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DJ Premier Revisits Gang Starr’s “Step In The Arena”

To mark this month’s 20th anniversary of Preemo and Guru’s sophomore LP, Premier provided the background of the defining duo’s first timeless full-length. Preemo revealed rarely known details about the album’s creation, including the real life robbery-gone-wrong that inspired one of Hip Hop’s greatest cautionary tales, “Just To Get A Rep,” how Preemo’s surprising Punk Rock roots affected the length of certain album cuts, and every other possible detail you could ever think of wanting to know about the album that cemented Gang Starr as a timeless tag team.

DX: “Making you succumb to the drums of Gang Starr.” Why wasn’t “Check The Technique” a single?!

DJ Premier: It was a single. It was our third 12”. “Just To Get A Rep” was the first 12”. And then “Step In The Arena” was the second. “Check The Technique” was the third. And “Credit Is Due” was the B-side…

DX: Oh okay, I didn’t know that. I guess ‘cause there wasn’t a video I didn’t know there had been a single release… Those drums are only like three seconds of the original song you sampled, Marlena Shaw’s “California Soul”. So how did you make those drums come to life like that?

DJ Premier: Whenever I produce, I do it with a deejay mentality. When I say a deejay mentality, we pay very close attention to everything that comes out on a record. We dissect it. And in the Hip Hop format, when it comes to sampling, I’m always trying to find a way to be unique with my drum sounds, and the way I chop. Sometimes you just can’t get enough of the parts to make it whole. So that’s when you have to really brainstorm to force it. Sometimes I force things to work, and they just happen to come out. But that’s just me understanding the science of sampling and piecing together breaks. I loved those drum sounds and those claps in the Marlena Shaw record and I just said, “Hey, I’m gonna chop it.” Thanks to Showbiz and Large Professor, I learned how to chop samples. They taught me early on before I even was doing it – I used to just do straight loops.

DX: So you would cite “Check The Technique” as the birth of Preemo the chop-master?

DJ Premier: No, it’s not the first. But, it’s one of ‘em.

DX: Now, I learned from watching the joint interview you did with Pete Rock for y’all’s DJ Premier vs. Pete Rock DVD that “Just To Get A Rep” was the first real production you did entirely on your own. What happened between [Gang Starr’s first album in 1989] No More Mr. Nice Guy and Step In The Arena that led to you becoming the solo beatmaker for the group?

DJ Premier: I wanted to be a solo beatmaker to begin with, but I wasn’t that nice yet. I was okay. I was just using the sounds that was actually in the drum machine back at that time. ‘Cause I didn’t know that sampling was what they were doing in order to get those old-sounding kind of drums, until I started hearing all this Marley Marl stuff. I was just amazed at how he was using all these James Brown samples, and using these drums – Like, [The Honey Drippers’] “Impeach The President,” which I knew the song as a kid, but I was like, “How’s he making those drums play in place of these pre-made kicks and snares that come with the drum machine?” I had no clue. And once I saw he was using the S950 Akai sampler, I was like, “I gotta get one of those!” I saved my money. And the legendary [Audio Two and MC Lyte producer] King Of Chill, who actually works for me to this day, taught me how to work it without even having the drum machine to control it yet. I just did it manually by hand. And then once I was able to save money to get the drum machine to trigger it, then I bought an Alesis drum machine. I was on the [E-mu SP-1200] and then I went to an Alesis drum machine.

I met my engineer, Eddie Sancho, at D&D [Studios] – that was my first time working there because of Showbiz, who took me there to lay scratches for a Lord Finesse remix for “Return Of The Funky Man.” We worked out of Studio A in D&D. And when I heard the mix in my car I was like, “Damn, this shit sounds dope! I’ma start working here now.” So I gotta give Showbiz a lot of credit… Prior to [D&D] I was at Calliope Studios. I was trying to get the sound, like I said, that Marley and all them was getting [from Calliope]. I didn’t know Marley personally, so I couldn’t get at him. I used to like the way the Jungle Brothers were mixing their records down, and De La Soul, and they were all working at Calliope. So being that the Straight Out The Jungle album was done there, and De La Soul did a lot of stuff there [for] 3 Feet High And Rising, I was like, “Yo, you know what? If I start doing beats on a better level maybe I can get it to sound like their records.” Without bitin’ of course, but still to get that raw, old drum sound.

