DJ Premier: Dropping Gems Pt. 1
Considered by many to be one of the greatest producers Hip Hop has seen, DJ Premier’s name is one that speaks for itself. With over two decades in the game, which is longer than some Hip Hop heads have even been alive, his mind is essentially an encyclopedia of the culture, with firsthand accounts of untold stories involving Rap’s biggest names. With his upcoming LP Get Used to Us nearing its December 7th release date, Premo dropped knowledge to TheWellVersed about his unreleased tracks, childhood, how he will continue the Gang Starr legacy, the demise of Fat Beats, and more. Check out part one of this two part feature.
TWV: Are there any songs you’ve produced that haven’t seen the light of day yet?
DJ Premier: There was a record I did with Sinead O’ Connor –a remix to “Famine,” about the potato famine. But right before it came out she went through her breakdown and controversy and she shut down completely. We were label mates at the time so that’s the reason why I got the gig. She was also a Gang Starr fan, and a fan of my production. It never came out and I really, really wanted it to. It was a really good record. There was also a record with MOP. We did one for their last album. We should have talked about maybe revamping it and doing it, but that record was so raw. It never came out and I don’t know if it ever will, but hopefully one day it will see the light of day.
There’s a Jay-Z one where he was getting a little slick at a lot of people. I won’t even say their names. He said a lot of slick shit about a lot of people from the era he was coming through when he was just coming out with Reasonable Doubt. He was airing them out and doing it properly. If he had done it, he would have been respected for it. He did it so dope, and so cleverly, and he was so witty with it. But he erased it, so it’s going to be a memory I take to the grave. But it’s all gravy because Jay and I are good friends so I would never violate him like that.
TWV: Is there someone that you haven’t worked with yet but would like to in the future?
DJ Premier: I’ve always wanted to work with Ghostface of the Wu Tang Clan. I was a big fan ever since I heard him on “Bring da Ruckus.” Something about the way he just introduced that verse… Just the way he said his name. He and I actually spoke at the Rock the Bells tour this year and he said that he wants to work together very soon. I really was surprised that he said that “Mass Appeal” inspired him to write “Criminology.” That’s one of my favorite records with him and Raekwon, and for him to say “Mass Appeal” inspired that? That’s still one of the greatest Hip Hop records to ever be made by Gang Starr. I really want to work with Mary J. Blige. We’ve linked up to try to get some things poppin’, and they haven’t come to light yet, but I’m going to keep working on stuff. She played a few cuts off her new album and what she’s played me has sounded great so far. She’s amazing. Busta (Rhymes) and I are working on something, finally. I want to work with Q-Tip, too — with A Tribe Called Quest, period. I’d love to work with Chuck D of Public Enemy.
TWV: Can you recall a project in particular that you had difficulty working on?
DJ Premier: “Project Boy” by Joell Ortiz. That’s a record that took a minute to get right. I still don’t think I got it 100% right. I been mixing my own records down lately just to get sharper and be a good engineer, even though I already have some of the greatest engineers. When they touch up my music I still come in and do the final finishing touches. I’m now learning how to do it all on my own, period, so that when I’m in that type of situation I can fully engineer and record a section, the whole nine yards. Joell’s record was one of my favorite records that I’ve ever produced because it was so different and left field. I like left field stuff. I don’t like to do the basic stuff that everybody else does all the time. I still couldn’t get it right where I wanted it. It’s knockin’, but it still isn’t where I’m a million percent happy. I really care about the listeners getting the playback the way it should sound from the way I envisioned it. I put that much pride and love into that, so yeah, “Project Boy.”
The only album that was difficult to get correct was the last Gang Starr album, The Ownerz, because a lot of people were dying at the time in our lives. D&D was closing, so we were like, “damn, where the fuck are we going to record?” Where were we gonna go? To take that away was like getting kicked out of the house you’ve lived in all of your life and now you’re homeless. Thanks to Avatar studios, and thanks to Rakim actually who put us up on Avatar, we were able to finish the record there. Then, of course, Headquarterz died, and Jam Master Jay died, and we had other personal deaths – my engineer’s daughter died. It was just back-to-back deaths, wakes, and funerals. We had to pack all our stuff and get our reels out of D&D. We still had to get the album done because we had a deadline to meet. That time period was the first time I had to request to dress my friend in their casket, and I did it only because his mother asked me to. All that was going on, and we still pulled that album off and got it out there, and I’m proud of that. We were going through label problems. The staff that worked our previous albums had just been cut and they started a new staff who didn’t understand what we were doing, and we felt bad about that as well. It was like, we been in this house for years, how are you gonna tell us where the bathroom is when we can tell you what the trick is to flushing the toilets? Nah, that’s not how it’s gonna work. It was just problems, and we still prevailed and got that album done. And I feel it was a great album.
I remember reading reviews that said Snoop’s verse was lackluster. I was like did you hear what he said? That’s some dope ass lyrics right there. When I saw that review of him being lackluster…I wish I could find the person that wrote that and I would literally smack them. I wouldn’t do it now, but back then I would have smacked them, just like that. All of that had me in anger mode at the time. Still, I’m so proud of that album. Guru was on fire like he always was. We got the proper results from our work. It’s just the critics don’t know how to judge a Hip Hop record. It’s like what do you listen to and look for to get the results that make a great album? Because we’re obviously not on the same page, and that’s fine, but how do you get a job as a journalist? I’d like to have a one-on-one quiz about Hip Hop face-to-face. I bet you they won’t be able to take it as far as I can take it.
TWV: To take it back to Joell Ortiz for a second, I noticed when the Free Agent track list was released that “Project Boy” wasn’t on it. Was that due to your lingering dissatisfaction with the final sound?
DJ Premier: Nah, it was the label. The guy at the label, didn’t want to clear the Flavor Flav sample. But you ain’t gotta clear that. The fact that they think that’s is a problem and they don’t want to clear it? I think that’s some weak fuckin’ shit. That’ll just be a song we had.
TWV: You were the last of the last to rock at the Fat Beats store in NYC when it closed. Explain your connection to the legendary storefront and what it meant to you.
DJ Premier: It meant a lot because first of all, I’m a DJ, so that’s one of my sources to shop at. It’s my Bloomingdales or Barneys. They were like the Saks Fifth Avenue of Hip Hop. Their forte was vinyl. I better be a part of that even if they didn’t even know me personally. I’ve done more for vinyl than almost anybody in the industry because I respect the culture as a whole, from graffiti to everything else. So being asked to do that on the last day is more than an honor. I remember deejays you would never see in public much would be like “yo, come up to the store, buy ‘Shook Ones.’” “Shook Ones” is probably one of the biggest 12-inches that moved out of that store on the regular. You could cut it up so much that you’d wear [the vinyl] out. You’d have to stock up on about five or six more copies. That and “Incarcerated Scarfaces” by Raekwon, with Ghost, were the biggest movers in the store, I guarantee it. There was nowhere else you could really find them. I remember going to Fat Beats in Amsterdam, L.A., all of them. It’s a monument. Especially the store in New York.