The art of resurrection and reintroduction are rooted in DJ Premier’s production alchemy. Underneath his scratches, you hear voices who no longer speak. In his loops are slices of music from years past. He is a creator who mastered transformative reconstruction and musical manipulation to the point of landscape-changing innovation.
As one of hip-hop’s greatest producers and ½ of one of hip-hop’s greatest groups, Gang Starr, Premier is an active legend―a GOAT who continues chasing magic in studios rather than grazing in faraway meadows.
As the phone rung, I thought back to 1989 when Gang Starr released their debut album, No More Mr. Nice Guy. On the album cover, Premier and the late Guru are without facial hair, the baby faces of young men. Their entrance into the music industry predates my exit from the womb; Gang Starr provided the culture with classics before I could produce words to speak.
I wondered if, back then, he imagined that 29 years later the phone would still be ringing for interviews, that writers still had questions, that fans were still eager to listen. I wish I asked. The sound of his voice broke my musing―heavy, gruff, the kind of vocal texture television shows would use for truck drivers talking over CB radios. He had arrived and we dove right into it.
“The creativity never changes, not since I learned how to be a producer,” Premier says, answering a question about producing for nearly 30 years. No matter if it’s artists underneath the underground or famous mainstream darlings, he delivers without creative worry. Preemo recalls a moment early in Gang Starr’s career when Guru suggested he listen to a demo tape during their time under Wild Pitch Records, their record label before signing to Chrysalis Records. The demo tape belonged to Lord Finesse, who would become another Wild Pitch signee and the first artist Premier worked with outside of Gang Starr.
"Working with Lord Finesse, he was really the first person I produced for outside of Gang Starr. Since we were label mates that’s how I ended up meeting Showbiz, Diamond D, and A.G. Because we all worked on [Lord Finesse's debut album] Funky Technician together. We built family love. From there I still wasn’t an accomplished producer who really had the experience and know-how yet, until after that, around 1990, I started having an understanding of the production. I knew what I wanted to do, but I wasn’t on the level of what I do now. Now, if I’m into an artist, I don’t say, ‘What are we going to do? How are we going to make something that’s hot.’ I already know going in what to do. I don’t go in wondering will this work or this will not work." —DJ Premier
Hip-hop history is filled with samples of the dynamic unity brought to life when Royce da 5'9" and DJ Premier intertwined their talents. Dating back to 1999, Royce’s first single as a solo artist was over a magnificent Preemo beat; “Boom” aged into an underground hip-hop classic. Their union has been consistent throughout the years, but 2014 is when the frequent collaborators became a single entity with their full-length eponymous album, PRhyme.
The album was initially intended to be a five-track EP. Preem made five beats, nothing more. Royce encouraged more; each new beat was followed by the DJ Khaled request for another one.
"Preem is one of my OGs. When I first went to jail, he was the only person who didn’t come down on me,” Royce told me in a separate interview conducted shortly after my talk with Preemo. (Royce was sentenced to a year in prison after receiving a DUI and violating his probation.) He went on to explain his nudging was due to the bigger vision he had for what their collaborative union could be. Not just as an album but PRhyme as an entity.
“The reason why, man, it wasn’t that he didn’t believe in me, he obviously believed in me, but he’s apart of arguably the greatest group of all time and his partner is no longer with us. That’s tough. That’s tough. I heard him say he would never be in another group again. I had to show him.” —Royce da 5'9"
PRhyme isn’t just two veterans extending their collaborative chemistry into a larger work, but two OGs whose relationship is deeper than beats and rhymes.
What made the first PRhyme album so unique is how the crate-digging legend only sampled from compositions provided by the incredible Adrian Younge. The end result is unapologetically Preem―thick booms and dusty baps, a vintage novelty more nostalgic than dated. Instead of returning to Adrian for more, the pair decided that the source material should change with each new PRhyme album; an interesting handicap for someone who tends to pull from unlimited resources.
In a recent Billboard interview, Royce revealed Madlib was discussed as a composition source. Preem teased other possibilities for future PRhyme albums. “Next time it might be David Axelrod, it might be all Prince stuff chopped in the Premier style,” he said with a laugh. DJ Premier, Royce, and Prince—a holy trinity if I ever saw one.
