If you’re a fellow classic (authentic) hip-hop freak, then you know about the Adidas sweat suits and b-boy dancers, those groovy vocal patterns, record scratches, rhythmic drum machine pockets, urban street art, etc., etc. And of course the countless figures and personalities involved; celebrated forefathers who provided life to the newly burgeoning musical genre at the time. But if NYC-based beat and scratching maestro, and sole producer of the seminal Gang Starr Foundation, DJ Premier, doesn’t come to mind, then you don’t know hip-hop.
By many standards the greatest hip-hop producer to ever live, in Premo’s 25-plus year long career as a professional record producer and disc jockey, he’s been named as (at least) one of the top five greatest of all time, by every important hip-hop pundit and publication.
It’s because DJ Premier is beyond a trendsetter — in his day, trends in hip-hop didn’t exist yet. So he innovated, he created and adapted a style of his own. A style which set a tone and continues to influence the sound of urban music as we know it today. It would be more time-consuming to compile a list of MCs who haven’t worked with Premier. He’s so prolific, you’d think he never slept. Rappers and producers know they’ve found success when they’re blessed to work on a Premier beat. Because the truth is that DJ Premier is your favorite musician’s favorite producer.
So you could imagine how awestruck I was to sit down with the legend himself at DJ Expo 2013 in Atlantic City, NJ. Premier was in attendance as a guest of Stanton, the DJ equipment arm of Gibson. Between an exclusive Q&A session and a high-energy solo performance, Premo sat down with Tell in his dressing room to discuss his craft, Stanton professional DJ gear, the influx of new technology in his industry, keeping music pure and much more.
Check out the complete interview below — and BONUS: a full video (in two parts) performance of Premier’s live gig from the trade show.
Two hip-hop giants from back in the day, join forces in the new millennium
Tell: DJ Premier, a hip-hop pioneer; now along with Stanton, an original name in consumer audio equipment and vinyl record players — how’d that come about?
Premo: I received a call from a friend of mine — shout out to Jim Felber [of Gibson Guitar Corp.] — who worked with Jim and showed him an interview with me on VladTV when me and Bumpy Knuckles did ‘The Kolexxxion’ album, we were doing promo. It was in my ‘A’ room and he saw the KRK speakers [another Gibson product line, also Cerwin Vega] in the background. So when they saw them and were like “Oh man, Premier’s got the KRKs,” Jim was like “Who’s Premier?”
Tell: Luckily your friend was working with Mr. Felber. Nice move on their part.
Premo: Yeah, he was like “He’s this DJ, producer — you know, blah blah blah, a big-time situation. You should holler at him.” And that’s how they reached out and Jim said he wanted to give me some equipment, so I was like “Yeah.” You know, DJs and producers love equipment. (laughs)
Tell: It sounds like a win-win kind of deal. But was it a quick decision for you to jump on board?
Premo: Once I went over to the Gibson office, they showed me the showroom and we were pretty much just checking out all of the equipment that they carry and we were discussing what can be improved, and just my opinion based on look, style and all that stuff. So right now we’re at that stage where we’re updating some things that’ll make it better in a DJ aspect.
Tell: I see. That’s cool, I would think that your experience would garner some really great feedback for them.
Premo: [Yes] Because Stanton, obviously, in the early days were the first needles we used to scratch on, along with Pickerings. But you know, Stanton was our needle of choice to scratch on. And Stanton really was the first one to come out with — before Serrato, they came out with the first digital piece where you have a vinyl controller that controls the record and you do it on the computer. I remember the first demonstration was done at one of the most popular DJ stores in New York City called Rock and Soul. It’s still one of the most frequented DJ stores that we still go to to this day. And this was back in the 90s. So even though then we were like “Wow, this is cool but nah, we’ll stick with vinyl,” they were still ahead of everybody in the case of that.
Tell: Sure. Do you use their newer turntables to gig with? And what improvements have you suggested to them for their future models?
Premo: The new turntables that they have, I like a lot. My main gripe was about the improvement of their mixers because DJs are real finicky about crossfaders, up-faders and being Serrato-ready —- that’s been the reason why we’ve always made that [Stanton] the choice.
