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DJ Premier Looks Back at Gang Starr’s ‘Step In The Arena’ with Author Brian Coleman

AUTHOR’S PREFACE: The interview used for this piece was done with DJ Premier many years back, in 2001, when Guru was still alive. The intention – beyond the initial, much shorter piece done for XXL’s “Classic Material” – was always to have a Step In The Arena chapter in one of my books. But I was always blocked from getting to Guru by the justifiably vilified Solar.

It didn’t seem right to do a Gang Starr chapter without input from both men (or without all songs discussed), so it never happened in print. But as that incredible album turns 25, I still wanted to get a fuller story of the album out there. I don’t like to keep knowledge from legends like Premier tucked away in my file cabinet. Considering the context above, I hope everyone enjoys this. Long live Gang Starr and R.I.P. Guru [Keith “Keithy E” Elam].

Many thanks to Bill Adler, Ben Ortiz and Katherine Reagan for the use of selected visuals taken from the Adler Hip-Hop Archive at the Cornell Hip Hop Collection.

Gang Starr — Step In The Arena
(Chrysalis, 1991)

There have been worlds of change in the hip-hop game since 1991, but one thing remains the same: Gang Starr’s Step In The Arena still sounds amazing.

The group’s accomplished sophomore platter was stripped down, but sophisticated. MC Guru’s poetic, sometimes abstract battle rhymes, and DJ Premier’s savvy, street-honed beats and hugely influential DJing combined that year for 18 tracks of pure, no-nonsense rap heaven.

Both Guru and Premier made New York their home in the late ‘80s, but neither one was a product of the five boroughs. Preemo [Christopher Martin] was raised in the Houston, TX suburb of Prairie View. His father, a biologist, taught at Prairie View A&M University. Premier explains, “A&M was a black school that produced some of the best engineers around. And we had one of the illest marching bands around, too! Our marching band was dangerous.”

He says, of his hometown, “Prairie View was country, but it had a city side, too. There was an urban social structure, just like in New York or LA, but on a smaller scale. Everyone there was very independent and did things for themselves, and I think that helped give me the drive to come to New York and do it on my own without any help. People are definitely nicer in Prairie View than New York, though [laughs].”

By the time that Premier hit New York for good, he wasn’t exactly a hayseed right off the farm, though. Since his earliest teens he had been traveling to the Big Apple consistently, so he had already soaked in a bit of BK atmosphere. Preemo recalls, “My grandfather, William Manuel, lived in Brooklyn, so we used to come to visit him on holidays. By the time I was 12 or 13, I was coming to visit him on my own, which was always an amazing experience for me. He was an upright bassist, and played trombone and electric guitar in jazz bands. He toured a lot, and he’d always show me his photo albums and tell me about his life in music. I was really interested in what Grandfather Bill – that’s what I called him – was doing, I was fascinated by his life. I have a tattoo of Bill, because I feel like I’m a duplicate of him. Hip-hop is my era, jazz was his era, and I appreciate his era, even though he didn’t really appreciate hip-hop. He just didn’t understand it, he looked at it as noise.”

Premier continues, “Earlier on, I also remember seeing hip-hop going on in the Bronx in 1977 and 1978 when I went to New York. Grandfather Bill had friends in the Bronx, on 183rd, so we’d go to visit them and I saw the sound systems and people in the park, breakdancing, all that. Then, when I started going to Brooklyn more often in the early ‘80s, [hip-hop] was more full-blown, it was everywhere. The music had grown so much, and I always loved that with hip-hop, you would let the music fight for you, instead of using your fists, like with DJ and MC battles. I brought all that with me when I’d go back to Texas and DJ parties and start working on demos. Music definitely has a way of travelin’, and I guess I was part of that, in my own way.”

In the mid-‘80s [he says from 1984 to 1986], Premier had a local crew in Texas, and they went from MCs In Control to being called ICP (for Inner Circle Posse). The group included Premier, then going by Waxmaster C, and MCs Top Ski, Sugar Pop and Stylee T. Sugar Pop and Stylee were from Texas, and Top Ski was from Boston, but going to school with Premier at Prairie View A&M. Premier explains, “It wasn’t too serious, but we were trying to do our thing. Stylee T was a really unique dude. I swear to God, before I ever saw Flavor Flav with Public Enemy, Stylee was exactly like him. He dressed and danced crazy and he was just so original.” The group never put out anything on wax, although they had a name around the area, in part because of Premier’s rep as a DJ.