While it's easy to fantasize about what's around the corner, in this case doing so would be unfair to Philadelphia composer Antman Wonder, the man behind every composition filtered through Preemo on PRhyme 2. In that same interview, it was revealed that Antman contributed 30 exclusive compositions just for PRhyme 2. Out of that batch, 20 beats were made:
"I didn’t know we were going to do 17—really 15 tracks, because the skits aren’t really songs. We did about 20 songs. We just weren’t happy with them compared to what made the album. They were close but not to where it was rocking. I wasn’t happy with them and [Royce] wasn’t happy with them. We still have a couple of spare ones. We want to do another bonus album like we did the first one and add three bonus records with three additional features. When we do the three bonus songs we aren’t doing them to the songs we didn’t like, I’m going to make newer songs. Antman gave me enough source material to make new beats out of." —DJ Premier
Thanks to the bonus version of PRhyme, Black Thought was able to demolish “Wishin II,” and by extending PRhyme 2 with bonus records, the Lil Uzi Vert feature that fell through might come to fruition. Even without the Philadelphia melody master, though, PRhyme 2 overflows with noteworthy features. It's the only album this year where you can hear Yelawolf and Roc Marciano, 2 Chainz and Rapsody, Big K.R.I.T. and Dave East throughout the 17-song tracklist.
PRhyme might be a collaborative endeavor in every sense, but in most cases, the featured guests are selected by Royce without informing his partner beforehand.
"I just had to wait until he said he’s sending me a verse from so and so," Preem recalls. "I just had to wait in the wings for them to come in. He’d hit me like, ‘I just sent you a Mac Miller verse. I just sent you an Ab-Soul. I just sent you Killer Mike.'"
Royce’s intentions of keeping the features secret were part of his vision to gather all the pieces and present the entire picture for his partner-in-creation.
“I was so confident in them, I wasn’t worried about Preem liking them," Royce says. "I was also prepared for if he didn’t like it to either pull the song or figure out another way. But once I got everything pulled together, and I was able to present it to him like this is the vision, he fell in love.”
For PRhyme 2, Preem was only aware of two featured guests. One was 2 Chainz, who was recommended by Royce’s younger brother after the Detroit rapper cut his verse for “Flirt.” Premier made the call to the Atlanta rapper and the rest is history. The other was Yelawolf; the Alabama rapper's participation was heavily debated. Royce only wanted Yela to handle the chorus while Preemo was adamant about letting him loose.
"Royce just wanted Yelawolf to do a hook. I told him, 'Nah, let Yelawolf spit. Let him show he can do a verse to a beat that I made.' Royce is like, ‘Nah he should just do a hook.’ But I’m serious about letting him spit. Yelawolf, when I hit him up, he was eager to do a verse. I guarantee you within five minutes Yela hit me back with it done already. He was like, ‘If you don’t like it I can take criticism.’ I hit him back like, ‘Dude. This is so dope I’m ready to do an album with you.’" —DJ Premier
Sequels are successors. They revive and reintroduce what came before, benefiting from familiarity while also at risk of being swallowed in the predecessor's shadow. PRhyme 2 lives by the same ethos of the prototype—head-turning lyricism and neck-breaking beats—but sonically, the instrumentation is a few shades brighter, while Royce’s pen appears to be mightier than any sword he once wielded. The duo may be much older than when they first met, but in the three years since PRhyme’s debut, there have been no creative misfires.
Hearing a legend, three decades into his career, active and energized is beautiful. Age hasn’t brought rust, the climate hasn’t tyrannized Preemo into changing, and the demand for his sound is still sought after. The legacy he started with Guru as Gang Starr hasn’t fallen from their stature of excellence and what he’s building with Royce and PRhyme will leave a mark for all hip-hop heads, young and old. Longevity isn’t just surviving beyond an expected expiration date, but lasting by providing exceptional art that still can’t be replaced no matter the year or age.
As our call came to an end, I couldn’t help but think about our next call. Premier will arrive again, the music will inspire questions, and hopefully, he’ll still be interested in giving answers. The meadows can wait a few more years.
By Yoh, aka Yoh Starr, aka @Yoh31