And now that I had learned all these different techniques, I started practicing at my apartment – when me and Guru lived together in the Bronx. We had just moved to the Bronx. And that’s how I met Panchi from NYG’z. That’s how I met Malachi The Nutcracker from Group Home. That’s how I met Smiley The Ghetto Child. That’s how we all got cool, because I moved to the Bronx ‘cause Guru was going out with this girl who was subletting her apartment and we moved in: me, him and our dancer, H.L. Rock.

From there, Guru was saying that I have to do more than just deejay on the records and do scratches. He said, “Just scratching on the records is not enough to get [you] paid half the money.” So that’s when I was like, “Well what else I gotta do?” He said, “You gotta make the beats, by yourself.” And I was like, “Alright. Well let me start practicing.” So since we lived together, I used to just practice everyday – just looping on turntables the parts that I wanted. And I’d mark the records and set ‘em aside. Then when it came down to getting it crackin’ [for the Step In The Arena album], and we finally got a budget – ‘cause we had just left Wild Pitch Records [after No More Mr. Nice Guy] and got a budget with Chrysalis Records – I was able to now really, really work on my craft. And I started practicing more and more. Then I started making all these beats. “Step In The Arena” was the first one I made. “Who’s Gonna Take The Weight?” was the second one I made – I was cuttin’ that little horn whistle [from Maceo & The Macks’ “Parrty”] over and over with two copies. And I would just mark all this stuff down on a piece of paper and make it happen. Guru put his trust in me and said, “Yo, I like every beat. Let’s roll.”

DX: And would you say there was a strategic sonic aim for the sophomore album, or was it just diggin’ and using whatever you unearthed at the time?

DJ Premier: Oh yeah, definitely, sonically it was the most important because I’m trying to get the sound that I like just as a fan [of the music] that these other artists are doing. When I heard [De La Soul’s] “Plug Tunin’” I’m like, “What the hell?!” And the echoes, and their vocal structure, and the way they were rhyming, they were being different. So I always wanted to be different. That’s the reason why I started using Jazz samples, ‘cause none of them were doing that. Everybody was James Brown, or rare [Funk and Soul] samples. But no one was really messing with Jazz samples, so I was like, “Well shit, these don’t even have singing and stuff on ‘em, it’s just an instrumental. I could rip all kinda things off of that.” I was just using Jazz samples ‘cause nobody else was. I wasn’t trying to create a new thing called Jazz Rap or something like that. I was just staying ahead of the curve, which is what my father always told me to do: be a leader and be different from everybody else. And that’s exactly what my whole mentality is now, and was back then.

DX: So with your role behind the boards, did Guru then come up with all the song concepts on his own…

DJ Premier: Yeah. He always wrote the concepts and the titles of the songs – put it on a piece of paper, stick it on the wall, and I would just start creating tracks that matched the title. And he would always write the title and then in parentheses he would write “song about such and such,” “song about a girl,” “song about getting robbed.” Like, “Just To Get A Rep” is ‘cause he got robbed right when we got our deal. We both bought brand new cars. He bought a Toyota 4Runner – those were hot at the time. And I bought a brand new MPV. This is in 1990. And, we moved into Branford Marsalis’ house. We were living with him and his son and his wife, because he was about to move to L.A. to be the music director for [The Tonight Show with Jay Leno]. He hadn’t packed up yet to move, so we stayed with him for a couple of months. I remember Guru was hanging out in the wrong part of town – it was him and a couple of other brothers. They were kinda profilin’ around some real, real hardrock dudes. And then later on that night, Guru went to the store by himself – just to go get something from the store, but now it’s nighttime, when you know all the wolves come out – and those same guys were like, “That’s the same guy that was posted up wit’ all his boys earlier.” [Gang Starr wasn’t] really that big yet, so they didn’t know who he was. Or even if they did, they made a move on him, ‘cause now this time he wasn’t with five or six guys… And they stuck him. They took the car. We started hunting for these guys for the next couple of days. And maybe like four or five days later, we ran into ‘em and started chasing after ‘em. The guys take off. The cops jump into the situation and start chasing ‘em too. And the guy crashes into an ice cream truck, and he dies.

