As I sat at the other end of the phone with legendary music producer, DJ Premier, I become immediately engrossed by the explanation of the laundry list of his current and future projects. Before Premier could finish the story behind a specific collaboration, he quickly recalls a conversation or two about producing for a singer in the pop world, a Southern rapper, and a vocalist big in the UK garage scene. He’s conducted a symphony (literally), constructed beats and melodies for some of the industry’s biggest names in hip hop, pop, R&B, and hybrid genres. One minute he’s remixing a Disclosure record and the next minute he’s involved with production for artists on his label, Year Round Records. During the course of the conversation he speaks of producing for Year Round Records’ artists NYGz (Hustlaz Union: Local NYG album later this year), Lady Rage from Death Row Records (Queen Kong due out this year), Houston-based rapper Khaleel, Wale, Christina Aguilera, Miguel (“Damned”), Kendrick Lamar, Slaughterhouse (“Y’all Ready Know”), and the launch of his new website.
Just before I go into my first question, he blurts out his newest collab with a “secret” artist. “I’m doing a project that I can’t mention yet. It’s a full album. I just completed it with an artist and we’re gonna announce it in maybe in the next week or two. It’s already done. It features Ab-Soul, Mac Miller, [and] Slaughterhouse is on it,” Premier says. I futilely attempt to get him to reveal the artist and he doesn’t acquiesce, but instead explains the album’s inner workings. Premier adds, “That’s all I can really tell you right now. It’s a really unique project. It’s a project where I sample only one artist and only used their samples for the entire album. I strictly just use that one person – took all their samples, broke it into pieces and made my own beats out of it, and scratched it – the whole album. It was gonna be an EP, but it turned into a whole album. It’s gonna have nine tracks on it. It’s a really cool project.”
In inquiry of his sleeping habits, he chuckles and enlightens me about the importance of a power nap in between recording sessions. What some artists accomplish in the course of three to five years – maybe even longer – Premo will wrap up in the course of one year. “There’s more. That’s just off the head,” Premier further states before proceeded to talk about his new record with rock crooner-guitarist, Ed Sheeran. “He had five albums that he had played for us when I was in the studio with him. He’s even doing a hip hop album with [The] Game and he’s toying with Rick Ross separately. Then, [he’s] doing three other albums. I did a record called ‘The Manor.’” The Premier produced record will be featured on a future Ed Sheeran album.
Beyond Premier’s wealth of knowledge is his deep connection with genres of all sorts. That passion for music is overwhelmingly apparent in how he talks about his projects – it’s much like the proud praise a fiancé expresses about their partner to others. Premier says, “I’m a fiend to music. That keeps me out of trouble, keeps me out of jail, it keeps me from dying early. It’s not an easy business to be in, but I was always a fan and very critical to music where I was like, ‘Man, if I ever get a chance to make a record, I’m gonna show people how it needs to be done.’ That’s still my attitude.” I sit back, enjoy the conversation, and allow myself to be immersed in the human encyclopedia of music and living rolodex of beats. Here are the lessons.
UK Garage & Being “Attached To Music”
“I just got done doing a remix for Sam Smith who’s pretty bubblin’ right now. It’s called “I’m Not The Only One.” I did a cool, hip hop version. It’s still mellow, but I put my hard drums to it and my style of mellow piano. I did a remix for Disclosure earlier last year and Sam Smith was on it called “Latch.” So, we met when they performed at Terminal 5 in New York and I met Sam. He was like, “Yo man, I got three singles dropping. Maybe you should get on the third one.” That’s how that happened.
With Disclosure and also when you conducted the Berklee Symphony Orchestra, I admire that you don’t limit yourself to just hip hop. You have a broad love for music. Do you catch any flack for changing up some of your latest work – being that it’s outside of rap? The hip hop crowd had mixed reviews about your Disclosure remix.
