Here’s an interview done by Kevin Glenz in January for a Japanese magazine called Beatleg:
When magazines and websites do surveys on the greatest hip hop producers of all time, DJ Premier is almost always near the top, if not number one. As one half of the duo Gang Starr with late rapper Guru, he hit the scene in 1989 with the breakthrough single “Manifest” and quickly became one of the most in-demand beat makers in hip hop. Initially, after Gang Starr’s single “Jazz Thing,” featuring Branford Marsalis and included on the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, made waves internationally, he was sought out for the “jazzy hip hop” sound, working with Soul II Soul, Neneh Cherry, and Loose Ends. He also raised his profile with tracks for hip hop stars Ice T, Heavy D & the Boyz and Lord Finesse. Then came Gang Starr’s third album Daily Operation in 1992, with a harder-edged sound that showcased Premier’s innovative approach to chopping up samples, programming thumping drums, and putting his signature scratches on every hook. The B-side of that album’s first single “Take it Personal,” a collaboration with Nice & Smooth called “DWYCK,” became a massive club hit. Guru launched his solo project Jazzmatazz, while Premier became New York hip hop’s top producer, doing most of the Return of the Boom Bap solo album for KRS-One (Boogie Down Productions). Along with several more Gang Starr LPs and singles, including the gold-selling Moment of Truth, he produced tracks on the albums now considered “golden era” classics, including Nas’ Illmatic, Notorious BIG’s Ready to Die, and Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt. The final Gang Starr album was released in 2003 (Guru died of cancer in 2010), but Premier has never stopped working, producing literally hundreds of tracks and several full-album projects for hip-hop legends (Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, Rakim), superstars (Kanye West, Snoop Dogg) and underground heroes (M.O.P., Bumpy Knuckles), and even R&B singers (Janet Jackson, D’Angelo, Christina Aguilera) and rock artists (Robbie Robertson, Maroon 5).
He just released the album PRhyme, a collaboration with Royce da 5’9”, who has worked extensively with Eminem and Dr. Dre. But on his Japan tour in January, he debuted a brand new 4-piece band that played along with his beats and scratches at Billboard Live in both Tokyo and Osaka.
As he sipped on hot tea with lemon to soothe his sore throat, we asked Premier how it felt to be on stage with a band for the first time.
“It’s dope, man. I’m the type of person that’s very stuck in my ways, from all I’ve done and accomplished. And this was a last-minute thing, brought up by my manager and also Yuji who brought us out here. Plus I’m moving from my studio from 24 years, D&D, so that’s a big stress on my brain. And I’ve revamped my business with my team to go back to the way I was in the ‘90s, like lickety-split. I can do 10-15 records in a week – done! Like, completely recorded, mixed, out there. So I wanted to go back to that work ethic, and it feels good to do that.
But I’m a challenge guy. I like challenges that will be tough to pull off. So that idea (the band) being pitched to me so soon from moving and getting the studio set up was a challenge – I mean, where are we gonna rehearse? What songs are we gonna do? You want 70 minutes? OK. So at first I was like, I don’t really have time to concentrate on a band! That’s a lot of individuals mixed in with the way I do my thing. But it’s just crazy, man. We just clicked like that. I feel like I’ve been on the road with them for a while. And this is just my third day with them!”
After doing two shows at Billboard Live Tokyo, Premier and the band played at a packed club at 2 a.m. His manager confirmed that there were at least 700 people in the main room, and probably a total of 1200 that paid to get into the venue. Premier had also sold out the Billboard Live on Sunday.
“It’s been different, man. We had to learn 23 songs. I know my stuff, but I had to learn how we would gel together. We’ve got Brady with the bass, Lenny on the drums, Corey on the trombone and keys and Taku on the keyboard and trumpet. Sometimes I would call and ask them to give me something, and they were right on time. They did some weird shit last night and I was like ‘What the fuck was that?’ because they didn’t do it the previous night, but it just adds flavors to the show. You know, even when we clash or miss a spot, we all either look and laugh or we just recover. And with a new group of people that might take a minute, but we’ll mess up and recover right away, because that’s how much we’re in sync. Four days of rehearsal, and I came out here to do a couple of DJ gigs in Korea, and then we rehearsed the day of the show here.”
Premier saw James Brown when he was six years old, which left a huge impression on him. We asked if he feels like James Brown with his own band on stage.
