The 50th anniversary of the birth of hip-hop is next August 11, 2023. A force as impactful and rewarding as hip-hop deserves more than just one day to celebrate, though, so Mass Appeal is commemorating the anniversary a year early with a series of EPs called Hip-Hop 50: The Soundtrack. First up is DJ Premier’s 5-track EP, featuring Nas, Lil Wayne, Slick Rick, Joey Badass, Run The Jewels, and Remy Ma and Rapsody, which is out now. The “Remy Rap” bar fest between Remy and Rapsody will have an accompanying video releasing shortly.
The honor is well-deserved for a legendary producer like Preem, who’s been a go-to producer for artists across several decades of rap. He joined Gang Starr in 1989, scoring his partner Guru’s legendary baritone on albums like Step in the Arena, Daily Operation, Hard to Earn, and Moment of Truth. Outside of Gang Starr, Primo has laced beats from many of rap’s greatest MCs, from Nas (“N.Y. State Of Mind,” “Nas Is Like,”) to Jay-Z (“D’Evils,” “So Ghetto”) to The Notorious BIG (“Unbelievable,” “Kick In The Door”) to newer acts like Drake (“Sandra’s Rose”) and Kanye West (“Everything I Am”).
As I sit on a couch in his studio on a mid-July afternoon and face the console, it doesn’t feel like I’m in a recording space, as much as it does the cockpit of an airliner touring the rarified air of rap history. His Astoria, Queens studio is lined with plaques of canonical centerpieces from Nas, Notorious BIG, Lauryn Hill, and other icons. And as he tells me, he’s still out for more.
DJ Premier: Hip-Hop 50 Volume 1 is just one of several projects that we should expect from him in the near future. “Everything’s coming out,” he says, leaning back into a plush chair at the studio’s console. “From this point to the end of the year, to the top of next year, I’m just constantly dropping music.” I look over to the buttons on his MPC and can see they’re well worn from an incalculable amount of hours in the lab. Now, we’re about to be blessed with the results of those sessions..
Today, I’m here to talk about the EP. Before explaining how it came together, he plays me the music. Each sample evokes a different vibe, but every artist sounds like they knew a DJ Premier beat had an inherent assignment to rap like their life depended on it (especially Lil Wayne on “The Root Of All”). Premier is facing his computer screen playing the records while I’m on the couch, so I’m taking in the music in my own space. As a music journalist, there are times where you’re politely nodding to stuff you’re not actually feeling, but that could never be the case with a Premier project.
He’s excited about being the first producer to curate an EP in the series, and he’ll be followed by Swizz Beatz, Mustard, The-Dream, Mike Will Made It, No I.D., Hit-Boy, Take A Daytrip and Tainy. The tenth producer will be chosen by fan vote, according to Premier.
Over the course of a nearly hour-long interview, our conversation veers to a debate about how the rap world’s changed, why he’s still dedicated to making bangers and preserving the culture, and a discussion about an upcoming Gangstarr documentary that features footage as far back as 1989. And yes, I also make sure to ask if that long-awaited Nas collaboration project will actually happen. The interview, lightly edited for clarity, is below.
So the Nas and the Run the Jewels songs have the two beats that you made specifically for the artists?
Nas, Run the Jewels, and I’d say “Remy Rap,” even though it’s for my solo album. I was already specific in how I wanted it to be like “Oh My God” from Tribe Called Quest with that slow bounce and that type of a skip drum. But I always heard Fatback Band’s “Backstrokin’” because that’s such a hit record. And I usually don’t sample hits and chop them up, because I’m known for the obscure samples that make you go “where’d you get that from?” But I just said, “Man, if I could run ‘Backstrokin’’ through Ableton and slow it down, and slow down the drums and just really make it bounce, like, “Oh My God,” the way it skips. Then we got a jam. And that’s what I did. “Backstrokin’” and Tribe Called Quest, “Oh My God.”
How much time did it take from beginning to end to put the five songs together?
Not long. Once I knew what they wanted to do with the celebration of these 50 years, my DJ mentality kicked in. I’m a producer still and I’m an artist still, but the DJ part starts to take over on sequencing. Because with the Joey record, I was expecting that to be on his album. So when it didn’t make it, I was like, it sounds like the first one to start it. On that one, you hear the Antman Wonder sample, because I had leftover samples from the PRhyme 2 album. When we were looking for sounds, Joey heard that one and was like, “Yo, I like that. Make a beat right now for that.” So I cooked it and he wrote it right here. [It’s a perfect way to start the EP] because I just like the way it begins with “Joey Badass and Big Preem, we letting off steam and we still came back for the cream,” man. It’s almost like—
Setting the tone.
Yeah. We back again and still rap supreme, man. All that just sets it all up. So to me I feel like with karma, it was meant to be.
