How did the group with DJ Premier start?
We originally were supposed to do it with Slaughterhouse, and it didn’t pan out for a number of reasons. So I ended up getting on the phone with Preem and just asking him how he felt about just me and him doing it based off of our schedules.
Being sober, you have to find things that inspire you in order to truly do it. You lose interest in things, man. Like, you’ve been going to the studio for 20 years, rapping. [Laughs] Now it’s like, okay, you have to find something that drives you to the studio. So this was that thing. Any opportunity that I get to be able to work with Premo, I try to take it. I’ve been working with him on every single album, no matter what the situation is. So once we got three or four songs in, it was starting to feel like the stars were lining up. Everything started falling into place, and I’m into that. So I was like, alright, cool. And by the time we got to nine [songs], that was it. It was like, if we’re gonna do this, let’s do it.
DJ Premier hasn’t been in a group since Gang Starr. Was that weird for you?
It still is a little bit. And it’s only when we go down that road with the comparisons. I try to avoid that at all costs, and I try to big up Guru—God rest his soul—as much as I can. We look at it like we’re kind of continuing the legacy. I don’t feel in my heart that I’m doing anything that he wouldn’t 100 percent approve of. So we just move like that.
DJ Premier recently sat down with Pepsi to talk about his three favorite studio sessions in three different cities, read on:
“One of the best sessions was really doing “Unbelievable” with Biggie. I didn’t have time to do a track when he had already [almost] finished Ready To Die. He was like, ‘Yo. I need this last one. I need a B-side for my first single “Juicy.” I wanna play it for you.’ He came and played it for me, he hadn’t shot the video yet. He was like, ‘I need a beat where I gotta still do it for my [people] at home on the block.’
“I was like, ‘Yo, man. I don’t have anything to concentrate on right now and I don’t wanna hold you up.’ He said, ‘Man, I don’t care. I need something.’ So I told him to just come on up and come down.
“He came down and as soon as he walked in I was playing him those little notes. [Starts humming the intro to “Unbelievable” as we know it.] I was doing all of that. He was like, ‘Yo, I like that. Make it dance and not do the same rhythm.’ So I programmed in the beginning with the intro beats. [Starts beat boxing] And then I did the hook. He was like, ‘Yo. That’s it!’
“Now, the “Unbelievable” part with R. Kelly’s “Your Body’s Callin’”—I didn’t plan on putting that in there. I didn’t know if it was gonna be in the proper key. So when it came down to him asking me to put that in there, I did it. I did it the next day because I didn’t have the record on me at the time. This day and age I could have went straight to Harlem and did it. But it happened. It sounded exactly like how it was supposed to sound.
“I remember the very next day, me and my label manager was driving home back to Brooklyn. There was a car blasting music. You know how when you drive by somebody and they’re blasting something that sounds like hip-hop, you gotta maybe roll down or crack the window? But you don’t want them to see that you’re trying to hear what they’re playing, but you want to hear what they’re playing? I was hearing “Unbelievable” playing. Biggie was always known for giving his stuff away to his boys because they would be playing it in the hood on the block. At that time, I lived right down the block from him. So when I’m driving and I’m hearing the guy playing it. I was like, ‘This has to be one of Big’s homies.’
“I roll up and I’m like, ‘Yo, where you get that from.’ And he goes, ‘Flex is playing it on the air right now.’ And I was like, ‘How is he playing it?’ But they made an acetate from mastering. Acetate is like a dub plate. When you’re mastering a record, they make a dub plate for you to test it out on the turntables, so that everything is cool and that it plays right. Then, you approve it. And then they press up the regular vinyl.
“But the acetate is so thick you can’t really scratch it or run it back. You can only get about three or four plays out of it. And after that all you hear is [distortion]. It’ll eat the record up. So, they gave him an acetate straight from mastering and it was already playing on the radio. That let me know that it was about to pop off. All of sudden, everybody was on it. That was my first gold single. That was a blessing.”
“Another session that was really dear to me just happened recently with this guy that I was put on to when I was visiting record labels in London last year. That guy named Rag. He’s a young kid, Rag ‘n’ Bone man. He’s dope! You can go to YouTube and look him up. Look up “Reuben’s Train.”
“”Reuben’s Train” is an old song that didn’t really have lyrics. It was like an old Jazz/Blues record. He did it and made his own acapella harmony and then wrote his own lyrics. He used “Reuben’s Train” as a concept of focus. He shot the video. He posted the video.
