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Thursday, January 27, 2011

DJ Premier breaks down "Step in the Arena"

One of the most groundbreaking rap masterpieces of all time, DJ Premier's and the late, great Guru's second album as Gang Starr really set them apart  from the majority of hip hop artists and was the start of an incredible legacy. In celebration of the albums 20 year anniversary conducted this incredible interview with Preemo; an essential read for any fan of Gang Starr or its members. Below is an excerpt of the interview to give y'all a taste and at the bottom of the page is a direct link to the article.

HipHopDX: “Making you succumb to the drums of Gang Starr.” Why wasn’t “Check The Technique” a single?!
DJ Premier: It was a single. It was our third 12”. “Just To Get A Rep” was the first 12”. And then “Step In The Arena” was the second. “Check The Technique” was the third. And “Credit Is Due” was the B-side…

DX: Oh okay, I didn’t know that. I guess ‘cause there wasn’t a video I didn’t know there had been a single release… Those drums are only like three seconds of the original song you sampled, Marlena Shaw’s “California Soul”. So how did you make those drums come to life like that?
DJ Premier: Whenever I produce, I do it with a deejay mentality. When I say a deejay mentality, we pay very close attention to everything that comes out on a record. We dissect it. And in the Hip Hop format, when it comes to sampling, I’m always trying to find a way to be unique with my drum sounds, and the way I chop. Sometimes you just can’t get enough of the parts to make it whole. So that’s when you have to really brainstorm to force it. Sometimes I force things to work, and they just happen to come out. But that’s just me understanding the science of sampling and piecing together breaks. I loved those drum sounds and those claps in the Marlena Shaw record and I just said, “Hey, I’m gonna chop it.” Thanks to Showbiz and Large Professor, I learned how to chop samples. They taught me early on before I even was doing it – I used to just do straight loops.    

DX: So you would cite “Check The Technique” as the birth of Preemo the chop-master?  
DJ Premier: No, it’s not the first. But, it’s one of ‘em.

DX: Now, I learned from watching the joint interview you did with Pete Rock for y’all’s DJ Premier vs. Pete Rock DVD that “Just To Get A Rep” was the first real production you did entirely on your own. What happened between [Gang Starr’s first album in 1989] No More Mr. Nice Guy and Step In The Arena that led to you becoming the solo beatmaker for the group?  
DJ Premier: I wanted to be a solo beatmaker to begin with, but I wasn’t that nice yet. I was okay. I was just using the sounds that was actually in the drum machine back at that time. ‘Cause I didn’t know that sampling was what they were doing in order to get those old-sounding kind of drums, until I started hearing all this Marley Marl stuff. I was just amazed at how he was using all these James Brown samples, and using these drums – Like, [The Honey Drippers’] “Impeach The President,” which I knew the song as a kid, but I was like, “How’s he making those drums play in place of these pre-made kicks and snares that come with the drum machine?” I had no clue. And once I saw he was using the S950 Akai sampler, I was like, “I gotta get one of those!” I saved my money. And the legendary [Audio Two and MC Lyte producer] King Of Chill, who actually works for me to this day, taught me how to work it without even having the drum machine to control it yet. I just did it manually by hand. And then once I was able to save money to get the drum machine to trigger it, then I bought an Alesis drum machine. I was on the [E-mu SP-1200] and then I went to an Alesis drum machine.

I met my engineer, Eddie Sancho, at D&D [Studios] – that was my first time working there because of Showbiz, who took me there to lay scratches for a Lord Finesse remix for “Return Of The Funky Man.” We worked out of Studio A in D&D. And when I heard the mix in my car I was like, “Damn, this shit sounds dope! I’ma start working here now.” So I gotta give Showbiz a lot of credit… Prior to [D&D] I was at Calliope Studios. I was trying to get the sound, like I said, that Marley and all them was getting [from Calliope]. I didn’t know Marley personally, so I couldn’t get at him. I used to like the way the Jungle Brothers were mixing their records down, and De La Soul, and they were all working at Calliope. So being that the Straight Out The Jungle album was done there, and De La Soul did a lot of stuff there [for] 3 Feet High And Rising, I was like, “Yo, you know what? If I start doing beats on a better level maybe I can get it to sound like their records.” Without bitin’ of course, but still to get that raw, old drum sound.

And now that I had learned all these different techniques, I started practicing at my apartment - when me and Guru lived together in the Bronx. We had just moved to the Bronx. And that’s how I met Panchi from NYG’z. That’s how I met Malachi The Nutcracker from Group Home. That’s how I met Smiley The Ghetto Child. That’s how we all got cool, because I moved to the Bronx ‘cause Guru was going out with this girl who was subletting her apartment and we moved in: me, him and our dancer, H.L. Rock.

From there, Guru was saying that I have to do more than just deejay on the records and do scratches. He said, “Just scratching on the records is not enough to get [you] paid half the money.” So that’s when I was like, “Well what else I gotta do?” He said, “You gotta make the beats, by yourself.” And I was like, “Alright. Well let me start practicing.” So since we lived together, I used to just practice everyday – just looping on turntables the parts that I wanted. And I’d mark the records and set ‘em aside. Then when it came down to getting it crackin’ [for the Step In The Arena album], and we finally got a budget – ‘cause we had just left Wild Pitch Records [after No More Mr. Nice Guy] and got a budget with Chrysalis Records – I was able to now really, really work on my craft. And I started practicing more and more. Then I started making all these beats. “Step In The Arena” was the first one I made. “Who’s Gonna Take The Weight?” was the second one I made – I was cuttin’ that little horn whistle [from Maceo & The Macks’ “Parrty”] over and over with two copies. And I would just mark all this stuff down on a piece of paper and make it happen. Guru put his trust in me and said, “Yo, I like every beat. Let’s roll.”      

DX: And would you say there was a strategic sonic aim for the sophomore album, or was it just diggin’ and using whatever you unearthed at the time?

DJ Premier: Oh yeah, definitely, sonically it was the most important because I’m trying to get the sound that I like just as a fan [of the music] that these other artists are doing. When I heard [De La Soul’s] “Plug Tunin’” I’m like, “What the hell?!” And the echoes, and their vocal structure, and the way they were rhyming, they were being different. So I always wanted to be different. That’s the reason why I started using Jazz samples, ‘cause none of them were doing that. Everybody was James Brown, or rare [Funk and Soul] samples. But no one was really messing with Jazz samples, so I was like, “Well shit, these don’t even have singing and stuff on ‘em, it’s just an instrumental. I could rip all kinda things off of that.” I was just using Jazz samples ‘cause nobody else was. I wasn’t trying to create a new thing called Jazz Rap or something like that. I was just staying ahead of the curve, which is what my father always told me to do: be a leader and be different from everybody else. And that’s exactly what my whole mentality is now, and was back then.

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