It was an ill [situation] because Guru had taken a picture of his 4Runner when he got it, and he was sitting there, posted up by it all smiling like, “Yeah, what! I got my new 4Runner.” And then the precinct had to take the car to the precinct to report it for the guy crashing and dying in it. It was smushed up like an accordion. And Guru took a picture standing by it again with a big frown on his face. He had like the before and after pictures on the wall at our house.

Once we moved outta the Bronx, we lived together in Brooklyn. And that’s how we met [Notorious B.I.G.] and all of [Junior M.A.F.I.A]. We’d see them all the time. Lady Of Rage, Nikki D, we’d all hang out all the time. We’d see the RZA all the time. That’s when he was [recording as] Prince Rakeem. The first record he ever played me was “Pass The Bone” [that he did with The Genius]. And that became a record later on that finally came out.

But rewinding all that back, it was just ill that when this guy stole his shit and then he died we were like, “Yo, we need to make a record about it.” And that’s why we acted it out [in the song and video]. We didn’t use a car as the thing that got robbed, we used him stealing the chains and the rings. But [Guru] wrote it in more of a universal view so it made more sense to the universal people that would listen to it. But, that was a true story. And how ill is that, that this guy crashed into an ice cream truck and died right on sight? Like, we saw him die on the spot. That’s some crazy shit.

DX: “But as we know the things we do come back / And shorty’s not peepin’, others are schemin’ to counteract.”

DJ Premier: Yep. If the police wasn’t chasing after him too – because the police didn’t even know what was going on. But they started chasing after him, and they passed us up. They was trying to tell him to stop and he wouldn’t stop. [So] now they’re in pursuit. We’re not in any trouble because we were just chasing after the guy to get our car back. We didn’t have no weapons or anything like that. We was just gonna chase him, yank him out the car and take the car back. But, unfortunately he met his demise.

DX: My next question is gonna seem trivial now. Why wouldn’t they let Lil Dap [from Group Home] have a gun in the video? Those were still the days when you could do shit like that.

DJ Premier: I’ll tell you why, because the Geto Boys had a really graphic video [for “Do It Like A G.O.”/ “Fuck Em”] that they tried to get on MTV, and it was so graphic that they banned the Geto Boys video… Then after that they were saying things are too violent, and they started saying no more guns are allowed. [Lil Dap] was pissed, ‘cause he wanted to have the gun. But we said, “Yo, y’all will just have to act it out.” Fab 5 Freddy directed it, and he was like, “Just act it out and we’ll make it look like it’s supposed to look.” I mean, Dap has an intimidating look on his face anyway. And since we wanted to get airplay, we was like, “Yo man, it’s a video. Even though it’s [based on] reality, it’s a fuckin’ video. Just deal wit’ it.” And it worked. But yeah, guns were already stricken from MTV. At that time we were all MTV happy. They were putting a lot of time into Rap. Yo! MTV Raps was poppin’ finally. We had Rap City as well [on BET], but they also said no to guns. We had a gun version. We have that. But, we didn’t wanna blur it, ‘cause we thought that would take too much away from [the scene]. Even though when you blur stuff that makes people wanna see it even more. But then you had [to consider] people that really couldn’t get any access [to videos] back then. We didn’t have viral stuff back then…

DX: Guru the storyteller shined on “Just To Get A Rep,” but the battle rappin’ lyrical swordsman shines brightest on the title-track: “You better sit again citizen, weak emcees I get rid of them.” After that joint Guru like immediately rose in the ranks to one of the top tier spitters at that time.

