DJ Premier Reminisces on 25 Years of Gang Starr's 'Hard to Earn' & Hip-Hop in 1994

Gang Starr only cared to look forward, never behind. But on the 25th anniversary of 'Hard to Earn, DJ Premier didn't mind taking me back to 1994.
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DJ Premier, 2019

“Stand by, I’ll be right back,” DJ Premier says before leaving his cell phone in the car. 

It’s Friday evening, a few minutes past seven o'clock. The legendary hip-hop producer and one-half of avant-garde rap duo Gang Starr just finished dinner at George's in Astoria, Queens, but seems to have misplaced his headphones. For two, maybe three minutes, I wait in patient silence. 

“I dropped them in the restaurant,” Premier says upon his return. “There was a guy inside who wanted to take a picture and to wish me a happy twenty-fifth anniversary.”

The enthusiastic fan inside George’s wasn’t the only Gang Starr loyalist who remembered March 8th as the 25-year anniversary of the duo's fourth studio album, Hard to Earn

“My publicist just hit me and said the album jumped 100 spots on the charts—in sales, not streams,” Preemo notes.

By the end of our 30-minute phone call, based on the information sent to him by his publicist, Hard to Earn had reached No. 88 on the Billboard 200.

To my surprise, the Texas-born, Brooklyn-raised production maestro doesn’t revisit his classic material. The music he makes is for the people; a mantra his late partner, the great MC Guru, instilled in him: “You do what you do for the love, and you just keep updating your formula.” 

Gang Starr only cared to look forward, never behind. 

Thankfully, on the same day DJ Premier would celebrate 25 years of Hard to Earn, he didn’t mind taking me back. In his words, Preemo presents vignettes from 1994 and stories that represent hip-hop as he knew it back then. As someone who was a few months shy of his fourth birthday, this trip down memory lane made me nostalgic for an era I didn’t experience in real time.

It’s the gift of great storytellers; they will make you miss what you never knew. 

On Hearing Wu-Tang Clan's “Protect Ya Neck” for the First Time

Guru and I, our mindset when it came to dropping music was to always hit them with another banger. We didn’t feel any pressure, we always had a competitive attitude. We were also very good friends with our peers. So, you know, we were cool with Wu-Tang back when RZA came to our house in Brooklyn and told us he was about to form the [the group]. This was before I heard a song.

The first time I heard “Protect Ya Neck,” I was in a club, sitting at the bar next to Onyx. It’s me, Guru, Sticky [Fingaz], and Fredro [Starr]. We’re all just kicking it, talking, having a drink, and then, “Protect Ya Neck” comes on. Sticky and Fredro start freaking out, yelling and screaming. They’re almost in moshpit mode singing the lyrics verbatim like this record been out for 10 years. I’m like “Damn, I don’t even know the words, to this shit. What’s this?” I’m like, “Who’s that!?” They say, “That’s Wu-Tang Clan, that’s ‘Protect Ya Neck.’” I’m like, “Oh shit, that’s the group RZA told us about back in ‘92!”

On New York City, Where Rappers Always Rap Into Rappers

We had so many hangout spots that we all frequented at the same time. We’re all going to The Tunnel. We used to go to Joe’s Pub, The Arena, we went to Tramps, yeah, Tramps was major. Bungalow 8 was popping. Anything that was a hangout spot for hip-hop artists at the time, including us, we were all there.

We would see Old Dirty [Bastard], just posted up. He wouldn’t be wilding out, he would just be chilling with us having a regular conversation. Far as props after something new dropped, the most we would get was, “That ‘Mass Appeal’ single, nigga! Alright!” reactions and shit like that. They’ll let you know when it’s popping because we were all keeping up or had something new that just dropped. 

On No More Jazz Beats

Hard To Earn is one of our most original albums because I was getting from critics... Reviews would say all my production was jazz-based when it comes to samples. That I would stick to that sound. So when Hard to Earn was being made, I purposely said I’m going to strip this album down. I wanted to go more left field with my sound but still make it knock. 

“Mass Appeal” is one of the only songs that has a melody that’s traditional Gang Starr. Everything else is very stripped down, almost has a wicked sense of sound that’s like it’s from outer space. Like “Brainstorm,” “ALONGWAYTOGO,” even “Tonz 'O' Gunz.” Everything is not super melodic like most of my samples that I would use or bassline orientated. 

Guru and I discussed the direction. I always discussed direction with him, but he was always with it. He was never like, “Nah, let's not do that.” He knew that I would give him exactly what the Gang Starr sound is like. Even though I produced for other artists, and they would still get the Premier production style and sound, Gang Starr records had its own when I produced for us. 

For one, I’m in the group, so much has to match the two of us. It has to match the way he speaks for me, and I have to match how I give him the background music for what he wants to say.

On Nas Being Removed from the Hard to Earn Tour in 1994 After Only Two Shows

Guru and I were living together. I moved right after we toured. We did a Hard to Earn Tour with Nas, M.O.P., Jeru the Damaja, and Gang Starr. Providence, Rhode Island was our first show. Our tour bus was like… In an alley area. Somebody in our crew got into it with somebody in the audience and they became a little messy outside. We were wild back then. We were always down to fight or getting into shootings and all that stuff. We were very ignorant, but with M.O.P on your side, you’re good. 

The venue was so hot that Billy [Danze] took off his pants and was literally in his boxers… I got the footage! No shirt, just boxers, and socks. It was packed. Super packed. Really rowdy crowd. We had never been to Providence. It was a dope show.

