“Yo, let me see that?” DJ Premier asks. He was just talking about the changes he made to the old D&D Studios—now rechristened HeadQcourtez Studios after his late friend—since buying the space in 2003. Then he got distracted after seeing a copy of Kanye West’s new album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Premier rips off the plastic packaging, opens the booklet and goes silent for the next five minutes, immersing himself into the esoteric rap-nerd world of liner notes. At times he mutters to himself, almost as if he is memorizing the list of cleared samples and production credits.
Premier, born Chris Martin, is a rap savant. He spent his formative years in Houston, Texas but is synonymous with New York hip-hop, and in the late 1980s, he joined the late Keith “Guru” Elam in Gang Starr. The duo released six albums and never went platinum, yet they were beloved by fans. Outside of the group, Premier produced songs for Biggie, Jay-Z, Nas, Fat Joe, Rakim, M.O.P, KRS-One, Group Home, Mos Def and Jeru the Damaja. In short, any East Coast artist that mattered in the 1990s worked with DJ Premier.
Nowadays, his collaborators aren’t as high profile; The NYG’z, Khaleel and Nick Javas are the featured artists on DJ Premier Presents Year Round Records: Get Used to Us, Premier’s new compilation highlighting his label, Year Round Records.
Premier is wearing his de facto uniform—a champion sweatshirt and baggy jeans—as he sits down for the inaugural XXL Icon Interview. Over the next two hours, he will discuss every major moment from his long career. He will talk about the end of Gang Starr, his role in the short, but super entertaining, beef between the Notorious B.I.G. and Jeru the Damaja, the real reason why he hasn’t landed a track on a Jay-Z or Nas album in nearly a decade and why he cursed out Chuck D in a 7-11. Mostly, however, he reminisces about Guru, who passed away on April 19, 2010. Even though they hadn’t spoken in over six years, almost every topic leads back to Guru. Premier has his own way of coping with the loss. “When I miss Guru, I bump one of our records,” he says. “Then I shed a tear and get back to work.”—Thomas Golianopoulos