MTV The Wrap Up: DJ Premier [Interview]

Rolling Stone once referred to him as ‘arguably hip-hop’s greatest producer of all time’; along with emcee Guru he was the production half of Gangstarr. His production credits include some of the finest rappers to bless a microphone – Jay-ZSnoop DoggThe Notorious B.I.GKanye WestKRS-One and many, many more. The Wrap Up’s Shireen Fenner and DJ Premier talk through being a great producer, what it takes to work with the best artists on the planet and the current and past state of hip-hop…

“I think what makes a great producer is knowing how to make the artists shine as bright as you can possibly can. Even though I’m older, I’m 46 now, I still make sure I keep in touch with the up-and-comers and I study them. That still applies to any artist that got a new deal and even an old artist that comes from generations before me; you still got to coach them too if they want to be great. I think a producer is always in tune to the past and future.”

Being a sought after producer, I was interested to know who he would want to work with. “Ghostface Killah of the Wu Tang Clan. He’s someone that I’ve always wanted to work with and we’ve talked about it, and hopefully that will go down.

“In the pop world I’m so glad I got to work with Christina Aguilera. I like Maroon 5. I want to work with Cee-Lo again. I’m finally going to work with LL Cool J, which has been a big thing for me. I’d love to work with someone like Aretha Franklin that’s of a different generation, but I’d still be able to bring hits to her career even though she has a zillion of them. Chaka Khan and I have talked about working together… I would make sure I gave her a hot record.”

We move on to talk about what Guru’s thoughts about the current state of hip-hop would be. “He would have the same complaints that he had on the last LP… that a lot of artists are releasing styles, but we own our styles so no one can ever take that away from us. They’re borrowing styles and not being original.

“He would still be complaining lyrically, but he is such an incredible writer he would be destroying cats with his lyrics like he’s always done. Guru is definitely top five to me and not just because he is my partner – he’s one hell of a wordsmith, a performer and a flow master. That stuff that we know is because we live the whole aspect of hip-hop. We live the culture so it’s beyond the music; the music is just one part of what we do in the culture.”

Urban culture has always been important to hip-hop, but some new artists today don’t have any connection to it or understand its origins and the environment that created it. “That’s a very bad place to be in if they don’t know. First of all if you’re in hip-hop culture, you should really want to know who started it, who kicked it off. If you don’t know about DJ Kool HercAfrika BambaataaJazzy Jay from Zulu Nation and Brucie B… even if you didn’t live that era, you should know that.

“It’s really important because without these people we wouldn’t even have this. If your appreciation for hip-hop isn’t big, I don’t care if you sold one million albums and brought a new Bentley and a million dollar mansion; it’s going to be gone soon. I’ve seen the same story play out with so many artists that acted like they could never lose the riches and the fun that comes along with it… but it’s going to happen.”

We discuss whether hip-hop has transcended its connection to street culture and grown to become a more universal tool of expression, with Premier reflecting: “It will always transcend as long as people like me exist and all the pioneers exist, because we’re still working. When we were coming up you had to search for hip-hop. If you weren’t in the know, you didn’t know what to search. You didn’t know what clubs to go to or where to buy the 12-inch records. With hip-hop you have to be that serious about making sure it never dies – it’s a duty of yours.

“I’m from the days of artist development – we would develop in how to perform, how to interview, how to speak properly and all of that. We were taught how to be artists and present ourselves. Now you just have, ‘Hey I like your record, you’re hot on the street – here’s a deal, here’s some money, go out there, sing, dance, hop around and make your videos and we’ll rape you of all your dough’. There’s no process of teaching them how to do things, so they’re very naïve and they end up doing stupid stuff. Next thing you know, you’re in trouble. You have to have someone in your circle who really gives a f**k about you that’s going to tell you when you’re doing wrong.”

Premier also discussed the all-time battle to be commercial without watering down your music. “Anytime something gets too commercial, the soul goes and you’re not able to do it the way you should be. If the soul is gone, it may still be a form of hip-hop but it’s not the form that keeps it alive. The underground is what keeps it alive, and that’s where I live. I live in the underground forever. Even if I did a Christina Aguilera record or a Justin Bieber record – even a Britney Spears record; it’s not going to take away from how I do my hip-hop.

“I still do a radio show which is catered to breaking artists and everything that I play that is underground is available. If you listened to commercial radio you would never know that these artists exist because there’s no platform for them to be heard, unless again you’re in the underground scene.

“I know how to balance both [the commercial and underground scene] – call me bi musical. I can do both sides, still maintain who I am and still be dope in any avenue of creating good music and having an ear for it.”

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