The tour was a month long, but we only did two shows with Nas. His manager happened to be LL Cool J’s manager at the time. You know, LL was so huge. LL has been huge since day one, but all Nas had was Illmatic at the time. He had never toured. I remember LL’s manager said, “Nas is a little too big to be on this tour. You either give him more money or he’s going to be off the tour.”

We’re a small tour, but it's a good tour for Nas to be on because the line up was great. Jeru’s album was already out with The Sun Rises in the East. It was super popping. Hard To Earn is out, Illmatic is popping, and To the Death was popping as well. We thought it was a good place for him to be. 

They still thought Nas was too big and took him off the tour after two shows. We don’t blame Nas, though. We know how management is. We’re not mad at LL either. It had nothing to do with them. I forget the [name of the] guy who was handling them at the time, but Nas was made to hop off after the second show. He did Providence and Boston.

The tour was still strong. With M.O.P opening up, Jeru with a strong album, and then us… It was perfect.

On Fans Cyphering with Guru

It was so much fun, man. People would follow us to our hotel after the show wanting to just rap. “Just hear me rap real quick!” they would say. In different cities, people always knew where we were staying and would follow us to the hotels. Lobbies full of people. They would look like how hotel lobbies do when conventions are in town, like SXSW, but full of fans. I would just go to my room, but Guru would always love to hear anybody that could rhyme because he wanted to cypher and kick freestyles of his own.

I had one of the best times in my life during our stop at Toledo, Ohio. Connecticut is very very very very rowdy hip-hop. I was very surprised. All east coast, D.C., and Baltimore were always tight. California was always huge for us, all the time. The Bay going into San Francisco doing like the Fillmore and stuff like that, always huge.

On “Aiiight Chill…” and the Difference Between Hip-Hop Heads and Rap Reviewers

We used to read all the reviews, and a lot of the reviewers showed me they weren’t really hip-hop because they would say, “Premier wasted space doing a corny track called ‘Aiight Chill…’ with people leaving messages.” And I’m like, “Yo, you didn’t get it!?” 

First of all, shoutout my homie Big Rob Santos because he was the one who inspired me. He used to always call my house: “It’s Rob, yo! Yo, yo it’s Rob!” on my answering machine. Everybody had answering machines in their houses before cell phones were at the level they are now. “Yo, it’s Rob, yo, beep me. Aiiight chill.” He would say it just like that every time. He would do it, and if you heard him on your house phone, you would pick up and say, “Aiiight chill.” 

So I was like, I’m going to get everybody I know to call and leave a message and say “Aiiight chill” at the end. They said it was wasted space. No, that was being creative and not doing what everybody else does. That means you’re not a true hip-hop head, you’re a reviewer. There’s a difference. Reviewers let you know they aren’t in the same spots we’re at, and that they totally got it all wrong.

If you haven’t seen it, check out the 2015 documentary Rubble Kings. It’s all about the New York gangs. It’s well documented. The guy who actually did the documentary is a guy named Shan Nicholson and Shan told me a story. 

I thought I was meeting him for the first time, but he said, “Yo, you know I met you a long time ago when I was a teenager.” I’m like, “Word!?” He said, “You were at Chung King Studios and you were going to master Nas’ album Illmatic. You were coming to pick up the DAT files for ‘Life’s A Bitch’." That was the last song done on the album. The very last song recorded.

I went there and met AZ, I met Nas’ father because he played the horn on the song. Shan was just an intern, then. Now he’s a big name after doing Rubble Kings. Long story short, when I was walking out, I said, “Oh Nas, don’t forget, whatever you do, make sure when you hang up you say, ‘Aiiight chill’.” Shan was like, “What does that mean?” That was really Nas calling from that session with Large Professor there. 

Shan told me, only after hearing the album, did he know what Premier meant walking out the door. 

On How Hard to Earn Got Its Title 

Guru said, “I’m always naming the albums, it’s your turn.” I don’t like to leave all that up to me, I would like to leave it to Guru because he’s very creative with titles and names. He used to give me a lot of scratch ideas. He was good like that. Guru was a great A&R, he always knew which motherfuckers were dope. He would always be right when he asked me to check out this dude or this chick. 

I had a few titles in mind, but Hard to Earn is how I felt that success is. I feel like it's a real, true success when you’re passionate about it, it’s hard to earn. You got to really bust your ass to earn the rewards of it. That’s just what came to my mind. 

I felt we were successful in 1994. We didn’t have the sales, but he would say we had the popularity. That’s what we always struggled with: popularity versus sales. But Guru would always say, “We get platinum respect.” We did. People treated us like we were platinum artists. People thought we were living in mansions, but we were staying in a brownstone. 

So I called Guru and asked, “Yo, what do you think of, Hard to Earn?” He was like, “I love it. You’re naming the next album.” Then, he was going through his case, facing a five year jail time and we felt it was his Moment of Truth. Guru was either going to jail for five years or getting out. We even did the artwork in a courthouse so it matched the reality of what he was really going through. 

On What Advice He Learned in 1994 He'd Give an Artist in 2019

I would tell new artists today the same thing Guru used to tell kids. He always said, “Compare yourself to everybody you like that’s in your line of work and then figure out how you can fit in without copying everything they do, but taking little pieces and creating your own lane.” 

This way the people you want to be appreciated by will respect you and keep an eye out on you because you’re doing it right. And that’s really how we still approach things to this day. 

By Yoh, aka, Yoh Starr aka @Yoh31

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