Ask a hip-hop purist who the greatest rap producer of all time is, chances are they'll say DJ Premier. Born and raised in small-town Prarie View Texas, Premo first hit the scene as one half of Gang Starr with his buddy Guru in the late '80s. The group flourished throughout the '90s with four straight classic albums: 1991's Step In the Arena, '92's Daily Operation, '94's Hard to Earn, '98's Moment of Truth.
But Premier's production discography spans well beyond just Gang Starr. He's blessed loads of artists—from underground acts like Jeru The Damaja, Group Home and M.O.P., to world-famous stars like The Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z and Nas—helping just about all of them make some of the best material of their careers. And beyond just being the go-to producer for rappers looking for the definitive boom-bap, he's also had great success working with singers like D'Angelo and, amazingly, even a pop princess like Christina Aguilera.
A list of 25 isn't nearly enough to account for all his important work. But we think the songs on here represent his signiture style. His drums kick harder than a sensei but he lets his hands do the talking with his DJ cuts. And he's famous for searching and searching and searching until he finds just the right sound to sample or slice up. When you conisder that Complex TV just made Jeru's "Come Clean" the subject of the latest episode of Magnum Opus (peep the episode below), 20 years after Premo made the beat, well, you can see the lasting impact of his music. He's a living legend.
That being said, these are The 25 Best DJ Premier Beats.
25. Capone-N-Noreaga "Invincible" (2000)
Album: The Reunion
Label: Tommy Boy/Warner Bros. Records
"For all the niggas who keep asking," said Noreaga, on the opening seconds of this banger off CNN's The Reunion. "When CNN gonna do a joint with Premier? Ha, we did it. We here now, y'all niggas can stop asking." In retrospect, it's hard to appreciate how hot Premier was at this time and how big a win it was for CNN to get a beat from him. How hot was he? Well, when Complex interviewed Noreaga about the making of this song, he compared waiting for Premier to "waiting on the welfare line" and claimed they paid Premier upfront but still waited four to six months for the damn beat.
But it was well worth it. "Invincible" remains one of the CNN's best songs, Nore rhymes about fucking up, how his solo effort, Melvin Flynt – Da Hustler, being "half-assed." Capone keeps it as hood as ever, rapping about "brand new tecs, food stamps, and welfare checks." But Premier steals the whole show with three notses. The beat was built on the sample of Jimmie and Vella's "Hey Boy Over There," the repeating "Hey-eyy-eyy" is the catchiest part of the song. —Insanul Ahmed
24. Gang Starr f/ Jeru the Damaja & Lil' Dap "I'm the Man" (1992)
Album: Daily Operation
This song—one of only two on Daily Operation that go so far as to use six different samples—is like the three-course-fine-dining of Premier beats. And it opens simply, with Guru spitting over record pops and guitar lines peppering a breakbeat in 4/4 time. That's all it really is until Guru finishes his verse, and the beat does a full change-out, a complete tidal shift. Then: Lil Dap is speeding along a funk-laden bass line augmented by tinny high-hats. Not long after that comes another musical hairpin curve, signified by something like a fax tone, or an alarm, and the wall of sound around the bass is broken down, as that bass opens right the fuck up into a kicking upright bass, manifesting in a full-on groove, with stuffed horns interrupting a kickdrum as Jeru drives us home. —Foster Kamer
23. Sauce Money "Against The Grain" (1997)
22. D'Angelo "Devil's Pie" (1998)
It was the second song on Voodoo, but one of the first signs that not only would this second D'angelo album be great, but that it would stretch for its greatness, exploring territory D hadn't trekked through before: Serious hip-hop production putting in work, in place of the full, live instrumentation listeners came in expecting.
Kicking off with a scratched record, the soundscape of "Devil's Pie"—a murky, sultry, slow-burning track not without its explosive moments-was a brilliant meeting of the minds, with D'angelo's vocal range in full effect, drums kicking under thumping bass—with blips assembled from five eclectic samples.
