Musical producer

Hip-hop producer DJ Premier: ‘I’ll be 90 and boom-bap!’

“When I moved from Houston to New York, my dad was like, ‘Son, I don’t get this whole hip-hop thing…it’s not my generation. Just promise me this: If you’re going to be a rap producer, make sure your face is on Mount Rushmore and everyone knows your name. Be the best.’ I promised him that’s what I was going to do.

Few would argue that DJ Premier (real name Christopher Edward Martin) hasn’t delivered on that promise. The celebrated music maker elevated sampling to an art form, taking the eclectic jazz and soul records of his youth and turning them into new forms for his beats.

The scratching that often punctuates his work (as on “Isn’t the devil happyby Jeru the Damaja) is no less exhilarating. “When I lay scratches, it’s like having sex,” he says on Zoom from his home studio in New York. “It’s like ‘whooo’ and then that big release. Touching vinyl with your fingertips is an emotional experience, it’s a visceral connection to the music.

Since the late 1980s, Premier has not only worked with legendary emcees such as Nas (“New York state of mind”), Jay-Z (“D’Evils”), Big L (“The Enemy”) and The Notorious BIG (“Kick in the Door”), he got used to producing their best songs. Meanwhile, in the influential group Gang Starr, he and the late Boston rapper Guru took hip-hop to new heights with streetwise poetry and turntable magic.

Gang Starr photographed in New York, 1989 © Janette Beckman/Getty Images

The five smile at the camera with their arms around each other's shoulders

Jay-Z, Nas, Steve Stoute, DJ Premier and Common at Nas’ 38th birthday party, 2011 © Jerritt Clark/WireImage

Although the duo’s music was born from the harsh streets of Brooklyn, where Premier had made their home, they were preoccupied with finding peace amid the chaos of the concrete jungle, with Guru’s famous rap on “2 Deep” from 1992: “Violence is never my first choice / I come in peace to release the effect of my voice. Thirty years later, it’s a sentiment the Grammy-winning prime minister remains proud of.

“I still live by those words,” says Premier. “Violence should always be the last option. Any violent person [on my block] were unhappy and led an unstable life. Usually all they needed was a big hug or words of encouragement that their life could be better. With Gang Starr, we tried to push people on the right path.

At 56, one would expect him to slow down and enjoy the royalty checks that come with producing the greatest anthems of rap’s golden age. “I remember in my twenties thinking I didn’t want to be some 50-year-old jerk who was still making rap beats,” he laughs. However, it is clear that his enthusiasm for music remains unwavering.

His new EP, Hip Hop 50:1is the first in a series marking the genre’s impending 50th anniversary next year and featuring acclaimed guest artists such as Nas, Run the Jewels, Slick Rick, Rapsody, Remy Ma and Lil Wayne.

The couple smile at the camera in a crowded room
DJ Premier and Rapsody in New York, 2019 © Johnny Nuñez/WireImage

“I wanted it to be balanced, so it was important that I had female entertainers there,” Premier says. “I thought Remy Ma and Rapsody would feed off each other well. Remy is raw and grimy; Rapsody has more of a Lauryn Hill type vibe… Run the Jewels was a no-brainer after the success of [our last collaboration] ‘Oh dear‘ . . . and I had to get a Nas disk. This EP is a celebration of hip-hop history. It’s like going to a graduation ceremony and looking back.

Reflecting on the past is something Premier does often during our conversation, especially when it comes to his contemporaries who didn’t survive. “When Gang Starr arrived, people shot at us and many of our peers were murdered,” he says. “I just wanted to make enough money to be safe. But, over time, I realized that quitting was not an option.

Pointing to the turntable, stack of records and MPC sampling machine that sit on the studio desk behind him, Premier continues in his warm but gravelly voice, “That’s what I do. Going to a record store and finding a pearl is like a drug for me, so I’ll keep cooking. I’m going to be 90 and go boom-bap, piss off the nurses!

There were early ideas of his future career even when he was a little kid growing up in Texas. “I was obsessed with my mother’s record player and curious how the needle would automatically find the right groove to start the vinyl,” he recalls. “So I took it apart with a screwdriver to see what the inside looked like. My mom yelled at me for that!

The artist wears a t-shirt
DJ Premier in his LA studio © Ike Edeani

It was also here that he discovered many songs that would become crucial ingredients in his art. “I listened to records from Motown, Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Isaac Hayes, Natalie Cole and Aretha Franklin from my mother. For me, these artists were among the very first rappers. If you listen to Pigmeat Markham, Teddy Pendergrass, George Clinton or even James Brown, they talk shit like rappers do today. . . By sampling these artists, I wanted to show that hip-hop kept their energy alive.

Sampling has had a long and difficult relationship with copyright law, and as of 2022 continues to be controversial. Many American producers complain about “sample snitching,” with fans tracking down original samples and posting them online, which can lead to them being sued by the artists they borrowed from. However, Premier says that in his experience, a simple conversation can often avoid legal entanglements.

“I’ve been sued many times by former jazz musicians and so on, but I always ask to speak to the artist. When they see me trying to take their sample and make something new out of it, they realize how awesome it is and we fix it,” he explains. “We keep their sound alive, but we also push it forward. It’s a beautiful thing.

Premier’s beats are known to spark rappers’ nostalgia and inspire them. For “Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park)” on Nas’ 1994 masterpiece IllmaticPremier sampled the carefree notes and vocal coos of Reuben Wilson’s “We’re In Love,” prompting the rapper to reflect on his childhood in the Queensbridge projects, where a friend was robbed and shot for his sheepskin coat. .

A black and white photo of DJ Premier holding the mic and one arm raised behind the decks
DJ Premier performing with Gang Starr in New York, 1992 © Al Pereira/Getty Images

“You know, ‘Memory Lane’ was Nas’ idea,” Premier said humbly. “He thought the Reuben Wilson song was like sitting in the park on a summer day, reminiscing about his childhood and carefree. So I chopped it up and added some drums to it.

Although Premier is renowned for his hip-hop work, he consistently pushed himself out of his comfort zone, churning out pop hits for Christina Aguilera (“Ain’t No Other Man”), stoner blues anthems (” Devin the Dude’s Doobie Ashtray) and neo-soul funk (D’Angelo’s Devil Pie). He crosses musical genres with real gluttony, with the ultimate goal of proving that the influence of hip-hop can spread everywhere.

I ask him what he thinks hip-hop might look like in 50 years. “It will always look like what I did,” he says. “I will continue to make music this way and I hope others will too. If you like something, why stop? It’s like a wedding. If you love your spouse, you remain faithful to him forever.

‘Hip Hop 50: Vol 1’ is now available on Mass Appeal Records

Check out our latest stories first – follow @ftweekend on Twitter