In commemoration of this month’s 20th anniversary of the release of Gang Starr’s stellar sophomore album, Step in the Arena, HipHopDX spoke to DJ Premier on Wednesday (January 12th) for the first in a new DX feature series, “Timeless,” which will revisit time-tested albums with their creators in the depth and detail only DX can.
For the release Tuesday (January 18th) of the second collection of some of Preme’s previously in-the-vault instrumentals, Beats That Collected Dust, Volume 2, DX additionally discussed with Premier the latest release on his Year Round Records (following December’s YR compilation effort, Get Used To Us).
During his incredibly in-depth Q&A, Preme also explained the origins of his recently un-vaulted Madonna remix, updated the progress K.C. Elam has made so far as a deejay-in-training under Preme’s tutelage (and revealed what other schooling he has provided to Guru’s only son), responded to recent revelations from Scarface about ‘Face’s history with his fellow Texas native during the early days of their careers, revealed if he and Drake have collaborated yet as previously planned, clarified once and forever the correct spelling of his nickname, and lastly, and most notably to the readers of this site, the greatest producer in Hip Hop history responded to “all the haters” at HipHopDX who decried the 2010 edition of his annual list of favorite albums of the year.
HipHopDX: This Beats That Collected Dust, Volume 2 that’s droppin’ next week, this is stuff that was gonna be used for [Gang Starr’s] Hard to Earn?
DJ Premier: No, there’s [only one] track on there called “I Don’t Know” [that was originally created for Hard to Earn]. When I write my discs, when I find samples and I don’t know what to call it, I call ‘em all kind of weird names. And I didn’t know what to call it, so I called it “I Don’t Know” on the disc. So that’s why I just left it as the name of it. And I gave it to Freddie Foxxx ‘cause he said, “Man, let me do a couple of freestyles over them Beats That Collected Dust that you got coming out so I can really throw ‘em out there to coincide with us releasing our Freddie Foxxx/Premier album called The Kolexion.” And I was like, “Alright.” So, I didn’t tell him that was a former Gang Starr track. That was the only one on there that was a Gang Starr track that me and Guru didn’t finish. So when I sent him that, he didn’t even know. And he calls me and goes, “Yo, I just wrote a song called ‘The Gang Starr Bus.’ It’s ill. I want you to check it out.” And when I heard it, I started crying, man. ‘Cause, I remember that time. [And] everything Freddie Foxxx said – even if you weren’t there, you were there. Like, he said it to the T of that bus journey on that tour, when we were on the Moment of Truth tour [and the] Smokin’ Grooves [tour], with Public Enemy, Cypress Hill, Busta Rhymes and the Flipmode [Squad]. And Black Eyed Peas weren’t even known yet. They were our opening act. Mya was the first opening act, then there was Black Eyed Peas. They was [doing] ill jazzy dance steps, with a drummer and a bass player. And they were dope! That’s when I was like, “Yo, they’re gonna blow up. One day they’re gonna be huge.” And look at ‘em, they’re huge. And M.O.P. was with us. You know, we had already gone past the stage of being with Group Home and Jeru [The Damaja]. They had grown, and we had outgrown each other… So, that was our traveling party: Headqcourterz, Mike Rome, my man Eion, Vick Black, Freddie Foxx, M.O.P. …Foxx from M.O.P., she was on the tour with us. Laze E. Laze. We went through so much, man. So to go through that, and then to go through hearing the lyrics of what he said, it just took me [back]. And he was also talking about the Rage Against The Machine tour that we did where we opened up for Rage Against The Machine. That’s just a sentimental time for us… He was talking about we made Sara [Honda] cry every day, but she loved us anyway. That was our assistant at my manager’s office. And Phat Gary keeping Guru out of rumors – that’s all real shit, man.
We were always protective of Guru. Even though there’s always been speculation that we just were always beating on each other. Yeah, we fought a lot. But, what groups don’t fight? What groups don’t disagree and have it out with each other? But, it never affected the integrity of our albums. And we never stopped recording. We kept making more and more albums, back-to-back. And during that time – Again, that’s how you know who was down, who was around us. You can’t speak on the Gang Starr history unless you were there. Being with us once or twice can’t add up to the 23 years I been with that guy. So, that record means a lot to me. Freddie Foxxx turned that [track] into a masterpiece.
DX: You plan on letting loose of the instrumentals for those “Don’t Tell Me” remixes you submitted to Madonna?
DJ Premier: Um…yeah. But I’m just holding on to it ‘til the time is right. I’m very, very picky about [timing]. Like, you can call me slow, you can call me late, but I know when something’s ready. I’m just weird like that. You can get frustrated with me all you want to, but when I know it’s ready, it’s ready.