DJ Premier: Absolutely. He’s always been an amazing writer because he has the illest wordplay. Not only does he write well, but his style of how he delivers the pattern – his flow pattern, they always switch up to totally different things…into a whole bunch of other different flows. And back then, you had to be a master rhymer because the level of emcees we were competing against were incredible, from Rakim to Kool G. Rap and [Big Daddy] Kane…Chubb Rock and Chuck D and Ice Cube… You had to have some rhymin’ skills. Even Grand Puba was one of the illest back then too. Large Professor had rhyme skills. It was always about your rhyme skills anyway. Guru, to this day, is one of the most incredible writers. His writing patterns, when you look at his paper, it was so messy you’d wonder how does he do it and still keep on recording without [stopping]? He’d have to punch-in sometimes, but [he’d go] a long distance [even] when he just writes something right there on the spot and twists the paper around like he’s turning a steering wheel. And to be able to still follow his messy paper, and still make it sound so effective on tape, it’s just amazing how he used to record. To see his process was amazing, especially when he was in the lab with me. We had one of the best chemistries of the 20th century. From EPMD to Eric B. & Rakim, we were another dope duo that was a force to be reckoned with. Super Lover Cee & Casanova Rud, Ultramagnetic [MC’s], just so many incredible groups and we were amongst all of them. And they all gave us props…

DX: I wanna go back to the title-track just to say that Guru brought it, but that “Step up” vocal sample [from Thunder & Lightning’s “Bumpin’ Bus Stop”] you cut up may have actually stolen the show – just the way you did that made the shit sound confrontational.

DJ Premier: Yeah, that’s just my creative side of me. You gotta always strive to be creative in order to be different. That’s why you have people like Kanye [West]. He strives to be different. Even Jay-Z when he came out, he came out talking that hustler shit, but he put a whole different spin on it where you were really on his dick just for the fact that he did it like it was just so easy. And that’s what we all possess that other artists don’t.

DX: What’d you think when Shock G sampled your “Step up” cutting for [2Pac’s] “I Get Around”?

DJ Premier: It was ill because Tupac – if you look at the credits on that album, Tupac put “Thanks to Gang Starr for not suing me for the sample.” Even though it’s not my sample, it’s actually the Thunder & Lightning. Rest in peace to David Pryor. His son actually just stepped to me. His son, Lorenzo Pryor, just stepped to me about something’s gotta give because I used that sample. And I’m like, “Dude, the statute of limitations of that is over. And no disrespect, we weren’t clearing samples back then.” There wasn’t even sample clearance issues back then, not until Biz Markie had that big lawsuit [brought by Gilbert O’Sullivan in 1991]. So we didn’t know anything about the policy of sampling. And I explained to him all of that just last week. He called yelling and screaming at me, talking about me and Kanye and 2Pac and Q-Tip and all these people have been using his father’s voice. And I told him, I said, “Yo, we don’t mind making sure that you see some compensation. But first of all, don’t yell at me. Talk to me with respect, number one. Number two, somebody is licensing your father’s music, and he’s only one writer of that song. So, we’ll give you the information of who’s licensing it because it is licensable now, and that means somebody is collecting that money. So, slow down there killer and we’ll get you the proper information and you can follow-up on it.” He’s telling me his father died of a broken heart from not making it in the music business. And I respect and totally tip my hat to his family and sympathize, but go about it properly when you deal with folks who’ll be willing to help you. I’ve always been a guy that’s been willing to help anybody that needs help. That’s always been my way. So for him to come [at me] like that – He’s calmed down now, after I laid it down to him. He turned out to be a nice gentleman. And we were able to resolve things to a certain degree. He got the proper information that he needs to research how to get his money. That’s if he’s entitled. Just ‘cause that was his father doesn’t mean he’s entitled. But, hopefully it’ll work out for him, and I hope he gets something.

DX: Just out of curiosity, did Billy Cobham and all those folks come back on you guys?

DJ Premier: Some people came after me. Yeah, for “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow,” [which sampled Billy Cobham’s “Crosswinds”], I got sued for that. I settled. I settled a lot of sample clearance [lawsuits] that came my way. I just went ahead and settled, no biggie. [Like], “Yeah, I’m guilty. Yeah, I used it. I’m not gonna fight it. Go ‘head. Here, take your money.” We weren’t doing it out of disrespect. We were paying homage to these people that don’t even make these sounds no more. You pick up any of those guys’ albums, they either don’t exist anymore, or they stopped trying to keep up with the youngsters.