In 1985, Premier decided to give the home of hip-hop a try for real, so he left Texas and his studies at Prairie View A&M and headed to Brooklyn. He remembers, “I said: ‘I’m gonna try the music thing, and if it don’t work out then I’ll just go back to school.’ Top Ski moved to New York when I did, so we gave it a shot as a team. When I got there, I lived in East New York [Brooklyn], with a family named the Franklins. They took me in like I was their own son, but they also wasn’t gonna let me stay for free. I had to work. That summer I worked at a young peoples’ camp in Prospect Park to earn my keep. It was definitely a new thing to be there in New York coming from Texas, but I had been there many times before, and was already used to it by then. I met a lot of the friends that I still hang with today during that time.”

The earliest seeds for the Gang Starr partnership were planted in the mid-to-late ‘80s during record label demo shopping that Premier had begun. He had worked on music even before he got to New York, but once he arrived, he picked up the pace with dreams of landing a deal. He says, “All my demos back then were getting turned away. I even had a meeting with [super-producer and head of the famed Juice Crew] Marley Marl back then, face to face, but it didn’t come to anything. The demo I gave him at the time wasn’t that tight, though, so it’s not surprising. It was my first one.” Years later, Premier would go on to work with Marley, on his Future Flavas radio show out of New York.

Preemo knew (and worked for) Carlos Garza, who promoted parties at Prairie View A&M and also owned a hip-hop record store in the Houston area called Sound Waves. Carlos bought plenty of New York hip-hop, of course, and knew Stu Fine at Wild Pitch Records, who had put out records like Chill Rob G’s “The Court Is Now In Session”; Latee’s “This Cut’s Got Flavor”; and Gang Starr Posse’s “Believe Dat!”.

Premier remembers, “Carlos got me to send an ICP demo of mine to Stu, and Guru [real name: Keith Elam] was working at Wild Pitch at the time, helping Stu with A&R stuff. Basically, everything that got to Stu went to Guru first. He’d tell Stu what was good, like Lord Finesse [a Wild Pitch artist who debuted in 1989]. At the time of that demo, which I recorded at a basement in East New York, I was still with Top Ski. It was just me and him back then, because Sugar Pop didn’t come to New York.”

He continues, “Basically, Guru and Stu liked my music, but they didn’t like Top’s vocals, the way that he sounded. I did another demo after that, and they still didn’t like Top. Top got really frustrated with the situation at the time, and he had an opportunity to go into the Navy, so he went for that. At first, I had told Wild Pitch that I wouldn’t sign without Top, but once he went into the Navy, that was a totally different situation.”

Guru was in a similar situation, since his Boston-based group, Gang Starr Posse – with producer Beatmaster Jay [J V Johnson], MC Damo D-Ski and DJ 1, 2 B-Down [aka Mike Dee] – didn’t follow Guru to New York when he moved in the mid-‘80s. Premier says Guru was living with his aunt in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, when he first arrived. “His Boston peeps would only come down when there was a show,” he recalls.

With Top Ski out of the picture and both Premier and Guru in New York, the two decided to give it a shot as a duo. To make things better on the working-together front, they also became roommates, moving to the Bronx. Premier remembers, “I moved out of East New York in 1988 and we had a spot on 183rd and Andrews in the Bronx. We were there for about two years. It was an apartment that Guru subletted from a girl that he used to mess around with, but she used to take our rent money and spend it, so we were always on the verge of getting evicted. Guru had a 9-to-5 gig, but things were rough back then. Even when our first thing came out on Wild Pitch we didn’t have no money, because there were no advances on a label like that. I remember I would just buy loaves of bread and cookies to survive. The cookies would give me energy to keep going, and the bread would keep my body from being frail.”

The duo, who had modified Guru’s original crew’s name and were now posse-less, as Gang Starr, recorded their first album, No More Mr. Nice Guy, in November of ’88 in a period of 12 days. The label wasn’t a problem, since Guru had the strong Wild Pitch connection. Interestingly, Premier doesn’t have a lot of love for the album, which hit in 1989, mostly because he claims that the duo never made any money from it – they eventually went through a painful extrication process, before signing to Chrysalis in 1990. He says, “We call that our resume record, because it was done so fast. I was in school then, so we had to do it during my Thanksgiving break.”

Preemo remembers, “That first album wasn’t really as ill, because of how quickly we did it, but also the fact that I didn’t do everything. Schlomo Sonnenfeld [the engineer and owner of Such-A-Sound Studios, where it was recorded] did the programming for the beats. The album had my flavor, but he was also in the mix. It was a pretty ill process. Like when Guru says, ‘Stop, think for a moment, OK?’ [on “[Words I] Manifest”]. We all had our hands on the sampler button together. There was no automation at that studio, so we were doing it by hand. If we messed up one part, we’d have to do the whole track over.”