Did you do the Nas track in-person?
Yeah. We did the first verse here. For the second verse, he was out on tour in Europe and he cut the vocal in. I forgot what country he was in, but he stopped at the studio, and got on the phone. I said, “Yo, please match the energy of the first verse.” Because I’m used to being with the artist to oversee the session. So with him not being there, I’m just like, “Please make sure you put your time into matching the energy so it sounds like they were the same day.” Then he sent it back and he literally matched the same exact attitude.
“I still have appreciation from day one, all the way to where it’s going now, which is why I refuse to put my style away, because it don’t have a death date.”
You mentioned you’re working on new material with Nas. Would you like to elaborate on that?
I mean, people have been talking about it for so long. It’s been almost 20 years of just talking about it. So to come back and just to do the one for Hip-Hop 50, he was like, “Yo, what else you got?” We just started making stuff and he’d be like, “Yo, turn the mic on. Let me just lay down what I’m hearing.” And he started writing it down and would just lay it down. So we just did a couple demos, but he let me know that he’s still in the pocket with delivering what we’ve been wanting, especially when the two of us get together. With the “Break Beat” joint, he had already said, “I want to do a classic breakbeat joint, one of the classic ones from back in the day and we was in the park jams.” So “Theme from the Planets” was one of the popular breaks, besides “Impeach The President” and “God Made Me Funky” and stuff like that. That’s one of my favorite ones on the Ultimate Breaks and Beats that Lenny and Breakbeat Lou do. So once we did that one, just to see what it would sound like, that’s when he was like, “Yo, that should be the one to go with saluting the history of hip-hop. And let’s save the other ones for later.”
I’ve got to ask, is there a possibility of a project with you and Nas down the line?
We’ll see. I can’t confirm but let’s hope. Keep hope alive, like Jesse Jackson would say.
How many of the songs on the EP will have videos?
I don’t know, but we’re shooting “Remy Rap” Monday. So there’s one in the can. They’re doing it up here [in New York]. But I’m down to do all five, if they’re with it. I’m all in.
Were you involved in the creative process of the EP’s artwork?
No. But my mother’s an art teacher. God bless her soul. I come from art. So once I saw that, and this is the first draft of it, I was like, “Yo, that’s it.” I didn’t even have to second guess.
You’ve collaborated with Logic, Joey, ASAP Ferg, a lot of younger artists. How intentional is it for you to collaborate with them to try to bridge that generational gap?
It’s a big deal. Me and Roddy Ricch worked on some stuff, but it didn’t materialize. He never put vocals down. But me, him, and ASAP Rocky [were] in the studio together working on some stuff. And then obviously with ASAP having the baby, he paused on the music for a minute. But we were all in the studio together. Me, him, and Roddy Ricch man. We had a good time hanging and working on some stuff, but just no vocals got laid down. And I like DaBaby a lot. I’d like to do something with him. I like Lil Baby as well. There’s people that I would definitely fuck with in that world.
Have you reached out to Lil Baby?
I reached out to him and to Doja Cat. They were all like, “Right now, we’re not recording.” And stuff like that or we have a different schedule. But I did reach out to all of them.
In your Drink Champs interview, you referenced “old timer’s music.” When you were doing your thing in the ’90s, did you have the foresight to realize that one day the market would exist where there would be 40 and 50-year-old consumers that you’d be able to tour and make music for without having to pander to the youth?
Yes and no. Because I was on the same, “Man, [in my] 40s [I’m] not going to be doing all this stuff.” A lot of people said that. “I’m not going to be doing rap in my 40s.” Now I’m 56 and I’m still excited to cook up another banger. And I love DJing. I love touring. I love every aspect of what it takes to be in the entertainment world. From scoring movies, to scoring TV shows, to making a soundtrack, to whatever. And whatever fans we had in the ’90s have grown with us. So why not serve them and keep serving them, being that they were supporting us back then? I mean, they’re pretty much in our age bracket, so let’s keep making stuff for them as well. If the younger generation comes to the table and wants to be a part of it, we always welcome them, too. But I think about my audience, that it’s still always there. When I go to my shows, it gets younger in the crowd but a lot of them are singing every word because they know our history.
Fans who grew up with you who might feel a certain way about the newer acts and the newer music. Do you feel like there’s a pathway for them to accept that it’s just not for them, even if they don’t like the newer sound? It doesn’t mean that it’s not hip-hop or that it’s not valid.
Yeah. For me, I never could turn my back on the newer generation, because we were there before. And when we were there, there were older rappers and stuff saying, “Oh, all you motherfuckers aren’t dope like us.” Or, “All you motherfuckers don’t respect the old school.” So now we are the older dudes, but not every artist is that way. I’m not. I value the preservation of the culture to keep living. So you’ve got to have the younger ones in, too. It’s just, they’ve got to understand and respect the history of it, because when it’s a culture, history cannot be removed. It’s just like rewriting the Bible—you don’t want to rewrite the Bible. You want to write the actual factual of what really did happen. And I know that history because I respected the people that came before me and opened the doors for us.