DX: I wanna bring it back to “Step In The Arena.” The intro beat heard in the “Step In The Arena” video was “Street Ministry.” Along with “Say Your Prayers,” why the one-verse quickie joints; why weren’t those made into whole songs?

DJ Premier: Well, I’m a fan of more than Hip Hop… I also listened to Rock music real hardcore. I’m very in to New Wave, Punk music. I was a rebel in my family; I was into the Punk scene. I used to stick a needle in part of my skin and let it stick out the other skin without completely bleeding out of my thumbs, just to look all wicked and crazy. I used to go to Devo concerts, and I’d buy their yellow [suits]. [I’d] put that on, wearing the weird glasses with a flat-top. Like, I was a weird dude… I used to listen to a lot of New Wave stuff, like The Smiths, and Psychadelic Furs, and The Cure, Siouxsie And The Banshees, Dial House, Joy Division… I was into all that stuff. The Thompson Twins, just all this crazy stuff. And sometimes they would have a song that just had one verse. And then it’d fade out. So I took a lot of [inspiration] from that. Prince, he’d do a record called “Gotta Broken Heart Again” on the Dirty Mind album, and then as soon as the verse is over he’d make the guitar collapse like he’s killing stuff. And that’d be the end of the song… I was like, “Yo, I wanna do stuff like that!” I took a lot of pointers from Prince, and Michael Jackson, and The Commodores, Earth, Wind & Fire, with their interludes.

All of that is the reason [for those one-verse songs on Step In The Arena]. “Street Ministry,” I love that track. Just letting the beat ride, and then there’s only one little scratch at the end… But I said every record will have a cut, even if it’s something short and sweet. Because, U.T.F.O. used to do that. Mix Master Ice from U.T.F.O. would just do one little sound on one record, and then the next record he’d have five or six different scratches. Howie Tee would do the same thing on a Real Roxanne record or a Chubb Rock record or a Special Ed record.

DX: Now, I’m like fearful to say this, but I’m just gonna admit this: when I was a kid, I have to admit I absolutely hated “Who’s Gonna Take The Weight?” I thought that whistling teapot-sounding horn was nails on a chalkboard.

DJ Premier: [Laughs]

DX: [Laughs] But after listening to the song you sampled that squealing horn from [Maceo & The Macks’ “Parrty”], I have a new appreciation for that track. But I just gotta ask, why’d you decide to turn that into the lead sound for a beat?

DJ Premier: Because, for one I didn’t have any equipment yet, when we lived in the Bronx. And I had two copies of that [record], so to cut that up – And that was during the Public Enemy era, where it was all about noise and screaming and wailing horns and just [trying to] sound like we’re rioting or just fighting for respect and freedom. That’s what it was. I just wanted to do my interpretation of that.

DX: One thing I always loved about that track is the fuckin’ crazy cuttin’ on there, especially at the end.

DJ Premier: That’s to display my skill. You gotta remember, all these deejays that were already doing it, that I looked up to, from Terminator X and Johnny “Juice” Rosado, and Mix Master Ice, and DJ Cheese…Marley [Marl], Red Alert, DJ Scratch, Clark Kent, there was people [and] they’re all doing these unique styles, so [I was] all about, “Yo, y’all is gonna definitely notice me.” I wanted to be noticed. Not noticed to where you had to hear me out verbally. I spoke with my hands… Guru was the one that brought me out of my shell to speak and start talking some shit on skits and all that. He said my opinions were just so strong [that] I need to voice ‘em on records. I was like, “Yeah, but I don’t wanna do that. That’s not what I’m in it for.” He’s like, “Yeah, but you saying some shit that makes sense, man. The way you say it, you have a gift [of] delivery on how you say it…” And that’s when I started doing skits.

DX: In the “Who’s Gonna Take The Weight?” video did I see a quick cameo from Jeru The Damaja?

DJ Premier: Yeah. [Lil] Dap…they’re all in there. Malachi The Nutcracker. We were together before I had a record deal with Gang Starr. We all knew each other. I met all them through Guru.

DX: So why then didn’t Jeru or any other emcees cameo on the album?