“Not in the same way. He danced. I got old knees! And I’m a dancing dude, too. But he’s in my psyche when I do whatever I do. Everything is just off the vibe of the music.
And part of it is from watching other MCs do it live. Like the way he would point. All that stuff we borrow from each other, but you still make it your own style. And that’s being professional with your business, especially with your craft. But those guys, man, in this short period of time, I’m already convinced if we do more band stuff or are gonna make an album, I want to do it with them. We’re gonna do some funky things.”
We told Premier that beatleg magazine (a Japanese print publication) is for hardcore music fans, the “maniacs.” He immediately replied, “Like myself.” I asked him to talk about the breadth of his music interests.
“I remember when MTV came out. My dad told me, “You ain’t getting no cable TV! You need to study!” That’s my father!
But I watched TV and when they showed the ad that there would be a music channel that was 24 hours of music, already I was like, “Wow!” At the time I was thinking there was gonna be more black stuff in there. But when they advertised, I totally remember them showing David Byrne from Talking Heads in the ‘Once in a Lifetime’ video, and he had the suit and the glasses and the way he was moving and the duplicates of him, I was like, ‘What the fuck is that?’ Because he looked like that but it also had some funk to it. So that made me go, ‘Who are they?’ Just from the music and the look. I caught it because they didn’t have a lot of content then and kept repeating the same stuff. And I’d always go to my friend’s house every day and stay there for hours and hours, watch all the videos and see the Fixx, INXS, all these groups had a dope sound, U2. So I started going to these shows to see if they could put it down like the record, and they did! So I said if I ever get a chance to do the rap version, which evolved later, I gotta do it to that capacity because I remembered how they tore it down when we went to go see them.
All the artists that came I would see. Psychedelic Furs, Siouxsie and the Banshees. I saw the Smiths and they broke up right after that, the same year! I saw Devo a few times. Saw them recently too. They’re in their 60s, and they’re killin’ it! They were getting busy. And it was right before Gerald’s brother died, so we got to see the full Devo. And their energy was no different from when I saw them when I was 19.”
Could Premier imagine when he was watching MTV at his friend’s house that you would be on it just a few years later?
“You dream of it, yeah. I thought I’d like to be on there in some type of way. I didn’t know if it would be hip hop or whatever, but I felt those artists and thought, ‘Damn I wish I was in that group. That dude looks so cool the way he’s playing.’ And when I saw the Killing Joke video for ‘Eighties,”’ I was like, ‘Yo, the way he’s playing that bass and the way he uses the mics.’ And everybody wants to be cool. And that’s the way you can relate, like, ‘I’m cool like that.’ The way he plays, the way he moves, it all goes with it.
Growing up with the soul music of the ‘70s (James Brown, Al Green, Rufus and Chaka Khan) and the new wave of the ‘80s shaped Premier’s unique production style in the ‘90s. But when making hip hop tracks, he has a very clear image in mind.
“I take from everything when I produce. But the first thing I think of is a boombox, with a B-boy walking down the street, with a big radio, his skully (cap) sitting right at the top of his ears, like a cone with the pom-pom. That’s how the B-boys rocked it then. They didn’t pull it all the way over their ears. And they looked like they were about to go into battle, fat laces with the Pro-Keds or the Adidas shell toes. And the record was playing out the radio. An old Mantronix record, a T-La Rock record, old Cold Crush. And it seemed like the radio was set to only play that. So that’s the first thing I think of when I apply the approach. To this day. Even it’s a pretty song or a radio record, I still have to think in that light. Even if it doesn’t sound like (Nas’ 1999 single) ‘Nas is Like’ or it’s something more melodic and pretty, all of that is thrown in.”
Gang Starr produced not only some of the most respected hip hop albums of the 1990s, it also put out lots of singles with non-LP B-sides. Premier says that was also a product of his early musical tastes.
“We put ‘DWYCK’ as a B-side (of the ‘Take It Personal’ 12” single). A lot of artists were doing that – Stetsasonic, De La Soul, Public Enemy. They would always have a song that was not on the album. And new wave artists did that. Joy Division records would have a new record on the B-side. Bauhaus. Prince all the time. Always. I have a lot of Prince 45s. So I wanted to do the same thing, where it says ‘unavailable on LP’. My intent from day one was to make sure we make stuff that makes people want to buy our records, and go, ‘Ooh, they got a new joint!’ That’s why we did ‘The ? Remainz.’ And it has to have that sound as a B-side record. Like ‘Natural,’ that’s one of my favorite records. Man, I love all that stuff. ‘So Wassup?!’ Those are the type of joints I would pick to play out of Gang Starr stuff. As a fan I’d be like, ‘I’d bump that.’ I love ‘Mass Appeal’ and ‘Above the Clouds,’ but those singles from left field are the ones that I bump.”
