DJ Premier was still technically a college student at Prairie View A&M University in Texas when “Words I Manifest,” the first single from recently formed jazz-rap duo Gang Starr, was released in 1989. “I said, ‘Let me finish doing the music and if I really don’t make it, then I’ll get my degree and get a job,'” he tells Rolling Stone. “I still have 18 credits left to graduate.” He unleashes a loud, booming laugh – his first of many.
For nearly 30 years, Premier has been on the Mount Rushmore of rap producers; a one-man musical through line connecting Nas (“N.Y. State of Mind,” “Represent,” “Memory Lane”), Jay-Z (“D’Evils,” “Friend or Foe,” “So Ghetto”) and Notorious B.I.G. (“Unbelievable,” “Kick in the Door,” “Ten Crack Commandments”) among hundreds of others.
With Guru on vocals, Gang Starr’s jazz-informed sound morphed from simple loops to complex scratches and turned the group into rap’s most influential duo since Eric B. and Rakim. Throughout the 1990s, the loquacious 52-year-old’s work – both with Gang Starr and as a producer-for-hire – blended his love of mellifluous jazz samples, grimy drums that defined East Coast hip-hop for more than a decade and trademark vocal scratches often culled from the producer’s own past work.
As Gang Starr ended their run with 2003’s The Ownerz, Premier expanded his roster as the only producer who could deliver filthy beats for M.O.P. and Fat Joe as well as record orchestra-level productions for Christina Aguilera.
PRhyme, the duo formed in 2014 with nimble Detroit rapper Royce Da 5’9″, helped solidify the veteran beatmaker’s modern legacy. The group reunited for the recently released PRhyme 2, which found Royce, CeeLo, Big K.R.I.T., 2 Chainz and Roc Marciano rhyming over Premier’s chopping up of Philly producer Antman Wonder’s catalog.
Premier walked us through the thought process, stories and creation behind some of his biggest hits.