Words by:

Arguably of one of hip-hop’s greatest producers, DJ Premier’s story is one of ceaseless innovation and relentless hard work. Premier, real name Christopher Martin, was working in a record shop in Houston, Texas when he was recruited into the group Gang Starr, which quickly slimmed down to a duo – with Premier manning the decks alongside legendary emcee Keith “Guru” Elam.

In the early 90s, Primo began to produce for artists outside the extended Gang Starr Foundation family, creating distinctively Premier-styled hits for everyone from KRS-ONE and Notorious BIG to Christina Aguilera and D’Angelo. Gang Starr had split before Guru’s untimely death in 2010, but Primo still carries the torch, while his Sirius radio show has given a glimpse of the person behind the decks. His production schedule is as busy as ever. 

1989: Joining Gang Starr

I had a crew called MCs In Control. We were making demos and we would send ’em to everyone – Profile, Next Plateau, Tommy Boy – everywhere, and kept gettin’ our cassettes sent back. Then I made a new demo, and Carlos Garza, who was one of my best friends and got me the job at the record store, he heard it and sent a copy to Stu Fine, at Wild Pitch, who was lookin’ for new artists. Stu said he’d like to put me in Gang Starr with Guru. 

I had to go to New York for a family situation, and met Guru at a club called The World. We started talkin’ about music, and we had so much in common on every level of hip-hop that we already felt like we knew each other. I told him I had to go back to school but I would send him some music, and that’s when I sent him the [debut Gang Starr single] Words I Manifest beat. We recorded the song, and all the New York mix shows played it. I remember Marley Marl opened his show with it. 

I stayed with my group, but two of the members couldn’t afford to move to New York, and my MC joined the Navy. He enlisted for four years: if it had been like a year, I’d have waited for him, but four years? So I called Stu back and said, ‘Yo, man, my partner left, so I don’t have a group any more.’ He said, ‘Do you wanna join Gang Starr now?’ And I was like, ‘Yo, I’m down.’

"Me and Guru had so much in common on every level of hip-hop"

1989-92: Establishing the Premier sound

[The debut Gang Starr album] No More Mr Nice Guy was really done by three of us – me, Guru and ShloMo Sonnenfeld, our engineer. We had a different approach musically and we had to rush to get the album done: we did it in two weeks. With Step in the Arena we moved to a major label, got a real budget, and I was finally able to work on beats on my own and start to establish a sound. But it was when we did Daily Operation that I finally established the Premier sound, when I was confident that could take on anybody – any artist, any producer, anybody that wanted to either battle or to come to me for a hot beat. Prior to that I would not have taken on KRS-ONE or artists like that – I was still learnin’ to master my styles. But once we did Daily Operation, my confidence was through the roof.

1997: Gang Starr single You Know My Steez

I found that sample [Joe Simon’s Drowning In a Sea of Love] and heard how dope that guitar stroke was at the beginning. I already had the drums rollin’. I’m all about James Brown, and what he says is everything’s got to be on the one: but my favourite part of [Joe Simon’s track] was hittin’ on the four. I go by feel – I don’t go by the way the measure is. If it feels good to land there, I’ll take it from there. So I took the other parts and just chopped them into pieces and played around with the arrangement on the turntables. That’s always my way.  

2007: Working with Rick Rubin on Grammy-nominated track Classic (Better Than I’ve Ever Been)

Rick Rubin did the original. He gave Kanye West a CD of six beats, and Kanye chose that one; then he gave that to KRS, Nas and Rakim. I got a call from KRS, who said, ‘Maybe you could remix it?’ I got all the vocals sent to me, except for Rakim’s – then I found that Rakim had made his own drum beat and recorded his verse at a different tempo. The record was maybe 127bpms and his was like 110. I wasn’t really ProTools-savvy yet, so I had to stretch his voice and re-record his vocals into my CDJ, then flew them in, and just kept punchin’ the ‘record’ button whenever it started to drift.

Present: Production work, new solo album and documentary 

I’ve just finished executive-producing an album for MC Eiht. It’s called Which Way Iz West? and it’s a really, really dope West coast album. It’s produced by a guy out of Austria called Brenk Sinatra – he met Eiht at a show and they hit it off. I did a lot of scratchin’ and hooks on the ones Brenk produced, and I produced three songs. I’m also mixin’ down the NYGs, who are part of the Gang Starr Foundation. That’s a really hard, raw New York album. And I’m workin’ with a new artist, a singer-songwriter named Torii Wolf. She plays drums and guitar, and she’s a really dope singer – she’s got a kind of Bjork-ish type voice, but she’s definitely unique.

   I’m working on my solo album, Last Session at 320, to go along with a documentary about the history of D&D Studios – they sold the building at 320 West 37th Street so we moved out of there in January. We did a documentary with all the people who worked there – Jay Z, Nas, the whole Boot Camp – and everybody spilled the beans, from heroin addicts, to the fights, the guns… Everything is in that documentary! 

   And of course I’m still runnin’ Gang Starr Enterprises with Guru’s sister, Trish, to make sure we still keep the name and the estate alive. Guru has a 15-year-old son, so we wanna make sure that he stays afloat. And eventually, we’ll hopefully get some new music out.

DJ Premier appears at Fresh Island Festival, Croatia, 12-14 July