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DJ Premier

Hip-Hop Producer By Paul Tingen
Published July 2007

Studio A at D&D, Premier's home since the early '90s. Since these shots were taken, Premier has bought the studio.Studio A at D&D, Premier's home since the early '90s. Since these shots were taken, Premier has bought the studio.

He may be the East Coast's biggest name in hip-hop production, but DJ Premier still creates his tracks with an ancient Akai MPC60 and S950 sampler.

It would be hard to overstate DJ Premier's importance for American hip-hop. He's been referred to as "the true essence of hip-hop", the "cornerstone of hip-hop power", and "the king of underground hip-hop". He is said to have "created a benchmark for all the hip-hop producers that have come through since" and has been described as the main hip-hop kingmaker in New York. "MCs of the New York 1990s had one rite of passage above all else — they had to get by DJ Premier to be great," one writer noted.

Premier achieved his iconic status during the '90s through groundbreaking work as producer of classic hip-hop albums by the likes of Jeru the Damaja, NAS, Notorious BIG, Jay-Z, KRS-One and Mos Def, and as the DJ'ing and producing half of the influential duo Gang Starr. Premier, also known as Preem or Premo, has continued to make his mark in the new century. He delivered Gang Starr's The Ownerz album, produced more cutting-edge hip-hop albums for the likes of Snoop Dogg, Pitch Black and Freddie Foxxx, and expanded into the mainstream, producing songs for D'Angelo, Janet Jackson, Cee-Lo and Christina Aguilera. There's even talk of a Premier solo album called A Man Of Few Words, though that's 'on pause' for now.

Today DJ Premier continues to be one hip-hop's most influential producers, with a stature equalled only by his West Coast counterpart Dr Dre. Preem likes to describe himself as one of the few who keep the original, experimental hip-hop flame alive, providing light in the darkness of the commercialised US hip-hop/R&B that's been overwhelming the world's hit parades in recent years. To this end he has founded his own label, called Year Round Records, which aims to develop and promote up-and-coming 'hardcore hip-hop' acts. The producer explained in an interview that "raw NYC hip-hop is my medicine. I'm here to rescue that sound."

Bringing Music Back

DJ Premier tracks tend to be characterised by short sampled loops, perfectly timed scratching, hard-hitting drums, deep bass lines, and lots of weird background sounds, all held together by a slightly behind-the-beat groove. His tracks are frequently described as aggressive, gritty and, indeed, raw, but they also have an impressive and infectious flow and logic.

DJ Premier

Premier sounds genuinely pleased when this point is put to him. "Yeah, no doubt," he replies. "It has to do with the fact that I'm coming at it from a musician's point of view. My mother made me play piano. I did it until second grade, when I was about 10. Later I played guitar in church. She was also a concert-goer and I've been brought up with lots of great music. I saw Earth, Wind & Fire in 1978, and the way they constructed their music and harmonies. I saw the Commodores and Lionel Ritchie and Graham Central Station and the Isley Brothers in concert. I saw the Brothers Johnson with Quincy Jones, and Ike & Tina Turner. All that stuff trickled down to make me want to do my beats in a certain way.

"I'm 40 years old, and I was brought up in the era of really pure music, way before rap music even came out and prior to drum machines and programming beats. During my college years I learned to scratch, and we just used all the old records and extended them and rapped over that. The whole analogue thing will always be a major part of my understanding of music. It took me a long time to want to go digital and Pro Tools, because I was against it."

The hip-hop world can be rather unfriendly towards those who display conspicuous musicianship. It also tends to be selective in the kinds of artists and music that it regards as cool. DJ Premier's pride in his musical antecedents and skills, as well as in his boundless musical taste, are therefore particularly noteworthy. "I became a big fan of buying vinyl records and tapes," he says. "Thomas Dolby, Genesis with Phil Collins, Iron Maiden, Van Halen, Talking Heads, Talk Talk, the New Wave scene, punk, James Brown, Chuck Berry, the Jackson Five, BB King, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Ozzy Osbourne, Thomas Dolby, Parliament/Funkadelic — you name it, I had their records or had been to see them in concert."

It's rare to hear all of those names in one breath, but there you have it. Musical eclecticism and open-mindedness, or, put simply, a great love of music, is evidently at the heart of Premier's method and success.

Master Of Wax

Born in 1966, in Houston, Texas, the young Chris Martin went into DJ'ing during his high-school years, calling himself Waxmaster C. He was encouraged, again, by his mother. "When there was a party and they wanted to borrow my records, my mother made sure that I went too, and I would put the records on. I was fascinated with how records looked, the way they spun and the way the arm dropped automatically onto the record. When jukeboxes played in restaurants I peeked through the side to try to see the actual record playing."