But other than that, the turntables that they [Stanton] have now, they’re well put together, I like the mechanics of them. The only thing that I would change is just the pitch control — it has no marks on it. And it needs marks on it so that you kind of have a threshold of where you are — you know, plus-1, plus-2, plus-3, whatever. And I like the reverse feature that they have on there.
Tell: Right on. Do you use any Stanton or Gibson family products when you’re producing?
Premo: [Nods] Actually their headphones that they have are really good. I used Sonys, MDR-750s a lot, but the Stanton headphones are very punchy and they sound good in the vocal booth. And that’s what we’ve been using lately — they sent some over to us and we’ve been using them ever since, in the last eight, nine months. So yeah, I love their headphones too. Again, their name [Stanton] rings a lot of bells. And I actually also use their vinyl cleaner for my records too. And the brush, I like the brush.
The needles I’m still testing out. You know, because they’ve sent me so many different types but one of the models, which I don’t even remember right now — because they don’t send them with head-shells, you know. I’m just testing everything out.
Tell: As a personal fan of Gibson guitars and Stanton DJ gear, and more importantly, an even longer-time follower of DJ Premier [and Gang Starr, etc.] I’m super excited and optimistic for the partnership amongst you all.
Premo: Their name has gone way back to to the early days of early hip-hop history and I’m not the first DJ to say that. A lot of DJs were using Stanton needles. And that really was the first thing that I ever came across — [it] was their needles. They were the first ones that you could really back-cue with, without the needle jumping.
Tell: There’s something to be said for how they company has stayed cool and of great quality throughout the years. Is there anything in the works [or any potential of] like a ‘DJ Premier Edition’ or ‘Premo’ line in the future?
Premo: We’d love to have that discussion and maybe when we finish up [testing phases], that could be a possibility of some sort. As long as it’s done right, it could always be a good thing. Plus, another thing is I’m all about making sure that their success matches what they want and vice versa.
DJ Premier’s classic, signature production style evolving with modern times
Tell: One thing that you’ve introduced to the world was vocal samples as parts in your beats or breaks and transitions. For example, using a quick Jay-Z vocal phrase as part of a background beat for another song. Has this technique or any other that you employ become easier to achieve with new technologies (from Stanton or anyone else)?
Premo: Well, pretty much everything is digital now. I still record vocals through analog equipment. I still use ‘tube’ (vacuum) equipment — because you get a warmer sound with the vocal.
Tell: It’s an aesthetic thing for you −- that’s your biggest concern?
Premo: Yeah, a hundred percent. Whereas, you know like a lot of people might use like an Avalon mic pre [pre-amplifier], but I still go back to the old Digitech, which they don’t even make this version anymore. And they don’t even make tube mic-pres [microphone preamps] anymore anyway. So, again to get that warm vocal sound, I stay analog with that. But digital-wise, other than that you know, obviously Pro Tools and Logic, which is the standard for me. You know, one of my engineers don’t even know how to work Pro Tools but Logic, you know, he can do it with his eyes closed.
But Pro Tools has been the standard in the industry so I was like “Okay, this is what I’m gonna learn,” — but the one thing I’ll say is it’s great to have the ability of what digital does with my knowledge of back when you couldn’t do all this stuff — with recording to tape and stuff like that, it’s dope that now [snaps fingers] if you mess up on a ‘punch’ you can just hit ‘undo’ and go back to where you were, where if you mess up on a punch on a tape, it’s over. You gotta re-record and cut that vocal, and sometimes you can’t get it the same way that you wanted it and that takes the energy out of the recording process. You’re like “Damn, that was a good take” but you have to erase it. But now, you can erase it, [or] hit ‘undo’ twice and you’re back to where you were.
So digital is great for people who were already purists and knew how to do music. But for those who are new to it and don’t take it as seriously, as far as the process, they’re a little more — well, I don’t give the same respect to them, you know what I’m saying? Unless we are able to have conversation all the way from my era of how it’s done, all the way up to what it is now, in this day and age. Other than that, I’m happy with the digital aspect of it.
Tell: That’s cool. Was there any apprehension at first getting into it [digital music production]?