DX: Can you offer some history a little bit about how that came about that you almost landed work with her?
DJ Premier: I got a call from her office that she wanted me to do a remix for “Don’t Tell Me,” when she put out the Music album… They sent the parts to me. I did two mixes. I did the first one where I pretty much just used all of her elements, including the music, and just took my type of a drum bounce to it. They didn’t accept that one. So then I said, let me just strip the whole thing down and just keep her vocals, and I went ahead and did it and called it the – I called it the “Break Mix” because she’s known for doing all types of remixes. She had worked with 45 King on the “Keep It Together” remix, and that was dope. So I said, you know what? Let me go ahead and just do my own entire remix of it and just [strip] everything else off of it. And I thought that one would be the one, and she said that wasn’t it either, but maybe next time. So…I’ve still held onto that version.
DX: I wanna touch on a couple more newsworthy items, more recent bits where you’ve been in our HipHopDX news. I wanted to get an update on Guru’s son’s progress as a deejay in training.
DJ Premier: His first assignment was all – I gave him ten James Brown records to research, and to study, and let me know he knew ‘em. And, he said he did it and he was ready for his next assignment. So this time I took him to Motown [Records] and [gave him] a lot of Jackson 5: “I Wanna Be Where You Are” and “ABC,” “I Want You Back.” Because, I remember when I was a child what I was inspired by. Like, even when I send him the assignments, I type to him, “You know your father really loved these records. And if we were together right now we could sing ‘em at the same time.” I know that’s his father’s upbringing and mine as well. I want him to know the fundamentals of what this whole deejaying thing has turned into. So these records are really precious records that he must know, before he starts scratching and doing all that stage of it. That’ll come later. I just want him to absorb the music and see why I’m choosing [these records], and see what his take is on it. I haven’t even asked him which ones did he like. And I’m sure there’s gonna be certain ones where he’s like, yeah, I like this one better. But I’m still gonna give him a quiz – he’s gonna do an exam where I play the records and he can’t look at the names of ‘em. And I’ma be like, “Alright, what’s the name of that one?” And he’s gonna have to tell me what the name of it is. If I put in “Make It Funky,” he’s gotta know that’s what it is. If I play “Funky Drummer,” he’s gotta know what it is. If I play “Escapism,” he’s gotta know that’s what it is. So, he’s on assignment number two.
I took care of him, made sure he had a good Christmas. We sold some Gang Starr t-shirts on the road. I split half of the proceeds and gave it right to his mother. And she said he had a real good Christmas. And, you know, I’ma make sure that that always sticks and do the right thing, ‘cause that’s what he deserves. Guru’s son deserves the best. So I’ma make sure I’m in his life all the way, 100%. And make sure that he’s never misled by anything. Even when he wants to know the truth about his father, when he’s grown up enough to know it as a man, I’ll tell him the truth about things that went on in the past and stuff like that. I [won’t] mind him knowing [then] ‘cause he’s a man, and a man has to know certain things that are beyond what women need to know… He just needs to have a man in the house. Me and Big Shug are both part of his life. And Big Shug is a father of three, so he knows how to give it to him from that [fatherly perspective]. Even when we went to the BET Hip Hop Awards, we sat him down and schooled him on a lot of things about his father so he hears it from us. Because hearing it from us, it’s not gonna be sugarcoated. But at the same time, it’s all reality. It’s just like when they finally found Guru’s body once that other guy wouldn’t tell everybody where he was, and we found him. Unfortunately he had to see his father in that state, but he got to go to the funeral home and see his father one more time, even though his soul was already gone. And that was important. He needed to see his father, dead or alive. And I’m glad he got to see him, even though he was already passed and he was already at the funeral home.
You gotta live right, man. And I’ve always lived right. I mean, yeah, I’ve done my drinking and drugs, and all of my stuff in the past. Big deal. That’s part of the life experiences and growing up and learning how to think for yourself. And I’ve done that. And that’s the reason why I still continue to be loved by so many people. I’m hated by few, loved by many. So it’s all good. I don’t wanna be loved by everybody anyway.
DX: I know one dude that loves you – I know this because I interviewed him not too long ago… Scarface told me something I never knew, that supposedly back when you guys were both in Texas you knew each other in the early days and there coulda been a Scarface/DJ Premier tag team.
