Now that DJ Premier has unveiled the first Gang Starr album in 16 years, One Of The Best Yet,there’s an ample number of unanswered questions about how this historic project even came to be.
After all, Guru hasn’t been with us on this physical plane for over nine years and any of the revered MC’s unreleased lyrics have been held up in red tape — mostly because of producer Solar, who Guru had met in 2001 when Gang Starr was working on the duo’s sixth album, The Ownerz.
As pointed out by The New York Times, Premier was removed from Guru’s legacy in a letter Guru allegedly wrote on his deathbed. Solar, on the other hand, was praised in the letter and given control over Guru’s estate. Consequently, Solar and Guru’s family battled over the estate for years.
In 2014, a Rockland County judge ruled against Solar, granting control of Guru’s estate to his family. Solar was forced to cease all business related to Guru and Gang Starr and pay back nearly $170,000 in misappropriated checks, withdrawals, royalties and life insurance payouts. But Premier was adamant Solar was also in possession of unreleased Guru vocals.
“I knew there had to be material out there that [Solar] was sitting on, I could just feel it,” Premier told the NYT. “Guru’s like Tupac. He just records and records and records. I felt like it was a rescue mission.”
Roughly three years ago, Preemo learned Solar was ready to sell. “Whatever the ransom’s going to be, I’ll pay for it,” he remembered thinking.
The two parties settled on an undisclosed figure in exchange for 30 recordings. “Some of them had two verses, some of them had a verse, some of them just had a hook and then faded,” Premier said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, there’s enough to do something.’”
The result? One Of The Best Yet. Preemo kept the album under wraps for years — which he admits was extremely difficult — but he learned who he could trust throughout the process.
In an interview with HipHopDX, Premier opens up about the recording process, explains how Guru was present in both physical and spiritual form while making the album and how he was able to move forward after losing his father — or as he calls him “our hero” — last year.
HipHopDX: Was it hard to keep this secret that you were sitting on this massive Gang Starr project?
DJ Premier: (Laughs) Yes, it was. You’re like, “Don’t tell nobody” and then you’ll see Black Thought from The Roots and I’d be like, “Yo, I got to tell you something.” Some of those guest appearances happened because of the, “Hey, don’t tell nobody.” Talib Kweli. We were talking about a gig that we’re supposed to be doing this month with Black Star. I’m DJ’ing for them and doing a rare appearance, but the crazy part is they wanted to call us Black Gang Starr and I’m like, “Nah because without Guru here, I don’t feel like that’s right, but on the song that Kweli’s on, he says, “Hip Hop homie, that’s our lane/It’s Gang Starr with the Black Star gang.” When he said that, I’m like, “Yo, call it Black Star Gang because we said that on the song.”
But when he called to see if I’m down to do the gig, I told him about it and he’s like, “Oh man, let me get on that if you have a spot.” I’m like, “Man, the only spot I have is really slow. I know you do more of mid-tempo songs.” He said, “Man, I don’t care what tempo it is, if Guru is on there, I want to ride next to Guru.” I said, “OK. I’ll send it to you, but again, keep in mind it’s really slow.” He said, “Alright, I’m in Spain right now, but just send it to me then maybe I can go to my hotel room really quick, send it to you and see if you like it.” And that was exactly what happened. By the time I woke up that morning, it was already in my inbox. When I heard the verse, I was like, “Wow, yeah, this is a go.” Royce, same thing.
HipHopDX: I love that Royce song.
DJ Premier: We were rehearsing for our PRhyme tour because we were just rehearsing. We were there to cover that business and then something said, “Tell Royce, y’all are close.” So I told Royce and he was like, “You need me on anything?” I said, “Well, everything is kind of set up the way I want things but check out the song “What’s Real” and see if you got something for it. This was before Group Home even was on it. The reason why Group Home got on it is because in his verse, Royce says something about a group home and I was like, “Oh, it’d be dope if they did like a hook and tied it all together,” so I gave them a call. Other than that, it’s because Royce happened to be there for rehearsal.
HipHopDX: Man, but at least you know who you can trust now.
DJ Premier: Yeah, right (laughs).
HipHopDX: I was very intrigued by the recording process. I read you actually had Guru’s urn sitting with you in the studio while working on this album. Were there moments where you felt his spirit?
