DJ Premier Details the Inside Story on Working With Dr. Dre & Names His Top 5 Producers (Interview)
DJ Premier and Dr. Dre are widely considered to be two of Hip-Hip’s greatest producers of all-time. While the two have worked on the same projects occasionally over the last two decades, and maintained a friendship along the way, they had not had released a full collaboration, until now. The arrival of Dr. Dre’s Compton: The Soundtrack album, his first since 1999’s 2001 and said to be his last solo project, brought a song titled “Animals,” which featured Dre and Anderson .Paak on the vocals, and DJ Premier manning the track, behind the boards. The song is vintage Boom Bap Preemo production and Dre’s bombastic flow. To call the song historic would be an understatement. Instead, it is the answer to twenty years of “what if’s,” dating all the way back to a mythical Rakim project.
Last month, DJ Premier posted an instagram photo of himself and Dr. Dre in the studio together. The image created a frenzy of excitement and curiosity. What were the two cooking up together and how did this all happen? We spoke with Premier and, over an extended conversation, he detailed not only the story behind the song, but his extensive history with Dre from 1985 to the present, their similar approach in the studio, his top five producers of all-time, what song of Dre’s he would remix and vice versa, and much more. This is an incredible Hip-Hop history lesson from one of Hip-Hop’s most important figures about one of his few true peers.
Ambrosia For Heads: Last month, you sent out a photo that caused quite an explosion. Can you tell the story of how this collaboration (“Animals”) came to be and what the process was like?
DJ Premier: What happened was, I went to do a Boiler Room [set]. I had done one with PRhyme last year, when we were coming out with the album, last year, when it dropped [on] December 9. Then we had done one in Moscow because they’re also based out there, where I worked with a Russian producer. You know I don’t work with any producers, but I said I’d do it, just to do something creative. So we ended up getting together with a guy named BNB Spacekid—he’s like the “Dre” or “Premier” of Russia. We got together, it was to collaborate with him pulling Russian samples and me finding Russian samples that I would like, and make a beat with him. At the time, MF DOOM was supposed to do [the song] with us. When it came down to us finally agreeing, signing the paperwork and all that stuff, DOOM fell sick and had to have surgery; he wasn’t allowed to fly. We thought that’d cancel the whole trip, but [BMB Spacekid’s camp was] like, “Since we can’t get DOOM, do you mind if we get a singer to fill in instead?” I said, who?, and they said, “Anderson .Paak.” I’m like, “Well, who is that?” They were like, “He’s this new up-and-coming singer from the West Coast. He’s dope, I can send you some YouTube footage links to see if you like him.” He sent me a song called “Suede.” When I saw that, and I saw that Knxledge was doing the beat—and he’s down with Stones Throw [Records], and I’m a big Stones Throw fan, I was like, “Okay, I’ll still go to Russia and do it.”
Once I went out there and met Anderson in person, we kicked it, and vibed and everything was cool. The next thing you know, we end up layin’ two tracks. We laid the first one, which ended up going to Dre—it wasn’t meant for Dre, it was just the first track we did. It was real funky boom-bap style like I do. Then we did a real Trap, Down South-style track [called “Til’ It’s Done”], and BNB was really [liking it].
