Nike brought together three generations of rap royalty when they recruited DJ Premier, Kanye West, Nas, Rakim and KRS-One for “Classic (Better Than I’ve Ever Been)” to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their beloved Air Force 1 sneaker in 2007.
In the latest episode of his YouTube series So Wassup?, Premo broke down the backstory behind the all-star collaboration. The legendary producer began by revealing Kanye received a beat CD from Rick Rubin and was tasked with choosing the instrumental that he, Nas, Rakim and KRS-One would rap over.
However, after the original version (which didn’t feature Rakim due to his verse being a slower tempo) was completed, Premo received a phone call from KRS asking him to do a remix.
“KRS-One called me and said, ‘Yo, we need a Premier version of this song,'” he remembered. “I had no ties to it, but when KRS calls, what do you say, no? No. You’re like, ‘Alright, what do you need me to do?’ He said, ‘The original is done, we even performed it already on MTV. But we still need one to do a video to and we really want to get it a little more — not even uptempo, just more of a different type of energy.’ I said, ‘Alright.'”
Weeks later, DJ Premier finally received Kanye West, Nas, Rakim and KRS-One’s vocals and got down to work — not only on cooking up the bouncy, Carl Douglas-sampling beat, but expertly manipulating Rakim’s verse to match the tempo of the track.
“I got Rakim’s [verse] separately on a CD of an acapella of his vocal, but the thing is, [the song is] 100 BPM, but his [verse] was between 97 and 98. If you lined it up with my beat or the original, it’s not gonna line up; he’s gonna be behind lagging and the beat’s gonna be ahead of him. Can’t have that. I know how to time stretch but I was like, ‘I don’t really wanna alter Rakim’s stuff.’ You don’t mess with Rakim! It’s a violation.
“I had a Pioneer CDJ-1000 … you could do a thing where it’s a pitch control where the vocal tone doesn’t change. This was before Ableton and all of these new devices … When I got Rakim’s [verse], I sped it up and kept pushing it and pushing it … Boom. I had pushed it and when I do his verse, it’s the last verse. Comes out flawless. You wouldn’t even know the difference.”
Nike loved DJ Premier’s remix so much they decided to shoot a music video for it. In addition to shots of legendary Bronx graffiti crew Tats Cru working on original artwork for the song, the video featured a scene of Premo and Rakim in the studio together, which was a special (and long overdue) moment for the Gang Starr general.
“To have Rakim come to your studios is already a blessing,” he said. “Mind you, I’ve always wanted to find him because he’s like a UFO. When we did the Gang Starr Full Clip album, Rakim appeared on ‘The Militia II’ with WC and Gang Starr, and I gave all of our plaques out to everybody that was involved with that album when we went gold. Rakim was the only one we couldn’t track down to give him his plaque. It had been sitting in my closet at the studio collecting dust.
“He said, ‘I’ll come to the studio and shoot the video.’ The director says, ‘I don’t wanna put Rakim last in this video; I want him to go first. And I’m gonna record him with just live audio.’ Sorta like KRS-One’s video ‘My Philosophy.’ When he did the first verse, he cuts the music off.”
Premo added, “[What] made it all dope was I was like, ‘Ra, before you leave, I forgot! I have something that’s got a lot of dust on it, but we’re gonna wipe it off.’ He’s like, ‘What?’ I bring him his Full Clip Gang Starr plaque. It had been sitting there since 1999! And finally, at this video shoot of this particular song, he got his plaque. So beautiful.”
The original Rick Rubin-produced version of “Classic (Better Than I’ve Ever Been)” was nominated for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group at the 2008 Grammy Awards, where it lost out to another Kanye West-assisted track, Common’s hard-hitting Finding Forever cut “Southside.”
Mr. West also took home Best Rap Album (Graduation), Best Rap Song (“Good Life”) and Best Rap Solo Performance (“Stronger”) that year, although he missed out on the coveted Album of the Year award, which went to Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters.
Watch the So Wassup? episode in full below.