DJ Premier’s longevity is not an accident. During my conversation with the most important scion of golden age hip-hop, he frequently brings up the length of his career and the enduring appeal of his style. While some artists age quietly into irrelevance, Primo finds himself in the studio with Kanye West and on the remix for Disclosure. In the four years since Guru’s death, he’s also taken it upon himself to keep the legacy of Gang Starr alive. Accordingly, he’s raising his profile the way one does in this day and age: by launching a website, a YouTube series, and aggressively merchandising.
These developments are ostensibly the premise for my conversation with DJ Premier. And all this stuff is good news and cool for anyone who considers themselves a fan of his music or of Gang Starr. So check out his website, which features some exclusive Guru-themed gear honoring his pre-Gang Starr days as Keithy E. And check out his Bars In The Booth series, featuring a variety of rappers going in over original (and all new) Premier beats, especially beard-centric Philadelphian Jakk Frost. And look for projects on the way with the NYG’Z, MOP (!), Lady of Rage (!!) and MC Eiht (!!!!). He also accompanied Dave Chappelle at Radio City Music Hall.
But DJ Premier is loaded with stories, insight and strong opinions he isn’t afraid to share. Plus he speaks a mile a minute. So the bulk of the interview ended up being about things like his long view on Kanye, how Sting loves Disclosure, and how good Jeru tha Damaja was at Karate in 1994. Please enjoy this interview, conducted over the phone last week, and go check out premierwuzhere.com for all the new shit.
Noisey: 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.
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