“He’s a big guy. He’s almost like 6’7. He looks like a big bodyguard. And he had a soulful voice that’s way beyond other artists. He had this soulful rock voice like Chris Cornell. Some label played me the “Reuben’s Train” video and they showed me another where he did a little freestyle. He was singing at somebody’s house. That was dope. I was like, ‘Ok. I like this guy. I def wanna work with him.’ And then, they were like, ‘Well, he’s not signed. We’re trying to get him signed.’ So since they were working on getting him signed, I reached out to him because I wanted to work with him. I hit him up on Twitter and I just came to London and got to do three demos with him. They all came out so dope. He’s gonna be somebody you’re gonna see. Rag ‘N’ Bone man.”
“Man, I gotta say working with Miguel in L.A. That was cool because we never worked together. We met at SXSW years ago when he just had the one single out with J. Cole. Back then, he was like, ‘Yo man. You’re one of my idols. I wanna work with you.’ And you know, Mark Pitts, who managed Biggie and handled Big L. I called him Guc. I know him from way back as Gucci. I call him Guc. I told him hook me up with Miguel because I told him I wanted to work with him.
“Me and Miguel covered the extensive. He put me in the studio with him. And, he doesn’t even go in the booth. He sits there at a laptop with his headphones on and he has this old school ’70s mic that they used to have on Soul Train. He sang into that.
“Everybody was in the room and he was telling everybody to be quiet. But we was chilling there, talked, did the hookah, and he laid it down. He was real quick. He knew where to punch his own lyrics where he messed up and everything. We came up with a banger called “Damn.” I’m looking forward to that. It might be a single. It’s not official yet, but I hope it is, because it’s really a dope song.”
Long time no hear, here’s a new interview with Gang Starr Foundation member Afu-Ra:
Before we get into the good stuff I just want to sincerely thank you for showing us love and rocking this interview with Lyrically Fit. How was the name Afu-Ra born exactly?
Afu-Ra is an old name. It’s Egyptian. I chose the name from the Egyptian ‘Book of Dead’. At a time when I sought direction in my life because of its meaning in ‘Body of the Life Force’ I saw it very clearly it was me at 17/18 years old. This name brought me to a natural presence with uplifting spirit
Coming onto the scene initially who were some of your biggest inspirations that may have drove you to create music? Any specifics you care to name for us?
Back then in the early 90′s – from growing up around true masters. I was around a great mc who had a style never witnessed by the masses. I got inspiration and knowledge on how to rhyme with quality and un-mimicable style, then I started hanging with Jeru who again has showed me the same but a different essence of Hip-Hop. Before that I’ve known and loved Run-DMC, Lord Shafique, Rakim, Special Ed, and X Clan. So when my own homies were doing it as ill on a street level I began to craft my own style by just being a freestyler, until Jeru made his first album I only had 1 written rhyme. “Mental Stamina” was my second.
In 1994 you were featured on Jeru The Damaja’s “Mental Stamina” off ‘The Sun Rises On the East’ – than again on his “Physical Stamina” not long after on his ‘Wrath of the Math’ lp. What was the chemistry like early on with Jeru and how did you two link to rock these records together?
Jeru and I are from ENY Brooklyn. We were homies before deals or Gangstarr, so when Jeru met Guru (who introduced him to Dj Premier) it was just two homies chillin’. That’s how we had that connection. Before that I was with Jeru when he was making his first rhymes and I was absorbing from my older friend who was (and is) my brother so to speak.
What is one of your most memorable moments in life as far as music is concerned and why? Any standout/highlight moments that come to mind?
Stand out moments? My first time doing “Mental Stamina” on stage. Fat Joe had a thing at the infamous Club Fever in the BX and Jeru had a show. I was Jeru’s hype man. Lady of Rage was there too. I was SO nervous but I played it off and killed it. That became my signature; be nonchalant then kill it – never let them see you coming. I learned that technique from watching kung fu movies. If a real master is in the room you will never know until he is forced to reveal his secret techniques.
2000 was a big year for your fans, with your classic debut ‘Body of the Life Force’ in which I personally still keep in rotation. Amazing debut. Though you had a buzz prior; what kind of responses were you getting after this release?