Well, some people will hit me on Twitter like, “Damn. I don’t even want to listen to hip hop because I can’t believe you’re working with this person or this person.” I’m like, ‘Fuck you. I’m a producer. I’m not just a hip hop producer. I’m a producer, period.’ Then, I’m 48 years-old – I was raised on music way before rap was even happening…I’ve known hip hop from the very beginning. I understand the origins of it. I understand the birthplace [and] the birthdate. When they say, “Hip hop is over now. I’m done with it since you’re working with Ed Sheeran or something like that.” I’m like, ‘Good. We don’t need you anyway.’ Then they go, “Oh, I didn’t mean it that way.” ‘Yeah, you didn’t think I was gonna respond.’ I’m gonna respond to you because I’m not angry if that’s your opinion. I want to debate you on what makes you feel that way when you haven’t even heard it yet. When Christina [Aguilera] had me work with her, people were like, “Oh no. Please don’t.” Then when they heard “Ain’t No Other Man,” “Back In The Day,” and all the other records were still constructed like Premier tracks they were like, “Yo, I really love this album. I was really impressed. I was worried, but you totally sound like what we love about you.” Until you hear it, don’t say a word. I never want to be just attached to hip hop. I want to be attached to music – country, rap, soul, jazz, blues, it doesn’t matter, gospel music – I come from all of that.”
The Industry – “I Know Everybody’s Outcome”
L+T: Well, you’re definitely progressive. I read a piece on the history of Rawkus Records and you explained how “Mathematics” came about. Of course it’s the 20th anniversary of Illmatic and I know the story behind “Memory Lane” on that album. I noticed that with most of your records, they’re on the incidental side. They’re never planned. It’s like, “Oh! This is an idea. Let’s go with it.” How much of a percentage would you say is organic versus planned?”
DJ Premier: It depends. I was just telling my manager a little while ago, when we were coming up – whenever we’d get a gig to produce or whatever – the label would be like “Here you want some money to take them (the artist) out to dinner? Y’all should meet. Y’all should bond to see if y’all could start making a record.” Now you talk to a label head like, “Hey Premier, we want you to do this record” and I’ll be like, ‘Okay well, let me get them on the phone so I can talk to them and feel if I have a vibe.’ And they’ll be like, “Oh well, we can’t really hook you up with him right now. Just work on the track and just be ready and we’ll book the session.” I’m like, ‘Hold up. I might not even like the vibe of the person I’m working with. Just because they’re popular doesn’t mean they’re good to work with. Let me talk to them and give them an opportunity to say “Hey, this is what I want to do…”’ I want to know what their process is because I know my process and it has to be that we’re gonna click. If we’re not gonna click, I don’t care about the money. I don’t want to do it and I’ll back out of a job. It ain’t shit to me. I’ll get another job or I’ll find something else to do. I do a radio show every Friday night 10PM to midnight on SiriusXM Radio and we are very dedicated to breaking strictly new, bangers that hit the area of hip hop. I send my list out every week and everybody trusts me because they can’t stand the music they shouldn’t listen to. I don’t do favors. If somebody wanna come up to my show, if I don’t like the record you can still come up to my show, but I ain’t gonna play your record. You can talk about that you have something going, but I’m not gonna play it just because we’re cool. I have to like it, otherwise I’m worried about everybody going off and saying bullshit about the show. I don’t want that reputation. I’m a tough critic. I want motherfuckers to know that you got to have a banger for me to play and you should want to have a banger so that it gets my cosign. I don’t play around. It’s too late in the day to play around with messing music up as bad as it already is. You can tell that the payola really fucks up our industry in hip hop because in my era it was like a brand new thing with the payola stuff, so it was really rare. So now it’s part of how we do things in our industry.
L+T: It’s interesting you bring that out because I feel like that’s also an issue within the DJ world. There’s a lot of music that’s coming out sounds the same, but because there’s this mass marketing and there’s money behind it and “let’s just all be friends” mentality, there’s not enough honesty going on. It’s reflecting in the music.
