Gang Starr emerged to become one of hip-hop's defining voices, with their adventurous approach breaking boundaries while defining a sound.
The project rested on the relationship between DJ Premier and Guru; one was a phenomenal producer, while the other rose to become one of rap's foremost lyricists.
A friendship based on incredible respect and trust, Gang Starr unravelled after the Millennium, with Guru's relationship with DJ Solar becoming a troublesome factor.
Guru passed away in 2010, but the duo patched up their relationship during those final hours in the hospital.
Towards the end of his life the MC recorded extensively, leaving countless ideas, rhymes, and other fragments behind.
Sometime last year DJ Premier began working with the best of this material, an emotional but enriching experience, one that pushed the seminal producer to the limit.
Out now, 'One Of The Best Yet' is a phenomenal new chapter to the Gang Starr story, uniting past collaborators with new voices on a fantastic album project.
Clash met up with DJ Premier in London to find out how it all came together.
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Has it been gratifying to see the warm response to this album?
Yeah! I mean, we had high expectations, anyway. I look on Twitter, and prior to them even knowing people would ask: is there any way you could maybe remix the old songs? It’s like: no… And people would ask: is there any way you could maybe find vocals you never used? And it’s like: well… not answering that question, cos you’re going to find out!
That’s a key point: you’re a fan, too. You’re protective of the Gang Starr legacy, and you weren’t about to let standards slip.
That’s always my approach, that fan perspective, because I’ve got to think about what they will feel. I know how I feel as a fan of other artists, so all that goes into the mentality of it.
Can we talk about getting those vocal stems for the first time…
Guru’s former partner Solar had possession of them. We had to figure out a way to get ‘em because he and I do not get along with each other. It took seven years to finally get ‘em. I had to hear them first.
His lawyer brought them to let me hear it. First he brought in some snippets – they were only 30 seconds, then they would fade out. I wasn’t confident with that, I had to hear the whole thing. I don’t care if it plays for two minutes with a beat until the vocal comes on, I need to hear it, so I can make sure what I’m about to step into makes sense to do. Otherwise, I’m fine with not doing it, because we’ve got seven albums to hold our career intact.
But I really just wanted to do new music with his voice on, some stuff I’d never heard him do rhymes on, and these were all stuff I’d never heard. So when it came down to having another meeting with his attorney he brought them in full. Once I heard those it gave me more understanding of what they actually were – some didn’t have a hook, some missed a rhyme, others I didn’t want to touch. Some were complete songs.
So they gave us a drive, then I dumped them all into my system. Maybe it took me another month to really get to it because I just couldn’t come to grips with saying this is really about to happen. When you go in you’ve got to lock in.
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It must have been a hugely emotional thing even to hear Guru’s voice again.
Big time. Big time. Even when the attorney was playing them to us… my lawyer is on the couch behind me, I’m sitting at the control board, so I can plug them in and listen to them on the speakers. My phone is sitting right here, and I’m seeing my lawyer, and he’s going: I got goosebumps. I’m like: me too! It was crazy.
My attorney has been with us since 1990, so he went through the whole ride, we never disbanded or anything like that. For him, it was really emotional… he could just imagine what I could turn it into.
When it got to that point, I finally said, well, I need something else to motivate me. And that’s when I asked his family for a little piece of his ashes. They said: no problem, we’ll bring you some. I brought them to the studio so that he’s in the room to help me get it done. That’s when I started.
‘Bless The Mic’ was the first one that I demo’d to see if I could get into a groove, and I liked it, but I wasn’t crazy about it. No scratching or anything yet, no intro, just put his vocal to a beat. Once I got that one done I did ‘Bad Name’ and when I did that one, I thought: this sounds like the traditional Gang Starr. And that’s when I said: now I’m ready to get into a groove.
It has that distinctive feel of a Gang Starr record, for sure. As a producer you’ve done all kinds of different music, what puts you in that distinctive headspace?
Everything. Missing him. Wishing we could do it again. Knowing that when the fans find out they’re going to be like: wow! And that’s why we didn’t announce it. I didn’t want to tell anyone I was working on it, it had to come out at the end of the year. That’s not how people do it these days – it’s like… boom! Album! What the hell?!
Even starting the rumour with that Nas clip, asking: is it true…? I knew all that would send a whirlwind of excitement. I wanted to make it a memorable moment, not just when you finally hear the music. Just to build it all up.
We didn’t even announce it was an album when we dropped ‘Family & Loyalty’ with J Cole, we waited until we got to the second single… and then we announced the album.
It was an incredible moment, for sure.
We’re still blown away by the incredible feeling of love, and happiness from the fans. No one’s hating on us, saying they don’t like it. I think one person – this girl – said, y’know… how dare you do this? It’s like: OK… you’re one of zero. So, see ya!
