A Never Released DJ Premier Interview About “Step In The Arena” Surfaces For Its 25th Anniversary
Gang Starr’s second album, Step In The Arena, was released 25 years ago. The album was one of transition for the late Guru (Keith Elam) and his partner DJ Premier (Christopher Martin). The LP was the collective’s first of the 1990s, a decade they would massively influence on the musical front. Additionally, while 1989’s No More Nice Guy represents the group’s debut, DJ Premier was notably less involved than he would be, beginning with S.I.T.A. Lastly, this LP marked Gang Starr’s move from the legendary independent Wild Pitch Records (where Guru would work unofficially as a critical 1980s A&R), to the EMI Records-backed Chrysalis. There, Gang Starr would release three of their most heralded works, bringing Jazz-informed hardcore Hip-Hop to a traditional Jazz imprint.
Author Brian Coleman released two volumes of Check The Technique. The books ask artists and personnel the backstories on classic albums, songs, and the surrounding minutia. The author and historian (and Gang Starr Head) always wanted a chapter on the group, but began his series during the group’s 2000s separation. While Coleman could never speak to Guru about Gang Starr during the band’s hiatus (Guru died from cancer in 2010), he did have extensive research conducted with Premier, from a 2001 interview series.
In celebrating the 25th anniversary of Step In The Arena, Brian Coleman published Preemo’s anecdotes surrounding Gang Starr’s breakthrough years, hunger pains, and a track-by-track run-through of the ’91 LP. There are tons to read (and photos/reviews to see) at egotrip!. For more first-hand accounts like this, “Check The Technique.”
In the 2001 interview (conducted before Gang Starr’s final album, The Ownerz), DJ Premier explained how living with Guru in the late ’80s and early 1990s enhanced the group through challenging times. “I moved out of East New York in 1988 and we had a spot on 183rd and Andrews in the Bronx. We were there for about two years. It was an apartment that Guru sub-letted from a girl that he used to mess around with, but she used to take our rent money and spend it, so we were always on the verge of getting evicted.” As Gang Starr would later chronicle on 1994’s “The Planet,” the group members found work to allow their dream to survive. Premier explained, “Guru had a 9-to-5 gig, but things were rough back then. Even when our first thing came out on Wild Pitch [Records] we didn’t have no money, because there were no advances on a label like that. I remember I would just buy loaves of bread and cookies to survive. The cookies would give me energy to keep going, and the bread would keep my body from being frail.”
Premier notably does not blame Wild Pitch for a record deal that yielded him no money. Rather, he accepts his own excitement to have records out. Moving to Chrysalis changed things. “We pretty much got a record deal on the strength of one song, ‘Jazz Thing.’ But the problem was that they was expecting us to do more records just like that one. As most people know, most of what we do in Gang Starr is straight, raw Hip-Hop. We had a good relationship with Chrysalis overall, but I think that what we were versus what they expected was why we didn’t get promoted as much as we could have.”
While Gang Starr would famously record later albums in D&D Records (which Premier would eventually purchase to become HeadQCourterz), S.I.T.A. was the last album to be recorded elsewhere. Like many acts in the day, they chose a home based on their peers. “Calliope was a place to go because I used to like the way that De La Soul’s stuff sounded, and Queen Latifah’s first album [All Hail The Queen], too.” He also took a greater role in the lab. “On [No More Mr. Nice Guy], I didn’t even program all the beats. [And] I never wanted to work that way again,” admitted DJ Premier over a decade later. “I wanted to be in control, I wanted to turn on the machines and do my shit whenever I wanted. Because if anything got messed up, I didn’t want to be blaming anyone else.”
“One thing that really helped us back then is the fact that we quickly became a touring band,” Premier explained. Not only did the stage bring the artists closer in a way, it made sure their pockets were fat (and not flat). “Regardless of the money we got from record labels, we started going over to Europe in 1990, and we could always make great money by going overseas and touring. And the crazy thing is that to this day – and this is my word – we have never rehearsed for a show, ever.”
In the gripping 2001 interview, DJ Premier spoke candidly about how Guru changed his life. “[Guru is] the first guy who really gave me a shot to do what I do, and through him, people got to hear the Gang Starr sound. The sound I was doing was our sound, for us. He took the challenge of all the types of tracks I gave him and when it comes to the more abstract and experimental stuff, there’s a lot of MCs who wouldn’t have been able to handle it.” Nine years before Guru’s death, Preemo seems to have captured what made the Boston, Massachusetts MC/singer so unique. “He can do thugged-out ghetto records and radio records, whatever you need, and he always takes his subjects and relates them to what’s going on in the world today. He’s just so versatile with his subject matter. And that record [Step In The Arena] was the first time that I think both of us really got our chance to shine for the world.”
Lastly, Premier pointed two fun facts from Step In The Arena that may be lost on even the Gang Starr purists. Of hit single “Lovesick,” Premier confirmed that the song was very true to Guru’s life experiences. The videos were even realer. “That was all true stuff on that song. And the girl in the video was the one Guru was goin’ crazy and fightin’ over at the time. Then when he did ‘Ex Girl To The Next Girl’ that was his [future] ex-wife.”
DJ Premier offers a lot of particulars about his pre-Gang Starr career and ties to New York City. He also explains how the Gang Starr Posse would become the acclaimed, gold-certified duo. There is a lot of cool information regarding the album’s particular tracks as well.