DJ Premier: Oh, 100%. At the end of the day, I know pretty much everybody end of the story. I know how it’s going to end. It’s like, “Hey man, have you seen that new movie? Yo, he dies at the end.” It’s like, ‘Motherfucker, why did you tell me?’ That’s how I am. I already saw the movie. I know everybody’s outcome. What it is with me, I still study the game, I study who’s out – like, ‘Oh, you the hot one right now? Let me watch how you behave. Who’s in your videos?’ I watch all of that stuff and that makes me understand what level of where they’re gonna end up. When it’s all said and done, most predictions I’m gonna be 100% right.
Illmatic, Legacy, and Nas Collaboration
L+T: I’m sure you’re getting sick of the Illmatic questions, but mine is different! From the three tracks you produced on the album, I definitely feel the connection between the instrumentation along with the lyrics – they go hand-in-hand. When you worked with Nas on those three records, how were you able to decide what sounds would actually work with the lyrics? It’s such a real story, the lyrics are poignant.
DJ Premier: Well, with “Memory Lane,” Nas was laughing at the album cover. It was a Reuben Wilson sample – which I can say because it was cleared – I don’t mind people know that. When we were looking at the cover, Nas was like, “Look at this dude, look at his afro!” He was laughing. When he heard that sample (hums the vocals) in the beginning of the song, that’s all we had looped. Well, I looped it. He was like, “Yo, that’s what I want.” I’m like, ‘Yeah, but it ain’t really hardcore beats.’ We had already done N.Y. State of Mind. I was like, ‘I want to do another one on that level.’ He was like, “Nah, because I already have a lot of hardcore stuff already. I need to get something like that to take it to a different type of sonic sound.” I didn’t really like it. So he was like, “Yo, just hook it up and if it doesn’t work as I lay the vocals, we’ll scrap it.” (raps the intro) I was like, ‘Okay’ and it made me like it. He rapped over it and I was like, ‘Alright, we’ll keep it.’
L+T: Everyone has their own perspective of Illmatic. For you, what is it about Illmatic that makes it – as many critics and some musicians express – one of the greatest hip hop albums in history?
DJ Premier: Mainly because of the fact that at that time Nas was this new sound in music, his attitude, his cockiness – like, “Yo, y’all can’t fuck with me” – and just the rawness and the bluntness of the things he was saying from “[Live at the] Barbecue” to “Halftime” – just all of that stuff made it like, “This guy is going to be the next big thing.” It was already understood. With “Halftime,” “Back To The Grill,” “[Live at the] Barbeque,” – we hadn’t heard anything else. Then, “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” dropped and even that put you in a whole different perspective. Nas and Guru – I would sit in all of their sessions and watch them work so naturally together. So, that was a big deal. Because of that I wanted to give him that same feeling that Large Professor gave me when he connected to Nas. Every track that they did together just happened to work. You couldn’t deny it. You can’t deny greatness of that level. You have to accept it for what it is and Nas had that type of an impact.
L+T: I don’t trust hearsay, so I will just ask – is it true that you’re actually working on an album with Nas this year or is that a rumor?
DJ Premier: This is what Nas told me recently and every time that we talk this is what he tells me; he says, “Look, I got another new album I got to do on Def Jam and then my contract is over. I’d rather do your album…that’s because we can do whatever we want. There’s no strings. We can just rock out.” Everybody’s like, “When are ya’ll gonna do an album?” I’m not rushing it and I have other things to do. I don’t even take it personal when he’s like, “Yo, I’m working this first.” Whenever he says that he’s ready, I’m going in. So, that was always my way of looking at it. I never looked at it no other way. I ain’t trippin.’
The Producer-DJ Question: Is a DJ a musician?
Oh, 100 percent. Well, you know, not ALL of them. You have a robot DJ, then you a true DJ. But yeah, we’re musicians because we have to keep the timing and the rhythm of the music that you can dance to, bob your head to, cry to, laugh to, whatever.