I received very good responses. At that time – one of the top mc’s on wax in terms of styles and product, thanks to DND. But I didn’t see the richness of it. I was like many others – a piece of paper in the wind. I would have to say it is only because of many mistakes and through growth that I can expose this to the world. Still in all it was a great time, great album and all the experience that goes along with it.
If you could work with one artist dead or alive who would it be, and why?
I would love to work with Big Pun or Bob Marley. Those two artist I have always dreamed to work with.
Do you mind talking a little bit about the importance of martial arts to you, and that whole culture? How do you feel those facets play a role in your music career?
Martial arts and the philosophy behind it – the fusion of the mind body and spirit together to use your physical capabilities to your benefit is the over structure of martial arts. The training and knowledge of different art forms structure everything in my life. This effect one will know only if they’ve studied or deeply admired martial arts. As you know my lyrics are a combination of many styles just like martial arts. To draw all or draw from all your knowledge and/or instincts at any given time with or without thought. I believe I developed from training consistently with a martial form and so on. However, the brain is like a computer so once in tune with ones self-anyone can do wonders. The studying and practice of taekwondo, tai boxing and trying to learn about martial arts in my times may have the direct conditioning of my person as I previously described.
Dj Premier is one of many renowned producers you’ve dropped jewels with. What was the chemistry like on your earlier records with Preem as far as the studio and overall connection? I would imagine natural considering the quality level of jewels you’ve dropped with him.
Precisely the connection with me and Dj Premier was just very natural in those days. It was a family thing. Premier definitely coached me when I was in the booth. “harder..stronger..more this..more that” – I was an untamed artist and rapping next to recording your vocals are different. He gave me this knowledge through the work we did.
What do you think about the current state of Hip-Hop? Is Afu-Ra listening to any newer cats these days?
When it comes to Hip-Hop the state isn’t the same. It has been even worse the last almost 10 years or so. Certain companies have a monopoly in the radio. Also retail and marketing areas of the music industry that control the minds tastes – likes and dislikes of the masses (this is a global conditioning). However, let us not get the industry confused with the realness! HIP -HOP is still the beats and rhymes, and the love and inspiration fashioned through the art form.
Keeping the topic on the present-day, what is Afu-Ra currently working on? Should fans be expecting any new material from you in terms of music, or any other cool stuff you have going on? (shows, lp’s, collaborations etc.)
Thanks for the time and energy in this interview. Please look out for the new singles and album this fall. Secret collaborations you will love! Afu-Ra takes it back to the street, back to the boom-bap, back to the lyrics and more. Keep it locked on my Facebook (see below). Many people in society these days are suffering from depression that need unconventional help. I’m reaching out to people to get in touch with me if they need an ear to talk to or a mouth to listen to. That is something I’ve been focused on as well. Be on the lookout for the Worldwind Squad. More info coming real soon!
How was your 4th July?
DJ Premier: Aww man it was good, just spent some time with my son. He just turned three, he’s a little silly kid like me.
You said he’s three?
Yeah, I started late.
Better than starting early.
No question. I’d be a good father regardless but being in the hip-hop world, you don’t grow up as fast as everybody else when you had a career like me and Guru had.
What do you mean by that?
When I was 19 I had a record deal. And we weren’t ever platinum artists but we had platinum respect. So the things that come with being in our industry that we always dreamed about, the groupies and all the partying, all the sex drugs and rock and roll, we did it. So when you get spoiled by that lifestyle … it’s hard to nail down a girlfriend that’s steady when you meet girls that just want to be down because you’re an artist or a star or for the fame. You have a different type of guard up; do they love me for me or is it because I’m famous? My radar has always been that way so for me to have children and all that, it took longer because of how non-trusting I was of the girls I’ve been with and girls I’ve met. You look for that one that completes you and until that happens you just gotta keep livin’ and keep rockin’.
So you two didn’t grow up as fast both because you’ve been able to do whatever you want since you were 18 and then you had that extra level of cynicism about women.
Exactly … but other than that, I’m just blessed that we survived the wildness. Some people didn’t, not just in our genre, in rock, pop music, everything. Some actors, everybody in entertainment, the Heath Ledgers of the world, the DJ AM’s … the depression of the industry. I’ve been down all those roads, not depression, but down the roads of all those temptations. Some people have an off switch but some people don’t. Some people need therapy, some people don’t. I’ve always been able to turn it off myself just because I know how to talk to myself and say “enough, get back to work” and that’s how I’ve always been. That’s why I’ve never been in the tabloids or anything on that level. I’m just having a good time and enjoying it.