We come home, back to New York, and the Freddie Gray [murder] happens in Baltimore. I still have that other beat on deck ’cause BNB was like, “Yo, do whatever you want with it, if you ever want to put it out.” It didn’t have vocals to it. Anderson saw the Freddie Gray thing happened in Baltimore, and he called me, [saying], “Yo, I’m really angry with this whole Baltimore thing that’s going on. I just wrote a song to that other beat. I’m gonna send it to you. Let’s see what the energy is; maybe we can just throw it out in the streets to coincide with what’s going on as an anti-killing and police [brutality message].” As soon as I heard it, it was called “F.S.U. (Fuck Shit Up).” It was basically talking about how [police] treat us like animals, and the only time they turn the cameras on is when we’re fucking shit up. I said, “Yeah, this is dope! I’m down to leak it out.” He said, “Well, I got a meeting with Dre over some other stuff,” ’cause Dre had heard some of his other demos and liked [the music]. When he went to meet up with him, his manager mentioned some other stuff about the song I did, but Anderson didn’t really want to play it for Dre, ’cause he wasn’t there to play that for him. The manager brought it up. [Dr. Dre wanted to hear it, and Anderson asked for my approval]. I was cool with it; I was already doing some stuff with Dre on the side for another project that’s totally irrelevant to [Compton]. So then Dre was like, “Yo, I wanna rap on that!” So I’m like, “Shit, I’m not gonna say ‘no.'” But then he was like, “I wanna change the name to ‘Animals’ from ‘Fuck Shit Up.'” We changed the name. Dre said, “I want you to come out and add a few flavors to it and mix it down with me.” I said, “Alright, I gotta come out there anyway to give Christina Aguilera some new music. So it’s nothing for me to come out and stay a little longer.” So I came out to the studio. We worked. We made some change-up’s and things; me and him did some vocals at the end and some things. I wanted to scratch on it. I went to his house a couple days later and did some work at his house in Calabasas. We went to the studio, closed it out and mixed it down. He said it was gonna be on the [Straight Outta Compton] soundtrack; he played me the album, and it’s crazy. It’s totally just straight raw, hard Dre stuff. It’s what we been waitin’ for.
Ambrosia For Heads: What is it like producing someone who, himself, has production expertise? Does it change your approach with making the record?
DJ Premier: Nah. Our process is very much the same. That’s what was a trip: me and him are so similar in how we do things. Me and him talked about it. I did his Beats radio show [The Pharmacy] which is gonna air the week [Compton] comes out. He did an episode dedicated to my whole career, which is really flattering. It was an honor to do that.
We were just laughing about everybody’s process in the studio and how he and I are just so meticulous. And, he didn’t have a problem with me saying I didn’t like certain things. “Can we put it here, can we move it there?” It wasn’t a hog-situation. He’s very spot on, like I am in the lab. Everything was just that natural. That was the beauty of the whole thing.
Ambrosia For Heads: You and Dre are both DJs first. What role did that play in your evolution to becoming producers?
DJ Premier: It plays a major role, because I’m always a DJ first—that’s my #1 love. Producing is cool, but never over DJ’ing for me. I like breaking new records and artists, and letting people know, “This is what should be hot” instead of pushing records that everybody’s playing and dick-riding. I’ve never been that way. I’ve always played records that I thought were dope—and as a DJ, that’s how I got on.
Ambrosia For Heads: You mentioned that you guys have some other projects together. People may not realize, but over the years, you guys have been connected on many things. You both worked on Nas’ It Was Written back in ’96 and The Lady Of Rage’s Necessary Roughness album. What have you learned about Dre’s process to making music through those projects?
DJ Premier: Like I said, it was very similar. I was at sessions with Dre when he was doing [Snoop Dogg’s] Doggystyle. I was in the studio when they was still finishing that up, so I got to witness how they do things. I was also around in the time when The Chronic just came out, ’cause that was around the time [Death Row Records] reached out to me to work with [The Lady Of Rage]. I was around Suge [Knight] and all the crazy situations. I was around that. I was in those sessions. I was welcome, so it was all good. As far as the level that he’s out now, to see how he does it, his judgement is very similar to mine. That’s what I was so excited to see—the similarities of the meticulousness about everything being right. That’s why he said “Detox is over.” It’s not up to the standards of what it should be, so he doesn’t want to release it. I’m the same way: there’s certain records that weren’t good enough; I don’t want to put them out. We’re good judges just because I think we have DJ ears. The DJ ear is the best ear ever because it’s our duty to dictate, transcend, and be taste-makers. We’ll be able to tell you that “this is proper and this is what you need to pay attention to.”
I told Dre, “Yo, I saw you in 1985 at my school, with the [World Class] Wreckin’ Cru. You were cutting up ‘Al Naafiysh (The Soul)‘ by Hashim.” He said, “Wow, it’s crazy you said that; I put that in [Straight Outta Compton].” That’s dope. That’s a classic Hip-Hop record from New York, number one. Number two: to see him do that, and for him to put that in that movie, and for him to know that that was such an important part of his career taking off, that lets me know we’re on the same page, even down to that. That’s my memory of first ever seeing Dr. Dre do anything in person.
Ambrosia For Heads: What effect did those early Straight Outta Compton records have on you, as a DJ, when you first heard them back in the day?
