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DJ Premier Interview

Jimmy Coultas caught up with a hip hop legend to talk drum and bass clubs in nineties London, vibing in the studio with Dr Dre and the necessity of competition in hip hop.

Jimmy Coultas

Last updated: 8th Jun 2016

As far as hip hop icons go they don't get much bigger than DJ Premier. Although born in Texas, Premo is the ultimate bastion of the NYC rap sound, the finest exponent of the genre at it's most infectious when in the purist's drum heavy vision - the neck snapping 'boom bap'.

As one half of Gang Starr with Guru he epitomised consistency. The duo created six critically lauded albums over their 14 years of activity with the classic emcee and DJ template for a group, with his stellar production nous hotly demanded elsewhere.

A true hall of famer, he's worked with golden era statesman such as KRS One and Rakim, global greats Biggie, Jay-Z and Nas, and grimy as hell underground bastions such as MOP, Screwball and CNN.

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Over the years his ability has been flexed not only by creating the beats but coaxing the best out of his muses. Biggie's lyrical prowess was never better demonstrated than when Premier got behind him, and the way Noreaga confesses to making "a half ass album because his pops just died" on CNN's 'Invincible' (above) is just one of a litany of great moments across the producer's discography.

That huge catalogue of music has now been utilised as part of his new live band project which aims to showcases that wide ranging musical aplomb. He brings it to London in September, where he'll be headlining the tenth birthday celebrations for the capital's legendary hip hop clubnight The Doctor's Orders.

Ahead of the show we caught up with him to ascertain his thoughts on the UK's hip hop scene, the recent sad passing of Boot Camp Clik rapper Sean Price and his role on Dr Dre's recent album Compton.

So you're heading over to the UK soon to to the Doctor Orders with your live band. What are your experiences of playing in London, have you enjoyed your shows here in the past?

I enjoy every gig, even if it's a bad gig I enjoy it because it's the most true way to know how authentic an artist is. You can make all the hottest records you wanna make, but if someone comes to see you and you deliver a disappointing set it can make people stand back and say wow, they're not not everything that they're cracked up to be. 

So I strive to always put my performance there, with care and passion into giving the audience what they hope to see, and they get that live and direct in 3D.

How much of the UK hip hop scene have you been up on, you feeling the grime sound at all?

Yeah I been up on the grime scene for a while, I mean even with the drum and bass scene during the nineties era I've checked the UK. I used to go to Dingwalls before they closed you know what I'm saying, that was a super official club. 

From Gilles Peterson and the whole acid jazz thing, that was around the time that drum and bass started to kick in so you know, I seen it. Blak Twang's music, Dizzee Rascal, even Tinie Tempah and what he does now in this generation, all that stuff. 

I experienced all those stages of the change and growth of the music out there in the UK you know. And the same thing in France, the French hip hop scene is real heavy and really hardcore, but with the English scene I can at least understand what they're saying!

I know about the London Posse so you know I go way back, as far as back as... what was my guy's name? DJ Pogo was his DJ? MC Mell'o -that's it. I always try and be up on the regions that we go to just to see how close it is to what we do, from the American perspective of where it was created at, especially New York.

Moving onto more tragic news, Sean Price passed away recently. How much of a blow is that to hip hop as a whole.

Yeah it's a great blow to lose him you know. We had just done a gig in Columbia, me and the whole Boot Camp Clik, it was just a really good show hanging out with them. They gave me a flag on stage and I gave it to Sean and he was running around with it on his shoulders and it was good.

The thing about Sean, there was this time when I had just had knee surgery, getting my knee replaced, and he saw me on Sway and Heather B's radio show on the morning show with Buckshot. And he was like what you doing and I told him about the knee replacement, and he was like "aaah man you got a brand new knee", and I was like yeah.

So every time he'd see me the first thing he would say is "yo how's your knee", and I'd be like it's good! And he saw me at Pete Rock's album release party about a month and a half ago and he did it again, and I was like man why you always asking me about my knee? And he just said I'm making sure you taking care of it.

When I went up to the casket to look at him at his wake, first thing I said was damn I'm gonna miss you asking me about my knee, and I know he heard me, you know. It's a terrible loss for hip hop.

You've collaborated with Dr Dre finally on his new album Compton on the track 'Animals'. In our review we likened the moment of you two coming together as similar to the scene in Heat where De Niro and Pacino finally meet on screen, so I wanted to know more about what that experience was like.

That was our first time working together in the studio. We've always been on a level of mutual respect and that's as far as it went, so when it came to the point of doing a record together it was just dope because our vibe clicked right away. 

We didn't have any strange bumps in the road when we did what we did, and I like the fact that we saw eye to eye on the process of recording the exact same way you know. I really love how everything came out and it was an honour and a privilege to work with him and we got along from day one.

You know we knew each other already since 1989, and we recognised each other's work and had that respect, but it's different to that working behind the boards - but with this it did. He honoured my opinions, there was no interference. 

If I wanted to change something and put it back to this he wasn't like "no, no, no lets do it this way" - he listened. If I said I really like the chord changes on these two bars, and lets put a single note on the last bar, he'd be like "aight let's play that" and just hear it. And then "OK I like, that lets do it".