DJ Premier: Because we weren’t at that stage of the game yet. They were just hangin’ around with us. They were from the same neighborhood, so…Guru’s deejay at that time was Tommy Hill, which is still Jeru [Da Jamaja]’s deejay to this day. Tommy Hill would fill in for me when I was away – him and Sean Ski, who I haven’t seen in 20 years, I just ran into him when I did a show in Canada recently. He was telling me all his horror stories [from] once Guru had moved on and everything. It was just so good to see him because certain people know Guru to the fullest besides his own family, and that’s myself, and [Big] Shug, and a couple of other people I can count on one hand. And Sean Ski’s another one of ‘em. And Tommy Hill, again who’s Jeru’s deejay, would fill in for me. So Tommy was always Jeru’s deejay as well. So before Jeru was even making demos, he said he could rap. They were always hangin’ with us, [and so when] Tommy had to do a gig, and I was back in [college] and couldn’t be there for a Gang Starr gig, he would bring Jeru and Dap with him.

DX: So you had Jeru and them around… Were there any other artists around y’all during the actual sessions for the album?

DJ Premier: During that time, nah. Just Dap, Jeru, Malachi, Smiley, Panchi…Shug was just coming outta jail. He wasn’t with us yet. Shug didn’t get with us until ’92 when we did “Take It Personal,” because he was locked down for several years. But that was really it, just our small circle. And then a lot of my guys that I went to college with [in Texas], who were from East New York: Biggest Gord, who’s my label manager for Year Round Records… His brother, Prez, who’s still down with us, he was there. My man Ready Rock Ski, who was on the back of the No More Mr. Nice Guy album wearing Guru’s kufi hat, he was down. He was one of my college buddies from East Flatbush. All of them I met in college, and we all came back and hooked up [in New York]. They walked me around to get me to shop my demos. We’re still all friends to this day.

DX: I wanna detour here a little bit to clarify the timeline… “Jazz Thing” [from the Mo’ Better Blues soundtrack] comes out like summer of ’90, and then so you just recorded the Step In The Arena album that fall or – ?

DJ Premier: Yeah, as soon as “Jazz Thing” came out we got a record deal – based on that. And once we got our deal, we started recording right away. We were so amped. “Just To Get A Rep” was the first record [we recorded] because of what happened to Guru. And then “Who’s Gonna Take The Weight?” We did “Step In The Arena” next. That was the third record. Then we did “Check The Technique” fourth. And then we just started putting it all together. We did No More Mr. Nice Guy in 12 days flat. And then this one we did in maybe a month. Done.

DX: Wow. You don’t happen to remember what exact month do you…?

DJ Premier: Well, the album came out in January [of 1991]. I know that for a fact. If it came out in January, it takes two months to set up an album, so you gotta rewind back to November [of 1990]. And when we did the photo shoot [at a train yard by 183rd St. in the Bronx it was snowing]. So if we did the photo shoot [in November], we definitely had to have…[been done recording by] late October.

DX: I definitely wanna discuss “Take A Rest” … “Now they’re wonderin’ how they lost their touch / Wanna buy my rhymes but mine cost too much.” Was there somebody trying to get Guru to ghostwrite for ‘em?

DJ Premier: Nah, he was using that just as a slick phrase to say that his rhymes were so valuable that they cost way too much. Just a little slick line to throw in.

DX: Okay. [Laughs] I thought we were gonna unveil some [well-kept] secret or something. [Laughs]

DJ Premier: Nah, no cigar on that one. [Laughs]

DX: Gotta note that Guru always knew how to kick “Precisely The Right Rhymes.” I love the self-awareness in his rhyme on that joint: “Precisely the right rhymes, simplistic but packed / With power and punch, and yo, you might wanna step back.”