DJ Premier: Every day. Every day just going in to do it. I did a ritual where I burned sage because that’s known to ward off evil energy. Then, I would bless his ashes with the sage and bless his picture. If you saw the picture in The New York Times article that’s in that frame, that’s the picture that sits on top of our control board. I would let the smoke billow all throughout the picture and just kind of fog up the whole glass frame. I’d take his ashes and rub it against the picture and I would always say, “Get everybody evil away from us. Get everybody evil away from us. Get Solar away from us” and not even to keep bringing him up because I don’t really want to speak of him like that, but that was one of the things I prayed for because the energy has always been bad. Bad energy.
DJ Premier: Yeah. And it shouldn’t be. It should not be. So, evil should not be in there and there was evil energy we had to face and deal with. To tragically lose him and still have to deal with all these headaches of just negative shit … it was like I had to also throw that into the prayer and I don’t wish evil on any human being, but I’m going to make sure your energy is warded off from me and everything that exists in my love for whatever is going on in my existence and everybody else that love Gang Starr, all of our friends after all these years that love him and especially the fans and especially his son, who was nine years old when he passed and now he’s 19.
So, he has questions and I was able to give it to him. I always praise Big Shug because he’s the founder of Gang Starr and worked with Guru, and he’s able to tell his son stuff that I didn’t even live because I’m not from Boston. And Gang Starr had a long Boston run way before I joined the group because there’s three generations of Gang Starr before I joined. I’m the third generation.
HipHopDX: One of the most powerful moments on the album is when Guru’s son’s voice comes on. It’s almost like you hold your breath. You can definitely feel the emotion on the record.
DJ Premier: This is the thing, the song “From A Distance” with Jeru The Damaja, I knew I had to have something that goes in — this is my DJ sense — I’m like, something needs to go there to set that song off, so I called his son and said, “Hey, man, you want to speak real quick or maybe say something about your dad?” He goes, “Yeah, I actually was going to ask you if I could.” I was like, “Yeah man, do whatever you want.”
DJ Premier: When the song comes on, Guru says, “It’s king equality.” The “K” is for “King” and the “E” is for Elam. So, he’s saying this is Keith Elam. Then he says his government name Keith Elam later. His son said, “Yeah, I wrote something I want to say about my dad.” When he went in the booth — and he’s not a recording artist — I said, “You ready?” He said, “Yeah, are we recording?” I said, “Yeah.” Then right then he says, “The late king who provided lyrical slaughter,” then you notice that gap where he gets silent for a second?
DJ Premier: It was longer than that where I kind of had to look under the monitor for recording session, it kind of blocks the view of the vocal group when somebody is in there and he says, “The late king who provided lyrical slaughter” and he then he just took a break. I looked and had to take a peek under the monitor to see if he stopped or was looking at his paper to see what he had to say and I’m like, “Yo, you alright?” And he goes, “Yeah.” And he sounded like he was getting engulfed, like he was about to get choked up to cry and then he goes, “I got it, I got it.” Then he continues, “He’s still here shining down upon us, one of the best yet.” I just cut that gap a little shorter because he took that long to finish it. That’s why I knew it was really emotionally getting to him.
HipHopDX: That’s probably why I felt it then. It sounds like the environment you had in the studio was really spiritual, very sacred. I’m sure other people felt that.
DJ Premier: Absolutely. Absolutely.
HipHopDX: I just lost my mother five months ago suddenly.
DJ Premier: Oh, God bless you. God rest her soul. I lost my dad.
HipHopDX: Yes, you lost your Papa. I know you were going through it.
DJ Premier: And that’s while I was doing the album.
HipHopDX: How did that affect your process while you’re making the album? I know grief is a very difficult thing to navigate, so how did you get through all that?
DJ Premier: My dad raised me to be strong. I’m the only boy and I’m the baby of the family, too. He always pushed responsibility and standing up and be strong for women and he said, “Always be strong for your mama. Always be strong for your sisters. Don’t let nobody ever cross them and be a stand up man.” So, I’ve always carried that type of an attitude and I still carry that attitude so it was that strength.
