Shining Starr: DJ Premier Interviewed

One Of The Best Yet isn't simply another posthumous rap LP. Angus Batey talks to DJ Premier about its difficult genesis

Very little ought to be able to surprise us as 2019 draws to a close, but news of the existence of a seventh Gang Starr LP certainly came out of the blue. Nine years after the death of rapper Guru, his partner, DJ Premier, created the record by matching a suite of new productions to unreleased vocals and filling gaps in shorter recordings by inviting a small constellation of other rap stars to contribute verses and hooks.

While posthumous releases are hardly a rarity, those that succeed in extending a much-loved artist’s legacy in any meaningful or substantial manner are few and far between. That the new Gang Starr record – it’s called One Of The Best Yet, a title that works on multiple levels – adds to this select band is testament both to Premier’s skills as a producer and musician, and to his patience and belief in the power of his partnership with Guru.

That’s before considering the considerable obstacles that were placed in the path of anyone wishing to extend the late rapper’s discography. The vocals Premier used to assemble the record were in the possession of Solar, a producer who befriended Guru in the early years of the 21st century and played a contentious role in his final days. In effect, the first "session" for the album was the meeting at which Premier and his lawyer heard the tapes: recording took place at Premier’s home studio, where a portion of Guru’s ashes sat next to a photograph of the duo above the mixing board.

During a flying visit to the UK in late November, Premier played a DJ set at an album launch party at the London branch of Sweet Chick, a chain of chicken restaurants whose backers include Nas. Before getting on the decks he sat down with tQ to talk about the new record. But even when trying to put the music front and centre, the complicated and controversial legal saga behind its creation is never far from the surface – and, as Premier reveals, the facts are still changing, even though the record is finished and released.

As a fan, I’ve got to admit that I was nervous about this record.

DJ Premier: So was I! Heheh. So we’re on the same page.

We’ve heard a lot of these…

DJP: Posthumous albums? Yeah. And that was the first thing on my mind. If it felt it was gonna sound like that, I was just gonna put the whole project to rest. I didn’t want it to be like other ones I heard where it never comes out right. Big L’s came out right – The Big Picture. I thought we did a good job with that, thanks to Lord Finesse; but other than that, I was ready, man. Because I wanted another Gang Starr album – even just me. And I knew the fans would love it, appreciate it. I just didn’t want it to be rhymes I’d heard – it had to be rhymes I’d never heard.

The other thing that really stood out for me about the record was how you’d made a Gang Starr album, but a Gang Starr album that brings the sound up-to-date without just sounding like what’s going on today. Obviously, the change in the process for you was that you had to write to him, rather than him writing to you. But what about the music you put together for this record? Let’s take the opening track, ‘Lights Out’. Sonically, that’s a departure for a Gang Starr record, yet it still feels like a Gang Starr record. Tell me about how you formulate something like that.

DJP: Well, we’re starting to find out some new, uncovered stuff that Solar might’ve done. He claims that these were all his recordings, which the fans never saw, or whatever. But Agallah – you know Agallah? He used to be called 8-Off. He wrote that hook: and, us knowin’ Agallah, it sounds like his flow. He did a record with Guru, there was a hundred limited-edition vinyls made; Masta Ace did the original. I never heard this version with Masta Ace and them, so it was new to me. It was done in 2000; we did not know Solar then. We met Solar in 2002. So now [it appears as though] I may have bought stolen sessions. Because he wasn’t around in 2000. I just found this out about a week ago.

Bloody hell.

DJP: Yeah. So, meaning this was done then, and we didn’t know him until two years later. This is illegal. Now, Masta Ace – we’re friends, so it’s all good; we’re dealing with that. But how many other people are gonna come out and say, ‘This is mine too, from another record’? So we’re just waitin’ and seein’. But regardless, that’s the reason why he’s shoutin’ like that on the hook. Agallah laid it; he got Guru to do it along with him. When I got the sessions from Solar, it’s only Guru’s vocals on it – everybody else has been removed.

So what we did – which I didn’t do in the beginning, because I didn’t think that I had to – is to check the ProTools sessions of the date it was created. [On the ‘Lights Out’ ProTools file it says] date created – 2000. We didn’t know him then. I didn’t even look at this when I bought them. So then, when Agallah says, ‘Man, we did that in 2000! How did you get it?’ I’m like, ‘I bought it from Solar.’ ‘Well, I don’t know him like that. He wasn’t there. So how did he get it?’ Ah. He must’ve gone through Guru’s stuff when he was sick, took it out of his house, held onto it, and it finally came to us. We’re buyin’ everything, he sells it to me.

That would presumably invalidate any contract that he had with you, and you’ll be able to get your money back.

DJP: Yes. We’re waiting right now. But prior to me discovering that, I’m just applyin’ myself to who would sound right for the track. ‘Oh, MOP would sound good on this one, because Guru’s more hyped.’ I don’t like the hype Guru, but they’re the ones that would fit, and we’re family. And it blended perfectly.