The effect straddled the line between mysticism and erotica, an oddly timeless stripe of dark funk that feels like it had always existed, but hadn't yet been turned into a late-night cut for the ages. Not like this, at least, not at that point. And it has yet to be replicated since. —Foster Kamer
21. O.C. "My World" (1997)
20. Gang Starr "Code Of The Streets" (1993)
Album: Hard to Earn
Hip-hop detractors who denigrate the practice of sampling as mindless mimicry would do well to examine what Premo does with the simple string figure lifted from Monk Higgins' "Little Green Apples." By accelerating the tempo and adding a snapping snare and a few bass notes the master beatsmith transforms something light and sweet into 100% pure menace. This is what's meant by flipping a sample. It's more a feat of imagination than of imitation. Throw in a bit of hands-on turntable scratching and voila three and half minutes of sonic perfection. —Rob Kenner
19. The LOX "Recognize" (2000)
Album: We Are the Streets
Label: Ruff Ryders/Interscope
Jadakiss starts his verse out, "I know y'all couldn't wait to hear Kiss over Premier!" He was right. The notion of the LOX teaming up with DJ Premier was enough to have any hip-hop head salivating. And sure enough—the trio of Yonkers spitters did their thing to the utmost over the jaunty piano sample Premo hooked up, with a vocal snippet of fellow Ruff Ryder Eve saying "Recognize" to bring it full circle on the chorus. There's no mistaking it, no getting it twisted: a match made in heaven. —Daniel Isenberg
18. Gang Starr "The Planet" (1993)
Album: Hard to Earn
In constructing this tribute to the borough of Brooklyn, DJ Premier starts with a taut Taj Mahal blues guitar riff that at first sounds almost human until it begins chugging along with the sort of skittering stutter-step that signifies hip-hop, accompanied by a matrix of syncopated rimshots. Premo then layers in significant vocal samples. The grandiose concept of the song must have originated as a snippet of spoken-word intro from "Lyte as a Rock" by BK's own MC Lyte, in which the rapper's brother Milk D brags about how Lyte's coming "directly from the planet of Brooklyn." Another BK boast is drawn from the obscure rap trio Divine Force. There's even a sample of Guru, drawn from an earlier Gang Starr recording, 1992's "The Place Where We Dwell." As buzzing with different voices as a bustling street corner in Bed-Stuy in July, "The Planet" is just as hot. —Rob Kenner
17. Jay-Z "So Ghetto" (1996)
Album: Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter
Label: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam
Premo. Jiggaman. History in the making. How did Jay know?! Well, actually, it must have been pretty easy to tell. As soon as he heard the gut-punch thump of the drums the greatest producer in New York had hooked him up with. Or those staccato piano stabs. Or the specialty: a chorus constructed out of vocal snippets cut from and/or referencing the artist who's rapping on the track. ("'You know him well'... 'By the name of Jigga.'") Because singing on a hook is just not hip-hop enough.
16. Gang Starr "The ? Remainz" (1994)
Like most great Premier beats this one starts with CRAZY crate-digging. The beat owes its singular texture to a warm slice of Fender Rhodes drawn from the Bob James record "Look-Alike." Primo repurposes the sounds masterfully, fashioning a cycle of tension and release that make the song float along in fits and starts like a poisonous jellyfish. At one point a disembodied snatch of BK raggamuffin Mad Lion's "Shoot To Kill" flies by, sounding surprisingly similar to Louis Armstrong. After three and a half minutes of this, the only question that remains is how the hell does Primo do it? —Rob Kenner
15. Jay-Z "D'Evils" (1996)
Album: Reasonable Doubt
It opens with a classically Premieresque drip-drop piano line, followed by, yes, a sample from none other than Snoop, on "Murder Was the Case" (and the song's most memorable line) just a year before East Coast-West Coast rivalries manifested in their worst iterations. As if that weren't enough, it's also wrapped around a Dr. Dre track ("Lil Ghetto Boy"), a Prodigy line (by way of LL's "I Shot Ya" remix), with Allen Toussaint's jazzy "Go Back Home" as the song's backbone melody. The effect is a dark, hazy piece of production that perfectly weaves in some of rap's great moments of brooding spirituality—for a song about the dearth of spiritualism in the 'hood. —Foster Kamer
14. Big L f/ Fat Joe, "The Enemy" (1997)
Album: The Big Picture (1974-1999)