My father was our hero — not was. My dad is our hero and he taught us to always be strong through all adversity. Because of that I said, “Man, this is not the time. Cry on your own time, scream on your own time, but don’t let your mama and sisters see your weakness when they’re going to need to lean on you when they’re crying and need to be held.” So I said that I’m going to make sure that they have me to lean on because I want them to feel comforted, safe and confident that everything going to be alright. With that energy, I directed that toward finishing up the recordings so I could turn this thing into an Gang Starr album that sounded like a continuation of where we left off in 2003 with The Ownerz.
HipHopDX: Oh and you did. That’s interesting you say that because one of the things I remember my mom telling me when I was going through a really rough time was, “Put on your brave face,” and when I was doing her speech at the memorial, I quoted that and I’ve honestly had to look to that to get through some of these moments because that’s the only thing that you really can do.
DJ Premier: Absolutely. Absolutely.
HipHopDX: But I find the music is such a catharsis. You can put on a good song and be reminded of your mom or your dad and it’s healing.
DJ Premier: You hit the nail on the head.
HipHopDX: What was it like hearing Guru’s voice again over your production?
DJ Premier: Surreal. Scary. I was nervous but also just like getting chills, like, “Wow, this is really happening. I got him back. We’re about to do an album.” I was just so excited and then I was so excited for his son because again, he was nine years old when he passed. Now, he’s 19. He’s a man and his way of thinking is just on a different level where you know how much of an impact it’s going to have on him because he’s part of this new process that he really wasn’t understanding as a 2-year-old boy in 2002, you know what I’m saying? He was two years old going on three. He didn’t grasp what his dad was doing for his profession and now he does. You know, so he’s a great kid.
HipHopDX: Yeah, now he understands the legacy here a little bit more.
DJ Premier: Yeah.
HipHopDX: What’s next? Are you going to tour with the record?
DJ Premier: We’re looking to tour. We’re coming up with some cool ideas to make it all complete, but we’re also working on our Gang Starr documentary, which we’re heavy into doing right now. That’s the focus. And then, I’m also finishing my independent stuff. Year Round Records is straight, we’re all street underground releasing records back in 2005 and then I released an album in 2008 with a group called the NYGz and they have since become our Gang Starr family. They were actually signed to Guru first on his Ill Kid label and they made a new offer them so now they signed to me after Guru wasn’t able to continue his Ill Kid label and he started doing Jazzmatazz projects while still doing Gang Starr. So, they dropped the album in 2008 and now they’re dropping one with me. I’m in the process of mixing that.
DJ Premier: Me, Bumpy Knuckles/Freddie Foxx did a project called Collection, but it was owned by a different distributor for a certain amount of time and now it finally reverted back to us, so now we own it and we’re going to re-release it because now that we own, it’s not up on streaming and iTunes and all those places. So, we’re going to re-release it ourselves. Then we had five songs from that project that did not make the album so I figured if we’re going to re-release it, to make it a little more sweeter, let’s add those five unreleased songs so that all the people that are familiar with it already will go, “Oh damn, these are five I’ve never heard before” and that will make it newer. Then, I always do a series of instrumentals called Beats That Collected Dust. They’re just tracks that people either did not use them and put them on the shelf or they were just tracks that I was working on and they were partially done, but they still sounded good enough to maybe use for something, so Beats That Collected Dust Vol. I and II have been out and those still continue to sell. So now, I’m going to do Vol. III and put that out because I haven’t released one in 10 years.
HipHopDX: Crazy. I didn’t realize it had been that long. I read in a New York Times article that when Guru was in the hospital, you made a promise to him. You said you’d never let him down and you wouldn’t let his family down. Do you feel that you’ve honored that?
DJ Premier: Oh, 100 percent. Still am. From the very day he passed, I’ve stayed in contact with his family. His sister Trish, who he loved so much, he was very close to his older sister. He had a younger sister, but he was super close to Trish. He was close with his older brother Jay as well, but Trish was out of the three siblings, Trish is the main one. So, we all share a company called Gang Starr Enterprises. It’s me, Trish, Lana who is his son’s mother and also his son is part of the company as well and his nephew, Justin. So we share that. We split everything down the middle. We do right by each other in the business and everybody is doing very comfortable.
HipHopDX: Family and royalty, right?
DJ Premier: No question. Absolutely. That’s selling all the merch put his son through private school and I’ve just been constantly making sure that they’re financially straight and making sure the money that belongs to Guru is being directed to them and it’s been that way since day one.