A photo from DJ Premier’s Instagram from earlier this year shows him blankly staring at the camera while sitting inside of a hole in an empty wall: foam padding covers a small segment of it, but the rest is wooden planks, stripped from any other padding or carpet that used to be there.
“There used to be a speaker in that hole,” the caption reads.
Decades earlier, those desolate walls were filled with studio equipment and were full of life, bouncing the sound waves of rhymes from rap luminaries like Nas, Notorious B.I.G., and Jay Z. Behind Premier’s somber eyes in the photo remained memories from D&D Studios, the iconic recording space that shut its doors in January 2015 after more than 20 years of housing some of rap’s most important records.
Premier first visited D&D Studios in early 1992, when he was asked to lay scratches on a Showbiz (of Showbiz & A.G.) remix of Lord Finesse’s “Return of the Funky Man.” Before that, he had worked up the block at Calliope Studios, the Brooklyn recording home for Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, Queen Latifah and Naughty By Nature. But when he listened to D&D engineer Eddie Sancho’s mix of the song on the van’s sound system—Premier’s go-to set of speakers to test mix quality—he was ready to relocate. He and Guru had just received the budget for Gang Starr’s third album Daily Operation, and he knew where they had to go.
“Everything was just really thumping. It was clear and loud, and just heavy,” Premier remembered of the mix. “I told Guru, ‘Yo, I found a spot that we’re gonna be at for now on.’ And that was D&D.”
From there, D&D was Premier’s home base. He built rapport with owners Douglas Grama and David Lotwin, and since major labels were handling recording budgets, he kept the studio busy with his clients. Along with Gang Starr records, he also brought the rest of his clientele to D&D to record their golden era records: from easily recognized zeitgeist records like Biggie’s Ready To Die and Nas’s Illmatic, to underground classics like Smif-N-Wessun’s Dah Shinin and M.O.P.’s To The Death.
The studio had three rooms labeled A, B and C; during the 1990s, Premier would set up shop in the B Room. Sessions as “a madhouse of fun,” he remembers, with most acts bringing along 10 to 15 people to party. He has memories of Biggie and Junior M.A.F.I.A. rolling deep while gulping Bacardi Limon, and Dame Dash and Biggs Burke cracking jokes while Jay Z would record. Artists would shoot pool on a table in the studio, gamble, smoke, and drink—seemingly normal occurrences that were anything but when artists were recording in sanitized studios funded by major labels. Anyone from Shaquille O’Neal or Kevin Garnett to Mary J. Blige and Bobby Brown could pop up.
But the fun inside of the building contrasted with the grimness outside: the studio was on the fourth floor of 320 W. 37th Street in New York City, on a block infested with heroin dealing, and on a road without streetlights. So when artists burned the midnight oil in the booth, they had to keep an eye out for stragglers. And workers of a paper route would constantly end up blocking in artists’ cars outside, prompting a young Jay Z to double park the white Lexus name-checked in songs like “Empire State of Mind” and “Public Service Announcement.”
The Mecca That Was D&D Studios
Tek (of Smif-N-Wessun): “Everybody came through D&D, man. It was so much traffic flowing through there, so many people that probably at times you didn’t know who they were. But if you did, and if you were in there, it was an honor to be in there that night.”
Lil Fame (of M.O.P.): “We would run into Jay-Z, Biggie, ain’t no telling. You could even run into Mary J. Blige up in that mu’fucka. Bobby Brown. Ain’t no telling who coming through that mu’fucka when you go in there.”
DJ Premier: During that time it was very, very, very, very, very zombied out, it was just zombies everywhere on drugs, lingering around our building and everything. It was just not safe. They had a paper route that ran in the middle of the night so they would be blocking our cars, and we’d always get into fights with them. I’m talking ‘bout like three or four in the morning we’d be telling them to step outside so we could beat ‘em up because they would always block our cars in. And they were all foreigners that didn’t speak any English, and we’d have to call out the license plate number to tell ‘em what car needed to be moved and, you know, when you’re ready to go home at three or four in the morning, you don’t want to have to wait for forty cars blocking you.
I remember Jay-Z used to always park his white Lexus in that same parking lot, and they used to do it to him, so he was like, “You know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna block the whole entrance so they can’t even come in or out.” And he started to do that to keep them from even getting in their cars, and that used to frustrate them because they couldn’t call the cops because they were using the open parking lot to do the route. Which maybe they were paying somebody on the side, I don’t know. But if they were or were not they were still using that whole lot, to hog it as a hub to load up their papers, before they went out on their routes. So, after that, we finally came to an understanding with them and they stopped giving us a problem. But, those were the good old days of it being like that.
