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Photograph by Patrick Ambrose

DJ Premier: Hope to the Underground

The turntablist now known as DJ Premier got help at critical moments in his rise from a piano-playing childhood in Houston, and these days he’s looking to spread the love.

“None of this show was planned in advance,” DJ Premier says to me after his late-August performance with DJ Scratch in Brooklyn’s Red Hook Park. There’s a crush of fans pressed against the stage and Premier reaches out to them, shaking hands and signing autographs while conversing amiably with me—a display of those multitasking skills inherent in a master DJ.

Premier’s matchup with Scratch had been billed as a DJ battle, and some folks in the capacity crowd expected an all-out war between two of music’s finest turntablists. But their engagement seemed more like a collaboration among friends than an old-school DJ slugfest. For nearly two hours, Premier and Scratch delighted fans with excerpts from Motown classics such as Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” and hardcore hip-hop gems like Jeru the Damaja’s “My Mind Spray.” The result was a rich blend of vocals and beats overlaid with distinct scratching styles: Premier combined abrasive textures with his signature burbling sequences while Scratch’s kaleidoscopic output included warbling bird calls and the rhythmic thumps of whirring helicopter blades.

The only items missing from the scene were the crates of records that would have cluttered the stage a few years ago. Nowadays, Premier and other hip-hop artists use a vinyl-emulation software when they perform live. “I own thousands of records and carried heavy crates for years,” Premier told me over the phone a week before the show. “But what if I carry six crates of records to a gig in Arizona and only three come off the belt at the airport? I don’t have that problem with a computer that can hold 20,000 records. And it’s hard to find copies of certain records. Right now my assistant is dumping all my rare vinyl because you can’t find a lot of stuff on mp3s. A true DJ wants to have rare stuff. We love to compete.”

“Here’s one of the illest beats this guy ever did!” shouts Scratch, gesturing at Premier as the foreboding groove of celebrated rapper Nas’s “N.Y. State of Mind” fills the sticky evening air. Illmatic, the Nas album from which this track was taken, is now a classic and Premier produced three of the record’s most notable songs. The audience roars its approval, and Premier smiles.


* * *

As a child growing up in Houston, Premier learned to express himself creatively at an early age. His mother, an art teacher, forced him to draw and take piano lessons—activities he engaged in, but detested. In those days he was known as Christopher Martin, a sports fanatic with a keen interest in music despite his disdain for piano recitals. Summers were spent in Brooklyn with his grandfather, a musician who had collected photographs for years while he toured with a jazz band. Although these images stoked Martin’s curiosity about the music business, it was a trip to Times Square that pushed him in that direction. There, he saw a group of kids cavorting rhythmically around a boom box that blasted extended instrumental segments from familiar songs—the Incredible Bongo Band’s version of “Apache” and the acid-tinged, freewheeling funkiness of the Jimmy Castor Bunch’s “It’s Just Begun.” It was 1977, the Blackout Summer, the Summer of Sam, a season packed with experiences that left an indelible impression on the young Texan. When Martin returned to school, he’d tell his friends about those events, along with the b-boys he had seen break-dancing in Times Square.

Many DJs in the late ’80s relied exclusively on classic funk loops, so Premier’s incorporation of jazz elements exemplified a novel take on East Coast rap. The sonic backdrop for break-dancing grew out of breakbeat DJ’ing, a technique developed by South Bronx resident DJ Kool Herc in the early ’70s. As a disc jockey at parties, Herc used the same record on both turntables, which enabled him to cue up a break—the most engaging part of a song—and then shift from one record to the other to sustain that moment. He further enhanced the crowd’s frenetic energy by shouting out catchy expressions, a practice that was later co-opted by other DJs. Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash went on to refine these techniques, and hip-hop artist Grand Wizard Theodore invented the percussive scratching that transformed the turntable into a playable instrument. By the time Christopher Martin—not yet DJ Premier—enrolled in college, hip-hop had made its way to Houston.

“This DJ named RP Cola—Randy Pettis—taught me how to scratch and mix,” he explains. “I used to think the guy was incredible. He played new music and was nice cutting stuff up. One day he invited me to his dorm room where he practiced every day and showed me how to scratch. I got me a set of turntables—well, I stole me a set—and that’s how I got started.”

As a student at Prairie View A&M University, Martin rarely went to class, preferring to DJ at parties and attend concerts. He formed MCs In Control, a rap group, with three other friends and started performing under the moniker Waxmaster C. To earn extra money, he worked at a local record store where he and a coworker stocked the shelves with their favorite releases. One day, while on the phone placing orders, the coworker praised Martin’s DJ’ing skills to Stu Fine, the founder of Wild Pitch Records and sent along a demo. Fine was impressed with what he heard.