Premo: Yeah, well, because I’m stuck in my ways. So I was like “I don’t want to do it this way, I don’t want to do it this way,” and one of my friends taught me Pro Tools — they were like “Dude, if you just spend two days with me and just watch what I do, you’re gonna catch on [snaps fingers] that quick. Because you’re a DJ, you have a DJ mentality, so if you just give me two days, I guarantee [snaps fingers] you’ll learn it and you’re gonna love it.” And now I love it. I can cut my own sessions, I can go on there and mix, and I can do everything that I need to do and he was right.
It’ just that — well it’s not even a fear — it’s just not wanting to change when you’re set in your ways of how your great stuff came about. But this is gonna make me greater, just like how I got a Renaissance MPC and I’ve tapped with it a little bit but it is going to change my style, take it to another level. So I’m about to start letting that be my dominant machine but I’m still not going to take away from my analog MPC. Because that setup is what’s made me get the work that I’ve gotten and that has to remain — but when I want to go an extra, extra, extra, extra mile, this thing will take me there, so I’m gonna start applying that to my recording process.
Tell: It’s like the possibilities truly are endless.
Premo: Oh, a hundred percent. A hundred percent.
Modern possibilities and their influence on today’s hip-hop
Tell: It seems that nowadays, anyone with a MacBook can be a producer in some ways —
Premo: (laughs) — Pretty much.
Tell: (laughs) In what ways would you say that this ubiquity of producers, you know hip-hop or dance music — how is that affecting the aesthetic from what you know it to be (the earliest days of beat production) in general, for good or for bad?
Premo: Umm, well as far as the digital age; again, it’s really based on how much you respect music, period. If you respect music, then you’ll be fine. Because you take the music seriously, you’re gonna care about keeping it pure. I care about the purity of it, so that’s another reason why — it’s almost like letting go of somebody who’s about to fall off the side of a building and you’re like “I’m not going to let you go,” and they’re holding on and your fingers are starting to almost uncurl, where if you do they’re gonna hit the ground twenty stories up. And you just gotta hold on that tight— that’s me. I’m holding on to the person that’s about to fall off of the edge of a building.
Tell: That’s music?
Premo: A hundred percent. [laughs] Please believe it.
Tell: I hear that and I couldn’t agree with you more. As someone who has helped create the entire culture and industry that you’re still a part of (with a remarkable list of collaborators,) are there any popular young artists or newer sounds that are inspiring you?
Premo: I study everything. I’m 47 years old — but there are artists from my generation who are like “I’m not into Drake or Kendrick Lamar and all that,” but I listen to all of it because they’re the new generation of our culture.
Premo: The only difference is that I won’t do their style because I’m a purist of the style that I normally do it and my style is still important to hip-hop culture because it’s the purest form; you know, a dope beat, dope rhymes, scratches.
You know, I grew up where every record had scratches on it. Now, nobody really scratches anymore — I’m like “Yo, how’re you not gonna have any scratches on your record?” [pauses] You know, I’m gonna do a record called ‘How are you hip-hop without scratching on your record?’ [laughs] You just gave me a good idea. My man!
Tell: [laughs] Awesome, I love it. On that note, I have to bring up that a lot of hip-hop I’ve been hearing, especially on the radio lacks a lot of sampling even. You’re hearing live bands, live instruments, synths and vocals, etc. Is this something you’ve grown to utilize more of? Can DJ Premier tear up a drum set or bass guitar, for example?
Premo: Oh yeah. I play keys, I record my own bass lines — like I’ll play the actual bass or I’ll play it on keys. To surround it [the beat] and to make it more like as if a band’s playing — I guess you can call a ‘replay?’ I do that too, just because of the fact that that’s an important issue to show that you have a musical understanding and a respect for instrumentation.
It’s just that sampling is form of art and if it’s done right, it can be done to the degree of making a hot record, even though you’re ‘borrowing’ from somebody who established that sound on their original recording. But again, it’s not that it’s junk and noise. To us, it’s a hundred percent an art form and we never wanted to disrespect the originators of those records that we sampled. It’s to pay homage and it’s also bringing that sound back, where a lot of those artists: as sounds changed, they changed. Disco started taking over, they started making disco, you know? Everything started sounding a little more computerized, they started to sound computerized. And we were like “Yo, why are you doing that when you don’t have to do that? Because we love you for what you were.” But they wanted to keep up, and those records started to not sell because they were fighting for relevancy, when they didn’t have to do it because their market was already set — we’re gonna support them every time they give us another hot album. And who’s the judge of that? Us, the consumer.