DJ Premier: That’s one of my favorite records, ‘cause I love the drums. And then I used a 50Hz, low 808, and it was really long. I remember, that’s the first time I met Lady Of Rage. She was working at Chung King [Studios], and sleeping on the couch, just trying to get a deal. She even tried to get me to get her a deal, and I told her I wasn’t even set up that way. That’s when she told me she was gonna go to L.A. and try to hook up with Dr. Dre. I saw her later on out there when we did our “Step In The Arena” performance in L.A. It was our first L.A. show – actually our second. It was our first big show in L.A. The first show we did was in ’89, and that’s how I met MC Eiht. In ’89, it was him, [WC]. And I remember Ice Cube and Suge Knight got into a fight. That’s when Suge Knight was working for Eazy-E at the time. Because Cube had just left N.W.A., so Eazy and them…they showed their unhappiness and Cube and them started scrappin’. But Cube made it out alright. He was punching back. I witnessed all of that. I was standing right there when that shit went down. But Cube held his ground… These are crazy memories. But [going back] to my first show to promote Step In The Arena, I saw Rage and she was a security bouncer at The Palladium on Sunset Boulevard. She had one of those yellow security jackets on that said “Security” on the back. And she was like, “Yo! I’m doing security, but I just got signed to – Dre has this new label called Death Row.” And I was like, “Really?” And she said, “Yeah, [and] he’s gonna put me on his album…” And I was like, “Word?” I said, “Yo, good look. I can’t wait to hear it.” And then The Chronic came out… But [going back], the first time I met her I was listening to the playback of my cassette mastered version of Step In The Arena to approve it, to get it pressed up. I was playing “Precisely The Right Rhymes” at Nikki D’s Def Jam party for [the] release of her album, and Rage and them lived right by me in Brooklyn so I told ‘em I’d give ‘em a ride home, and she popped in the back of my truck. And when I played “Precisely The Right Rhymes” and that low tone hit she said, “Ooohhh, what is that?!” And I said, “What are you talking about?” She goes, “That low 808. I never heard one like that.” I said, “What’chu know about 808’s?” She was like, “Yo, I work at a studio.” And that’s how me and her got cool. We’re the best of friends to this day.

DX: The final song off Step In The Arena I wanna discuss was the final single from the album, “Love Sick.” I love how on there [Guru’s] love sick but by the next album, [Daily Operation], on “Ex Girl To The Next Girl,” he’s lovin’ ‘em and leavin’ ‘em. [Laughs]

DJ Premier: Yeah, you know what’s so ill? Every video that he’s done about a girl, he’d always have his girlfriend play the role in the video. In “Love Sick,” that was his girlfriend at the time, Tonya. And in “Ex Girl To The Next Girl” that was his ex-wife. The one he’s in the tub with, that’s his wife.

DX: “Love Sick” must of made Chrysalis happy, since they wanted a whole “Jazz Thing”-esque album from y’all originally.

DJ Premier: Oh, without a doubt. They wanted that to be our first single. And we were like, “No, ‘Just To Get A Rep’ has to be the first single.” And they were like, “Well no, we thought y’all was gonna do this jazzy stuff.” They signed us thinking we were gonna do more stuff like “Jazz Thing.” They didn’t sign us to do what we were doing with “Just To Get A Rep.” They were very surprised. But we explained it to ‘em, that we’re a Hip Hop group, we’re more into hardcore, raw Hip Hop.

We were doing that record, [“Jazz Music”], to pay homage to our grandfathers on the No More Mr. Nice Guy album. And then when Spike Lee happened to see the “Words I Manifest” video – he was shooting Mo’ Better Blues at the same time – and when he saw Guru had the likeness of Malcolm X, that made him pick up the album. When he heard “Jazz Music” he liked what we did but he thought we needed to go more in-depth about the artists that we mentioned in the song. So when he reached out to us he said, “Man, y’all mentioned a lot of good artists. But y’all left out this person, and this person. These people are important.” So this guy, Eric Elie, wrote a poem [about the history of Jazz] – it didn’t rhyme… So he did that, gave Guru the sheet to look at, and Guru just pretty much mimicked the writing but added his own words to it and then put it into a flow pattern. If [the poem] said, “John Coltrane, a wise one, a man supreme.” [Guru would] say, “John Coltrane, a man supreme / He was the cream; he was the wise one…” And it was easy for him to just take that poem and write it down and format it into a Guru style [rhyme]. And Spike loved it.

DX: I wanna squeeze in [a question] for the super Rap nerds like myself… Whose handwriting is that on the cover [of the album]? And why is the title just written by hand on there?

