When DJ Premier talks about his old partner, it's always in the present tense. "Guru knows it's gonna be good," he says with excitement about the new Gang Starr album One of the Best Yet, out today. It's the first album by the vaunted hip-hop duo in 16 years — and the first since the rapping half of the group died from cancer in April 2010. But listening to it, Guru feels alive and well, offering bar after bar about the state of hip-hop in 2019.
From the late '80s to early 2000s, the duo of Guru and Premier went on the sort of mythical run that most artists only dream of, putting out six albums of which at least half are hip-hop canon and the rest are dotted with gems. Gang Starr became emblematic of the formalist sound and ethos of golden-age rap in New York City: grimy samples, stone-faced rapping, knotty rhyme schemes, all bound together by a reverence for the pioneers of the genre. Even as the two pursued solo ventures — Guru with his jazz-rap Jazzmatazz series, Premier through production work for Nas, Jay-Z and other ascendant rappers of the time -- they stressed that these were creative release valves, and upheld their bond as Gang Starr.
But that bond seemed to end after the release of 2003's The Ownerz, when tension between the two reached a breaking point. Guru and Premier had squabbled over many things (money and Guru's drinking problem, most notably) for years, and Premier had threatened to leave the group at least once before. March 30, 2004 was the last time they spoke, though they never officially ended their contract as Gang Starr.
Now, after a decade-long legal battle to secure Guru's unreleased vocal recordings from another producer, Premier says he's finally ready to continue the group's legacy. And thankfully, the Gang Starr album he's assembled sounds like a Gang Starr album, rather than the patchwork politicking of label bosses, A&Rs and marketing executives. The producer says he spent 18 months holed up in his studio in New York, meticulously matching new samples, melodies and drums to vocals recorded by Guru in the 2000s. Guest artists Big Shug, Jeru the Damaja, and Group Home were handpicked from the duo's old extended universe of collaborators.
The result is a nostalgic, airtight record bolstered by Guru's still-incredible rapping, which serves as a coda to Gang Starr's complex but undeniable legacy. DJ Premier spoke with NPR about what it took for One of the Best Yet to see the light of day.
Mano Sundaresan: How does it feel putting this album out? Did you feel a lot of pressure to get it right?
DJ Premier: No, my approach is always gonna be as excellent as I can get it. I think DJs have the best ear for knowing when [music is] ready to get played and put out to the public, and that's my experience with albums out of our stable, including all of our Gang Starr albums. [Now,] I didn't have him here to sit in the room with me and be laughing and going, "Oh man this is dope, hear this rhyme I wrote." The rhymes are already there. and I gotta make this music sound like he wrote it to my beat. That's never been done in our whole career. Everything we've done, he came in and wrote to my track. Now the track had to write to his lyrics.
I used to pray before I'd do the sessions. I'd take the white sage incense, take his ashes, and let the smoke billow around the bag of his ashes. Then I'd kiss the bag and twirl the incense around three times clockwise and counterclockwise, longitude and latitude. I'd do the same thing with this picture we have on the console, and I just let the smoke from the incense billow into our faces almost like we're about to burn — but it's not even a burning thing, it's just the smoke creates this atmosphere, almost like a witch doctor. It's just my own thing that I came up with to bless the room ... and then we get right to work.
And you're someone who never comes in with beat packs prepared. You would cook up in the studio while he was writing.
That's what I still do with everybody. I don't have a ton of beats to play and you pick one. It's like putting an order in at a restaurant, and when I bring you that plate, you look at it and go, "Damn this looks good," and you eat it.
Tell me about the first days of working on these songs, before you knew this would be a full album.
"Bless the Mic" was the first one I did. I was nervous — like, "Damn, man, we haven't done anything since early '05, late '04." And then boom, next thing you know, "Bless the Mic" set the tone. The very next day I did "Bad Name," and it sounded nothing like "Bless The Mic." Like, "Bless the Mic" is mellow and laid back, very jazzy. "Bad Name" is just that head-nod, traditional loop over a breakbeat, chopped up, and it sounds like the way I do my thing. The third song was "Family Loyalty," and when I did that one I'm like, "Damn, man, that's dope too." So those three helped me get into gear.
Once I got into gear with those, then I was like, let me let the family know: I wanna do a Gang Starr album with all these vocals, and I want their blessing. And they were like, "Absolutely, do your thing." I got the support of his sister, who's very close to his son's mother, who he's very close to, and his son and his nephew, who he's also very close to. So with all of that being said, it was dope that they was like, "Man, just do it, can't wait to hear it." That was the type of energy they gave me, 'cause they know it's in good hands if I'm gonna put my touch to it and bring back the energy of what everybody, including myself, wanna hear from Guru.
What made you want to do this?