No music captures New York's famous grittiness like rap. Despite his Texan roots, DJ Premier excelled in achieving that dirty, dangerous feel of an empty NYC subway station late at night. So it made sense getting warriors of the concrete jungle like Big L and Fat Joe to lace the beat on "The Enemy." The beat sounds like watching old black and white footage of police lights flashing. Which makes all the more sense since L and Joe take the police (or "Columbo" as L hilariously refers to one of them) to task for racial profiling. This is vintage Premo, before he polished up his sound, when his beats were still as raw as a stab wound. —Insanul Ahmed
13. Gang Starr "Just To Get A Rep" (1990)
Album: Step In The Arena
In the canon of cautionary 'hood raps, "Just to Get a Rep" ranks up there with Slick Rick's "Children's Story" as one of hip-hop's greatest. In fact, the lead single off Gang Starr's sophomore album was the group's first hit record, peaking at No. 5 on the Billboard rap chart. Premier grabbed the spacey 1970 song "E.V.A." from French electronic producer Jean Jacques-Perrey and brought it to BK via a sinister loop and a perfect Nice & Smooth hook. Five years later, House of Pain was out to tax by jacking the beat and getting Guru to drop a verse on the " Fed Up (remix)." That one came out sorta forgettable. But the rep's still intact. —Donnie Kwak
12. Show and A.G. "Next Level (Nyte Time Mix)" (1995)
11. M.O.P. "Downtown Swinga '96" (1996)
10. Notorious B.I.G. "Kick In The Door" (1997)
Album: Life After Death
Label: Bad Boy
According to a 2003 XXL piece about the making of Life After Death, Puff Daddy didn't like the "Kick in the Door" beat when he first heard it. During an elevator run-in with DJ Premier, Puff told him, "This is not hot, Preme. I need something more blazin', like 'Unbelievable.'" He added, "I need a Tunnel banger." But Premier was confident in his work, and after Biggie rhymed over it, Puff was convinced, saying, "Once I heard Big's lyrics on it, once I heard him rap, it made me like the beat, it made me understand where [Premier] was coming from." We're glad this worked out in everyone's favor. It's definitely a Tunnel banger, and beyond. —Daniel Isenberg
9. Jay-Z "Intro/A Million & One Questions/Rhyme No More" (1997)
Album: In My Lifetime, Vol. 1
Label: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam
Don't tell us sampling ain't an art. Yeah, yeah, you think it's just looping up some riff from some hit from the '80s and putting a drum pattern on top just because Puffy did it. And sure, maybe it is that simple (but hey, if that's the case, why aren't you making millions of dollars as a rap producer?), but don't tell us the way guys like DJ Premier do it isn't artful. Just look at "Intro/A Million & One Questions/Rhyme No More" which uses not one sample, but four.
The first half of the song has Latimore's "Let Me Go" (which is where it gets its piano loop) running concurrently with Aaliyah's "One in a Million" which helps Jay come off playful but still dangerous, like a joker with a TEC-9 up his sleeve. The most impressive part isn't the second half of the song (Premier loved throwing multiple beats on a track, see "I'm The Man") but the transition between the two songs that samples Ferrante & Teicher's "Break Up to Make Up." That part alone could have been the intro and we would have been satisfied. Oh and the second half? It's so good that more than 15 years later, when Pusha T used just a few seconds of it on "Numbers on the Board," it was the best part of his song. —Insanul Ahmed
8. KRS-One "MC's Act Like They Don't Know" (1995)
KRS-One and DJ Premier proved their knack for making dope records together on KRS's first solo album Return of the Boom Bap, creating the classic single "Outta Here," and sleepers like "Mortal Thought." So when it was time for KRS to make his follow-up, self-titled solo LP, he enlisted Premo once again, specifically coming to him for another hit single. Premier blessed him with a thumping track equipped with banging bells that made Kris react like, "Yo, this is going to be big." And it was.
Fun fact about this record: KRS-One actually pieced his raps together from three different old verses he had previously written in old notebooks. —Daniel Isenberg
7. Nas "Nas Is Like" (1999)
Album: I Am...
The sixth joint effort between Nas and Premier and the lead single off of I Am, "Nas Is Like" opens with a two-four drumkick and a sound that crackles and pops, a sharp nod to the warmth of vinyl and the history of recorded rap in just a few seconds time. Like sunlight blasting through through a dusty room—replete with birds outside—the strings come through, with harp notes for good measure, as if the entire thing weren't rich enough already.
