In the last 20 years, there have been few hip-hop producers as prolific, talented and versatile as DJ Premier. Born Christopher Martin, the beatmaker has been almost inextricably associated with east coast rap throughout his entire career, but the Houston, Texas native is far more eclectic and unpredictable than his pedigree, and even his discography suggests. In addition to working with late rapper Guru in the group Gang Starr, he’s produced everyone from Notorious B.I.G. to Nas, Jay-Z to Janet Jackson, and even ventured into pop territory with collaborations with the likes of Christina Aguilera. But in the new film “The Re:Generation Project,” he joins several other music industry luminaries to venture into territory even he’s never explored, bringing his expertise to bear even as he’s learning new things about a completely unfamiliar genre: classical music.
The premise of the film was to pair up producers and performers like himself with musical genres they hadn’t worked in, and Premier found himself working with a live orchestra to re-record segments he borrowed from composers like Vivaldi and Brahms. Crave Online caught up with Premier last week via telephone to discuss the process of immersing himself in classical music, experimenting with sources of inspiration disparate even for a producer whose bread and butter is sampling, and moving forward as a producer and performer whose musical palette only continues to expand. Additionally, he offered an unexpected scoop for longtime fans who have been waiting for a reunion between him and one of his most gifted collaborators: Jeru the Damaja.
It’s a great honor to speak with you. The reason I listen to albums like Jeru’s “Wrath of the Math” over and over is as much because of your music as his lyrics.
Thanks a lot, man. I appreciate it. Myself and Jeru, we’re actually going to get back together. We squashed all of our old history, and we’re going to get back together. We’re not going to announce it, we’re just going to do it, but it’s going to be me and Jeru back in the studio this year.
Wow – that’s great to hear! In terms of “Re:Generation,” you and a few other hip-hop producers have sampled classical music in the past, but this seems like a totally different experience.
Well, I’ve sampled classical music doing hip-hop stuff, like I’ve orchestrated stuff for Nas before. But overall, I’ve never learned how to listen to it and understand it, just how it spoke to me in its original format. Like, whenever I’ve used it for hip-hop beats, I’d loop it and put drums and things like that to it to make it sound like hip-hop. But to do it from its raw, pure form, learn it and understand what it means and how everything is put down, through my tutor Bruce Adolphe, I learned it in a whole different way where the respect factor for it I had before just reached from that day I went to the Brooklyn Conservatory School of Music to get tutored by Bruce, who comes from Julliard. And then once I went to the Berklee College of Music to work with the symphony orchestra to do that part, I had already worked with Stephen Webber before, but not for classical music. It was for an awards ceremony honoring me, Marley Marl, Jazzy Jay, the Zulu Nation, Grandmaster DST who scratched on the song “Rockit” with Herbie Hancock, and Jam Master Jay was honored but he passed away and his mother received an award on his behalf.
That was an awards ceremony, but to get with Stephen and learn how to conduct and move the baton, which I had no knowledge of, and seeing the orchestra re-record with me to lay down parts over what I arranged with the samples that I took from the music library that I arranged for the whole project, I was just blown away. Again, I’m always willing to learn, but I just learned so much, and I have a whole admiration where now I want to go to a symphony, go and catch an orchestra and sit there, where prior to “Re:Generation,” I’d probably be snoring in the aisle seat where you wouldn’t be able to go to the bathroom because I wouldn’t get up (laughs).
So now I have a whole different respect; it’s unbelievable what I learned. It’s going to make me better as a producer, as a person, because now I can share and pass that on to another level where people may want to expand more on just the drum machines and the computers, and go back to the roots of what makes music so great.
How difficult was it to resist the impulse to assemble the classical pieces into loops as you typically do with sampled material?
Well, there were eleven pieces which Stephen and them were familiar with, because they were all known compositions from Vivaldi and Brahms and Mozart and Bach and things of that nature. And when I arranged it, he understood where I placed everything, but I didn’t want to overdo it. Because for one thing, they said, you know, a lot of symphonies are 15, 20, 30 minutes long, and they wanted me to compile it to where it was less than a four-minute piece. So even with that, you’re forced to condense it and make it all make sense, so I was just really, really caught up in the whole thought process of making sure that I remained at a certain level of putting this thing together, and do it where it made sense for what they had me do this for, and still allow enough room for the orchestra to have their parts and not just try to hog the whole thing. Because this was beyond my hip-hop world; this was an extension of that by taking things to a level that I’ve never been a part of.
