MONTREAL – I have this fear. You know the stereotype of the baby boomer who swears by the Beatles and the Stones, and complains that they just don’t make music like they used to?
I fear I’m the hip-hop equivalent.
Don’t get me wrong. Great rap records continue to be made, but not as often as they used to. The first rap album I bought was Run-DMC’s Raising Hell in 1986. From then until – let’s say the day Notorious B.I.G. died, March 9, 1997, was what I consider the heyday of the genre.
So news that DJ Premier and Pete Rock – two of the biggest hip-hop DJ-producers of the ’90s – will be in town Saturday night is heaven-sent. And a chance at a phone chat with the former was just too good to pass up.
As the beat-making half of New York City rap duo Gang Starr, Premier is an icon. The group defined a rugged yet poetic musical vision where art met street. They crafted several classic albums in a career that spanned from 1989′s acid-jazz-predating No More Mr. Nice Guy to 2003′s late-career statement The Ownerz.
“We ran the entire decade,” Premier said, reached last week in Queens, N.Y. “Not a lot of hip-hop groups run a decade. But from 1989 to 2003, we were consistent and relevant non-stop.”
Premier and rapper Guru had gone their separate ways in recent years, but Premier has been checking in daily for updates on his old partner, who remains hospitalized after a heart attack at the end of February.
“He’s still in a coma,” Premier said. “There have been a lot of rumours going around. I deal with his family directly, and get my updates from them. … He’s breathing, he’s alive, and he’s fighting to maintain.
“It hurts,” he continued. “It saddens me that it’s like that. I miss him. I’ll love him forever.”
Times have changed. It has been more than 20 years since Guru heard Premier’s demo tape and asked him to join Gang Starr. Their first single, Words I Manifest, sampled a Miles Davis and Charlie Parker recording of A Night in Tunisia.
It was the beginning of the “jazz-rap” tag that Gang Starr would be identified by, and would later try to move beyond (leading to Guru’s Jazzmatazz series on the side). At the heart of the group’s sound was Premier’s instinctive blend of musicality and hard-edged undertones. Known for his intricate layering of samples, his tracks always told a story, and were based in his knowledge of a wide variety of music.
“I’m 44 years old,” he said. “I didn’t have hip-hop as a kid. We had soul, jazz, blues, zydeco, country. I’m from Texas. Country was normal – George Strait, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline.
I grew up watching Hee Haw and loving it. It was all we had.”
As Gang Starr’s status grew, Premier became increasingly in-demand as a producer. He made tracks for KRS-One, Das EFX, Nas (including three tracks on his classic 1994 debut Illmatic), Jeru the Damaja (producing his acclaimed debut, The Sun Rises In the East), the Notorious B.I.G., Group Home, M.O.P and, later, Jay-Z, Rakim, D’Angelo and many more.
Of all his collaborations, I asked Premier which he is most proud of. He answered not as a producer, but as a fan.
“Definitely Rakim and KRS-One,” he said. “They are artists I looked up to and who I wanted to accept me for being dope. That they wanted to work with me, it felt like I had made it. Big Daddy Kane, Gang Starr even, these were monumental things. Working with Nas, Jay and Biggie was fun, but they were younger than me. They were up-and-coming youngsters making a statement. I didn’t put them on as high a pedestal. … Jay didn’t make me want to do it. I was already doing it.”
Which is not to say that he didn’t throw himself wholeheartedly into tracks he made for the “youngsters,” or that he was any less of a fan. He recalled in detail the recording sessions for Nas’s Illmatic, made with a who’s who of producers including Pete Rock, Large Professor and Q-Tip.
“I was at the session for Life’s a Bitch,” he said. “I met Nas’s father (jazz musician Olu Dara). He went to play the horn at the end and Nas said ‘Get crazy. …’ I remember The World Is Yours session, with Pete laying it live; it was cool to watch the process.
I remember when Q-Tip gave the One Love sample, he had it looped on cassette. He was pause-mixing it, with no drum machine. I said ‘Wow, I can’t wait to hear this song.’
“I witnessed all that. I remember giving Nas a ride home that day … Those memories mean a lot to me.”
But Premier is not one to rest on his laurels. He produced several tracks on Christina Aguilera’s 2006 album Back to Basics, and worked on the follow-up, Bionic, due in June – though his tracks reportedly didn’t make the final cut, as the sound went in a more futuristic direction.
He began our conversation by talking excitedly and at length about current projects, including his label Year Round Records, protégés NYGz, his Friday night show on Sirius satellite radio, and more.
Asked what fans can expect from him and Pete Rock on Saturday night, Premier replied: “Back and forth motion of hot records. He picks a song, I pick a song. We go through different categories and bring nothing but heat.”
Source: The Montreal Gazette