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DJ Premier: how one of hip-hop’s greatest producers stays inspired

For over three decades, DJ Premier has consistently proven himself to be one of hip-hop’s greatest producers. As he releases his new EP, 'Hip Hop 50: Vol 1', celebrating the genre’s 50th anniversary, he speaks to Arielle Lana LeJarde about evolving with the culture and the hip-hop/dance music connection

“I’m raised off being a fan first,” DJ Premier states clearly. “Before DJing, before producing or anything else, I’m a fan.” He sits across from DJ Mag in his studio, walls decked out in posters and platinum records from his celebrated career. His arms are folded, yet his presence is open and inviting. While his voice is hoarse from screaming at his son’s baseball games — and several hours of interviews before ours — the producer speaks gently, seemingly humbled to bestow his knowledge. 

Before we begin, he closes the door to his studio, yelling, “Interview starting! Don’t bother us!” Those who don’t know Premier personally might be intimidated by the demand, but his circle understands that it’s intended to be humorous, a part of his down-to-earth demeanor. With his latest ‘DJ Premier: Hip Hop 50 Volume 1’ EP arriving this week, it’s sure to be a hectic time for everyone involved. But he glides through any issue, handling phone call after phone call with an effortless swagger, making everyone around him feel at ease.

Born Christopher Edward Martin, Premier (aka Preemo) never knew he was going to be an artist. Childhood trips to visit his jazz musician grandfather in New York City, then stumbling upon b-boys performing, might have ignited his passion for hip-hop, but it wasn’t until 1986 that he finally followed his calling. When a young Preemo heard the bridge from ‘Eric B. Is President’ mixed by MC Shan and Marley Marl, he thought, “Yo, man, I definitely want to do this.”

Thirty-six years later, the Grammy-Award-winning artist has built a legacy as one of the greatest hip-hop producers of all time. Alongside Guru, Preemo was one half of Gang Starr. In 1994, he produced ‘N.Y. State of Mind’, ‘Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park)’, and ‘Represent’ for Nas’ critically-acclaimed ‘Illmatic’. And throughout the years, he’s become a frequent collaborator of rap juggernauts including Mobb Deep, Jay-Z and The Notorious B.I.G.

Although Premier can regularly be seen cooking up in the studio with music industry titans, the producer has also been a champion for rising talent. Picking Jeru the Damaja out of the Gang Starr Foundation collective’s early line-up, Preemo believed the emcee was the first one ready to record a demo. The two worked together on Jeru’s 1994 debut album, ‘The Sun Rises in the East’, which still ranks as one of the best underground hip-hop albums.

“I love the underground,” he says, smiling. “I don't mind messing with the younger artists if they want to get with me on a song. I'm totally down, you know what I’m saying? But I like to keep it in the form of how I do it — rhyme to this style and let me see how you do.”

DJ premier in the studio

Keeping up with what’s current comes naturally to Premier, noting that research is what keeps him grounded and sharp. “Part of our job is to keep doing our homework,” he shares. “Where we are now with the internet, we have no excuse to not find anything. You gotta evolve with the culture.” 

Preemo partly credits his 11-year-old son for his up-to-date slang and generation-defying taste, naming Roddy Ricch, Juice WRLD, Lil Tecca, and YoungBoy as artists his son listens to. He continues, “You should care [about the next generation] because they’re a part of our culture and they got to carry the torch a certain way.”

Just because DJ Premier is a certified legend, that doesn’t mean fans won’t question his choice of collaborators. Whether he’s working with a pop star like Christina Aguilera or a newer rapper like Logic, old heads are bound to come with criticism. And although the producer proves he moves with the culture, he has his own fair share of criticism about the scene too. He rolls his eyes at subgenre names like ‘gangsta rap’ and ‘conscious hip-hop’, and jerks his head when hearing about TikTok users getting their hands on old Timbaland samples and calling him a thief. 

“I don’t even worry about that stuff because if somebody's calling him a thief, they're not into what we do. Man, he’s one of the most original producers you could ever fuckin’ run across.” Preemo acknowledges Aaliyah’s ‘One In A Million’ as one of the best records ever made, before adding, “Yeah, [Timbaland’s] a thief of being dope. He’s one of the most incredible producers of all time.”

