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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.

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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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Gang Starr, “Ex Girl to the Next Girl” (1992)

Guru always wanted to do what he called a “chick record.” By coincidence, every time we did one, he was either breaking up with one or with a new girl that he loved. When he got with his second wife – his first wife was some “get you in the country for a stack of money” arrangement with some European chick – that’s her in the video when he says “next girl.”

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Gang Starr, “DWYCK” (1992)

This was originally the B-side to [1992’s] “Take It Personal.” It became a super-hit so we told EMI, “Let’s put it on Daily Operation.” We go to re-release the album [with “DWYCK” on it] and the label changed their minds and said, “Naw, we’re just going to leave it as a 12-inch.” People were mad like, “Yo, I bought your album and ‘DWYCK’ ain’t on there!” So we put it on [1994’s] Hard to Earn so people could just get a Gang Starr album that had it.

It was our “return the favor” record to Nice and Smooth because we were on their “Down the Line” record. “DWYCK” took offf. I went to Cypress Projects in East New York and that’s grimy and dangerous over there. I pulled up and it seemed like the whole neighborhood was like, “Yes, our hero!” Every car was playing it.

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Jeru the Damaja, “Come Clean” (1994)

My next lawsuit. [Laughs.] Jeru’s voice really resonates everywhere. It’s so big. I said, “Let me start working with him and see if we can get a vibe.” [I wanted] to get his first record to set his own identity off as a solo artist – when Jeru heard the water drops [that start the song], he said, “Yo, that’s a hit, Preem.” Certain records, we knew we had a hit. Everything’s experimentation for me, so I felt at first it needed a little bit more [production]. But Jeru wanted to keep it raw.

With the lawsuit, somebody ratted on us. [The estate of jazz drummer Shelly Manne, whose 1972 track “Infinity” was sampled for the song, sued Premier.] It’s a little, itty-bity piece of the song and it’s a drummer’s album, so who’s gonna really find that? Somebody ratted and whoever it is [lowers voice] one day, we’ll find them. [Laughs.] But the money was flowing, so we paid them off. They just said, “Add him as a writer,” which we did and the fee wasn’t over the top.

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Nas, “N.Y. State of Mind” (1994)

Large Professor was teaching me production techniques I didn’t understand and he told me one day, “Yo Preem, I got this dude named Rapper Nas. He’s ill.” When he played me [Main Source’s] “Live at the BBQ” [featuring Nas], I was like, “What in the world?” I was already hooked. I got to see him perform live and said, “Man, one day.” Once he got the deal with Columbia, I was like, “Pleeeease. I want to be on this album.” 

When Nas says in the beginning of the song, “I don’t know how to start this shit,” he was serious. When I’m building the beat, I think he’s gonna know to come in. Most rappers know after eight bars to come in; it’s the standard. As I’m doing this, I just happened to look [at him] and he’s just looking down going, “I don’t know how to start this shit.” I’m going [makes hand gesture] “Two, three” and he just started the verse. I was like, “Wooooo.”

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Gang Starr, “Mass Appeal” (1994)

It’s a joke song. The radio stations strayed away from the raw hip-hop that they were playing in the early 1990s. We were like, “All this watered down stuff is dominating the airwaves. We should make a record to make fun of that and Guru’s like, “Let’s call it ‘Mass Appeal.'” [The melody] sounds like something you’d hear in an elevator when you’re just sitting there watching the floor numbers change. I love that record. I love it.

I love the video because it was our first time – now that we got houses, cars and money – where we wanted to go back to the projects in the Brooklyn neighborhood I used to live in and shoot there. You have to get a pass from the murderers and drug dealers; the ones that hold that whole area down. Not every rapper could do that; they had love for us because they knew we never changed. When I sent the word we wanted to shoot a video in there, everyone was like, “Yeah. Just don’t put us in it.” Now they’re all in the video showing their money and going to jail. We call them “walking indictments.”

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Crooklyn Dodgers ’95, “Return of the Crooklyn Dodgers” (1995)

Spike [Lee] is the reason we got a major label deal. When the “Manifest” remix was out, Spike saw our video and how Guru looked like Malcolm X. He picked up our album with the song “Jazz Music” on it and he was working on the Mo’ Better Blues movie and soundtrack and said, “I’d love for y’all to do a record that’s dedicated to this movie but you have to go more in-depth. You left out a lot of key names.” He gave us a poem that named all these different jazz artists and that became “Jazz Thing” [from the film’s soundtrack]. That’s when Chrysalis reached out and said they wanted to sign us.

We did “Crooklyn Dodgers” for his film Clockers. With Clockers, I could relate to everything in there. The drug dealing, drug use, griminess, every-man-for-himself, cops-rolling-on-us mentality. When I found that [Young Holt Trio] sample, the emotion of it sounded exactly like the sadness of how the hood can be sometimes. The hood can also have the shiny and good through all the struggle, but after seeing the movie, I said, “This is exactly what it should be.” 