S***, he's been gone nine years. I been wanting to do this since the day he passed. When everything aligned and it was time, just go for it and start making moves and see if you can make it happen, and once you get into that groove, there's no turning back: Just keep going forward, make another song.
Were you worried about people calling this a "legacy" album?
Nah. The fans know that I always stay focused on delivering what they want from us — that part was easy and automatic. To get started ... that took a minute. But again, after I got three songs deep, I'm not even worried about, "Oh man, a comeback album, this is our last one ever, our farewell, final chapter." None of that s*** computes with me. It's just the fans that know, it's still designed the way you like it. Like coming out with a new 2020 Cadillac Seville: You like the '77 one, the humpback, but there's also this new one. [It's] half humpback, half old back, but s*** looks amazing.
How many vocal tracks did you have to work with?
Quite a few. [Note: According to the New York Times, it was 30] Some just weren't working; some did sound dated. I didn't have to second guess — it was just one or two listens, I'm like, "Ehh, I'm not feeling this." Because I know him, and I know how he and I recorded heat, so if it didn't sound like the level of heat that he and I always do, from all of our traditional albums, I was already off of it. Maybe I could use them for something that was down the line, but as far as what I was looking to get out of the sound of the album, sounding like a full Gang Starr album, I was like, "This one don't work, this one don't work, nice verse, but it don't work."
Once you decided which verses to use, how did you decide what to build around them?
I've done lots of remixes. I did a Das EFX remix that was so big that P. Diddy was like, "Yo I need that." ["My Way" by] Limp Bizkit was a remix and it became a hit. The Nike joint "Classic" with Kanye, Nas, KRS-One, that was a remix — Rick Rubin did the original, and his was a double-time tempo; mine was a regular boom-bap tempo, and they liked it so much that we ended up doing the video to it. That was taking vocals and having to match samples to the vocals. Same thing with Guru. The only thing is it's just me and Guru and decisions are made by us. He knows that I know how to make those decisions on his behalf, and the result's gonna come out whether he's physically here or not.
When you have a deep focus, you can't go wrong at all. Not when you're an expert at what you do. And I don't walk around acting like I'm an expert: It's just a fact that I believe in about myself, 'cause I knew what it took for me to come to New York, to earn respect from all my peers. All of that happened without any money being crossed. And when we were getting love from all of our peers, I felt like I was a millionaire. I had $100 in my pocket and can't pay rent, and I still was like, "S***... I'm that dude. We made it." ... And the money started to slowly but surely come through, and we became financially stable for the rest of our lives. Guru didn't die broke.
Do you think Guru would have been proud of this release?
Oh yeah. Guru knows I'm a total, total junkie for what I do. Junkies are deeper into the drugs than occasional drug users. And I'm a hip-hop junkie, so the drugs that I inject into my body to enjoy that high, I supply them just like he supplies them. Together we bring the best dope.
Is he the type who trusted you with your aesthetic choices?
All the time. After his vocals were cut and he knows I like 'em, he's not even coming back. He's like, "Yo, do your thing." He knows it's gonna be straight when it's all done.
You guys had your own squabbles, but it was never about the music.
You could have hung it up decades ago. What keeps you going?
I'm passionate about music in general, not just hip-hop. But when it comes to hip-hop, I don't wanna see it die culturally. And again, the style I did brought me so much success, so I don't wanna leave that style when my biggest success came from that and still comes from that. That's why I stick to the script of what works for me. The other styles don't work for me. That's why I let them do it. I do the style that I know I'm guaranteed to knock s*** down.
Do you feel like you're preserving a dying art form?
Damn right. That's a fo sho right now. But again, I'm culture-based. I'm not just a fan — I'm in, culturally. ... It's a spiritual God, and I will not go against God, ever. When you do, the punishment comes. I've been doing this successfully: I've had houses, cars, women, jewelry, money money money, doing it the way that I traditionally think is right, based off my upbringing and the pioneers that showed me how to do it. When you don't respect pioneers of something, there's no way you're gonna last long. You may last longer than expected, but your career will be shortened if you don't give the pioneers any type of respect when they're the ones that opened the door for you. You won't last — you'll be gone. And I'll be here at 70 going, "Man I just made a new beat, come check it out. All right, hit that button!" And when that button hits, that s***'s gon' knock.
Was Guru's son around while you were making this album?
Yeah, he was there for a lot of it — just there, period. I been hanging with his son for the last nine years since he passed. I made sure he had money to go to private school. He graduated, he got a scholarship to go to college; he's really into fashion, he doesn't want to be a rapper or anything like that. I knew him since he was a baby, so a lot of his existence makes me feel great, 'cause I can live through his energy just by looking at him. He looks just like his father — his face, lips, jawbone, smile, mannerisms are very much like his father. ... Him hearing his father's voice, it was just dope to be excited about. He was like, "Wow man, this s*** sounds amazing." I was so happy to see the look on his face as he's loving it.