DJ Premier: Aw man, absolutely. Actually, my emcee Top Ski, who was my emcee when I was in Texas, beat-boxed for Willie D of the Geto Boys in an emcee battle at this club called the Rhinestone Wrangler. That was like The Tunnel back in like ’84. Back in 1984 it was all about the Rhinestone Wrangler. It was right by the Astrodome. And I worked at the record store right across the street. That was where I got even more knowledge of how to rock a party, because the deejay that taught me how to deejay, RP Cola, worked at the Rhinestone Wrangler. So he used to get a lot of records early. And I remember Grandmaster Flash came there [in 1988] and got on the wheels. He was cuttin’ up [Stetsasonic’s] “Go Stetsa Part 2,” and he did this ill thing with the drum roll where he broke it down into four parts before he let it go… And I was just like, “Yo! This is crazy.” And Scarface was DJ Akshun then. He was a deejay. He wasn’t even rappin’ then. So, yeah, it coulda gone down.
DX: Wow. I asked him about that, like if he regretted that, and he said no, Gang Starr was meant to be.
DJ Premier: Yeah. But me and Scarface are good friends. We’re talking about doing some stuff in the future. And, you see I ranked him high on my [Top 25 Albums of 2010] list, for Dopeman Music. That was a good project.
DX: Speaking of future projects, when are we gonna finally get that new NYG’z album?
DJ Premier: That’s what I’m mixing right now. I’m a quarter of the way done with mixing. It’s a really good album. I’m excited about it. It’s [their] first album [where] I produced the entire thing. It’s well put together… Shabeeno was always an emcee; Panchi was not. And to get Panchi to get to the point of knowing how to deliver his rhymes and all that stuff, he’s really come a long way. And he’s staying outta the streets – he was always in the streets hustin’, going to jail all the time and really getting into so much drama. And now he loves doing [music]. He’s like, “All these people be talking about ‘I ain’t no rapper.’” He said, “I’ll wear a shirt everyday that says ‘I am a rapper.’” ‘Cause, that’s what he is… I’m just proud of him, [and] that they sound like a team. I’ve known them for a long time, way before music and all of that even stepped into play, and I’m just happy that we finally [got them to this point]. We’re mixing the album. It will be ready before the summer.
DX: “Ya Dayz R #’d,” I been listening to that for like four years straight. [Laughs]
DJ Premier: Yeah. Well I’m [also] about to drop my compilation, Get Used To Us, [on] CD. ‘Cause we only did it digital. We’re just finishing up these last couple of videos. [The CD release is] gonna come with a DVD. Every song on the album is gonna have a video, except for two. [The video for the] “Ya Dayz R #’d Remix,” that came out dope, with Freddie Foxxx and Royce [Da 5’9”], and Lady Of Rage. We went to L.A. and shot her part. We put Gianna Michaels, the porn actress, in it. So when [Rage] says “I got porn star stamina” [you see Gianna]. It’s a good video, man. Bumpy [Knuckles] brought his whole Krupt Mob motorcycle squad out to be in the video. It’s really dope. And [the video] moves; it makes you love the song again.
DX: I wanna squeeze in a couple more questions, about collaborations that were reported you might be doing. First, did you get it in with Drake yet? I know y’all previously chopped it up about collaborating.
DJ Premier: Not yet. I told him once I got back after New Year’s I’d start sending him some stuff. So I’ma start getting on top of that.
DX: And another one that I’m excited about, I hope it can happen: I heard you chopped it up with Freddie Gibbs?
DJ Premier: Yeah! He was a guest on my [“Live From Headqcourterz” radio] show. I like that guy a lot. So I definitely wanna work with him.
DX: Yeah, that has to happen.
DJ Premier: Oh, no question.
DX: You familiar with the name Jon Connor from Flint, Michigan?
DJ Premier: Yeah! I play his record on my show. I been playing “The Message” on my show.
DX: He’s got another joint called “Epic” that is –
DJ Premier: Yeah, I play that too: the fast one, the uptempo joint. I’m feeling him. I been up on him already. Big shouts to Sav over at Def Jam. He’s the one that got me “The Message” record, and I started playing it immediately.
DX: My final question is one I been wanting to ask you for 20 years. Primo or Premo – I or E?
DJ Premier: I don’t even know who started calling me Premo to be honest wit’chu. I have no clue. I guess Guru did. He used to call me Premo a lot. Just like I don’t call him Guru; I call him Gu. But yeah, he used to call me Premo. And he’d say it a lot of times in his rhymes. He wouldn’t always say Premier; he’d say Premo. So the people just started calling me that. But they would spell it P-R-I-M-O, which is pr-eye-mo to me. If I spelled Premo I would spell it P-R-E-E-M-O.
DX: I appreciate you finally clarifying that. Now we can get the grammatical, correct – [Laughs]
DJ Premier: [Laughs] No doubt… And shouts to all the haters that were mad at me for my Top 25 list. I love all the haters.
