DJ Premier Set for India Debut This Week
Ahead of his India debut, the veteran music producer talks “updating his formula,” racial discrimination in America and how he’s acing social media
The only thing that’s possibly more creditable than Christopher Edward Martin’s long career is his ability to stay “in tune” with everything, all the time. DJ Premier, as he’s better known since he started out in the Eighties, doesn’t shy away from describing how he’s always up to speed with most things, including the constant call of social media: “I check the blogs, I keep up with my Twitter, I keep my Instagram up to date… and I post myself,” he emphasizes. It includes “studying and keeping up with the younger generation”—“I know who Fetty Wap is, I know who Future is, I know who Drake is, I know who J-Cole is…” he rattles off. It also involves embracing music outside his hip-hop haven, as with the move to found TTT, a label division for alternative music under his existing Year Round Records.
But seemingly, Martin holds an ultimate integrity to his Brooklyn based roots against the quickly changing musical landscape. “You have a lot of artists that’ll start making records… because they want to be relevant to the young kids… But you still gotta do it your own way, and I do that,” says Martin over the phone from New York.
And if he speaks like an old soul when he discusses how things were “in his twenties,” it’s simply because Martin, now 50, has more than three decades of experience to back up his tongue-in-cheek confidence. Starting off in 1989 with influential hip-hop duo Gang Starr (alongside late MC Guru), he quickly grew to become one of the pioneering DJ/producers of American hip-hop. Whether it was the move to sample jazz—Gang Starr’s 1989 debut No More Mr. Nice Guy is a prime example—at a time when soul and funk beats were the gospel truth, or being the go-to producer for everyone from Snoop Dogg to Jay-Z to Ludacris, Martin has done it all.
He has furthered his legacy by branching out to experiment with an unlikely choice of pop rebels such as Christina Aguilera and California-based vocalist Torii Wolf. Says Martin, who will make his India debut next month at the Pune edition of Bacardi NH7 Weekender, “I love the fact that I can actually take advantage of the industry because my audience already knows what I do and they already expect more from me than what I do. So all I do is update my formula.” In an interview with ROLLING STONE India, he discusses his multiple upcoming collaborations, bringing the party to India, and keeping his “head up, eyes and ears open” in the face of racism.
India has actually had a growing hip-hop movement in the past year or so. We’ve had artists stepping out and performing in places like the UK, as well a lot happening locally. Have you heard anything coming out of the country?
Not as far as Indian hip-hop or artists from your country, but usually when I get to a country that I haven’t been to [before], the promoters and fans give me CDs or flashdrives of people that are popular or they think I need to listen to. And I always listen to it. We don’t just take it and throw it in the garbage, we listen to it even if it’s not in our language. That’s the only time it’s a little tough—when it’s not in English. Because when it comes to rap, slang and everything has to be translated in a certain way. We have French rappers rapping in French and we don’t know what they’re saying but it sounds aggressive and raw and with attitude… But… if it’s in English and I like it—I give it an opportunity to spread it around to my friends. And I do a radio show in New York every Friday called Live From HeadQCourtez… so we only bring brand new hip hop that is—from my perspective— what I think listeners need to hear.
You recently played a few shows with Torii Wolf in Japan and produced her entire album Flow Riiot. How did the collaboration come about?
My manager Ian Schwartzman, he’s been telling me about her for at least two years prior to working with her… I was not fully interested at the time because I had other recordings and albums that I was working on. I liked her voice… it kinda reminded me of a Björk type of sound. But I still felt she needed something… And then a legendary producer that I was mentored by—he goes by the name King of Chill… So he sends me three songs with his production to it and I was like “Wow! I’ve never heard her over hip-hop beats, I like this!”… And we went into the studio, I did everything from scratch…As the vibe started going I was like “You know what, let’s just keep going and do a whole album” and we ended up doing an entire album… Now she’s part of our team.
I have an independent record label called Year Round Records, I released some music back in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011. And now I’m about to release an album by an artist called MC Eiht who’s from the West Coast, he used to be in a group called Compton’s Most Wanted. We’re doing a collab project called Which Way is West… And then I have a group that’s part of the Gang Starr Foundation Family called the NYGs, they’re doing an album that’s fully produced by me. And then me and Ian started a new division of my label for alternative style of music like Torii it’s called TTT which stands for To The Top.
What do you look out for when you decide to take up collaborations or pick music to produce? Has it changed over the years?
