DJ Premier’s studio has the look of old Hollywood despite being in Astoria, Queens. The building, at Kaufman Astoria Studios, has arches and an archaic look that feels plucked out of the Fifties thriller Sunset Boulevard. The rap elder’s surroundings are at least fitting in their sense of history. DJ Premier, or “Preemo,” as he is called by Hip-Hop fans and rappers, is both an icon and a reverent student of the unlimited artistry contained within the genre’s past and present. He described himself to Rolling Stone as “obsessed with sound and volume.” And his new EP Hip-Hop: Vol 1., which dropped last month as part of Mass Appeal’s Hip-Hop 50 soundtrack, makes those passions known. The project marks a turn for Premier, who usually only produced songs (albeit hits) for other people. Here, he’s making his own DJ Khaled-like project under his own name. And who better to write his own mark in rap history than Preemo?
No other producer’s compositions personify the elemental structure of Hip-Hop more than Premier’s. His scratches aren’t just the sound that comes when you’re spinning a record. They’re a signature touch; something ornate, lush, and seminal despite it already deriving from Sedgewick Avenue. Other than RZA, he’s arguably the most famous East Coast rap producer; along with being one-half of the legendary duo Gang Starr, he produced “Devil’s Pie” on D’Angelo’s Voodoo, as well as a slew of hits for the likes of The Notorious B.I.G., Nas, and Jay-Z.
Over the years, Preemo has not gotten enough credit for working with different artists in the musical landscape. He has worked with Christina Aguilera on the album Back to Basics, giving her an aerobic soul on the record that is not physical and to the bone, but rather manipulative and specter. It was a compelling fake-out; a plastic soulful album helped by a man that casual music people wouldn’t expect to be there. Years later, Preemo’s still here. He sat down with Rolling Stone to talk about his new EP, and all things hip-hop. When we were talking, a wide smile would beam on his face and he was forthright and eager to talk and play music for me, even as he had to leave to DJ an event for Derek Jeter.
One of the ideas that I always had about you was that you were a producer with an ability to do sonic landscapes; you have a wide palette too. Where does that come from?
I’m really just studying all the greats that made solid records that I couldn’t deny loving. Just off the first listen, from the era we come from, when you sound good and can do a solid album, you could do so many different things to make it a complete body of work, where now it’s all about just dropping the single. But once we got to album stage, people like De La Soul made consistent work. They invented the skit. Then, we went through a period where everybody has skits. There’s so many intervals in hip-hop. All of that makes me a fan. It’s a contest. I want to gain all the fans. So I’m actually creating stuff that’s fan based to think with the people that already support and love what I do, we’re gonna get it. I want to keep giving them that, like all of that is on my shoulders. Sure, people are gonna be not into the style anymore and move on. But I’ve never got tired of a style. I love what we do. So it’s just more restaurants to eat good food. You’ll be on the same menu.
It’s interesting that you talk about singles like that because you are the one who made D’Angelo’s “Devil Pie.”
Every time I make a single, I’m making a single because I am also making the other 10 or 12 records. Well, I know which one I’m purposely making a single. And that’s why I think, consistently, the singles that I dropped were with that intention. “Unbelievable” was on the B-side of the single. So he had the streets and radio and it was a great move on BIG and Puff’s part. Because that’s as he grew radio play, you always still want to hold on to music that the streets will still respect. Even if you make a radio record that we do love or hate, the street record has to have that respect regardless. So make it go. Yes, and make a good one. And all that’s in my mind when I make one is still make a banger. That’s why the Remy Ma rap record stands out the most to me if I had to DJ and you gave me the songs. I’m going for that one. When I do Derek Jeter parties in Vegas, it’s dope because he wants the Hot 97 stuff.
Jeter knows rap?
Yeah. And he knows the newest stuff and the classic stuff he was raised on in his era. So now he’s got the whole book because he’s from right a little bit before the DMX era. But he knows Ruff Ryders. He’ll tune in and be like “make sure you play that.” And even “Toot it & Boot It” too.
Rap is like wine. There’s good rap and there’s bad rap. That’s it. Doesn’t matter where or when it came from.
Bottles of wine we ain’t even heard from other towns, and the bottle may even look raggedy, but this is the shit. When you say that we’re Gang Starr, I like our logo to this day, people know what it is when they see the Gang Starr letters out. I still want to exist in anything I do.
When you listen to Gang Starr, what was it like to match those two styles?
