As I’ve said a few times before, I’ve always appreciated hip-hop no matter where it came from. I didn’t care if a nigga was from Iowa– if it rocked, it rocked. That said, there was a particular time where my ears were most partial to what was regarded as the East Coast sound. Unlike these more recent years, New York was breeding great new music on a regular basis. Some of the best from that era weren’t those that made a killing on the charts or radio, but the ones that resonated amongst the underground/street level listeners. When it came to producers that made music more for the late-night mix shows than the regular rotation, few had that corner locked like DJ Premier did.
Now, if we can keep it real (like they used to say)- I feel like for the most part, Premier’s been making the same beat for the last 10 years. Sure, every producer worth his weight has their own stamp and signature sound… but much of Premo’s work post-2000 has been rather indistinguishable. It takes a lot for me to say that, because I was damn near the head of his fan club by the late-’90s. He still remains an all-time favorite, because at his best, Premier never failed to create a banger. Whether it was as one half of GangStarr, or contributing his work to other artists- he was on his shit 24/7.
From GangStarr’s first notable record, 1989’s “Manifest”, Premier always had something different. While producers were using up James Brown‘s catalog, he was sampling jazz records. By the time everyone was using jazz a few years later, he was using those and pretty much any other sound he got his hands on. I have a friend who I’ve comically debated with numerous times about how dimensional (or not) Premier’s sound is. And while he never did much when it came to arrangements, he was using sounds so unique, it was hard to argue with how innovative the beats were.
He got big respect for his production on the GangStarr records (especially ’92’s Daily Operation album), but his rep really grew once he began consistently working with others as well. One of the first to really hit hard was for one of the group’s proteges, Jeru the Damaja. When “Come Clean” dropped in mid-’93, it was something far different from anything out there. The drums were extra raw, and there was no sax, horn, or bassline, which was the norm by then. It was just a weird sound that was so different, there’s still people who’ll swear to you that he sampled water drops (not quite, but strange nonetheless). Between “Come Clean” and the five massive tracks he did for KRS-One‘s Return of the Boom Bap album, Premier’s legacy as one of hip-hop’s highly sought-after producers began.
At that same time, Premier’s production style took a change that put him ahead of the comp. Most were just sampling sections of records and looping them over and over, whereas he was chopping different pieces of the records and arranging them in his own way to create a new sound. Another thing that always made his tracks great was his cutting and scratching of different lines from various records. Those elements together made a Premo track a must-have for some of everyone throughout the remainder of the ’90s. From platinum-selling artists to underground favorites, even the most unlikely unions took place with him at the helm.
There’s some tracks produced by Premier that I loved from day one and never got tired of. I can listen to Biggie‘s “Unbelievable” like it’s still summer ’94 when I taped it off of WEAA. Group Home‘s entire Livin’ Proof album reminds me of listening to it through the winter of ’95-’96, surprised that he could make such half-assed lyrics so easily listenable. Some of his lesser-acknowledged joints like Sauce Money‘s “Against The Grain” and his remix of Blahzay Blahzay‘s “Danger” throw me back to the times I stayed on the lookout for anything with his name on it. As a listener, very seldom did I not rock with a new Premier joint. As a DJ, I’ve tried to imitate his scratches. As an aspiring rapper myself, I hoped to work with him someday.
With the exception of Tupac, LL, and maybe one or two others, most of the widely-recognized greatest MCs of the ’80s and ’90s have at least appeared on a track produced by Premo. That includes Jay-Z, Biggie, Nas, Rakim, KRS, Scarface, Snoop, Kane, Kool G Rap, and more. Sometimes melodic, sometimes abrasive, or sometimes both- he always came through in the clutch. Nowadays, as NYC currently lacks a particular sound to call its own, DJ Premier’s classics still represent a time when the boom-bap ruled.