DJ Premier is a true cornerstone of hip-hop and a key figure in the development of the culture. An era-defining DJ and producer, his signature style was a blueprint for the underground and influenced a generation. Probably most well known as one half of Gang Starr, there’s a large chunk of an entire genre that he’s directly responsible for. He’s a legend for die-hard hip-hop fiends but also a household name.
Primo’s trademark sound fits perfectly with the rawness and hard reality of New York, but it was Texas where he grew up and where his musical obsession began.
“Grew up, born and raised in Texas. New York obviously is my home as well. I’m a Texan New Yorker.
“My Grandfather used to take me to this place called Playland, which is in Times Square, and when we would go there I used to see all the B-boys breaking. And then seeing a DJ, you know, take two of the same records and, do it you know in the street for money, that was like a big deal. To go back home and tell everybody, “man check this out, there’s a guy with two records, and he’s playing, uh uh”, I used to call it the part we like. And we’d be like “yo, he’s playing the part we like”, which was the break-down ya know.
“There was no rap music when I was a kid. It was all Soul, funk music, I was into punk music, then hip-hop came and took me to whole different stratosphere.
“A good friend of mine who I went to college with named R.P. Cola, taught me the fundamentals of using a fader, and a cross fader and an up fader, and once I figured all that out, then I was like OK, I can do this now. I just need to understand what made it work. I already knew how to apply my style. Once I figured out the science of it I was like OK, I can do this, and I was ready to take on anybody, still am.”
Premier still gets excited about hip-hop in its truest form. His radio show reflects this and is what he really gets excited about. A true DJ, his job is to find what’s hot and let you know.
“My radio show is strictly underground hip-hop, and by the time they make it a hit, they’re very late. We’re that real pulse of what’s really happening with the true art form of hip-hop which is you know dope beats, dope rhymes, and just scratching. Before the lyrics come on you wanna already be going, oooooh, you wanna make that face… if you don’t make that face it’s not funky. And like they say it should be like a sting, like ooooh.
“And all the stuff that comes to me every week, I get excited, like oh man can’t wait to hear this. You know it’s almost like opening up another present for Christmas. You know like I’m excited about Friday.
“Real DJs always set the trend. We don’t have to be told what’s hot. I wanna be able to say hey, this is hot, check it out so that your ears aren’t fed garbage all the time, you know what I’m saying? But if garbage is all you have to eat, you’re gonna eat garbage. Until I come with the cuisine.”
There’s a distinct feeling to anything Premier touches. Gang Starr became one of the most important and unique groups in hip-hop and left a legacy that influenced an entire generation. There’s never been anyone like Guru and there’s not anyone like DJ Premier. It was back in 1988 that they first met, and when Primo put on his producer hat – always with the DJ mentality.
“I met Guru in late 87′ going into 1988. We just were on the same page, we exchanged numbers, we would talk on the phone like for hours about just music, hip-hop, what we could do together, if we could make it work, and then I started sending him tracks. And I sent him, one of the tracks I sent him was ‘Words I Manifest’, he wrote it, we recorded it. I became his DJ and he told me in order to be 50%, I got to produce the tracks. So I said alright, let me get better at producing and that’s what really made me do that.
“From there, the first major artist that I did a job with was Ice-T, for ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Infamous’. He got me a remix then I got the first album project, which was with KRS-One. From that point I started building my confidence to be able to say, anybody that wants me to produce them I could do it. And I always do it with a DJ mentality, so DJing is always a factor in how I create the track.
“Cause the DJ wants to play it, wants to spin it. And um, real DJs, streets DJs, street DJs play it for real. Robot DJs play it cause they have to, to keep their job.
“Everything is tailored to the situation. Every album is written, just like right there (points), the titles are there and I make the tracks match those titles. That’s how Guru always did it. He’d say ‘Yo, I’ll bring you a list’ and he’d have all the songs listed, and stick it on the wall, and I’d start making the tracks to match the title, and I would make that theme music. Like a tailor when you need a suit, he looks at you and then he measures you, OK, I got a suit that will fit you, you’ll look nice. I’m the same way with my beats.”
You can’t stay in the game for almost 30 years without keeping on top of what’s happening around you. While Primo is old school at heart, he knows that there’s an entire generation of DJs, producers & rappers that recognize him as their inspiration, their influence and their hero, their leader.
“I’m still old school, you know what I’m saying. I mean like, there’s a lot of new artists I like. You know I love Drake, because he can actually rap. And I like J. Cole, um, I love Kendrick Lamar, um… but then I like Disclosure. They’re setting a new trend you know with what they’re doing, and then all of them recognize who I am when they see me. You know I just did a Disclosure remix, or even when I see Ed Sheeran and he’s like ‘Yo Man, when you did Right Where You Stand, you know with Jadakiss and this and that, and the way you took the sample and put the kicks in between the kicks that were on the record’, and I’m just like wow, these young kids know me and I’m twice their age. So that lets me know, you know, don’t stop now, keep going.
“Well I have to always offer leadership, you know I’m always gonna be, no matter what they sell, no matter how popular they are, I’m still always ahead because I did it already. I don’t wanna be the only leader because we do need leaders in this world. But I definitely wanna be one of them, or I am one of them, it’s just you know, you either know where to find me or you don’t.
“DJs are gonna always exist because no matter what they use, computer, what ever it takes to run the party, we still have to you know be the pulse of anything that we’re in front of that has sound put out. Everything we do goes out to the world. It’s a major, major job that I think will never go away.”