Martin moved to New York City in 1986 and secured employment as a daycare counselor while trying to make a name for himself as a rap artist. He would later learn that Gang Starr, a Boston rap group on Fine’s label, needed a DJ. Gang Starr had planned to settle in New York, but Guru, the group’s MC, had ended up being the only member to relocate, and he carried the Gang Starr name with him. Martin changed his handle to DJ Premier, and in 1989, he and Guru recorded No More Mr. Nice Guy, a conflation of suave, sophisticated rhymes and subtle jazz undertones. Many DJs in the late ’80s relied exclusively on classic funk loops, so Premier’s incorporation of jazz elements, along with the heavy boom-bap beats of the bass and snare, exemplified a novel take on East Coast rap. Over the next decade, Gang Starr continued to perfect its style with four more critically acclaimed releases that showcase Guru’s euphonious elocution and Premier’s exotic, multilayered backbeats—attributes that would inspire scores of rap acts that followed. Moment of Truth, their 1998 release, begins with a stated commitment by both artists to reinvent themselves on every record, a rule that Premier has adhered to his entire career.

“I always want to top myself,” he says. “And I’m really picky about the order of songs. I’m even picky about the space between songs. I follow the cassette-tape method—if I have 16 or 17 songs and was recording them on cassette, how should the second half of the recording begin after the first side is through playing? And I’ll do two or three combinations until I find the right one. After we master every song, I pay attention to spacing because certain songs need to be sequenced so that they run straight into the one that follows.”

This assiduousness also stands out on records Premier has produced for others. In the mid-’90s, he and Guru established Gang Starr Productions and signed Jeru the Damaja, a gifted rapper whose tightly woven rhymes had a forceful cadence that complemented Premier’s bumpy bass-drum kicks and brooding low-fi beats. Rough, granular textures permeate Jeru the Damaja’s The Sun Rises in the East, and the final cut fuses crackly static with a commanding bass line. In 1995, Gang Starr Productions released Group Home’s Livin’ Proof, which featured two young MCs whose lyrics swayed from compelling street-corner anecdotes to puerile monotonic boasting. Although the rhymes are inconsistent, some of Premier’s most exemplary beats appear on that album.

Although Premier’s beats have buttressed tracks by other mainstream artists, his heart remains with the hip-hop underground. “I told Guru to let me produce these records and I’d make sure these guys pop off,” he explains. “Group Home had a look. I was like ‘Man, if we pretty much Backstreet Boy this thing, we can come off.’ I gave them tracks that could compensate for their lack of rhyming skills. I had to cover up the bruises.”

By the time Group Home came out with its 1999 follow-up A Tear for the Ghetto, Premier had become the producer sought after by many bestselling artists. He collaborated with acts ranging from nu-metal band Limp Bizkit to R&B singer-songwriter Brandy, and in 2003, he and Guru recorded Ownerz, a laudable return to the duo’s inimitable synthesis of elegant rhymes and sonorous grooves. Premier’s studio wizardry attracted the attention of pop superstar Christina Aguilera, a staunch admirer of his production skills, especially his work on Livin’ Proof. Premier recorded five tracks for Aguilera’s 2006 album Back to Basics; her single “Ain’t No Other Man,” which he produced, won the 2007 Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.

Although Premier’s beats have buttressed tracks by other mainstream artists, his heart remains with the hip-hop underground: He launched Year Round Records to support independent rappers who might otherwise be passed over by major labels. In 2007, Year Round released Welcome 2 G-Dom, an extraordinary debut by NYGz that combines gritty vignettes with dense interwoven phrases of funk and soul.

In June, Premier’s label put out Blaq Poet’s Tha Blaqprint, a collection of visceral rhymes from the veteran rapper that includes intense, biting reflections on urban decay and somber meditations on loss and personal pain. Blaq Poet and NYGz often appear on the playlists for Live From HeadQCourterz, Premier’s weekly Sirius-radio program devoted to exposing unplayed artists.

“If a song’s not hot, I’m not playing it!” Premier exclaims. “That’s how it was when I was growing up. DJs were harsh back then and the bar was so high you couldn’t even see it. Now, the bar is pretty much on the ground. A crippled person could step over it.”

But Premier raised the bar on Tha Blaqprint. While in the studio recording the album, Blaq Poet requested that Premier assemble a beat that didn’t rely on samples. “I started playing piano, making little sinister sounds like the piano’s walking,” he explains.

It sounds like those piano lessons paid off.