Even though the music has changed, I still have to do the same approach that has worked for me in my career, because I already have a fan base which was built back in 1989. With the Internet and social media, I love the fact that I can actually take advantage of the industry because my audience already knows what I do and they already expect more from me than what I do. So all I do is update my formula. That’s what me and Guru—God bless his soul—always said we do when it comes to how we do music with Gang Starr—
we update our formula. It’s almost like you get 2.0 and then next year you get 3.0 and then 4.0 and then 5.0; I’m on one-million-point-oh right now!
It’s been a little over a year since the release of “Animals,” but many of the issues addressed in that track—like police brutality for instance—have persisted and if anything, gotten worse. What’s your take on that?
Yeah man, I mean, for me being a black man, I was raised by my family to learn how to move in this country because of the fact that there’s so much discrimination against black people, still. We’re supposed to have equality on this planet… Even with the constitution we have, with the government put out there, our rights are always ignored. We come from an era where if you were a black, you couldn’t vote, if you were a woman, you couldn’t vote. And then those rights finally went through and once those rights went through, we were still being violated of our rights from police and from government issues… I’m not a political guy, I just know what my rights are. So when it comes to that I make sure that I know all what I can and can’t do… Especially in the United States, because this is where I was born and raised… I know when I don’t have to open my car door and when I do have to, to let the police in if they have a problem with me.
“I was raised by my family to learn how to move in this country because there’s so much discrimination against black people, still.”
I’m 50 years old now, I’m still a target—just being black you’re a target… One of my best friends Kenneth Walker—we used to call him ‘HeadQCouterz’—he’s passed away; he used to always say that, he’d say “Hey man, talk to you later, head up, eyes and ears open.” I carry that same attitude everywhere I go, I stay focused I make sure I don’t do anything that causes the police to even harass me, even though I know it can happen. Because I’ve been harassed by police for nonsense before… And I have a black son so I have to make sure he’s also smart and when he gets to that age of being a teenager, he doesn’t do anything that causes him to be in danger with the police—or anybody for that matter who’s racist.
There’s always a lot of talk about how hip-hop has, far from its roots, become overly sexualized and materialistic over the years. Considering you’ve been around for a large part of its evolution through the years, do you think that’s true?
There’s always been the sex and the violence and all that in hip-hop because it’s a reflection of where the music comes from, which is from the streets. Hip-hop came from the ghetto and all the tough times. Some people like to address the hard times of living in the ghetto and some people like to escape all of that stuff and just say, “Let’s have a good time, I wanna see some girls shaking their ass in the club,” or “Let’s go to the strip club, have some fun and not think about all the pressures of life.” But the only difference is I don’t wanna hear that party music all day because there’s other things we need to tackle during the course of the day. There’s a time and place for it. I like strip clubs, I like wild women and everything but at the same time, I also like to touch on something that’s dear to me, which is human life.
The style of stuff that’s out now, it’s a little dumbed down compared to how we were when we were in our twenties, but let them do it. That’s their lane, I’m going to stick with what works for me. You have a lot of artists that’ll start making records like that because they want to be relevant to the young kids, but the young kids respect when you do your own thing. But I still study and keep up with the younger generation. I know who Fetty Wap is, I know who Future is, I know who Drake is, I know who J-Cole is… But you still gotta do it your own way, and I do that.
You’ve been producing and making music, touring and performing for over 30 years now. How do you keep things interesting at shows and avoid the monotony?
You just have to stay ahead of it, you have to study. You gotta keep your eye on all the things that’s in your industry… That’s how I came into the music industry. I was unique with using jazz samples where everybody else was using funk and soul. It became a style that gave birth to more producers using jazz and things like that, because I wanted people to recognize me for being different. And that comes from you not being afraid to take risks and doing something that’s different but still within the vibe of what makes you a great artist or producer…
But, for me, I just make sure I stay in tune with everything. I check the blogs, I keep up with my Twitter, I keep my Instagram up to date and I do it. I don’t have a secretary or assistant… I post myself. I want you to know it’s me from just the way I write it, the way I text it, from what I post. I want you to be able to tell, “Yea this is really Premier talking to me.” And that’s the beauty of social media. And you got to again choose your battles. Sometimes somebody might say something like, “Man I don’t like your new music” or “You’re not hot like you used to be.” That’s fine, I’m still going to keep on doing what I do… Either way it doesn’t matter to me. I’m going to stay focused on doing it the way I like, and one of the things that helps me is the fact that I’m a DJ. When you’re a DJ you have a whole different perspective, because we’re the ones that are supposed to set the tone of the music.”
Listen to Torii Wolf’s “Shadows Crawl” feat. DJ Premier below: