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DJ Premier: My Life in 15 Songs

Gang Starr co-founder and producer behind Nas, Jay-Z and Notorious B.I.G. classics recalls early days, lawsuits and working with Limp Bizkit

DJ Premier

DJ Premier, the Gang Starr co-founder and veteran hip-hop producer behind classics from Nas, Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z, walks us through his life in 15 songs.

Lukas Maeder/Redux

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.  

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Christina Aguilera, “Ain’t No Other Man” (2006)

Her ex-husband Jordan [Bratman] is a big hip-hop head and introduced her to my stuff. She liked my style. I was only supposed to do one song and I came in with a blank canvas. The first beat I did was “Back in the Day” and we were already in the same zone. I figured I was done and she’s like, “Wanna work on another one?” and we did “Still Dirrty” and “Thank You.” She wants vamps and pre-choruses and next thing you know it’s, “I have to step out for a second and when I get back, I wanna hear it.” [Laughs.]

I started messing with the break for this one and she said, “What is that?! That’s my single. Can you do a breakdown? [Premier imitates horns and drums in song] That’s it.” Her and [songwriter] Kara [Dioguardi] went into the other room, came out later and said, “I’m ready to record.” I’m down to [work with pop stars] anytime because it’s still gonna have my signature to a degree where I don’t have to be like, “Aw man, I’ve gone soft.” But the pop stars ain’t reachin’ out. Even my fans said, “Aw, not you, Preem” when they heard I was working with her. Then they heard the song.

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