Tek (of Smif-N-Wessun): “I mean, at the time for me I don’t think I was recognizing history in the making. We were just enjoying a good atmosphere, good times. Like in there you playing pool, you gambling, shit you do around the block in the hood, you with your homies up there, you drinking 40s, you smoking, vibing out to music. … It wasn’t like when we went to D&D we had to be like these other kind of guys; we could just be regular. We used to spend the night at D&D like, real talk. We ain’t need no bed, you know we from East New York — Brownsville, Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights — we sleep on the floor, we good. You know what I mean; you put your jacket over you, that’s your cover. You know how you live — you get up, you do your vocals.”
Lil Fame: “It was like hanging out in our hallway. We just fell in love with that spot. It wasn’t a bougie [sic] studio basically, so that’s why it’s like home. Some of our greatest hits came from there. And that’s one studio where you can create right there on the spot. I go to other studios where I can’t come up with nothing ‘cause it’s just so fucking clean and, you know what I mean, you can’t smoke in there, you can’t drink… You gotta watch your manners and shit, you can’t be yourself. D&D allowed us to be ourselves.
“When it’s back to the block, we’re ducking shots, throwing shots. Ducking killers, nigga. We were going to war during them days. Like it wasn’t just rap nigga, the rap shit was a getaway for us. When we do a show we had, we get off that block, you know what I mean, ‘cause it was hell. So D&D was like a vacation for us… just to go to Manhattan and hang out and record and get some work done. That shit, it was a beautiful thing for us. It kept us out a lot of trouble man.”
Premier: “We were just more of a home away from home type of a place. And that’s exactly what you got when you came to that studio. And then again with the pool table, and the vending machine that had rolling papers and blunts in it — where you could get at the party, you didn’t have to go to the corner store, you could buy it right out of the vending machine. That’s how raw that we kept it.”
M.O.P.’s “4 Alarm Blaze,” Gang Starr’s catalog, “1,2 Pass It”
Lil Fame: “Those are great times man. Just to be around our era, most of the stars was humble. It was humble when we did the song called “4 Alarm Blaze.” We was just mixing the song, Jay-Z just happened to walk in and he like, “Yo it was only 3 of y’all niggas on the song, it’s a “4 Alarm Blaze,” let me jump on that shit.” [Laughs] And that’s love, that’s no fucking paperwork and ‘speak to my manager’ and all that… that shit was love, we all had respect for each other ‘cause we all came up in the same circle. And D&D played a big part in that shit.”
DJ Premier: “When me and Guru used made records, we’d already be like, “Ooh, wait ‘til they hear this one!” We already knew… Every album we did, we always had a list of the titles before. So being that we always had the titles and what not… we knew “Mass Appeal” gonna be a single, “DWYCK” gonna be a B-side for a twelve inch, “Take It Personal” was gonna be a single, you know, “Ex Girl To The Next Girl” is gonna be our radio record. We always knew and had it mapped out, and all I did was fill it in with the music to match the titles.”
Steele: “This is one instance when we did the “1, 2 Pass” song (by the D&D All-Stars), and me and Tek was pretty much fresh into the game, we didn’t record our album yet. It was like 94, and we were still dressing bummy, still wearing Timberland shit straight off the street. But we in the studio with KRS-One, Fat Joe, Premier… Who else was on that track? Doug E. Fresh, like we’re seeing these guys, you know?
“… We got behind the board. Premo, everybody was partying, and we got behind the board. There was a little safe where you could actually go behind there and we got low. We sitting there writing our rhymes and then once we finished our rhymes we stood up. Premo was sitting there by the board and he was like, “Yo what the fuck,” he said, “Yo where y’all niggas came from just now?” Nobody knew we were sitting there, ‘cause we just got low in the room. It was like full of people. … From that part, I think that was one of the things that gained us a lot of respect amongst the dudes that we were around that day. Their rap sheets were crazy long already. … So we got a privilege to be on a powerful song that’s gonna be dope historically, forever.”
Closing Up Shop
Gang Starr found out that D&D’s owners planned to shut down the studio in late 2002 before they finished recording their album The Ownerz, and that wasn’t even the worst news they received around then. Two days after the death of Jam Master Jay, Premier got a phone call from the police. Kenneth “HeadQCourterz” Walker—a friend who had toured with the group and appeared on skits from the album—was found dead, and Premier’s phone number was found scribbled on a piece of paper officers found in Walker’s wallet. He answered officers’ questions, identified the body and honored a request from Walker’s mother to dress him in his casket.