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Seemingly you burned sage when entering the studio every morning, is that right?
Before anything else took place I’d do that in every room, and then I’d take his ashes and I’d bless the ashes.
Is that a ritual you’ve been doing for a while?
No, it was just for this particular situation because I felt like it needed that just to keep the energy locked in on making sure this whole thing is done correctly, under the circumstances of Guru not physically being here.
The two of you were so entwined, did you find yourself asking out loud during the creative process: what would Guru do?
Oh absolutely. Every time. That’s why the ones I chose were the right ones to make the cut, so to speak. Just from listening and going: this is one he would do. He usually doesn’t write until he hears the track. Now I got to make the track match. I’ve never done that. I mean, remixing is fine, but to do it without him? That was never our formula.
Our formula was always: put the list on the wall, leave it there to the album is done, then we tear it down and celebrate once the album is done. And he put the titles up – in no particular order – and he puts the descriptions in parenthesis.
Whatever the title is, it might say something like: our first single, or a chick record. He always wanted to do one song that was for the women! ‘She Knows What She Wants’ and ‘Love Sick’ or even ‘Get Together’, every album has had at least one song dedicated to the women. That’s always been a tradition as well. He’ll still put that in parenthesis, so we’ll know that subject and that sound.
There’s a great balance of guests on the record, how do you go about creating that roster?
Me and my manager spoke about that, and he said: I know you want to keep it as more of your generation of artists on there, because we come from that cloth, but you got to get a younger artist. I said, well, it’s got to be a lyrical artist.
We used to always say Biggie, Jay Z, and Nas… now it’s Kendrick, J Cole, and Drake. Drake was the first person I asked, and it couldn’t fit into his schedule because he was going on tour. I originally wanted Cole on another song, but when I listened to it he had already spoken on that topic, and as I had already sent it to him I just told him: scratch that, I’ll give you another one.
As it got closer to us wrapping it all up, I sent him ‘Family & Loyalty’ and once he heard it he immediately hit me back, saying he loved it, he definitely wanted to be on it. He’s like: what did you put on his voice, what are those textures…? I said: hey man, this is the way we always did it.
So J Cole needed a bit more time, he was having some family stuff with his wife, but he promised he would get on it. Next thing you know it started to surface into him doing the verse. I remember he even called and said ‘I did more than 16 bars… can I go past that?’ I’m like: you can go forever! To infinity. Because when he’s done I can work around it.
What makes J Cole a good fit for the ethos and aesthetic that Gang Starr have?
It’s just where his head’s at now. He’s very, very serious about life, on a different level. Some people are like: oh, he’s starting to be more preachy in his lyrics! But he was always like that in the past, even when he talked about partying with girls or smoking weed, he still had that type of an approach lyrically, and on his morals, and where he stands.
He said: if people think I’ve changed, then honestly… I don’t care. He doesn’t read comments, he ignores it all. He just doesn’t see it, he does what he does and puts music out.
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Any production work on Guru’s vocals had to be taken very seriously, what guided you through that process?
Just knowing from all of our previous recordings and tours what works and what doesn’t work as a producer. That’s the producer hat that I wear. And because of that, I knew I could handle it… the only difference was he wasn’t in the room to speak to me, or stand next to me.
I would just look at the ashes and go: OK… got it. And go right back in. I know what he likes. I know how he wants it. If anything, once the track was gelling with the vocal, and it was sounding hot, I would look him – at the picture above the ashes – and say: yeah baby… we coming! I’d talk to the picture. I can still see the smile inside of him.
Did you use up all the material you were given?
No. I still have some left over. Some of ‘em were not to the 100% liking of what I know he does, on an excellence level. But since Solar was willing to sell them, I wanted them all. I don’t want him to have them, I want to have them.
Could you envisage doing this again?
Possibly. Maybe an EP. Maybe another album.
We’re working on a documentary about our career. We’ve so much footage of way back when we were young, all the way to the last tour we did in 2004 in Australia. So much behind the scenes footage. So with all of that, there’s a possible documentary with a new soundtrack, that has more new material. It’s a thought right now, it’s not written in stone, but I do have other ones that we didn’t use.
You were close for so long, but towards the end of his life that relationship became intensely complicated. Is that something you regret?
I was more angry when he died, because I knew the levels of his last days. I got to see him in the hospital, and talked to the right people – I talked to his Dad, talked to his son. Even his son was aware of certain things, at nine years old, that he experienced. We speak about that sometimes. All that stuff was really helpful, and I think the album was closure for a lot of people.
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'One Of The Best Yet' is out now.
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