DJ Premier: That was the art director. He did it. And that was our first time changing our logo. If you look at the logo on No More Mr. Nice Guy, it’s a little cheap and unprofessional looking. [For Step In The Arena], that’s the first time that we had an art director at the label – we’re finally getting some money – and they just made it look better… Our manager at that time was like, “We should change the logo every year.” I was like, “Nah. Look how Public Enemy has their same logo. Look how EPMD always has their same logo. Let’s keep it the exact same. Don’t ever change it, and it’ll go down in history forever…”

DX: And the final question about the album… To me, Moment Of Truth is number one in the discography, and Step In The Arena is number two. You agree with that order…?

DJ Premier: Absolutely. Moment Of Truth is my favorite, ‘cause we went through so much then. I had left the group at the time, and I didn’t think I’d ever be with Gang Starr again. [Biggest Gord] had a long talk with me about I should go back. And Guru was going through his trial [for weapons charges]. He was facing five years in jail. I called him and I told him, “Yo man, I love you brother and we gonna make this work. And I’m ridin’ with you. I’m gonna come to court every day, and I’ma be there [for you].” And I came to court every day and supported him. I sat there with his parents every day. And my lawyers…and everybody was there. He had a nice support team there, every day. And he won. He beat all counts. That’s why the song “Moment Of Truth” is real sentimental, ‘cause he was really nervous that he was gonna go to jail and do five years. He was scared as hell. “JFK 2 LAX” was real. That was just our super realest album. All our pain and good and bad times were all put into it, and you can hear it. Even our skits, with the girl calling on the phone saying, “Don’t worry about it, Guru. Everything’s gonna be okay.” All that stuff.

DX: I still think Step In The Arena is a close second. It may have been early, but it held up.

DJ Premier: Yeah. Moment Of Truth is my number one. Hard To Earn and Step In The Arena are – I gotta say it’s a tie. Step In The Arena is real important to me ‘cause it’s my first album that I produced the entire thing on my own without any help on the drum machine. So that’s very sentimental. But Hard To Earn, I just love that album. I just do.


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4 Responses to “DJ Premier Revisits Gang Starr’s “Step In The Arena””

  • Comment from Budd Hello

    preem is live on scratchvision tonight.
    u wanna post the stream gim?

  • Comment from Haroon

    I’ve said it a million times, but after I heard Step in the Arena it was the album all others had to live up to. 3 Feet High and Step in the Arena are tied for my number one albums of all time. If it were possible to wear out a CD, that thing woulda had burn marks all around it on every track.

    Second hook (I think) of As I Read my SA you can hear Primo cutting, the needle jump, and him spin it back like nothing had happened. Most people would’ve never noticed that shit, but that’s how hard I listened to that record. The fact that he left it in there without redoing it and realizing it sounded dope is something by itself as well.

    A lot of things came out of that record for me. It’s probably what made me say — I’m going become a DJ. Also probably what told me I gotta quit buying nothing but Hip-Hop records and start figuring out where these beats are coming from. Between 1991 and now there’s never been another Hip-Hop record that hit me like 3 Feet and Step in the Arena; I really want there to be, but it just hasn’t happened yet.

  • Comment from gimantalon

    @Budd Hello, props for letting me know. But as I understand correctly, it’s a rebroadcast of this show?

  • Comment from X-traordinaire

    Yo! Step in the Arena is my #1 hip hop album of all time bar none. @ Haroon COSIGN! I know exactly what you are talking about on that As I Read my S-A hook. I thought that was the illest turntable work I had ever heard. Common’s Resurrection “hit” me like Step In The Arena did but since then, nothing. I remember Gang Starr on Rap City with Chris Thomas at the Karate School when Just To Get A Rep debuted (I still have that tape). I ran out to get that single. I was at the store when it opened to get the album when it dropped and played it non stop for damn near the year and a half it took for Daily Operation to come out.

    Everything about Step in the Arena was on point. The beats were bangin’ with that heavy 808 kick. The rhymes were intricate and clever. DJ Premier’s cuts on the hooks were flawless. Step in the Arena was the perfect rap album as far as I’m concerned and I still bump it to this very day.

    Much respect to DJ Premier

    R.I.P. GURU – Gone but not forgotten

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