom, on the street — but speakers have everything to do with mixing, because you tune your mix through the speakers.”
“I like the more weird shit that I've done,” Premier says, “joints that are more abstract but hardcore and funky.” Check out Premier's favorites:
Gang Starr, “Above the Clouds,” “You Know My Steez,” Moment of Truth (Virgin, 1998)
Jay-Z, “D'Evils,” Reasonable Doubt (Roc-a-Fella, 1996)
Mos Def, “Mathematics,” Black on Both Sides (Rawkus, 1999)
Notorious B.I.G., “Ten Crack Commandments,” Life After Death (Bad Boy, 1997)
Royce Da 5'9", “Boom,” Rock City (Koch, 2002)