Just, again, thinking as a DJ, you sound good on this. You know, and not everybody has that type of ear. I’m glad I’m blessed with that because that’s how critical I am of everything. I always say I would interlock Guru’s mind. I knew when he would sound good on this, or when he wouldn’t quite be where I wanted it to be. I’ll know when you look fly in a suit with all your buttons. I’ll know when you need to wear something slimmer.
Who was in a darker mood around the peak, you or Guru?
Oh, Guru. Yeah, he was a deep dude, man. I don’t know why he had so many demons. But as much as it made me want to leave — and I even left during the making “Moment of Truth” — I couldn’t turn away from that shit. And that’s why I know how much he loved to record. Gang Starr was his baby. He wanted it to live generations later and I am representative of that. He stayed true to it. He joined me in New York for it. He said he was going to the military before I said I was available. We did cool shit. And as a DJ, I want to hear what the next song is going to be. Jay-Z always gave me instruction before I made the beat. He said I want your scratches to say “I can’t die, I can’t die…”
How did the de-regionalization of rap affect you?
I mean, for me, I just kept going doing what I love. I like doing stuff. Who would have thought after return to the boom bap that would be a category called hip hop boom bap? Like it’s a common word. And that’s it. So for me, I was like, Yeah, I’m good. I’m gonna keep making this. I don’t think. I think if it just wasn’t working, and I’m just struggling, I would be like, well, maybe I should do something else. It’s gonna get me pay. Yeah. But I’m like, Nah, I want to stick to what I know. I want to keep that integrity. And I did Christina Aguilera. I already know she can really sing and I know we can make bangers correctly.
Do you think the pendulum swung too far? Does New York get enough credit for progress? Everyone has a reductive view of our music now.
There are junkies in this music shit that will hunt anything down. There’s definitely a demographic of artists that I am checking for. I still like ice cream. Right? I like Almond Fudge from Baskin Robbins. I still like to put chocolate Hershey’s syrup on top of it… Some things are never gonna change. I was doing that one Baskin Robbins when I was a kid. And now at 56, I do it every now and then. I’m not too old for ice cream. But I don’t eat it like I used to. Because when you’re older, you change your diet. In moderation. I don’t think you ever outgrow a culture. Like my radio, believe me. I like it. And then right after that “Nonstop” could come on from Drake — I love the approach on that song — or, Roddy Ricch.
What’s your goal for the new record?
Just another notch on our belts. Nas being a part of this is special. It hits different because I knew him when he was starting to build what he’s built from being such an entrepreneur. I’m proud of him. But I like the variety because there’s so much different people on the EP. Run The Jewels is nowhere near like a Nas record. Nas is nowhere near the Joey Badass one. Records with Rick and Wayne and then Remy and Rhapsody. So I just thought it was a dope marriage with two different types of MC. So, it was fun to just be a part of it on all of those levels of what they presented to me.
What was it about Wayne in particular that made you want to work with him?
I’ve always been a fan and when I met him in Europe, I was like yo, we got to do a song one day. I had originally had Logic on the song. Then, I sent it to Wayne and he come back with it the next day and says, tell me what you think. I’m just like, Wow, man. I knew he was gonna come through.
What’s your favorite Side B you have ever done?
Oh, The Question Remains. We knew it would be a dope record, it just went somewhere instead. We were supposed to put it out on Daily Operation in ‘92. They even had me master it. Then, the label said we’re gonna just stick to the 12-inch single. I’m like, man that’s not even on the cassette single!
I wish I was a part of the era that had cassettes.
We worked at our store. We had a big joint row of like, like, like, shelves and knit a lot or whatever you want from every r&b to jazz, hip hop to everything. So I remember when they said the CD is coming out. And they were like the brand new CD. And we looked at it, and I was like Dang, I wonder if you could scratch on that. Now you can. Then they came up with a way.
Last thing: Let’s talk about the Verzuz against RZA. It was — for lack of a better phrase — why Hip-Hop is the greatest.
I didn’t want to do it but shout out to D-Nice, he said you need to get on it and go live on IG. I was like Honestly, I’m watching you and just plugging it up to my speakers while cleaning my house up and going through shit. I didn’t know if it should be me and Pete. Like, me and Pete do battles when we toured together and our battles are just always fun. He called me back and said what if you and Reza did it and I go “That’s a good one.” You know as much as I’d like to do with Dr. Dre or someone, I would definitely do a RZA one.
RZA is the only guy who can see you. Timbo too.
Me and RZA used to have a house we lived at together. I said if he is down, I am down too. We were a part of history that night. My son was watching in. He got to see that.