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 possiblyÂ more creditable than ChristopherÂ Edward Martin’s long careerÂ is his ability to stay “in tune”Â with everything, all the time. DJÂ Premier, as he’s better known since he startedÂ out in the Eighties, doesn’t shy away fromÂ describing how he’s always up to speed withÂ most things, including the constant call of socialÂ media: “I check the blogs, I keep up withÂ my Twitter, I keep my Instagram up to date”¦Â and I post myself,” he emphasizes. It includesÂ “studying and keeping up with the youngerÂ generation”””“I know who Fetty Wap is, IÂ know who Future is, I know who Drake is, IÂ know who J-Cole is”¦” he rattles off. It also involvesÂ embracing music outside his hip-hopÂ haven, as with the move to found TTT, a labelÂ division for alternative music under his existingÂ Year Round Records.
But seemingly, Martin holds an ultimateÂ integrity to his Brooklyn based roots againstÂ the quickly changing musical landscape.Â “You have a lot of artists that’ll start makingÂ records”¦ because they want to be relevant toÂ the young kids… But you still gotta do it yourÂ own way, and I do that,” says Martin over theÂ phone from New York.
And if he speaks like an old soul whenÂ he discusses how things were “in his twenties,”Â it’s simply because Martin, nowÂ 50, has more than three decades of experienceÂ to back up his tongue-in-cheekÂ confidence. Starting off in 1989 with influentialÂ hip-hop duo Gang Starr (alongsideÂ late MC Guru), he quickly grew to becomeÂ one of the pioneering DJ/producers ofÂ American hip-hop. Whether it was the moveÂ to sample jazz””Gang Starr’s 1989 debut NoÂ More Mr. Nice Guy is a prime example””at aÂ time when soul and funk beats were the gospelÂ truth, or being the go-to producer for everyoneÂ from Snoop Dogg to Jay-Z to Ludacris,Â Martin has done it all.
He has furthered his legacy by branchingÂ out to experiment with an unlikely choiceÂ of pop rebels such as Christina Aguilera andÂ California-based vocalist Torii Wolf. SaysÂ Martin, who will make his India debut nextÂ month at the Pune edition of Bacardi NH7Â Weekender, “I love the fact that I can actuallyÂ take advantage of the industry becauseÂ my audience already knows what I do andÂ they already expect more from me than whatÂ I do. So all I do is update my formula.” In anÂ interview with ROLLING STONE India, heÂ discusses his multiple upcoming collaborations,Â bringing the party to India, and keepingÂ his “head up, eyes and ears open” in theÂ face of racism.
India has actually had a growing hip-hopÂ movement in the past year or so. We’veÂ had artists stepping out and performing inÂ places like the UK, as well a lot happeningÂ locally. Have you heard anything comingÂ out of the country?
Not as far as Indian hip-hop or artistsÂ from your country, but usually when I get toÂ a country that I haven’t been to [before], theÂ promoters and fans give me CDs or flashdrivesÂ of people that are popular or they thinkÂ I need to listen to. And I always listen to it. WeÂ don’t just take it and throw it in the garbage,Â we listen to it even if it’s not in our language.Â That’s the only time it’s a little tough””whenÂ it’s not in English. Because when it comes toÂ rap, slang and everything has to be translatedÂ in a certain way. We have French rappersÂ rapping in French and we don’t know whatÂ they’re saying but it sounds aggressive andÂ raw and with attitude”¦ But”¦ if it’s in EnglishÂ and I like it””I give it an opportunity toÂ spread it around to my friends. And I do aÂ radio show in New York every Friday calledÂ Live From HeadQCourtez”¦ so we only bringÂ brand new hip hop that is””from my perspective””Â what I think listeners need to hear.
You recently played a few shows withÂ Torii Wolf in Japan and produced herÂ entire album Flow Riiot. How did theÂ collaboration come about?
My manager Ian Schwartzman, he’s beenÂ telling me about her for at least two yearsÂ prior to working with her”¦ I was not fully interestedÂ at the time because I had other recordingsÂ and albums that I was working on.Â I liked her voice”¦ it kinda reminded me of aÂ BjÃ¶rk type of sound. But I still felt she neededÂ something… And then a legendary producerÂ that I was mentored by””he goes by the nameÂ King of Chill”¦ So he sends me three songsÂ with his production to it and I was like “Wow!Â I’ve never heard her over hip-hop beats, I likeÂ this!””¦ And we went into the studio, I didÂ everything from scratch”¦As the vibe startedÂ going I was like “You know what, let’s justÂ keep going and do a whole album” and weÂ ended up doing an entire album… Now she’sÂ part of our team.
I have an independent record label calledÂ Year Round Records, I released some musicÂ back in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011. And nowÂ I’m about to release an album by an artistÂ called MC Eiht who’s from the West Coast,Â he used to be in a group called Compton’sÂ Most Wanted. We’re doing a collab projectÂ called Which Way is West”¦Â And then I haveÂ a group that’s part of the Gang Starr FoundationÂ Family called the NYGs, they’re doingÂ an album that’s fully produced by me. AndÂ then me and Ian started a new division of myÂ label for alternative style of music like ToriiÂ it’s called TTT which stands for To The Top.
What do you look out for when you decideÂ to take up collaborations or pick musicÂ to produce? Has it changed over the years?
Even though the music has changed, I stillÂ have to do the same approach that has workedÂ for me in my career, because I already have aÂ fan base which was built back in 1989. WithÂ the Internet and social media, I love the factÂ that I can actually take advantage of the industryÂ because my audience already knowsÂ what I do and they already expect more fromÂ me than what I do. So all I do is update myÂ formula. That’s what me and Guru””GodÂ bless his soul””always said we do when itÂ comes to how we do music with Gang Starr””
we update our formula. It’s almost like you getÂ 2.0 and then next year you get 3.0 and thenÂ 4.0 and then 5.0; I’m on one-million-point-ohÂ right now!