He got back to business with Guru, taking a recommendation from Rakim to finish recording the last four songs of The Ownerz at Avatar Studios in Manhattan since D&D had closed. Before leaving for a Gang Starr tour, Premier met with the landlord to put in his bid to take over D&D.
DJ Premier: “Right before we went on The Ownerz tour, I went to go see the landlord that ran the building because he knew that I used to keep the bill paid by shoveling extra money into D&D, so that they wouldn’t go through certain things that would put them under pressure of being closed. We did our best to negotiate some numbers, and he didn’t like the numbers I wanted to negotiate so he said no deal. I went on the Ownerz tour, and the day we got back from Australia, the landlord called me again and goes, “Hey, you still want to pay that number that I said no to?” I was like, “Yeah,” and he was like, “Alright, I’ll do it for that amount that you wanted to do and I’ll cut you a deal.”
“I had a house in Long Island that I wasn’t really living in, and I sold it, and got three times the money that I put into it. Next thing you know, I was putting the money into the studio, bought all new equipment, and D&D gave me the original speakers back. And boom, next thing you knew, we were up and running and we got the studio back.
“I said, “D&D was the legacy that Dave and Doug had already done. Let’s call it HeadQCourterz, after Kenneth Walker.” So we did that and next thing you knew, HeadQCourterz Studio was the new name.”
The pool table was removed, but otherwise, Premier describes the HeadQCourterz as a continuation of what they were doing at D&D. His lab in Studio B was left the same as it was before aside from new ceiling tiles, and Room A, which was previously reserved for live bands, was changed into a control room.
The studio continued to be the spot for artists to churn out new songs and continued to be a hangout spot. Statik Selektah recalls hearing movie and TV set stories from LL Cool J, arguing hoops with Showbiz, and recording songs like Termanology’s “Watch How It Go Down” and records with Reks, A.G. and O.C., and Slaughterhouse. He also remembers Premier being secretive while recording with Christina Aguilera for her 2006 album Back to Basics, which had a handful of Premier productions.
Statik Selektah: “Everybody that’s ever been there understands what it is. You kind of feel it when you walk in the building, you feel like the spirit of Biggie and Big L and all these guys. It’s just a classic spot. When Premier changed the name of the studio … a lot of fans didn’t necessarily know it was the same place. But anyone that’s ever gone there knows the deal. You weren’t worthy of working there if you didn’t know the deal.”
DJ Premier: “We didn’t want the memory of what was closed to go away, so we left it as is. … We continued the legacy and, you know, more records came after that. The sound continued to stay rocking.”
Statik Selektah: “I’ve been hearing that (the studio would close) for a long time. They said it a couple times where, for the last probably like six or seven years there’s been a couple times when they were like, “Yo, we might have to move, we’re going have to move.” When I heard it the last time I was like, “Ah, I’ve heard that before,” and then Premier was like, “Nah, it’s real. We’re out in January.””
And earlier this year, that’s exactly what happened. On Wednesday, January 7, the home of D&D Studios closed its doors for good, reportedly for new building owners to make room for luxury apartments. Premier’s Instagram page leading up to the big day reveals photos of people breaking down the insulation and taking down ceiling tiles, leaving the walls barren and all of the equipment boxed up to be moved to the reported new HeadQCourterz studio at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Astoria, Queens. The final photo from the series is two light switches, turned down.
“And we are Outta Here…..So Long D & D,” the photo caption reads. “#premierwuzhere #DaveAndDoug #TheLegacyWillNeverEnd.”
Tek: “The world is forever regenerating, it’s forever revolving and going around. So there’s always going to be a next, not so to say a next Biggie Smalls, or next Nas, or a next Smif-n-Wessun, but there’s going to be artists that are going to be dope. They’re going to be ahead of their time. And as long as there’s a building or housing that can accommodate these sizes of people’s groups, attitudes, and atmospheres, then, of course, yeah it’ll definitely be another D&D.”
Steele: “…It will be dope to see the legacy of that continue. And I think that DJ Premier, Show, they can keep it up but I will also like to see other DJs and producers, and even artists, create places where even some of the artists we haven’t heard yet can do some of the things that we was able to do at that particular time.”
Lil Fame: “We just gotta make [the new building] home. The more you feel comfortable, you got good people around you, shit should be able to work out. Word. And that shit gotta bang. The room gotta knock. [Laughs] Speakers gotta knock man. Play it loud or don’t play it at all.”