I like the fact that my opinions were not only welcome but he also understood why I wanted to make those changes and he knew exactly what I meant. He would just hear it, and if it sounded cool we'd keep it and then move forward.

And how do you feel the album came out as a whole then, you like it?

Oh yeah I love it, it's like a movie. Some people are saying on social media aaah it's wack, it's trash and I'm like you couldn't of possibly listened to it that quick. People saying there's no singles for the radio - (stated slowly) it's a soundtrack to a movie, it's not a record for the clubs, it's a sounnndd-track.

Have you seen the film?

The movie is amazing, very well done. Everybody played their part, the guy who played Eazy looked like and acted like Eazy-E. I know Suge Knight, I know Ren, I know Yella, I know everybody and they way they act - and everybody's character in it are right and true. Even the one that played Dre, he played it really well.  

On 'Animals', one thing that stood out to me is how the subject matter isn't a throwback. Police brutality against black people is still going on and these things that NWA were talking about 27 years ago are still happening, they've not changed. Do you have hope that they ever will?

Oh yeah, I mean it will eventually because for one positive energy always overrides negative energy no matter how bad things get. Not only that, the things that are being done to the black man trying to wipe us off the planet like that, it's scary and we shouldn't have to worry about being killed at the hands of a man with a gun using their authority.

And you know not every cop's bad, some cops are totally cool, but the bad ones aren't being put on front street by other police because I know if that comes it puts pressure on them. If one police exposes another cop that's bad then the whole cops turn against them because 'hey you you going against our army and our team', then they gotta watch their back and worry about sleeping at night.

But in the meantime when things do develop this way it's gonna keep getting worse until things gets better because bad energy bring on bad results. But at the end of the day I'm all about pushing for good results you know, because I know what you put in is what you get out of it.

I just started training again in the gym and watching my diet when Sean died; I went in that day just to get right. If I push and do it the way I'm supposed to do, you gonna see a fit and in shape Premier, and you will see it because it's up to me. I can make that energy turn into that - it's on me it's not on anybody else, not on a trainer, no one. Eat correctly, train correctly and discipline yourself correctly all results come the way you want them.

And it's the same when I make my music. I already know what it's gonna sound like, I can judge whether a record's good. Sometimes my record company will be like that's not it, change it we're not feeling it. But they're wrong, not me.

Someone else that has worked with Dre and talks about the similar things happening is Kendrick Lamar. Are you into K Dot as an emcee, and do you think he's a good mouthpiece for the youth today to front these issues?

Oh absolutely, I'm a big fan. He has brought a new style to the table that wasn't the typical Compton emcee thing. You think Compton you think khakis, Chucks, the whole way they dress, the slang, and he's totally on a whole different world to that, he's from Compton but you definitely wouldn't think that's where he's from from the way he is. 

You know he is from a rough neighbourhood and has lived that classic Compton thing but he has taken it to a whole different realm of painting pictures with songs and still getting the respect of people like myself. You know then he put MC Eiht on his album, who is an artist we all love from Compton, a veteran, and that's dope.

Me and Eiht actually got an album together that we just finished called Which Way is West, I produced on it. He's got a label called Blue Stamp Music and we're sharing the release on that with my independent label.

Is there any other music you got coming out?

I am also releasing a new NYG'z album called Hustler's Union: Local NYG'z, I produced the entire album, they also Gang Starr foundation. That's a very unexpected album of just rawness, a straight New York album with hard lyrics, hard beats; everything you know.

Who do you think is holding it down for New York right now?

NYGZ! Ha, you'll be feeling it when it comes out trust me, it'll be dropping shortly.

Back onto the topic of Kendrick, do you think he's dropping subliminal disses to Drake on the Dre album? And more importantly do you think hip hop would benefit from a battle like that? 

Yeah I don't know, I haven't studied the lines to see you know what I'm saying. He did the 'Control' record and he went at people. That's calling out everybody's name, shit you can't get no wilder than that. He said I love ya'll, I think y'all dope but I'm out to kill you. That's the competition of rap. 

As far as hip hop needing it, they're different artists, they have so many different approaches. I love the competition aspect anyway, I love it when it's like woooooh, I think he's talking about whoever. Cool, let it be like that, let the competition remain because that's part of the bravado of what male rappers and even female rappers are about.

OK final question, still on the topic of beef. If Kane and Rakim had gone at each other, who would of won?

Oh man who knows, we always wanted to see that happen, I'm just a big fan of both of them in so many different ways. You know Kane is incredible, he's ghost written, well it's not ghostwriting cos his name is on the credits, but he was writing for Biz Markie.

You know 'Pickin Boogers', 'Vapours', 'Nobody Beats the Biz' and then doing his own records like 'Raw', 'Set it Off', 'Aint no half steppin' (below) and he totally turned it into he was, who he is, it's so incredible Kane had that versatility.

Whereas Rakim only really wrote for himself, but his rhymes are so crazy. It's like what could even make you put your pen to the paper and make you say the crazy shit you say? I would of loved to have seen that battle - and put KRS One in there too.

DJ Premier heads to the UK in Summer 2016, including Liverpool at the Arts Club and alongside KRS-One in London. Find DJ Premier tickets.