DJ Premier: A major effect. For one, New York was the only guide you had to learn about Hip-Hop, including for me, because I was in Texas at the time. I didn’t come to New York ’til 1987, and N.W.A. was already big in Texas. Eazy-E was the first thing we heard. “Boyz-N-The Hood.” We were already bumping that; New York wasn’t really getting a lot of West Coast music then. And, if they were getting it, they weren’t really acknowledging it because everybody turned to New York as a guide. Ice Cube said that last night at the Q&A [for Straight Outta Compton]. He said “all of us were on the dick of KRS-One and Chuck D. Even in the movie, the group they had to launch Eazy’s label was from New York—they were called H.B.O.—before [Ice] Cube and N.W.A. Even for [Ruthless Records] to jump off, they were relying on New York artists to set the whole tone. [At that time], if it wasn’t from New York, it wasn’t [considered] official.
Ambrosia For Heads: Did any of Dre’s productions ever motivate you or make you more competitive?
DJ Premier: All the time. Mainly mix-downs and arrangement. That’s what I studied. I used Dre as a guide on how to make albums way before I even knew how to do it, as far as arrangement and the whole sonic sound of a mix. EPMD was another one [I studied]. I used to read the credits: “Produced by Erick and Parish for EPMD Productions.” I said, “Damn, I’d love to have something like that!” That’s why it always said “Produced by DJ Premier for Works Of Mart.” I wanted to have that same type of impact with anything I did.
[Dr. Dre] said the same thing. He said, “What bugs me out is you do everything: the production, the instruments, the mixing, your name’s all over. That is so amazing.” So, we’re both paying attention to each other for what we do.
Ambrosia For Heads: If you had to name your Top 5 producers, who would they be?
Ambrosia For Heads: If you could remix one of Dre’s productions, what would it be?
DJ Premier: Whew! Probably “Lil’ Ghetto Boy”—that was my shit! Actually, I don’t want to remix it; I love it as it is. So it wouldn’t be “Lil’ Ghetto Boy.” It’d have to be, maybe “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat”—whew! Heavy.
Ambrosia For Heads: What would you do to that one?
DJ Premier: Just twist it a whole different way. I mean, the way he did it with no snare…it was just fucking insane, man. I know the sample and everything that [he] used, but his approach to it and the way RBX and everybody was on it, it was just so [dope]. That’s just one of my favorite Chronic songs.
Ambrosia For Heads: And if Dr. Dre could remix one of your productions, what would it be?
DJ Premier: Shit. I don’t even know. [Chuckles] I’d let him take his pick on that one. I know he said he loved [Gang Starr’s] “Mass Appeal.” He said he loved that record and the creativity of it when it came out. He said it was such a traditional Gang Starr record, which was our mission was in the first place. For him to say that record affected him that way, that’s a beautiful thing.
Ambrosia For Heads: The one time I met Dr. Dre, I mentioned you. He said, “Oh word? Premier is mad motivated.” What would your description of him be?
DJ Premier: He’s a mad genius, man. Everybody always says, “He’s a genius!” They always say that about everybody in our line of work that’s on a certain level. But he is a genius. Ice Cube said it yesterday, “Yo, you know you’re special when you leave Ruthless [Records], and you leave Death Row, [and still succeed].” Now he’s at Aftermath [Entertainment] with his sanity and peace of mind, and he can rock and make his money. I don’t care what level of the playing field you’re on, you don’t let go of greatness. He’s definitely in the genius category, tenfold.
Ambrosia For Heads: What else can we look forward to from you in the near future?
Be on the look out for MC Eiht, Compton’s Most Wanted, we’re dropping a project together called Which Way Iz West. We [are finishing] that; you’ll be hearing that. And then the NYG’z, part of the Gang Starr Foundation, they’re dropping their album called Hustler’s Union Local NYG. It’s an all Premier-produced album. We recorded it a couple of years ago. It was supposed to come out, but we went and updated it. It’s a raw New York album. You will be hearing that. It’s some of my best work. G-Dep’s on it, right before he turned himself in for the murder. We have some of the [last] music from Dep. It’s crazy. I’m on Game’s new album, The Documentary 2, and actually [the song I produced] is called “The Documentary 2.” And it’s hard, raw.