Speaking of Prince, Premier did a record for Wendy & Lisa called “Satisfaction.” How did that come about?
“I told my manager Patrick Moxey to get me some work. He said nobody knows you, but we can go to Europe and see if we can get you on some of that stuff and maybe it’ll spread. So that’s why we did Loose Ends, and the record with Jazzy B from Soul to Soul, and also Slam Slam, which was Dee C. Lee, whose husband was Paul Weller from the Jam. I did a record with her that’s hard to find. Actually I just found 10 of them on 12”. It’s called ‘Free Your Feelings.’ The remix I did on that was one of the first jobs I ever had.
But I never got to meet Wendy & Lisa. And I wish I did! I would have been asking them every fuckin’ question! I would have asked Lisa, ‘Was that really your pubic hair on the (Prince) ‘Let’s Work’ 12-inch cover, coming out of your white panties?’ And she’d probably say, ‘Yeah.’ Back then having pubic hair was sexy, it was like, ‘Oh, I saw her bush.’ But now it’s like, ‘Aw man, she’s hairy!’ And you see that and Prince didn’t care to show that, it made me go, ‘Yo, he’s dope! He’s fuckin’ dope!’ And the music was just as rebellious. It went right with the whole look. Dirty Mind will forever be one of the illest albums to ever touch the planet. Ever. Nobody was even that bold. I was blown away by the lyrics and the sound of it, and I was into new wave too. Everybody was. Even hip hop kids were. It’s from the same scene. You know, ‘Shout’ by Tears for Fears, that’s hip hop. It’s all part of that same world.
Back in 1998 I remember seeing fliers for a Gang Starr show in Tokyo. We asked if he remembered anything about that tour.
“It was good! Yeah. All our tours were good. Our tours have always been fun. Europe showed us that there’s a reason to keep doing it even if at home they’re more lightweight to it and they stop buying records and stuff. They invest in everything out here and put their money up. The same with me, I put my money into things I want.”
Premier keeps himself busy when he comes to Tokyo.
“I saw DJ Abe (at Disc Jam in Shibuya). He gave me these new needles he made. I’m using them tonight. They’re really sturdy. He even showed me how to set the weights for them. ‘That’s the mark, turn it to 3 1/2.’ And he was in the audience, and I said, ‘Yo, I’m using your needles!’ He was happy. Everybody knows his store. Every celebrity DJ and every DJ that’s thorough and respected, they go to his store.
Then I bought some hats. I get in the habit of throwing hats out in to the crowd, and then be like, ‘Damn, I didn’t mean to give them that one!’ This was actually a gift from my manager for Christmas. I got a couple Kangols too.
Next on Premier’s agenda is a trip to Thailand for some DJ gigs, then an American tour with PRhyme, Boldy James and Your Old Droog that starts on February 18. PRhyme’s album came out in late 2014 but topped several writers’ “Best of 2014” lists. How is it putting out an album today compared to the ‘90s?
“With PRhyme, we didn’t have a single, no radio records. Even when we dropped the first track ‘Courtesy,’ I told them not to call it a single. Just drop it. Just call it ‘Courtesy,’ PRhyme. Give it the write-up and let everybody just pick up on it, because they will. We got some new remixes coming, one with Black Thought. We just did one with Logic. The MF Doom record will be coming too.”
Many hip hop fans will buy any record with “Produced by DJ Premier” on the label.
“That’s what I do. Like if I saw a Def Jam record, I know it’s good. You trust the brand, and that’s what I wanted. That’s how I was with Marley Marl – he had like ten bangers out at the same time! Eric B and Rakim, Kool G Rap, MC Shan, Big Daddy Kane… And every one was bangin’. I want to have the same thing, when people see my name on it, they know it’s good.”
The members of DJ Premier’s live band are:
DJ Premier (Turntables)
Brady Watt (Bass)
Lenny “The Ox” Reece (Drums)
Takuya Kuroda (Horns and Keys)
Corey King (Trombone and Keys)