Contrasted with the album's other single, the violently operatic club banger "Hate Me Now," this was an insta-classic golden era sound, a refreshing backyard-blast with samples not just of Nas himself, but records that aspiring producers, 'heads, and obsessive crate-diggers would freak over trying to uncover for years to come. Premier famously almost trashed the original record that the sample originated from before hearing it. Can you imagine that universe, one in which "Nas is Like" had a different sample track? Neither can anyone else. —Foster Kamer
6. Gang Starr f/ Nice & Smooth "DWYCK" (1992)
Album: Hard to Earn
Of all the songs in the Gang Starr catalog, "DWYCK" may be their biggest party record. As Premier remembers, "It was a summertime smash." The song, originally released in 1992, got so big that the group made a last-minute effort to add it to that year's Daily Operation. And rightfully so. With sick, sing-a-long verses by Nice & Smooth, a slick sixteen from Guru ("suave"), and a hard-hitting, danceable Primo production, this joint still rings off. If you don't believe us, throw it on at your barbecue this weekend, and see what happens. —Daniel Isenberg
5. Group Home "Supa Star" (1995)
4. Jeru the Damaja "Come Clean" (1993)
Album: The Sun Rises in the East
After making an appearance on Gang Starr's Daily Operation album, Jeru The Damaja launched a solo career as properly as possible with this, his first single, a jaw-dropping example of the creativity possible with pastiche-style music production. As Premo told us during a breakdown of his classic records, he didn't need to add much to the beat for Jeru to get busy. It already had the essentials-incredibly banging drums, and a bass line that sounded like it was constructed from a recording of liquid anvils hitting the concrete .(It's actually a Shelly Manne sample.)
Premo says, "I thought about putting some melodies to it, but Jeru's so grimy and hardcore, the beat was perfect for him. He didn't need any extra keyboards, or melodic sounds. It just sounded raw." Add in a rowdy Onyx vocal sample on the hook, and you've got one of the toughest joints to ever come out of Brooklyn. Heads up! —Daniel Isenberg
3. Notorious B.I.G. "Unbelievable" (1994)
Album: Ready To Die
Label: Bad Boy
As Biggie was wrapping up his debut album Ready To Die, he tracked down Premier, requesting that he hook him up with a beat for the album. Primo knew he had to come correct, but time was limited. It was all good though, because B.I.G. had an idea for him. According to a making of Ready To Die piece, Biggie told him, "Man, I don't care if you take 'Impeach The President.' Take that and do a beat."
So Premier did just that. He sampled it, chopped it up, and manipulated the sounds with Biggie hovering beside him, saying, "Nah, keep playing them little buttons you pushing and change it up and make it do different melodies on the hook and stuff." B.I.G. even gave him the idea to scratch in the vocal sample from R. Kelly's "Your Body's Callin'." Props to Biggie for the idea, but all praises to Primo for the execution. —Daniel Isenberg
2. Nas "N.Y. State of Mind" (1994)
Created from what Premier described to us as an "ill, gutter, Joe Chambers sample," "N.Y. State of Mind" was the first of three Premier beats on Nas' seminal debut Illmatic. And with that insane bass line, and perfectly placed, off-key, bar-ending piano chord, it's the most memorable. It moved like a late night creep through a New York alley-way, putting Nas in the appropriate hometown state of mind to display his supreme nastiness.
On I Am..., Nas and Premo would recreate the magic in this record on "N.Y. State of Mind Pt. II," a far-too-slept-on sequel. But as great as it was, it could never top the original, which has been officially crowned the best Nas song of all-time. —Daniel Isenberg
1. Gang Starr "Mass Appeal" (1994)
Album: Hard to Earn
It's funny that Premier says that this song "was recorded as a joke." Because, umm, "Mass Appeal" ain't no joke. It remains one of the defining records of New York '90s hip-hop golden era, thanks to the awesome descending-keys Vic Juris "Horizon Drive" sample, and its catchy, scratchy hook. He may have been making fun of songs on the radio with this one at first—and sure enough, it ended up getting plenty of spins on hip-hop stations coast to coast—but still, there is no song that better catches the beat of walking NYC streets. Straight, unmitigated classic. —Daniel Isenberg