How do you decide in what direction to take your career now? After having spent so much time doing stuff for Gang Starr and then moved onto more mainstream projects like Christina Aguilera’s album, do you feel free to do anything you want now?
Absolutely. This makes me now want to do more pop music. Now, my hip-hop music will always stay gutter and raw and nasty, because that’s what I love when I hear hip-hop – I love it ugly and raw and just punch-you-in-the-face type of hip-hop. But I am also a musician and a music lover and I respect music on even more levels now that I’ve done this “Re:Generation” music project, so now I want to do more pop; I was saying earlier, I’ll do a Miley Cyrus record, or I’ll do a Justin Bieber record. But I’ll still make it where my production style enmeshes with what they have to accomplish in their genre, and their audience will still come off because I’m going to apply it with a little more knowledge. Like with Christina, I learned so much working with her that I was like, “bring on the next project!” And even though there was no other projects in her world that came to me except for her again when the Bionic album started getting made, I still said, one day something else is going to come around. And this is when “Re:Generation” came to my doorstep, and I was totally up for the challenge.
Was there a genre among the ones they mixed up for this project that you would have preferred or liked to have jumped into?
Nah. They told me everybody was already chosen for the genre they were going to do, so once they told me it was going to be classical, I was like, “oh, really?” I really wanted to do rock, because I’m a big rock fan, but they wanted me to jump into something that I’m not as familiar with, and that was classical. So I was like, “alright, that’s cool – I’m up for any challenge. I’m not going to run from it.” But that wasn’t what I would choose, but after doing it, I’m glad I did, because it’s made me even more respectful of music as a whole.
How did you develop your signature style – that sound that’s never repetitive but instantly identifiable?
I’ve always looked at, from the day that I got my record deal with Guru and Gang Starr, I looked at it as I was a guy who won a contest. A good example would be like you might watch a football game and say, “aw, man! Why did he run that play? I would have run this.” Some people, they talk that way, but if you put them in that position, they would flop if they ran into that position as a player. But with me, I feel like I was given an opportunity to make a record, and I provided the equipment I wanted to use, and once I learned the equipment, I said, okay, I can apply myself, and I’ll make it sound the way I would buy music. And that’s what I do – I make stuff that I would buy. So I always think of the DJs first, like the DJs would be like, “oh, Premier killed this” – and that’s why I scratch so much, because all of the DJs like Jam Master Jay and DJ Cheese and Cutmaster D.C. and Mix Master Ice and Flash and Theodore. The MC always talked about the DJ, and I was like, yo – I want to do that too, so the DJs will go, “I love the line from this record,” and “I love what you did with this record.” So I understand how to take concepts and theme music for whatever the record calls for, and that’s what I am; Guru, God bless his soul, used to call me a beat tailor, because I tailor the beats to the artist. That’s what I still do, and that’s why I’m able to do so many records, because I always think about the last record I did versus [it]. And there are similarities – like people say the rhythms sound the same – but I don’t care. Angus Young from AC/DC said that one day a guy said, “AC/DC does the same song eleven times and it sounds the same.” And Angus Young said, “no, that is not true. We do not make the record sound the same eleven times. We make it sound the same thirteen times.” And I was like, yeah! Because what they lay down, if it’s raw and hardcore and banging, then bang it! Stop all of this criticizing, unless you can do better – and if you can do better, come challenge me, anytime. But let’s put money on it, because if you lose I’m taking your money.
Do you have a song or album you produced that you’re most proud of?
I’m proud of “Mass Appeal,” because on that record we were making fun of radio because that’s when radio started to kind of lean towards softening up the music they played when it came to hip-hop on the radio, and we were just doing it to make fun of them. So I said I want to make a beat that sounds like elevator music, like when you’re on an elevator you hear, “dink, dink, dink, dink dink.” So I was being funny and looped up the sample and put it to the drums that I use, and it became our first hit record. Even though we came from the underground, it was our first radio hit, and to make fun of radio and then turn it into a hit, that’s really a crazy thing. Because that’s not what the intention was as far as the beat; again, it was anti-radio, and our anti-radio record became a radio hit. So that’s not my favorite record, but it is the most proudest for what it turned into even though we were making fun of radio.