What makes DJ Premier himself one of the most incredible producers of all time is his methodology. He uses his wealth of experience and his DJ mentality to perfect each release. His latest is a five-track EP called ‘DJ Premier: Hip Hop 50 Volume 1’, which serves as the first installment of Mass Appeal’s celebration of hip-hop’s 50th birthday. 

Stacked to the brim with features, Preemo crafts the listening experience just as he would a DJ set, moving through tempos and lyrical styles. “[The DJ mentality] helps when I create, because for me, to have that ear and mind state helps the record so much,” says Premier, who continues to hone his turntable skills through a radio show he’s helmed for 15 years, alongside gigs and high-profile parties. He’s also “a consumer that loves to buy and stream music. That’s the reason why I have all of that in my head as far as the approach.”

The ‘Hip Hop 50’ EP flows from slow to fast, before paring back a bit and finally speeding up again for the grand finale. It’s aptly introduced by Joey Bada$$, who raps, “Joey Bad and Big Preem’ / And we lettin’ off steam.” Premier agrees: “It sounds like the intro if you listen to any records from the top... And we did let off steam.” Remy Ma and Rapsody keep up the energy next, with an aggressive back-to-back of braggadocious bars. The producer has always been one to platform women, and he doesn’t fail to deliver on this commemorative project. “Point blank. Let’s get some females rappin’ and show y'all that they’re not playin’!” he enthuses.

The rest of the record continues to highlight Preemo’s nostalgia-inducing yet fresh approach to hip-hop: a breakbeat track from Nas, a scratch-heavy cipher with Run The Jewels, and a jazz-laden collaboration from two lyrical luminaries from completely different eras of rap — Lil Wayne and Slick Rick.

Walls in DJ Premier's studio

"There’s always going to be whack stuff and there’s always going to be dope stuff. It's just about knowing where to find it and knowing how to stay tapped into everything if it means that much to you. It means that much to me.”

Premier’s catalog extends far beyond the boundaries of hip-hop too. He’s credited on tracks with pop elites like Miley Cyrus, has dabbled in rock with Maroon 5 and Twenty One Pilots, and remixes tracks for big dance acts like Disclosure, DJ Snake and Rudimental.

Preemo’s relationship with dance music dates back to disco’s ‘70s heyday. “There was no avoiding it,” he says. “We already had soul music and funk music with James Brown and Aretha Franklin. We had the whole Studio 54 era, which I was too young for and not in New York yet. That music was dope too. But, we lived the dance era. I was totally into it.”

In the late ‘80s, DJ Premier would visit New York City clubs that played predominantly house music, with his friend Ian Skeet and Skeet’s house crew, Total Science. A little over a decade later, Premier would work with Big Beat Records, remixing UKG-injected R&B singer Craig David’s ‘7 Days’. Big Beat founder (now chairman and CEO of Atlantic Records), Craig Kallman, was also a DJ and came from a house background, and has released countless huge dance music and rap records over the years from the likes of Lil’ Kim, Marshall Jefferson and Skrillex. Preemo gives Kallman his flowers for the work he’s sent him.

Hip-hop and dance music are cut from the same cloth and DJ Premier attributes the division between the genres to the music industry itself. “The industry can force a change, even when it shouldn’t go that way. Especially when it comes to radio,” he elaborates. Now as major pop acts like Drake and Beyoncé begin to release house records, there’ll undoubtedly be an uptick in dance music on mainstream radio in the US. But as per usual, DJ Premier is staying ahead of the curve. Before singer-songwriter Andrea Martin passed away last year, she helped the producer do some house demos. “I wanted to show that I’m versatile,” he says.

While we may not be seeing those anytime soon, fans can still expect a lot from Preemo. In addition to the ‘Hip Hop 50’ EP, he has ‘PRhyme 3’, his solo album and some old records that weren’t previously released on digital streaming platforms on the way.

As we part ways, Premier imparts some thoughts about crate-digging that also feel like a perfect summation of how he’s stayed at the top of the game all these years. “Every generation, every era is gonna always have garbage. There’s always going to be whack stuff and there’s always going to be dope stuff. It's just about knowing where to find it and knowing how to stay tapped into everything if it means that much to you. It means that much to me.”

Arielle Lana LeJarde is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @ariellenyc

Photos: TTT, Mary Almonte