“We’re working on that now. A Gang Starr documentary.”
What are some of the most exciting new things you see in the game artistically?
The equipment has changed. I started off in the vinyl world and the CD and cassette world. Now you have the Serato, and you have all these new turntables that are not even vinyl. They’re just little wheels that you spin. So the technology’s changed a lot, and the sound of the music’s changed a lot. Like I said, the only thing that’s different is the appreciation. I still have appreciation from day one, all the way to where it’s going now, which is why I refuse to put my style away, because it don’t have a death date. It is going to live forever because of the fact that even when I’m long gone, the music’s still available.
Cole’s a good example. When he did the Gang Starr record with us for Family and Loyalty in 2019, he was the one saying, “Yo, you should drop my single first because that’ll make my audience want to check Gang Starr.” And next thing you know, they’re liking our albums and then picking up on that type of stuff, and now they’re adding that to their discography of stuff that they like, which they weren’t even up on because they were too young. At the end of the day, I just make sure I pay attention and keep up. I don’t turn my back on what’s out there now. And I have an 11-year-old son. He likes Roddy Rich. He likes Juice World. He likes Kid Laroi. He likes all that stuff. They all love “Right Foot Creep,” even though that’s a violent song, but they don’t know because they’re kids.
He is another reason why I’m up on things, because that’s what he’s into at 11, where I’m into all the grownups stuff. But in my generation when I was coming up, we liked what our parents were listening to. We loved Curtis Mayfield, The Commodores, Earth, Wind & Fire, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight & the Pips. We did like that. We weren’t like, “Oh, that’s for my mom so we don’t listen to that.” We liked the same thing they liked. They weren’t into rap. That was more when I was a teenager. But prior to that, everything my parents were bumping, we were fans of. We didn’t have rap when I was a kid. So I understand what built it. And the fact that I know we built it, there’s no way I’ll ever turn my back on [it]. We’ve got the purest form. That’s what I do—I do the purest form. It’s like country music. Country music now sounds almost like pop but back in my day, everything had that honky tonk swing, just that old down south, put on your boots and go to the rodeo type country. Outlaw country.
That’s what they called it. I liked that straight outlaw shit. Same thing with hip-hop—you got the gangster shit, you got pop shit, you got conscious shit. You got all these different categories, and it is just a wider menu now. In our era, it was only a few menus. Now there’s 30 of them. Pick what you want. It’s like going to a restaurant. You like to go to Italian, I want to go to get some sushi. Still hip-hop.
When you hear your influence on newer songs, like chopping techniques or the scratches on the hook, how do you experience that? Does it feel rewarding or does it feel like biting?
It’s more rewarding now. In my younger age, if it sounded too much like what I created or added on to, then I’d be like, “Oh, that motherfucker’s biting my shit.” But if it’s bitten and done well, then I applaud it. It’s almost like you know when it’s a bite and when it’s not. I was talking to my manager, and he’ll go, “That’s not biting?” I’m like, “No, that’s not a bite.” He’s like, “Yeah. But it—.” I’m like, “Dude, it’s not a bite.” Because when it is, I don’t even have to second guess. It’s like, that’s a bite. Because that’s our era. When we came up, if you bit, we were in fights over that. Not over cursing your girl out or pushing you out the way at the club… Over a bite, you had a fight. You should have been there, man. It was rowdy during our era. Over biting. Over biting a style.
Yeah, I see that. Where an artist from that generation comes out and accuses someone of biting, people from the newer generation will say, “Oh, is it that serious?” And I’m like, “You all don’t understand where they’re coming from. That was a cardinal sin.”
That’s going on. T-Pain was popular, and everybody started using AutoTune. Now everybody uses AutoTune. And it is biting. But everybody wants to ride a wave of what’s going to make you successful, especially when it’s happened with three, four, five other artists. You’re like yo, I’ve got to fucking do the same thing. So you’re going to start getting your AutoTune, now you turn it up so much, it almost sounds like you’re crying [mimics high-pitched crooning]. Certain people are good at it, certain people are not. And the ones that are not do their best to sound like the ones that are good at it. And that’s what diminishes the longevity of the culture, when you’re not just thinking about how you can sound different from everybody out there.
With me, I was blessed to have Guru. He had that voice that no one had. And on top of that, we knew how to make records. We knew how to make albums. And we come from the album world. Now everything’s playlists and you might just pull two songs off the album and never listen to it again. Whereas for us, I want a body of work that I can listen to top to bottom and enjoy an album. That’s always my mental approach every time. It remains that.