As one half of the legendary hip-hop duo Gang Starr, DJ Premier served as a beat-making backbone for a pioneering generation of hip-hop artists.
In the late 80’s and throughout the 90’s, his production helped provide a solid foundation on which rappers like Nas built their careers and became a catalyst for his extensive list of collaborators, which include Jay-Z, the Notorious B.I.G., Drake, Kanye West, Mos Def, Mobb Deep, KRS-One, Royce Da 5’9”, Rakim, Fat Joe, Big L, Common, Snoop Dogg, Joey Bada$$, Mac Miller, Christina Aguilera and many more.
As part of Seven Tracks, we sat down with DJ Premier to uncover the stories behind his most infamous collaborations and give an insight into a burgeoning scene which went on to change the landscape of popular music…
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Nas - ’N.Y. State of Mind’
I heard Nas, courtesy of Large Professor. I used to hang out with Large Professor and Main Source back in the late 80s. I used to go learn things on the drum machines and stuff like that... he had told me about Nas way before he even did ‘Live at the Barbeque’. He told me about him and Akinyele and how they were gonna be these new artists that he was working with and they were younger and they got some ill lyrics and everything.
At the time, I was in to meet Big L and obviously him and Nas signed their deals around the same time. But I knew Big L through Showbiz and Lord Finesse because I lived in their neighbourhood – I just moved out of Brooklyn and moved to the Bronx with Guru and that’s how we ended up meeting.
So, during that time, Large Professor used to come up to the Bronx when I moved there and he would just be talking about “Yo, this guy Nas! Nas! Nas!”. So, once he did ‘Live at the Barbeque' - I heard it before it was even released on Main Source's album - I knew, like, “Wait till people hear this guy!” I never heard nobody spit like this, except for Big L. When it came to him getting a record deal, and wanting to get an all-star cast of producers, from Pete Rock to Q-Tip to me... we were in competition with each other, you know? To make the hottest records and to really outdo each other.
I'd already heard ‘The World is Yours’ so I was really like “Yo, I gotta top that.” I was so blown away by the sample, I had never heard that sample. It was such an incredible beat. And Q-Tip’s ‘One Love’ was amazing. So, I was just in that mode to just make sure I gave Nas one of the best beats on there as well.
’N.Y. State of Mind’ came together when me and Nas were at D&D Studios, which was home at the time, and we were just looking for samples and playing records, with no drums, no nothing. Once we found that [sample], we both kind of heard it at the same time, and when we heard that piece, I wound it back on the turntable, took it back to the spot that I thought I needed to catch it from, and Nas was like “Yo, that’s it! Go ahead and hook that up”. That’s when I started structuring the drums and the pattern and I said “Man, this should build up... it should start off with the drums,” and how they had that little space sound. That sound, almost like a space radar at the beginning when the beat drops, I already had that going, but that was all I had.
Then once I got those pianos running, and I was making it fit into the drums, that’s when I told Nas “This should build up and right before your verse comes in, then just let the whole sound of the piano play,” So, you know, you don’t know what’s about to happen at the beginning.
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The Notorious B.I.G. - ’Kick In The Door’
That one was literally me going up to Bad Boy. Puff told me he needed beats to go in with B.I.G. that day. B.I.G. had just had his car accident with Lil Cease so he had broken his hip and couldn’t come to my studio to record. So, he had to work out of Daddy's house and Puff wanted him to be close, being that it was hard for him to walk. He had to sit in a wheelchair whenever he rhymed so that he wouldn’t be on his feet. He was such a heavy guy, standing up with all that body weight was a little hectic for him at that time.
I dropped the beat off early that day because Puff had told me that our ‘Ready To Die’ platinum plaques had came in. I was so excited to get my platinum plaque. I dropped off the cassette, you know, at that time you would drop off one of those little ten minute mini cassettes and it would only hold, like, one or two beats on it. And, me, I always make my beat right on the spot. Everybody knows me for that. I don’t sit there and have beats for you to choose from. Everything is done right there while you wait.
So, I cooked it up exactly how it is and brought it to him. And at quitting time - we call it quitting time because that’s when most people get off work – at quitting time, B.I.G. called me and asked me if I could come to the studio around eight o’clock. I was like “Well, I played that beat for Puff and Puff didn’t really like the beat,” and he was like, “Man, I don’t give a fuck. I like that beat. I got something for it.” And I was like “I told Puff I was gonna make another one and I’d bring a different one,” and he said, “You can do that, but for today, I’m rapping to that.”
So, I was like, “Alright, I’ll bring the reel and my drum machine.” I came there, to Daddy’s house, laid down the tape, and he went in and knocked it out.
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Mos Def - ‘Mathematics’
That one I just knew that I needed to go left. And Mos Def is one of those artists that I can just be very left field with and still funky with it. I wanted it to not sound like my normal style but still be creative enough so you’ll be like, “Damn, man, Prem did it again.”
That’s what I’m gonna tell you every time I attack a track, or I’m creating a track. Because I pride myself on being as original and different as possible so that my name continues to stand out. If my name’s gonna be on it, or if I’m getting down with it, its gonna be a hot joint.
I just looked for the most left field approach that I could do and Mos Def was there when I made it. He was like “Yo, man. I’m gonna do a song called Mathematics,” because he said that guitar sample sounded like someone adding something up on a calculator. Almost like you’re punching in all these numbers. He said that’s what made him think about Mathematics.
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The Notorious B.I.G. - ’Rap Phenomenon’ feat. Redman & Method Man
That was on ‘Born Again’, so Biggie had already passed and Puff reached out and asked me to get on the album. He wanted to almost get back to having every producer that worked on ‘Life After Death’ and he said that he wanted Red and Meth on it. So, they sent me vocals from Tracey Lee’s album, where it originally comes from. Tracey Lee did ‘Keep Your Hands High’ and that’s where those vocals were from. At the time, I think Tracey was a little upset about it… it wasn’t my call, this is what was given to me to create the track.
