Consistently ranked as one of the best hip-hop producers of all time and most likely a huge influence on your favourite musical idols, DJ Premier came to prominence in the 1990’s as one half of rap icons Gang Starr, alongside Guru (RIP).
Besides producing Gang Starr’s entire catalogue, the man has produced beats for almost everyone in the game including Heavy D, KRS-One, Mobb Deep and Big Daddy Kane and his inimitable boom bap sound has graced such seminal albums as Notorious B.I.G’s Ready to Die and Nas’s Illmatic. We caught up with Premo over email a week ahead of his show to talk about the politics of rap, his favourite producers and how the digital age is making producers lazy.
In previous interviews you’ve talked about how the ghetto represents the purest form of realism for you and you try to honour that with hip-hop. Do you think mainstream hip-hop honours that reality or do you think it exploits it?
The mainstream has always been about exploitation. That’s nothing new. Once something grows into a larger audience, it all gets watered down. The decision to go mainstream versus underground is the fight that we all struggle with because we all want to get rich from our hard work in whatever craft we do.
You’ve been consistently rated as one of the all time greatest hip-hop producers. Where would you rate yourself on that list? Who would you rate as your all time favourite producer?
My all time favourite producer in hip-hop is Marley Marl. He made the beats bang and he also scratched on the tracks that he produced as well as establishing a sound. I could always tell when it was a Marley Marl production. I followed closely in his footsteps when it comes to that.
Is there a particular beat that you’ve produced that you’re most proud of? Any classic beats that you wish you would have produced? Is there a particular genre you most like to sample?
I’m proud of all of my beats. There are a few, I wish I made Eric B. For President, Shook Ones, We Gonna Make It, P.S.K. (Schooly D), The World Is Yours, Simon Says, and Ebonics by Big L. I sample all genres. I switch it up all of the time so it really doesn’t matter. It’s all about how you hook it up.
What kind of effect do you think the age of digital music is going to have on up and coming producers?
The digital era makes producers lazy. They don’t own any vinyl, they don’t understand what it’s like to record to tape, and they don’t physically go shopping for the music. Everything is one touch of a button and they have it all instantly. That is not what made hip-hop original and fun. If they don’t do the research, they will be limited to moving forward with the success that we already have. The pioneers of this music must be respected in order to open the next doors for the future.
You’ve said previously that you ‘live in the underground but take trips into the mainstream’. Do you think that there’s a delicate balance between the two or do you think the mainstream is having a beneficial impact on hip-hop?
Speaking for myself, I know how to juggle the mainstream and keep my underground ties intact. I love commercial music when it is done right. There is good commercial and there is bad commercial. There is good underground and bad underground.
You’re coming to London for a show on the 28th with Statik Selektah. What’s your take on the English off-shoot of hip-hop, aka grime?
I have been coming to England ever since I was twenty with Guru and Gang Starr. London Posse was the popular hardcore group back in 1990. It has continued to grow for many years and I’m open minded to all music as long as I can understand the language, which in most cases in Europe is the problem since it’s so global and the different languages make it difficult to translate. Americans have a short attention span to learn. Otherwise I welcome it all.
What do you think it takes for someone to make it in the industry these days and has that changed since the 90s?
If you want your career to come easy, then it’s not for you. You MUST pay dues in order to get to the level that I’m at. I don’t respect the easy way into a career because it will be taken for granted and the passion to keep it going won’t last.
What advice would you give up and coming producers/rappers who are trying to make in the industry right now?
Always compare yourself to everyone that you respect in the business and create your own style to gain the respect of your peers…
What are some of the hardest lessons you had to learn when you were coming up and launching your own career?
I learned you that must pay dues in order to appreciate making it big in any industry. A lot of doors will be slammed in your face and friends can turn into enemies because they feel entitled to what you have become. You lose people along the way but if you’re passionate about your career, you will get over it and continue to kill them all with success.
Were there any ever doubts when you were starting out that you might not have the chance to be discovered?
I have never doubted myself. I know my capabilities and I love competition. It’s healthy and fun to stay sharp. It goes with the territory. I knew I would eventually make it but I didn’t put a date on it.
Words: James Cunningham