Hip-hop has multiple definitions. For some, it’s in the form of a stanza from a song. Others best define it as a culture diverse in the events and people that comprise it. Among the list of innovators that contribute to the definition of true hip-hop is none other than Christopher Edward Martin, better known as DJ Premier. With decades of experience in producing tracks for industry heavy-hitters such as JAY Z, Kanye West, Nas, Christina Aguilera and more, it was no surprise when Premier took on an unexpected challenge. The test to his artistry came in the form of conducting the Berklee Symphony Orchestra in the film, RE:GENERATION, with the end result a classical-meets-hip-hop track that truly highlights Premier’s inimitable creativity.
Life + Times: The signature sounds in hip-hop differentiate throughout various parts of the country, from the South’s laid back edge to the East Coast’s rawness. Do you think living in both Houston and New York shaped your DJ style?
DJ Premier: Absolutely. I was blessed to be brought up in a small town with good music in my house along with my grandfather being a musician that toured the world with his band and living in Brooklyn during my childhood–and my mom is originally from Baltimore. I’ve been coming to New York since then, so I caught on to the hustle and bustle of the big city and I always moved fast since I was a child. So, I knew that New York was more of my speed. I understood that this [NYC] is where I wanted to be once I was old enough to make a move. I moved in 1987 for good, but I still go home all of the time; at least five to six times a year. I still hang with the same friends since I was in kindergarten.
L+T: You have produced tracks on many successful albums. JAY Z’s Reasonable Doubt and Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides are just a couple of examples. Throughout the years, would you say you had a favorite artist you enjoyed working with the most?
Premier: Working with KRS-One was a lot of fun when we did Return of the Boom Bap. I learned so much about the approach to making an LP although I already had experience with Gang Starr. We had already released three LPs by 1992 when Kris [KRS-One] and I started to cut songs in the studio. His philosophy on life, hip-hop, and the world as a whole is unreal. I was a sponge the whole time. Working with Biggie was fun, too, because it was a laugh session every day.
L+T: What are some projects you are working on for 2012?
Premier: Me and Bumpy Knuckles have an EP that came out on March 6th called StOoDiOtYmE. Also, our LP coming out called KOLEXXXION is in stores March 27th on Works of Mart/Gracie Productions through The Orchard Distribution. [The new] NYG’z LP called Hustlaz Union: Local NYG is dropping in May on my Year Round Records label. Also on Year Round, I have an artist from Houston, Texas named Khaleel. His LP is called Already. I am executive producing and appearing on MC Eiht‘s LP Which Way iz West and TEF of M.O.P.’s First Family has an LP called Contraband. I produced two songs for Busta Rhymes new LP, also Immortal Technique, Apathy, 7L & Esoteric, Kool Sphere of Verbal Threat, Chris Co, 38 Special the Gun, Vinnie Paz and N.O.R.E. I stay busy all “year round” which is why I named my label just for that reason.
L+T: I was very intrigued by RE:GENERATION. In that film, Director Amir Bar Lev put you, The Crystal Method, Skrillex, Pretty Lights and Mark Ronson to the test by partnering you all with musicians in genres that you weren’t particularly familiar with. Seeing creative individuals step outside of their comfort zone is something that takes a certain motivation and openness. What was your motivation?
Premier: My motivation was simply to try something new to show that I have range in my career in music. It taught me how to listen and it also let me know how much I do not know about music. I respect the classical music genre so much after being tutored by Mr. Bruce Adophe and Conductor Steven Webber. I look forward to checking out an opera this summer.
L+T: Although you already know how to play multiple instruments and you have years of music production under your belt, what do you feel was the biggest challenge in putting together a classical and hip-hop mash-up in RE:GENERATION?
Premier: The biggest challenge for me was conducting the Berklee Symphony Orchestra. I was mad nervous when it came down to that especially since I had just learned how to do that part of it a few hours prior. It was a lot of fun after we were finished filming.
L+T: The love affair genres have with each other is nothing new. Steven Tyler partnered with Run-DMC in the ‘80s for “Walk This Way,” Tim McGraw worked with Nelly in the early 2000s for “Over And Over,” and you collaborated with Nas and The Berklee Symphony Orchestra for “Regeneration.” Are there any artists you would like to work with outside of hip-hop after filming RE:GENERATION?
Premier: I would love to work with a rock band–AC/DC or even U2 or Rush.
L+T: It’s interesting that some people refer to certain music classifications of music as “White people music,” “Black people music,” and so forth. With your years of industry insight and love of music, do you feel that music is colorblind?
Premier: To some extent music is music, but there are different languages of the translation. Good example: Hip-hop started out as ghetto music in the ‘hood where only ethnic people–Blacks and Puerto Ricans–dominated the culture. Now, white people are heavy into it and are high on the domination of the radio and hip-hop record sales. All music takes different shifts and it always comes around full circle, while it progresses at the same time.
L+T: With all the cross-genre collaborations that are taking place, do you feel that the true essence of hip-hop will die in the future?
Premier: Hip-hop will never die! You cannot kill a culture. It lives forever.