Despite his love of analogue, the young Waxmaster, who in the late '80s changed his name to Premier because he wanted to be the first with everything he did, enthusiastically embraced the first pieces of digital kit that he encountered. "I learned a lot of stuff during my college days, when I was trying to make beats with Yamaha drum machines and stuff like that, but it wasn't sounding like these hip-hop records that were coming out, because I wasn't in New York at the time and did not know what they were using."

Premier moved to New York in the late '80s, where he met fellow up-and-coming hip-hop producer Large Professor, who used an Emu SP1200 drum machine. Preem began using an SP12, and also picked up some of the ins and outs of sampling and sound manipulation from his colleague. "Once I saw how he was filtering, I thought 'I'm going to do that too.' But it wasn't a matter of stealing his style. If you get an idea from somebody else, you have to use it to create your own style. You don't want to just imitate. With these guys I wanted them to love what I was doing without them feeling like I was biting [copying] their style. This is what it's all about in hip-hop: do not bite, that's the number one rule.

"I've always been trying to create my own style, and when I use a sample, I still think I do it with originality. It's never just a straight rip-off. I obscure samples to the degree that people will go 'Where did you get that?' Even if I played it to the person who made the original sample, I'd like them to go 'Oh man, I like what you did.' I don't like to lift whole songs, like they sometimes do these days. I like to make it mine, in an artistic way. I don't just rip it off and loop it. It has to have substance to it."

Jazzy Preem

DJ Premier's quest for originality bore fruit with Gang Starr. The late '80s have been called 'the Golden Era of Rap', a period during which various groups tried to outdo each other with unusual musical approaches and imaginative rapping. Gang Starr proclaimed their manifesto with the single 'Manifest' from their first album, 1989's No More Mr Nice Guy. It was distinctive not only because of the deadpan rap delivery of MC Guru, but for Premier's use of a sample from bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker.

"All I was trying to do was be different," says Premier. "I did not want us to sound like all the other producers. Everybody was into James Brown at the time, including myself. But again I wanted to have an outlook where everybody would look upon me as original. You had to be a leader, and I thought 'Nobody is tapping into the jazz stuff, so I can go into that world and see if I can put beats together with that type of music.'"

The jazz-meets-hip-hop experiment worked, and put Gang Starr on the map. Their next albums, Step In The Arena (1991), Daily Operation (1992) and Hard To Earn (1994) became hip-hop classics. Around the same time Premier also acquired a stellar profile as a hip-hop producer, creating pioneering albums by some of the hip-hop legends mentioned earlier — Jeru the Damaja, Notorious BIG, Jay-Z and Mos Def — and also by Lord Finesse, DJ Mike Smooth, Big Daddy, and many others. In addition, 1994 saw Preem dipping deeper into the jazz idiom he'd mined with Gang Starr, as he became involved in Buckshot LeFonque, the band of jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis (who also worked with Sting and Miles Davis).

Around this time, DJ Premier set up shop at D&D Studios in New York, which became a legendary focal point for East Coast hip-hop. "I was doing a remix for Lord Finesse's album, Return Of The Funky Man [1991]," recalled Premier, "and for that I went to D&D. He wanted me to do some scratches on it, and after I was done he gave me a cassette copy which I played in my sound system in my car, and it sounded so good that I thought 'Man, this is where I need to start doing my work.' It became a really beautiful situation where my sound was the strongest, and I continued to work there, and when they couldn't afford to keep the place open any more, we ended up doing a deal and I sold my house to finance it and bought the studio, without its equipment. We renovated it, and we're still there and it's rocking."

Premier named his studio after a fallen hip-hop comrade, HeadQcuarterz, and the core of the equipment that DJ Premier has there today is still the same as in the early '90s. Following the meeting with Large Professor in the late '80s that led Preem to switch to the Emu SP12, he also used an Alesis drum machine, and eventually settled on the Akai MPC60. Around the same time he also started using an Akai S950 sampler. The two Akai pieces of kit have been his main musical tools for more than a decade, complemented by his performance skills on keyboards, guitar and drums.

"The engineer I was using in the early 1990s introduced me to the MPC60," explains Premier, "and he was like 'Hey, you should try this — the way you lay tracks down and adjust levels, it's kind of like a tape recorder without the tape.' I gave it a try and have been addicted to it ever since. Akai gave me an MPC2500, but I have not yet used it, because it's a learning curve, and I have to learn all the commands. My schedule is so heavy, I haven't had the time to sit down with it and learn it, but once I do learn it, it'll take me to the next level of expertise with my production stuff and how I do my beats."

The Wider World

Having supplied his production services to a long list of hip-hop artists, DJ Premier is now also diving headlong into the mainstream arena. Last year he worked with Christina Aguilera on her Back To Basics album — 'Ain't No Other Man', for which the singer received a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance this year, was one of five tracks on the album that Premier played, scratched, engineered and programmed, and co-produced. And at the time of this interview, Premier was working on material for a new Whitney Houston album.