DX: [Laughs] Why’d you put your shit at #2? Fuck it, put it at #1.
DJ Premier: Well, I thought Ghostface’s [Apollo Kids] album was better than mine. I really did. I’m being honest. I wasn’t being bias at all. And I thought my album was a good body of work. I didn’t put it up there just because I made it, and I deserve to be at the top – which I do deserve to be at the top. But I don’t put myself on a pedestal like that when I compare it to other things that I like. And when I listened to Ghost’s album, which I got two weeks after mine came out, I was really impressed and I was like, “Yo, man, this is it. This is the one. This is my #1 album.” ‘Cause I made that list literally two hours before I went to go do my radio show, and [so], you know, [there are] a couple I wish I could put in a different slot… There’s just one or two albums that I wish I had moved to a higher rank. Like, I thought Roc Marciano‘s [Marcberg] should be higher… But hey, if I had cut it to 20, [at least] he still made it. Again, it was really just my list of things that I loved to listen to this past year. A lot of people thought, “How can you leave Eminem’s [Recovery] and Kanye [West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy] out?” And I was like, I’m not disrespecting them. I love both of them. Kanye’s a good friend of mine. Eminem’s a friend of mine. I just didn’t like their albums better than what I listened to. I didn’t say it was [wack], I just said these [albums] are the ones that I liked this year. I thought Recovery was better than Relapse. There were better songs on there, [but] compared to everything else I chose, it didn’t make the cut. Kanye’s album, I was anticipating that one highly based on what he told me it was gonna be: predominantly a boom-bap album. I think it’s a great album, but compared to The Left‘s [Gas Mask] and Roc Marc and Ghost and all these other albums, it couldn’t compare. Because, my expectations were very, very high [for] that album.
Some people thought I was [being] mad because [Kanye West] didn’t use my beat. Like, I never been sensitive to that. I been turned down on beats a million times. Jay-Z, he’s turned down many of beats. And I don’t get mad like that. The only time I ever got mad at Jay for not picking a beat was not telling me that he didn’t like [a beat], when he only called me the day before he turned [his album] in to do a beat, back when he did American Gangster. And even that, he and I squashed that, after several hours of not being happy that I wasn’t on the album. And that was the only time I ever took something slightly to heart. [But] after a few hours I was over it. I don’t hold on to stuff and hold [a] grudge over people [turning] down a beat. It’s their record at the end of the day. If they don’t want it, I can’t force them to use it when it’s their album. If it’s my album, then I choose what I choose. But otherwise, yeah, there’s no need to get mad at an artist for not choosing a beat. They don’t want it, they don’t want it. Sometimes it’ll end up in the hands of somebody else and turn into something. “Sing Like Bilal” still became a hit in New York. And it helped Joell Ortiz get more recognition… I don’t trip off of people turning my music down. It’s all good.
I’m not that sensitive. So when people were commenting on the list, which I went to HipHopDX the other day and saw I had over 138 comments on my list. And I was just like, the people that were upset, it was funny what they were upset about. It’s almost like they think that I’m not listening to all these albums. I listened to every one of these albums. ‘Cause I do a radio show every week, so in order for me to do my radio show, and we’re formatted to break underground music, [those albums are] what I’m gonna base [my playlist] on. I know Drake is not underground, but he had a good album. In my opinion, it was a good body of work. I like [Thank Me Later]. I like Rick Ross’ [Teflon Don] album. I thought that was good. And I judge [the quality of albums] on more than just beats and rhymes. [What is the] subject matter? How was it mixed? If you have a bad mix with your album [but] you got some dope beats and rhymes, that’s some points against you because your mix-downs are not clear and crisp. So all of that goes into how I judge a record. These other guys, they ain’t doing all of that. They’re not judging on your mix-downs, your lyrical wordplay, your production, who you have on your album, artwork – I’m even looking at artwork. Like, it’s everything. Even the name of your album – all of that shit. Does [the title] make sense to me? That has a lot to do with it. And then again, the main one, is my expectations of the artist that I am listening to. People have high expectations of me to keep giving ‘em hot shit; I have high expectations of artists to give me hot shit. And when I don’t get it, I’m disappointed, but I know they’ll bring another album next time [and until then] I’ll play their old stuff. If you are of the era of when it was really, really great, and making solid albums [was commonplace], then my expectations of you are even more higher ‘cause you know how to make albums. Not everybody knows how to make albums. They know how to make songs, but not everybody knows how to make albums.
Stay tuned to HipHopDX for next week’s presentation of Timeless: DJ Premier Revisits Step in the Arena.