Speaking of people who have had issues with fame, what’s your relationship with Kanye like? I know you’ve been in the studio with him.
Kanye … I haven’t talked to him in several years. Last time I talked to him was at Watch the Throne because I took Guru’s son and my nephew, who’s 19 now, he wanted to meet Jay Z. We had all access. He got to meet him and meet Ye. Ye was on tour with us when Common had the Electric Circus tour [in 2002] and it was Gang Starr, Common, Floetry, and Talib Kweli. Kweli brought Kanye halfway through the tour on the road, we were like “What is Kanye doing here?” He wasn’t even rapping then, he was just producing. I asked Kweli and he said, “Man Kanye gave me my first hit ever on radio with “Get By” and he didn’t charge me. He gave it to me free. So I’m giving it back to thank him.”
I remember going backstage on a random night and Kanye goes, “Ayo Premier, I’m about to drop an album called College Dropout and I’m rapping on the whole thing. And as I soon it drop it’s gonna go double platinum.” I looked at him like, “That’s a bold statement to make if you never rapped before. Everybody knew he could make those beats. But so Kanye’s always been that way from the first time I ever met him, way before he had a dollar in his pocket. When people started saying, “Oh he’s arrogant, he’s an asshole,” I’m like honestly, he’s been acting like that before he got famous. So I won’t knock it. And yo, then the album came out and it went double platinum!
You know what I like about him? He’s very passionate about his shit. You can say he’s crazy and nuts and out of his mind, with Kim and all this stuff, but he’s passionate and that’s why you gotta love Ye for who he is. Honestly, he reminds me of Guru with his wild emotions and the way he thought and took stuff to heart and spazzed out a lot. I been seeing that through my whole career with Gang Starr. His passion is just so great … and he’s a good dude … he either likes you or he doesn’t. Same with the fans and the people that perceive him, you either like him or you don’t. But he’s always given me free kicks, I asked about them Yeezys and he said “I already got a box, I’ll send em to you”. The only thing is I haven’t gotten my Graduation plaque … I’m gettin a little angry about that!
Do you ever feel limited in by people calling you and wanting that signature DJ Premier sound?
Nah because I know that they know what that sound and the name attached gives them, so I get it. On top of that, it’s fun to do all styles of what I do … I don’t want to be just a hip-hop producer. I want to do a Miley Cyrus record, an Eminem record, an Iggy Azalea record because my version of that sound isn’t gonna come out fucked. That’s how much I worry about my name as an artist. When I go in with any artist part of my job is to make sure that it comes out way more than right. Jay Z and Biggie and Nas always listened to my direction. They listened and they applied it and I also listened to their opinions and that’s why the records came out so good. They didn’t come out because of luck … we’re all good at what we do but it’s also us all knowing when it’s a good record that’s ready to leave the studio. That’s what I like about Dr. Dre, he said “I don’t let nothin’ leave the studio until it’s really really ready.”
How do you approach something like a Disclosure remix? That was a departure from what you usually do.
My manager said, “Hey man, let’s go on a writing trip.” I was like a writing trip? I don’t need to do that … I was getting’ all cocky like I’m Premier, but he was like, “Nah let’s tap into some new stuff, let’s go to London and stay out there and hook up with all the new people.” My publishing company had a list of people looking for [remixes] and Disclosure was on there. I already was liking what Sam Smith was doing, so they threw me that “Latch” record. I was like, “Uhh … I don’t know if I should touch that one” but my manager kept pushing me and the labels told me they’d love a remix. They just wanted Premier style, I didn’t have to follow what was on the radio … sometimes a label will come to you and say they want a dance version for the radio, I gotta tell them I’m not their guy. But for “Latch” they just handed me the stems and stayed out of my way.
I put it on double-time, slower to make it more like an R&B record, something I would envision having my name on. When I did it, they immediately were like “wow we love it,” Sam loved it, I met Sam and Disclosure when they were in New York. Sting came backstage! I was like, “Wow, Sting is coming to say what’s up to Disclosure … that’s a big deal!” and I just like the fact that all the way across the board they looked for everybody.