"My production activities are just another addition to what I always wanted to do," explains Premier. "I've always wanted to be involved in music, period. One of my favorite albums is called The Flat Earth [1984] by Thomas Dolby. It is well constructed and he wrote and produced everything on it. I decided 'I want to be that, I want to do everything.' Prince was one of my biggest idols, and he played and produced everything. And every song, every album, every cover, was different. I wanted the same thing in my work and in what I do.

"I don't want to be pigeonholed as a hip-hop producer, I want to be known as a producer, period. Hip-hop may be predominantly what I'm into, but I simply want to be known as a great producer. One day I hope to work with AC/DC in the studio. I'm a big fan of them. I'm also a big fan of Rush, and if I were to work with them, I wouldn't try to make them sound hip-hop. I'd make them sound rock, but I'd still put my input in, where they'd expect. I know what I'm talking about, because my knowledge of music is so vast, you know what I'm saying?

"With Christina, she's more of a 'feel' person, and that's what made our chemistry work. Sometimes I made a couple of mistakes in the way I was laying stuff, and she would say 'I like it the way it sounds. It feels good to me, leave it.' I'm totally in agreement with that approach. We actually wrote the songs from scratch, and she told me what she wanted. She would say 'You could put a scratch here,' and I did exactly as she told me. I did not take offence at that, because she really knew what she was doing. With 'Ain't No Other Man', she walked in and heard the drum pattern and the stabs and I wanted to chop it up and play it in a different way, but she was like 'No, this is pop music, you don't have to get over-technical with a pop song.' That's why I'm so proud of her album. I watched her orchestrate the whole thing."

Love Your Difficulties

Premier's preference for sticking with tried and tested working methods and gear is a recurring theme. He explains how this ties in with his quest for originality and uniqueness. "I'm in my happy comfort zone with the things I have been using, and I don't want to get caught up with having to look for things in the middle of working on songs. I tend to stick to anything that other people are not using any more, exactly because they are not using it. I still use my old Korg Trident keyboard, for instance. And I know how to use these things to enhance what I do.

"I like the difficulties of the older equipment. I don't sample with the MPC60, I just use it to trigger drums. Instead I sample in the S950 and trigger them from the MPC — everything, also my keyboards, is MIDI'd to the MPC. I can only sample 60 seconds of audio in the 950, and that also has to include kick and snare and other drum sounds, so that limits the sample time I have. This forces me to be creative with samples. If I find a sample that's longer than 60 seconds that I want to loop, the first thing I'm going to want to do is find a way to make it funky with the limited sample time I have available. I'll mentally create the idea in my mind, because the mind makes the machine do what it does. Any machine is useless without my mind making it follow my command. That's how you recognise creativity versus someone who is OK.

"When my ear catches something on a record that I like, I'll send a portion of that record from my Technics record player to the S950. Once the sample is in the 950, I truncate the parts I don't want, program what I do have, and assign it to one of the pads on the MPC. I'll experiment to see if it makes me feel good and if it starts to sound like something I would buy. If it doesn't sound like something I would buy, it's not ready to go. I have to like it — I don't care what anybody else thinks.

D&D Studio B, with pride of place reserved for DJ Premier's veteran Akai MPC60 sampling drum machine. D&D Studio B, with pride of place reserved for DJ Premier's veteran Akai MPC60 sampling drum machine. Photo: George Aye

"Everything I do is experimentation. Real music is about experimentation. You have to play around until you get a vibe going, and not everybody knows how to do that, unless they have an ear for music. In order to have an ear you have to have a knowledge of music and my knowledge is so great. I know rock music, jazz, country, hip-hop, R&B, soul, punk, New Wave, whatever you want to call it. I appreciate all that music. I could shift gears 24/7, so when it comes to hip-hop I can do this with my eyes closed."

The Writer Who Samples

In DJ Premier's view, all his activities — DJ'ing, creating backing tracks and producing — find their roots in the same musical attitude. "I do everything with a DJ mentality. DJ'ing is my number one love. Producing is not my favourite thing, it's for paying my bills. Although, when I produce, I don't want any half-assed quality coming out. It has to sound great and I make sure that I put my all into it. Everything I do comes from DJing, because using samples is one of the ways in which we create music in the hip-hop world. It goes back to not having an instrument and not being able to afford to put a band together. So we used music that fits our atmosphere, and you have to understand how to convert samples into a format that works for our culture.