Tell: With what you’re saying, to me it sound like ‘DJ Premier is a music enthusiast before a music artist.’
Premo: Yes. Yes. One hundred percent. Absolutely.
A bit of fun; Premo’s smartphone of choice, favorite apps
Tell: What type of mobile phone do you use? And are there any apps that you enjoy using? (business or pleasure)
Premo: I use the iPhone and I use a Blackberry. And for one I’ve got the Drums app [opens it up and hits around the 'kit'] and I’ve been playing around with the DJ app with the two turn tables and I got the String Trio – thanks to Bumpy Knuckles for putting me onto this — and my son loves playing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ on it because you got to shake it to play it. [demonstrates app] However you shake it is how the phone plays it. You can even pause it.
Working with other artists; then and now
Tell: Of all the artists you’ve cut records with, was there anyone who was more difficult to work with than others, like any nightmares along the way?
Premo: I love all of them. If we did a jam, I love it.
Tell: Any session(s) end up sounding differently (better or worse) than you had expected it to sound during the recording of it?
Premo: It just happens, you know what I’m saying? Like, I’m very organic with the way I do my thing, so –
Tell: You just let the MC do their thing with you?
Premo: Yeah, I might be like “Yo, that verse was better,” you know, when they’re like “Well yo, let me record another one anyway and just keep that first one.” And after I might be like “Yo, that one is not topping that first one.” And then they’re like “I think this one’s better,” but I’m like “Dude, no, trust me. That’s the one.”
And again, I’m an ‘ear’ person and I’m a DJ. And as a DJ, I’m very critical of the outcome, because my name is attached to it. So I really, really, really have to have it my way at the end of the day. I know what I’m doing.
Tell: Although it would be harder to name rappers who you haven’t worked with, what are some names of artists who you’d like to collaborate with in the future?
Premo: I’d like to work with Kendrick (Lamar), Drake, Ghostface Killah, [pause] — hell, I’d like to do a whole Wu-Tang record with the whole clan. Even get Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s vocals somewhere.
[lights up] You know, with Ol’ Dirty, when we did “Pop Shots,” I got that [vocal track] from a remix and they wanted it out by the summer, but when he died they called me right away and were like “Hey, can you do it now?” I was going to Europe the next day — and I had just learnt Pro Tools, so by myself I had cut it, mixed it and tested it in Europe. It was a hit at the office.
Tell: It’s a wonderful song, a classic Premo angular-type ‘stomp’ rhythm and Ol’ Dirty’s salty crooning on top. Was this the first project that you did on Pro Tools on your own?
Premo: Yep. The first one.
Tell: In closing, is there anything you’d like to add? Upcoming projects, tours, records, shout outs, etc.?
Premo: Yeah, look out for the NYGz; they’re part of the Gang Starr Foundation. They’ve been down with us really since our first album, ‘No More Mr. Nice Guy.” Shout to Panchi and Shabeeno. Look out for an artist named Khaleel. And I’m doing some classic stuff, some classic albums with Lady of Rage, Heather B and MC Eiht from Compton’s Most Wanted.
Since I have now my production company, I can be more versatile with my projects. I can put the classic artists through that. And then there’s Year Round Records, which is going to showcase new talent, young talent, you know. That’s where you’ll see Khaleel from Houston, Texas, and I have a new guy who I just met through Showbiz and AG named Frank Vocals from Boston. Dope singer. And another guy DJ Naughty.
And I’m working on some other surprise projects that I can’t speak on yet — they’re very high profile and you’ll be hearing about them in the Fall. Oh, and also me and Petey Rock are doing a battle album, where he does half the beats and I do the other half, then we pick the right artists to make them shine.
I’ll be very busy and also just excited about what’s going on.
Tell: Awesome, Premo. It’s been truly an honor and a pleasure sitting down with you. Thank you for your time and interest and most importantly, your entire body of work which continues to inspire and heal.
Premo: No doubt, brother. Thank you. It’s all gravy.
<Thank you to DJ Premier, Stacy Payne, Jennifer Bean, Dan Eldridge, Stanton and Gibson>