DJ Premier is renowned as one of hip-hop's nice guys — and one of its greatest producers. The rap bible the Source ranked him the third-greatest of all time; readers of the influential Vibe magazine voted him at No. 2 — second only to Dr. Dre. The long list of artists Premier has collaborated with confirms his heavyweight status: it includes the Notorious BIG, Ice-T, KRS-One, Nas, Big Daddy Kane, D'Angelo, Janet Jackson, Jay-Z, Rakim, Mos Def, Snoop Dogg, Mark Ronson and Christina Aguilera, among many more. Premier often uses his renowned DJ skills in his productions, scratching words from different songs in rapid succession to form new phrases and choruses. But he is best known as one half of Gang Starr, the East Coast duo renowned for superior wordplay, hardcore beats and judicious sampling of jazz, funk and soul classics. In 2016 they received an unexpected tribute from the TV writer and producer Cheo Hodari Coker, when he named each episode of Marvel's Netflix series Luke Cage after a Gang Starr song. "All the titles reflect on the character in an interesting way," Coker told Hip Hop DX. "But at the same time, it's a great playlist!"
The Other Chris Martin
Christopher Edward Martin was born on March 21, 1966 in Houston, Texas, and raised 45 miles away in the modestly sized city of Prairie View. He has two older sisters — rock and soul fans respectively, who each contributed to his eclectic musical education, which encompassed everything from AC/DC to James Brown. His parents were both teachers, and his maternal grandfather, a jazz musician, lived in Brooklyn, New York, so young Martin visited regularly as a child and fell in love with the city's vibrant hustle. "By the time I was 13, I said, 'I'm going to move here," Martin told the Red Bull Music Academy in a 2007 interview. "But it wasn't because of hip hop yet. I wanted to live here, period."
Moving to New York, the Formation of Gang Starr with Guru
Martin did gain his first exposure to hip hop in New York when he saw breakdancers, including the legendary Rocksteady Crew in Times Square — before eventually hearing his first proper rap record, Rapper's Delight, in 1979. But it was only when the movie Wild Style came out in 1983 that Martin came to view hip hop as a viable profession. It came to dominate his life as an undergraduate at Prairie View A&M University, where he began honing his skills as a party DJ and formed his first group, MCs In Control. In 1985 he dropped out of school altogether and relocated to Brooklyn — a move that went down badly with his father, who was the university's dean of arts and sciences.
In New York, Martin found work as a counselor for young people. He kept honing his musical skills, initially working with his friend from Texas, MC Topski, who had also moved to the Big Apple. Martin eventually came to the attention of Stuart Fine, founder of the independent label Wild Pitch, who introduced him to the Boston-born rapper Guru, aka Keith Elam, a business graduate and the founder of the hip hop act Gang Starr. After releasing three little-acclaimed singles, Gang Starr's other members had all moved on, and so in 1988 Guru invited Martin — then known as Waxmaster C before changing his recording name to DJ Premier — to join. With Martin's hitherto musical partner Topski joining the Navy, the path was clear.
The Demo Album: 'No More Mr. Nice Guy'
Gang Starr released their first album as a duo, No More Mr. Nice Guy, the following year. It peaked at No. 83 on the Billboard rap chart. Premier has described it at his "resumé album," on which he and the more experienced Guru learnt to work together — it was Martin's first time in a professional studio. The album turned heads in the hip-hop community, but money remained tight: Wild Pitch had no budget for advances. Premier told the hip-hop journalist Brian Coleman that he and Guru, by now flatmates in the Bronx, survived on a diet of bread and cookies: "The cookies would give me energy to keep going, the bread would keep my body from being frail."
'Jazz Thing' & Spike Lee
Gang Starr's debut album contained the jazz-sampling single "Words I Manifest," as well as "Jazz Thing," a tribute to Martin's grandfather. The latter caught the ear of the film director Spike Lee, who asked them to contribute to the soundtrack of his 1990 film, Mo' Better Blues, which starred the young Denzel Washington as a struggling trumpet player. Gang Starr stepped up with an instant classic, "Jazz Thing," which sampled jazz greats including Louis Armstrong and Thelonious Monk.
The resultant buzz led to a deal with the EMI subsidiary Chrysalis Records, which eventually worked out well for both sides, although Chrysalis initially expected more "jazz rap" records, but "most of what we do in Gang Starr is straight, raw hip hop," Premier told Coleman in 2001.
The 'Moment of Truth'
Raw, thrilling, but still sometimes jazz-tinged hip hop was the sound of Gang Starr's sophomore album, Step in the Arena, in 1991. They continued to release acclaimed albums through the 1990s, with Daily Operation (1992), Hard to Earn (1994) and Moment of Truth (1998) — their rise through that decade was gradual rather than meteoric, but with Moment of Truth they finally cracked the Billboard 200 Top 10, peaking at No. 6. As the decade wore on, Premier's confidence as a producer soared. By 1993, his attitude was: "Bring on any artist, I'll take any artist and turn them into a hot record." He produced three songs on Nas' seminal album Illmatic in 1994, including the all-time classic "New York State of Mind," and three more on Jay Z's debut album, Reasonable Doubt, in 1996. By the end of the decade he had worked with everyone from Janet Jackson to Limp Bizkit — and he has been prolific ever since.
Gang Starr's sixth and final studio album, The Ownerz, came out in 2003, peaking at No. 18 on the Billboard chart. A formal split was never announced, but Premier later revealed in a Vibe magazine interview that the last time he heard from Guru was by email in 2004 — according to Premier, Guru's drinking had created distance between them. Sadly, they were never reconciled; Guru died from cancer in April 2010.
Hard at Work: From Producer to Touring Musician
DJ Premier remains in New York, the city that captured his heart as a teenager — he relocated his studio from Manhattan to Queens in 2015. He runs his own label, Year Round Records, and is highly active as a producer; an album with Nas is rumored to be in the pipeline. In 2015 he formed a five-piece touring band, Premier & the BADDER Band, featuring Brady Watt (bass), Lenny Reece (drums), Takuya Kuroda (horns/keys), Mark Williams (trombone/keys) and Premier himself (turntables/mixer/laptop). His work with Guru forms the backbone of the new band's semi-improvised shows — as Premier told the Source in April 2017: "I miss that dude so much, and we have a long and undeniable track record."
(Profile photo of DJ Premier by Ray Tamarra/Getty Images)
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