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Jay-Z – “D’Evils” (1996)

Me and Jay have been friends since 1988. I was labelmates with [Jay-Z’s mentor] Jaz-O, so everywhere Jaz-O was, Jay was with him. Jay called me and told me what he wanted [the song] to be. All the scratches I did were his idea. He did the song over the phone to me, told me what it was about, and I just said, “Meet me at the lab and I’ll cook up that emotion.”

At that point, I was focused on keeping outdoing everybody. I’m all about competition; still am to this day. That’s how you should be, but not with any malice. From Mike Will Made It to Boi-1da to Mike Zombie, I’m out to get ’em all and it’s that friendly competition that keeps us all on our toes. 

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The Notorious B.I.G, “Ten Crack Commandments” (1997)

B.I.G. was a fuckin’ sweetheart and jokester. The song was originally a promo for [New York radio station] Hot 97’s Top 5 at 9. Everyone from Onyx to Wu-Tang Clan was doing promos for [DJ] Angie Martinez, so we did one [with that beat] with Jeru the Damaja. [The beat] never goes past “9” because it was 9 o’clock. Puff [Daddy] was doing promo one day and heard it and was like, “What the hell. …” My homie hit me up on my beeper “911” like, “Puffy is on the radio telling you to call.” Puff said, “That beat is serious. B.I.G. has one record left on the album. We need that.” Puffy and Jeru were beefin’, but I asked Jeru and his answer was, “Yeah, that’s hip-hop. Let him get it.”

[In 1998, Chuck D sued Bad Boy Records, Arista Records, Premier and the estate of Notorious B.I.G., among others, for copyright infringement and defamation, alleging his voice was sampled without permission. The suit was settled later that year for an undisclosed sum.]

Biggie said, “Keep the Chuck parts in,” but I warned him, “Chuck ain’t with using his voice with alcohol, drugs or sex.” He goes, “Just do it and I’ll deal with Chuck later.” Then B.I.G. died and it was never brought to Chuck’s attention, but I knew Chuck wasn’t into that. 

[The lawsuit] didn’t surprise me. I went on tour with Public Enemy less than a month later. We were cool, but it was awkward to talk about it on both of our sides. He explained his reasoning, which I respected. Even when I got the royalty check – and it was huge – and it had a big, red HOLD stamp on it, I was like, “Damn, that much?!” I was a little upset after [the lawsuit happened], but Puff said, “I’ll pay off half of it.” At Jam Master Jay’s wake, Chuck said, “Can we holla for a second?” I said, “We ain’t got to holla” and I just opened my arms and we hugged. It felt so good to hug him.

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D’Angelo, “Devil’s Pie” (1998)

Canibus rejected the beat and … the attitude made me a little more funny [than usual] to the point where I gave him the advance back. He called me and said he wanted to do a record called “Nigganometry” with a mean, driving bassline. When I found that [imitates bass line], I was like, “Canibus gonna kill this.” He said [affects menacing tone] “Yo, I don’t think you really gettin’ to understand where my vision is.” That’s the part that made me go, “Oh word?” I’m not a sensitive guy, but if I’m spoken to a certain way, then my fists start to ball up. I gave the money back with a letter saying, “Hey, it didn’t work out. Thank you so much, MCA [Records].” I’d rather Canibus have the money back in his budget. I remember clear as day how he said it, though.

D’Angelo called me out of the blue soon after and said, “Can I hear it? I’m in the studio. Come over right now.” I was a couple blocks away, slid over there and boom. He just said, “Wooooooooo. I’m about to kill this. Let me write something to this.”

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Limp Bizkit feat. Method Man, “N 2 Gether Now” (1999)

[Limp Bizkit’s] Fred [Durst] wasn’t that good as a MC but he said to me, “Look, man, I don’t rap that good. I know I’m not that nice. But if you can record me and make me sound better, I think we can make this record a hit.” The thing that convinced me to be a part of it was Method Man was on it. DJ Lethal already had that main lick so I put my own bass and drum pattern on it. I said if I can get [Fred] to just rap it better, we can probably skate through. I just didn’t want my audience to be mad at me. I was happy with the finished project, though.

I don’t put [Limp Bizkit] in a hip-hop box. They just a pop-rock group. Years later, we had a little tension over a business situation but Fred once hired me to play the Playboy Mansion at a Limp Bizkit pajama party. Hugh Hefner said, “I just have to say one more thing before we get back to the party: ‘Thank God for nookie.'” [Laughs] Thank you so much, Fred. Rest in peace to my homie Headqcourterz; he got kicked out twice but they let him back in. 

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Royce Da 5’9″, “Hip Hop” (2004)

I wanted to do a remix for Mary J. Blige and I did that beat because I could hear her singing on it. It didn’t get to her in time for her to hear it and Royce called out of the blue like, “I need you on a joint but I need it today. You got anything?” I sent it to him and he sent me the vocals back. He went to jail for a year so halfway through his album being done, all the investors pulled out on him. So now we were in limbo to finish the album and then when he came back I said, “I’m ridin’ with you, yo.”

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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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