Regardless of how quickly or primitively the record was recorded, it definitely got noticed within the hip-hop community in 1989, for two tracks in particular. The first single, the catchy, intelligent “Words I Manifest [the album version was called “Manifest”],” got radio attention and definitely turned heads, with its forward-thinking “Night In Tunisia” jazz sample. Premier says, “For us, using jazz for samples was just the way to go. I always wanted people to be like, ‘Yo! Where the hell did you get that from?’ And jazz had a lot to do about being different back then, because no one was using samples like that.”

Even bigger things came of their ground-breaking song “Jazz Music.” Considering Preemo’s respect for his grandfather and Guru’s love of jazz, it was a natural thing to do. But “Jazz Music” caught on in a way they couldn’t have expected. Premier explains, “Spike Lee heard the song ‘Jazz Music’ from the album and he and [jazz musician] Branford Marsalis wanted another version, with even more detail in the lyrics. Spike had a guy named [Lolis] Eric Elie [a writer from New Orleans], who had a poem about jazz, and Guru basically just read the guy’s poem, putting his flow to it. It included a lot of specific jazz artists who weren’t mentioned on the original song.”

“Jazz Thing” was released as a single in the fall of 1990 on Columbia, and was featured in Spike Lee’s film [and soundtrack to] Mo’ Better Blues. Needless to say, it was just the attention that Guru and Premier needed to get to the next level. That level was their second record deal, with Chrysalis Records, although things wouldn’t be smooth sailing on the legal front. Premier says, “Wild Pitch gave us a really fucked-up contract when we first signed with them. It wasn’t all their fault. I just wanted a record deal so bad that I just signed my life away.” Gang Starr’s manager at the time, Patrick Moxey, helped them extricate themselves from their Wild Pitch deal, and, on the strength of the ‘Jazz Thing’ song, Chrysalis Records was waiting in the wings with another pile of papers to sign.

Things worked out in the end with Chrysalis, but it took a minute to get in stride with their new label. Premier explains, “We pretty much got a record deal on the strength of one song, ‘Jazz Thing.’ But the problem was that they was expecting us to do more records just like that one. As most people know, most of what we do in Gang Starr is straight, raw hip-hop. We had a good relationship with Chrysalis overall, but I think that what we were versus what they expected was why we didn’t get promoted as much as we could have. Overall, Chrysalis always let us drop what singles we wanted to drop, and they was cool, even when we disagreed. After Step In The Arena was out and people responded to it, they started to get the picture.”

After the signing, the group didn’t need much time to knock out their first classic. Preemo says, “Once we got signed, that album took exactly 30 days to record. We did it at Calliope [in Manhattan], and ended up there because we was always just lookin’ for a sound. We knew we had a distinctive style, but we wanted to see which studio could make our sound come out the best. Calliope was a place to go because I used to like the way that De La Soul’s stuff sounded, and Queen Latifah’s first album [All Hail The Queen], too.” Gang Starr didn’t actually record all their album tracks there – seven out of 18 were recorded at Brooklyn’s Such-A-Sound and Firehouse Studios, where their first album was done – but Calliope was where the bulk of work was completed and polished.

The recording went quickly for two reasons. First, it had been a year-and-a-half since the group had recorded No More Mr. Nice Guy, so they had plenty of material built up. Secondly, as Premier says, “I would do a lot of pre-production stuff at the crib. I didn’t even have too much equipment back then, but I’d make pause-tapes and loop stuff up that way, by hand. That’s the essence of hip-hop. And on the writing side, Guru always writes on the spot. Even if he says he’ll finish it by tomorrow, he never does. He’ll just take an hour, write it, then sit in the booth and lay it. So things move really quick with us, especially back then when we had so much energy once we got in the studio.”’

The group had also started to perform more often as a duo by 1990, which made them even tighter. Premier explains, “One thing that really helped us back then is the fact that we quickly became a touring band. Regardless of the money we got from record labels, we started going over to Europe in 1990, and we could always make great money by going overseas and touring. And the crazy thing is that to this day – and this is my word – we have never rehearsed for a show, ever. Our live show just comes off because of the way we know each other and how we react to each other on-stage.”

The recording of Step In The Arena was a huge step forward for Premier, who was finally fully in-control. He remembers, “On our first record, I didn’t even program all the beats. [And] I never wanted to work that way again. I wanted to be in control, I wanted to turn on the machines and do my shit whenever I wanted. Because if anything got messed up, I didn’t want to be blaming anyone else. I wanted it all on me.”

When Gang Starr finished Step In The Arena, all interested parties knew it was the real deal. Preemo says, “Chrysalis loved the album, they just didn’t know why we wanted ‘Just To Get A Rep’ as the first single. The label was happy with the record, though, they broke even. We weren’t a very expensive group to deal with, and maybe because of that they also didn’t spend much money promoting the record. But they made their money back on the day it was released, and we’ve always gotten royalties on that one.”