Gang Starr in London by Martyn Goodacre

As a producer – as a creative hip hop musician – how do you go about something like that? Putting together some music that’s a strong fit with the traditional Gang Starr sound but that moves it forward in a way that’s progressive and respectful at the same time.

DJP: Just knowin’ after all the albums we’ve done, all the tours we’ve done, all the years we’ve lived together. We lived together from ’89 to ’94: we didn’t move into our own houses until Hard To Earn came out. So livin’ with him all those years, the parties, the drugs, the chicks, the fighting, the make-ups – just everything. And look at the hiatuses we took after Hard To Earn: we didn’t get back together until 1998 – four years later – and Moment Of Truth became one of our biggest albums. Still done right. Then ’99, we did [the retrospective compilation] Full Clip, went on tour with Rage Against the Machine for a month, took another break for four years, came out with The Ownerz, which sounded just as consistent. So that part was easy. It was just the emotional side of saying, ‘Once you start, don’t stop.’ And that’s what I did.

You’ve said in other interviews that there were particular tracks that, once you’d finished them, gave you the confidence to know you were on the right tracks and could go on to make the full LP.

DJP: ‘Bad Name’ was the one. ‘Bless The Mic’ was first, ‘Bad Name’ was second. After ‘Bad Name’, and I’d made the vocals fit, I was like: ‘That’s us’. ‘Bless The Mic’ reminded me of our early jazzy ’90s style, which I wasn’t mad at; but I was like, ‘I gotta get more energetic’. ‘Bad Name’ was the second one that I did. Then I did ‘So Many Rappers’, and then I did ‘Family And Loyalty’, and I was like, ‘I’m totally in now.’

In any way was the last A Tribe Called Quest record [the posthumous 2018 release, We Got It From Here… Thanks For Your Service] a source of inspiration?

DJP: Yeah. Q-Tip was my advisor. I called him for help: ‘How did you do it? What should I do?’ I’m usually the one who says, ‘Nah, we should do this! Nah, we should do that!’ This one, I needed some advice. And Q-Tip walked me through a lot. I’m like, ‘Dude: what made you even, just out of nowhere, say there’s an album? What did… How did you… Who helped you decide?’ And he told me everything. He said: ‘Do it this way, do it this way; do this, do this,’ and I wrote everything down.

His involvement in One Of The Best Yet was limited due to vocal problems he was having at the time, but you have him doing the chorus of ‘Hit Man’.

DJP: I love it. Guru’s describing the mind of a hit man – and [Q-Tip] is the hit man. He says, ‘You got the bag, pop?’ That’s the money, to pay me to do the hit. In New York we’d say ‘get the bag,’ meaning you get the money. We also say ‘What up pop?’ That’s what everybody says. So he says, ‘You got the bag, pop? I got the thing-thing: it’s in a sling. Here it is – let me let it ring.’ ‘Cos he’s got it in a sling, so you don’t think I’m a hitman; I got a broke arm, but I’ve got a gun in it. Then he says, ‘I got potatoes and the mufflers and the whole thing,’ ‘cos a potato, you can use it as a muffler. To muffle the gun to do the hit.

And then there’s ‘Business Or Art’, the track with Talib Kweli. They’re both talking about the way hip hop is today, when clearly…

DJP: He wasn’t even supposed to be on the album. He was callin’ me to ask me if I’d be down to do a Black Star show with me DJ-in’ with ’em, and he would get back to me. I was like, ‘Yeah. And by the way, don’t tell anybody, but I’m workin’ on a new Gang Starr record.’ He said, ‘Aw, man, if you need me…’ I was like, ‘Well, I got this one beat, but I don’t think it’s the one; it’s really slow, and I know you’re more a medium tempo.’ He said, ‘I don’t care how slow it is! Can I hear it?’ I say, ‘You know what? Fuck it, I’ll send it.’ He said, ‘I’m in Spain, so if it’s doable, I’ll do it in my hotel room when I’m off tonight.’ So I sent it to him, he sent it back that morning, from Spain, and that’s what he did. And I was like, ‘Yo, I’m keepin’ this.’

Was there anybody you wanted to get on this where it didn’t come about?

DJP: Drake and Nas. He was on tour with Mary J Blige. That was a big tour, so it just wasn’t adding up to when I had to turn it in. But I didn’t wanna over-feature it. Some of them just needed some help, where it was just one verse – I didn’t want it to be just one verse and that was it.

If you go back to the era Gang Starr came out of, albums weren’t cluttered with loads of guests. If it was a Gang Starr album they were Gang Starr tracks. And it’s great that you’ve got that here as well. There’s enough of the verses from him that you can do that, and it feels like…

DJP: I wanted it to sound like what we would have done if he was physically in the room to do this album. And that’s how it sounds.

And with his ashes in the room, I guess you felt that he was there?

DJP: Oh, yeah. His ashes, I would just hold onto it, and play the records, and be like… [taps glass with knife] ‘You see what we’re doin’, bro? It’s gonna be good!’ I talked to the ashes, or I had a picture above it: ‘We’re doin’ it, baby!’

One Of The Best Yet’ is out now on vinyl, CD and digital download

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