But ‘Keep Your Hands High’ was his big record. He was managed by Mark Pitts, who was managing Biggie also, so, the fact that ‘Keep Your Hands High’ was a single and it was fairly new at that time, I guess he looked at it like, “Damn, y’all are taking my record, which was a big moment for me, and your turning it into a Biggie record,” and taking his vocals off of it. Now it’s just B.I.G., Red and Meth.
I spoke to Tracey about it a few years ago. He wasn’t mad at me to begin with anyway. But I’m glad we spoke because he’s a dope lyricist. I’ve always liked the way he raps, and he’s a very good dude. And he reps Philly.
When I got the vocals from Puff, I was thinking ‘Keep Your Hands High’ was a good record, how do I rework it to have these same lyrics that everybody’s already heard to become new? That’s when I said “You know what? Let me cut up the pieces that I think will work and slightly rearrange the arrangement that Biggie originally did and make it like he wrote it to my beat.” And that’s exactly my approach.
Then Red and Meth came in together. They came to Hit Factory because I actually had to leave town that day. I had to leave the reel for them and I made a reference version for them to understand how Biggie’s part was arranged because they were also familiar with the Tracey Lee version as well. So, I didn’t want them to think that it was exactly [the same], to the T. Being that I clipped it together. That was more of a cut and paste session. Except for Red and Meth – they wrote their parts. They actually came and wrote their parts and laid it down.
So, theirs were not clipped together. But this was before you could email and MP3 and all that, so I had to wait ’til I got back to hear it. Then I had to mix it down and put in my scratches and everything. It came out good, I’m happy with the outcome of it.
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KRS-One - ‘MCs Act Like They Don’t Know’
After we did ‘Return of the Boom Bap’, me and KRS-One definitely built a great relationship where anything he was working on, he was like, “Yo, I’m starting another album and I need you to go in with me,” and I’m like, “Alright, let’s get it.”
So, that was the follow up to ‘Return of the Boom Bap’… this was at a time where instead of Boogie Down Productions, it was just KRS-One as an artist. That was just me knowing this beat is hot for Kris (KRS-One). I had just started making it when he got there and he just kept going, “Clap your hands everybody,” over and over, like “that how I’m gonna do it.” I had laid the beat down already, so, that part, if you’ve noticed, it’s a little slower than when the beat comes in… that’s just direct to tape with no click, no drum machine or nothing.
He just said “I’m gonna clap my hands and put that at the top of the tape” and that’s exactly what he did. And again, when you hear it, you hear it’s not as fast as the beat when they go, “Premier’s on the breaks.”
We had to time it out and once we did it, we had to splice it to make it land where he says “Premier’s on the breaks.” But we didn’t think about that as an intro prior to the beat, to make him do it acapella before the beat drops. So that was spliced.
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Jay-Z - ‘A Million and One Questions’
Jay-Z called me, explained the song and how he wanted it to go. Jay-Z’s very known for already knowing what he wants and he described the song to me. He told me he wanted it to break down and go into “Rhyme No More”. He even said “When ‘Rhyme No More’ comes on, I want to go ‘Mother fuckers can’t…’ and on Rhyme I want the beat to drop and it to be a whole different beat.”
He did it all on the phone. Just rapped it to me all on the phone; acapella, no beat. I said, “Alright, meet me down there,” and he said, “Yeah, I’ll meet you down there because Too $hort’s on the way to meet me at D&D to record.” Jay-Z had all three rooms blocked out. There were three rooms at D&D: the A room, the B room and the D room. And Jay-Z had all three of them blocked out.
He had Too $hort in one room and he had me in another room, and he had other producers in the A room and he just kept going from room to room recording everything. I did the first part and came in the room where him and Too $hort were and I said, “Hey, I got the first part. You wanna come hear it?” He came in and heard how I had it set up and was like, “I love it, let me record it right now.” He cut the vocal and then he went back in there with Too $hort because they were working on that song called ‘A Week Ago’.
While he was in there with Too $hort, I said, “I’ll cook up the other part and I’ll come in the room and get you when I’m done.” I came up with the second part and he came in the room, heard that and he was like, “Yeah, this is it. This is definitely it.” So, he cut that vocal and then he went back in there with Too $hort again and then we had to splice that together because they were too different pieces, so, we had to edit that together.
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Nas - ‘Represent’
The one that’s on the album is actually the remix. The original version I took a jazz bassline sample and hooked it up a certain way. I did that before ’N.Y. State of Mind’. Like I said, once I heard Q-Tip had stopped by to drop off a pause-mixed version of ‘One Love’, I was dropping Nas off at Puffy’s studio and when he popped it in my car and played it for me.
I was like, “Jesus Christ this ‘One Love’ beat is sick.” I’m like, “Yo, man, I wanna re-do ‘Represent’,” and he’s like, “No! I like it like it is,” and I said, “Nah, man. It’s not as good as this Q-Tip beat. I gotta make a better one.” Nas was like “No. No. No. just keep it. We got ’N.Y. State of Mind’. We’re good.”
So, after I dropped Nas off, I remixed it, let him hear it and he wasn’t that crazy about it. He was like, “Nah, the bassline one is better,” but I just kept hammering it at him like, “Please Nas. Please let this one be the one.”
After me just nudging him and nudging him, he finally said, “Alright. You wanna roll with this version? Then roll with this version. But it’s still not better than the original.” That’s how it happened. Q-Tip put the battery in my back after ‘One Love’.
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Words: Patrick Fennelly
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