"To me, I'm a writer, even though I sample. There are songs in which I play all parts myself, but when I use samples I still do it in the same way a music writer would, because you still have to construct the track and shape it and make it blend with what you're trying to bring out of whoever is going to MC or sing it. And you have to understand and respect what you sample. When I constructed tracks in the past, I usually started with the samples, and then added the drums. Now it is usually the reverse. I may begin with keying a rhythm into the MPC, or play around with a little melody on my keyboards. This may be my Korg Trident, or my Roland Fantom, or my Yamaha Motif — I just got it and I'm still experimenting with it, but it has some really cool sounds. I may play on my M-Audio Oxygen 8 controller and use sound modules like the Emu Planet Phatt or Mo'Phatt. It is different every time, but today the majority of the time I'll get a drum pattern going, just a basic skeleton, and I then start to see if things fit.

"I tend to program my drums, but a lot of the time I'll turn off the 16th notes and I'll play the MPC live, so it sounds like live drumming. I like it to sound loose, and this is why my drums have a little bounce to them, more than with most people. I'm a big fan of Neil Peart from Rush and Buddy Miles, and in my whole production it's about the drums. Even with mellow stuff, like the song 'Nice Girl, Wrong Place' on The Ownerz, the sample is mellow, but the drums are still smacking. The bass is also very important. If the low end of the sample isn't really heavy, I'll always follow the exact bass line of the song and put that underneath. A lot of people ask me what EQ I use to get the bottom end of my samples to come through so strongly, but I'm like 'Man, it's not EQ. I'm playing the same notes verbatim.'"

Leaving Tape Behind

While DJ Premier's writing setup — MPC60, S950, assorted keyboards and other instruments and record player — has remained the same since the early '90s, the next stage of his production process has recently undergone a dramatic change. Until not too long ago, Preem still loaded everything he composed with his writing setup onto two-inch analogue tape. But not too long ago, he too succumbed to the inexorable digital revolution, and swapped his reel-to-reel machine for Pro Tools.

"The first time I encountered Pro Tools was when I was working with Branford Marsalis on the soundtrack for the [Spike Lee] movie Mo' Better Blues in 1990. I was amazed then, but it was way out of my league, and I loved using tape. It actually took me a long time to even want to go digital and do Pro Tools, because I was against it. The advantages are amazing, but I'm one of these people who tend to be stuck in their ways, and if it works, I like it that way. I had been on a lot of Pro Tools sessions with other people, until I went full-scale digital in 2005. That's when I felt totally comfortable doing it on my own.

Premier made his mark as one half of Gang Starr.Premier made his mark as one half of Gang Starr.Photo: George Aye"Once I have done all the programming with the MPC60, I load everything into Pro Tools, and then I begin shaping the final sounds and track. When everything is printed in Pro Tools, I start experimenting with how to enhance it. I have a fully loaded HD Accel system, stocked with plug-ins. There are many plug-ins I haven't even experimented with yet. But I like the [Waves] Renaissance Vox and Bass plug-ins. I just play around until the sound has a nice shape. I can't just use mouse and keyboard when I work in Pro Tools, so I use the Control 24 board. I love that board, it's a beautiful thing. If I don't have buttons and faders, I lose interest.

"Now I love Pro Tools, I can't deny it. But I use it with a DJ mentality, and I'm still against it in certain ways. I think Serato [Scratch], which I just started using, is more dedicated to the DJ who has paid his dues and has carried billions of records. I play what I have gained through my whole knowledge of music and my library, and the same thing applies to Pro Tools. I think Pro Tools is a great gift for all of us who have dealt with tape. It can do a lot of things that I couldn't do in analogue; it allows you to mess up, and re-mess up and redo and undo, and so on. I am just in a whole different world and frame of mind these days and Pro Tools just enhances me as a producer and a person.

"The whole sound quality and HD thing is very important. It's all about where your ear is at and what you want out of a record. Sometimes I like it clean and sometimes I like it dirty. If it's hip-hop, I don't give a fuck about clean. You can still get grimy and gritty with Pro Tools, it's all about knowing how to dust it up a bit. For example, I use de-essers to create a certain sound, rather than to take the crispness out of certain sharp words. I'm always experimenting. Sometimes Charles [Roane, DJ's studio partner] will say 'Man, you have so many effects on this track, you need to take one off.' But I say 'It's hip-hop and there are no rules.'

"It's all about making a match with what the MC is doing. I'm like a tailor: I can tailor the suit to fit what you want. An artist like Jay-Z will tell me what he wants the song to be before he even comes to the studio. I then make the track and the atmosphere sound the way he wants. Somebody like Guru gives me the titles to the entire album, and I make tracks to that. Other artists may come in with no ideas, they just want a hot Premier beat, so I'll listen to songs I like by them and come up with something that really fits them, so we get a marriage. It can't be just beats and lyrics, it has to be beats and lyrics intertwined, like when you clasp your hands together.

"You just have to know what you're doing, and hands down I totally know what I'm doing. God put me here to create music and do it well. My knowledge of music is so vast, there's no way I can ever mess up what I do."