Looking back on where Gang Starr was at in early 1991, when the album was officially released [although it says 1990 on the album itself], Premier says, “Working with Guru back then was so important. He’s the first guy who really gave me a shot to do what I do, and through him, people got to hear the Gang Starr sound. The sound I was doing was our sound, for us. He took the challenge of all the types of tracks I gave him and when it comes to the more abstract and experimental stuff, there’s a lot of MCs who wouldn’t have been able to handle it. He can do thugged-out ghetto records and radio records, whatever you need, and he always takes his subjects and relates them to what’s going on in the world today. He’s just so versatile with his subject matter. And that record [Step In The Arena] was the first time that I think both of us really got our chance to shine for the world, more than No More Mr. Nice Guy. We proved that you don’t have to just follow whatever’s popular, you can just do what you’re good at. And by being different, you can make your way the popular way.”

Premier concludes, “I’m still fascinated by how we made that record, how it sounds today. My thing back then, just like it is now, was to make my music as a fan. I make stuff that I myself would want to buy. And that record fits the criteria. It fit perfectly into the era when it came out, and it didn’t follow any of the guidelines. That’s what will always make Step In The Arena a classic to me.”

TRACKS [All commentary by DJ Premier]

Step In The Arena

I already had that song done before we went into the studio, so that was one of the older ones.

Execution of a Chump (No More Mr. Nice Guy Pt. 2)

That’s our engineer, Lisle Leete, playing live piano on there. I just told him I wanted a weird piano feel and he started thumbin’ that around. He used to do jingles and stuff ‘cause Calliope was a jingle studio. I think that he was the Frog Man on a De La Soul record, in a skit [“Pease Porridge,” from 1991’s De La Soul Is Dead]. They always had a grand piano in the room we worked at, and for that song he just jumped on there, played it, we mic’ed it and put it right on tape.

Who’s Gonna Take The Weight

That track was done when we did No More Mr. Nice Guy, it just didn’t make it on the record. I was always cuttin’ that same horn loop. I’d cut that shit every day. Even live, I still do that whole cutting pattern and stop the music and cut it with just one turntable. When we do shows in Europe they’ll start whistling and singing that pattern of cuts that I do at the end of the song. We released that as a double a-side, with “Just To Get A Rep” and did videos for both of those.

Beyond Comprehension

I think that’s a classic track, just how he’s rhymin’ and how the turntable work is so creative. Guru’s flows always go in all kinds of patterns. He can rap about anything. If he had to do a record about a dog, he’d do it and it would be fly. He’s just so versatile with his subject matter. Guru usually comes up with a title first, then we work on lyrics and music from there.

Check The Technique

That one was done pretty early in the sessions. That’s a big, big, big fan favorite. Every time we do that one live, people freak out. We used to do it live all the time, but we don’t do it as much anymore. But whenever we do, it always blows people away.

Love Sick

Chrysalis wanted us to drop “Love Sick” first, but we wanted to drop a street record instead [“Just To Get A Rep”]. The groups that we followed, people like Big Daddy Kane, EPMD, Eric B. & Rakim, always dropped street records as their first singles. That was all true stuff on that song. And the girl in the video was the one Guru was goin’ crazy and fightin’ over at the time. Then when he did “Ex Girl To The Next Girl” that was his [future] ex-wife. We always like to do at least one song about women [on each record], to show another side of Gang Starr.

Take A Rest

We put out a European version of that song [Author’s note: assuming he means “CJ Mackintosh remix,” which appeared on Cooltempo in the UK], as a single, and it only came out over there. We did a video, too, but we weren’t too proud of that one, so I’m not upset that no one heard that version!

What You Want This Time?

That was one of the earliest tracks we had ready to record for the album. Guru used to always talk about how he was going to do that song, talkin’ about all the different girls. He’d talk about it, but he wouldn’t have the rhyme itself, but that came easily enough. That was when the song “Life (Is What You Make It)” [by Frighty and Colonel Mite, originally released in the UK in 1988] was out on Profile, and it was real popular. Reggae was really big, Special Ed and KRS-One were doing a lot of that in hip-hop. I cut up the part that went “Girl, what you want?” from there. All that stuff on that song was actually going on at the time. We used to mess with a lot of the girls from the group home around the corner from us, in the Bronx. We moved out of the Bronx literally right when Step In The Arena came out.

Just To Get a Rep

That was actually done last, but it was our first single off the record. To go from “Jazz Thing” to that song was a big change. But Chrysalis didn’t really know what they was signin’. But we knew that it had to be that way, from our vision of what Gang Starr really was. That shit was real. Stick up kids were out to tax. People were getting robbed left and right. That’s what we was seein’. I love that record, just the atmosphere of it.

As I Read My S-A

I always like using broken English with song titles. Even if Guru doesn’t write it that way on his lyric sheet, sometimes I’ll write it that way.

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