DJ Premier on the Music That Made Him

Walking into DJ Premier’s studio compound is like embarking on a tour through music history. His career as one of rap’s greatest-ever producers and DJs began in 1989, when he and the late rapper Guru joined forces as Gang Starr to drop their debut album No More Mr. Nice Guy and helped to architect the sample-based sound of New York hip-hop in the ’90s. Several Gang Starr portraits adorn the studio walls, alongside a panoramic shot of Premier and Christina Aguilera sitting at a mixing board for a 2006 Vibe profile, and several RIAA plaques: one for JAY-Z’s Reasonable Doubt, for which Premier produced the songs “D’Evils” and “Bring It On”; another for Rage Against the Machine’s The Battle of Los Angeles, which the band gave Premier after a 1999 tour with Gang Starr.

Stacks of vintage records litter every corner of the cramped control room. Premier’s desktop wallpaper is a photo of him with Alchemist, J Dilla, and D’Angelo. Even his mousepad is a replica of a Marvin Gaye album. Premier himself is sitting at his massive soundboard and munching on a bag of SkinnyPop popcorn while songs from Hip Hop 50, Vol. 1—the first in a series of producer-led EPs spearheaded by Mass Appeal to commemorate the upcoming 50th birthday of hip-hop culture—boom through the speakers. It’s a Real Hip-Hop fantasy moment that only an errant Funk Flex bomb could make more authentic.

Born Christopher Edward Martin in Houston, TX in 1966, Premier had an avid record collector for a mother. She was extremely strict about how he handled her precious wax. “She was the one who was like, ‘If I see that you touched the record from the top, I’m gonna whoop your ass,’” he says. “‘Always hold it from the sides.’”

Premier cut his teeth sampling and scratching records for Gang Starr albums, turning the soul and funk albums of his youth into the dusty, rough-edged sound of classic ’90s hip-hop tracks like “Mass Appeal.”  From there, he would produce some of New York rap’s defining records, for the likes of Nas, the Notorious B.I.G., JAY-Z, and M.O.P., and eventually bring his hard-nosed beats to artists as far flung as Christina Aguilera and Limp Bizkit.  Even his missed connections have major implications for music history. He recalls a visit years ago from a pre-fame Travis Scott, the son of a childhood friend from Houston: “He was trying to get me to sign him at a time when the music he was making just wasn’t in my lane. He came to my parents’ house and sat with me, back when Nokia flip phones were a thing. He was sneaking pictures and his aunt is telling him to stop taking pictures. I was like “You know what? Kanye might be into what you’re doing right now. I called to co-sign him, like ‘Yo, he’s got something.’ Next thing you know, he’s signing with Ye.”