That story where you and Jeru walked in on Biggie eatin chicken butt naked and he told Jeru, “My name’s Biggie, not Barkim” … is that true?
Absolutely. We were at a motel … not even a hotel and were getting ready to back home after a show in Virginia. We all had rooms next to each other and the whole Junior Mafia was there, we all followed each other and drove our cars down because Biggie didn’t know how to drive. So he’s sitting there … he had boxer shorts on, he wasn’t butt naked but still he’s sitting there titties out, not even stressin all these guys in his room, he was comfortable. And he had a big ass bucket of chicken. Jeru was just startin’ to get into wanting to lose weight, he was going vegetarian and learning martial arts. Him and Afu-Ra were already planning to do that karate in their videos, and they did it. They started going to class every day and every time they came into the studio to record they wanted to use me as a guinea pig. I was like, “Don’t try that shit on me.” Anyways, the next thing you know, we were about to head back to New York we go check to see if Biggie and them were ready to drive back. Jeru walks in and says, “Damn, you eatin all that chicken? You should really be eating healthier.” Biggie said “Mannn fuck all that! I’m eating this shit. My name is Biggie not Barkim!” We all laughed our asses off.
When him and Biggie and Puff were beefin’, did people know he was deep into martial arts? Were people more wary of Jeru because they were worried he was gonna turn around and karate chop the shit out of somebody?
At that time, they were just perfecting their craft. They were just learning it then when “Ya Playin Yaself” came out and we did the “One Day” record. But I’m not sure if they saw the videos and thought he was doing the stunts, but they were definitely going to class every day. He’d come in the studio and stand his leg all the way up to the ceiling. They were into it hardbody. But honestly if it came down to a fight, we all been into fist fights together … we had Gang Starr brawls and M.O.P. brawls.
Saigon: This is the most honest album I ever did, and I went and got DJ Premier, because I always wanted to work with Premier. A lot of people don’t know this, but I like to use one producer for most of my projects. I think The Greatest Story Never Told Chapter 2: Bread and Circuses was the only one where I really didn’t. The Greatest Story Never Told, Just Blaze pretty much did the whole record. When I did All in a Day’s Work, I did the whole project with Statik Selektah. When I did most of my mixtapes, Scram Jones would do the whole mixtape. Even when I was working with Alchemist, me and Alchemist did eight or nine records. But I never worked with Premier up until this point. I had a project on his album, but we never had a Saigon/Premier record. We got four of them on this new album, and he just came with the perfect backdrop for what I had to say. So when I started working with him, the rhymes started coming easier, and I think lyrically, this is by far my best work.
DX: How was it in the studio with Premier, and how did y’all link up for this project?
Saigon: Well I had been waiting for this Premier beat for…not even exaggerating, for like 11 years. Preem will tell you, I’ve been waiting 11 years to work with him. It got to the point where me and Preem were about to fight, ‘cause I’m like “Yo man, what the fuck? You keep tellin’ me this and that.” Like we about to have a physical altercation? But he was like, “You know what Sai, you right, you right.” Because he knew I was right, and I wasn’t just trying to start shit. I’m thinking, “I love you as a big brother,” ‘cause me and him are close, but [he was] killin’ me! Before I retire, can the world hear Saigon and Premier together?
He actually gave one of my records to REKS. The last single on REKS last album, the Premier record, was my beat. So he finally gave me one, then he took it back and gave it to REKS [laughs]. I was like, “Ah, shit no.” He’s such an honorable person, he said, “You know what, Sai? Being that I made you wait so long, let’s go in. Let’s do more than one. Let’s bang out a few.” And when I get in that zone, when I get in my Yard Father Zone, we made some great records. We made some records that are gonna shock the people.
We did one with Big Daddy Kane… Ah man, it’s pretty damn nuts. I got another record called “Mechanical Animals,” where I took four generations of Hip Hop and put them on one song. It’s like Kool G Rap reps the ‘80s… Memphis Bleek, who is so underrated to me as a emcee ‘cause he’s been behind that big ass sun named Jay Z all his career [laughs]. It’s hard to shine behind Jay Z, but Bleek could really rap. But he’ll rep the ‘90s, I will represent the 2000s, then I got Lil Bibby from Chicago who will represent like the 2010s and the new, young era. And we all come together on one song to show that four generations of Hip Hop can rock on one record, and it can still sound incredible.