It’s been a little over a year since the releaseÂ of “Animals,” but many of the issuesÂ addressed in that track””like police brutalityÂ for instance””have persisted and ifÂ anything, gotten worse. What’s your takeÂ on that?
Yeah man, I mean, for me being a blackÂ man, I was raised by my family to learn howÂ to move in this country because of the factÂ that there’s so much discrimination againstÂ black people, still. We’re supposed to haveÂ equality on this planet”¦ Even with the constitutionÂ we have, with the government putÂ out there, our rights are always ignored. WeÂ come from an era where if you were a black,Â you couldn’t vote, if you were a woman, youÂ couldn’t vote. And then those rights finallyÂ went through and once those rights wentÂ through, we were still being violated of ourÂ rights from police and from government issues”¦Â I’m not a political guy, I just know whatÂ my rights are. So when it comes to that I makeÂ sure that I know all what I can and can’t do…Â Especially in the United States, because thisÂ is where I was born and raised… I know whenÂ I don’t have to open my carÂ door and when I do have to,Â to let the police in if they haveÂ a problem with me.
“I was raised byÂ my family to learnÂ how to move inÂ this countryÂ because there’sÂ so muchÂ discriminationÂ against blackÂ people, still.”
I’m 50 years old now, I’mÂ still a target””just beingÂ black you’re a target… OneÂ of my best friends KennethÂ Walker””we used to call himÂ ”˜HeadQCouterz’””he’s passedÂ away; he used to always sayÂ that, he’d say “Hey man, talkÂ to you later, head up, eyesÂ and ears open.” I carry thatÂ same attitude everywhere IÂ go, I stay focused I make sure I don’t do anythingÂ that causes the police to even harassÂ me, even though I know it can happen. BecauseÂ I’ve been harassed by police for nonsenseÂ before”¦ And I have a black son so I haveÂ to make sure he’s also smart and when heÂ gets to that age of being a teenager, he doesn’tÂ do anything that causes him to be in dangerÂ with the police””or anybody for that matterÂ who’s racist.
There’s always a lot of talk about howÂ hip-hop has, far from its roots, becomeÂ overly sexualized and materialistic overÂ the years. Considering you’ve been aroundÂ for a large part of its evolution through theÂ years, do you think that’s true?
There’s always been the sex and the violenceÂ and all that in hip-hop because it’s aÂ reflection of where the music comes from,Â which is from the streets. Hip-hop came fromÂ the ghetto and all the tough times. Some peopleÂ like to address the hard times of living inÂ the ghetto and some people like to escape allÂ of that stuff and just say, “Let’s have a goodÂ time, I wanna see some girls shaking their assÂ in the club,” or “Let’s go to the strip club, haveÂ some fun and not think about all the pressuresÂ of life.” But the only difference is I don’tÂ wanna hear that party music all day becauseÂ there’s other things we need to tackle duringÂ the course of the day. There’s a time and placeÂ for it. I like strip clubs, I like wild women andÂ everything but at the same time, I also like toÂ touch on something that’s dear to me, whichÂ is human life.
The style of stuff that’s out now, it’s a littleÂ dumbed down compared to how we wereÂ when we were in our twenties, but let themÂ do it. That’s their lane, I’m going to stick withÂ what works for me. You have a lot of artistsÂ that’ll start making records like that becauseÂ they want to be relevant to the young kids, butÂ the young kids respect when you do your ownÂ thing. But I still study and keep up with theÂ younger generation. I know who Fetty Wap is,Â I know who Future is, I know who Drake is, IÂ know who J-Cole is… But you still gotta do itÂ your own way, and I do that.
You’ve been producing and makingÂ music, touring and performing for over 30Â years now. How do you keep things interestingÂ at shows and avoid the monotony?
You just have to stay ahead of it, you haveÂ to study. You gotta keep yourÂ eye on all the things that’s inÂ your industry… That’s how IÂ came into the music industry.Â I was unique with usingÂ jazz samples where everybodyÂ else was using funk andÂ soul. It became a style thatÂ gave birth to more producersÂ using jazz and things likeÂ that, because I wanted peopleÂ to recognize me for beingÂ different. And that comesÂ from you not being afraid toÂ take risks and doing somethingÂ that’s different but still within the vibeÂ of what makes you a great artist or producer”¦
But, for me, I just make sure I stay in tuneÂ with everything. I check the blogs, I keep upÂ with my Twitter, I keep my Instagram up toÂ date and I do it. I don’t have a secretary orÂ assistant”¦ I post myself. I want you to knowÂ it’s me from just the way I write it, the wayÂ I text it, from what I post. I want you to beÂ able to tell, “Yea this is really Premier talkingÂ to me.” And that’s the beauty of socialÂ media. And you got to again choose your battles.Â Sometimes somebody might say somethingÂ like, “Man I don’t like your new music”Â or “You’re not hot like you used to be.” That’sÂ fine, I’m still going to keep on doing what IÂ do”¦ Either way it doesn’t matter to me. I’mÂ going to stay focused on doing it the way IÂ like, and one of the things that helps me is theÂ fact that I’m a DJ. When you’re a DJ you haveÂ a whole different perspective, because we’reÂ the ones that are supposed to set the tone ofÂ the music.”
Listen to Torii Wolf’s “Shadows Crawl” feat. DJ Premier below: