DJ Premier Gives The Inside Story On The Making Of Jay Z’s Reasonable Doubt 20 Years Later
Twenty years ago, Jay Z had a hustler’s ambition of releasing an album and then walking away. His lifestyle already afforded the finer things in life, so he was not making the music for the money. Rather, in his 26 years of life, he had accumulated some formidable stories that he wanted to record for posterity and for the streets.
At the time, there was no producer who had the streets on lock like DJ Premier. Already a successful artist with his group Gang Starr, Premier had begun establishing himself as a reliable and credible beat maker for other artists. He had already left his imprint on classics by The Notorious B.I.G. and Nas, and, while working with Big Daddy Kane, he’d also worked with the up and coming Jay. As Shawn Carter’s album began to materialize, he turned to the man who he’d known from around the way for years to put his stamp on it. Preemo obliged and, when they were finished, Jay had 3 songs from the 13 track body of work that he still considers the finest in his catalog.
As the twentieth anniversary of Reasonable Doubt approaches (6/25), Ambrosia For Heads spoke with DJ Premier about not only the making of those songs, but how the entire album came together, as well as his decades-long relationship with Hov, himself.
Ambrosia for Heads: Back in 1994, you produced “Show & Prove” for Big Daddy Kane and it featured Jay Z. Was that the first time you guys met and worked together?
DJ Premier: I knew Jay back in, like, ’88 when [Gang Starr’s] No More Mr. Nice Guy was out. I used to see Jay around because Jaz-O was my labelmate but prior to that, we all had mutual respect for each other. I was living in Brooklyn again ’cause I had moved from East New York up to the Bronx on 183rd St and lived up there for a while. Going to the corner store on Fulton [St]–and it was wild on the block back then, over on Fulton and Washington–that’s how we met Biggie. Biggie used to be there every day so we’d hang out with him. But prior to that, we used to see Jay Z at all the underground clubs with Jaz-O, like the Milky Way and Mars and the Payday, which my former manager Patrick Moxey used to run. You had to be somebody to get in there, even if you were a platinum artist, which was more rare back then. Jay Z used to come in there with that bigass chain on, you know the one he had on in [the video for Jaz-O’s] “Hawaiian Sophie.” So we used to see them coming in and out of parties, just posted up. And then on top of that, I used to see Big L always bring Jay around, too back then. You know, because Big L was more poppin’ or whatever with a major deal prior to Jay gettin’ a deal. When [Gang Starr] got signed to Chrysalis in ’90, we used to have to go to all these distributor meetings with MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, and Jaz-O and Jay would be at all of those. And he’d be with Big Daddy Kane alot. So I just remember seeing Jay around a lot, and he’d always be the highlight, too. Kane would be like “yo, you gotta check out Jay-Z,” and he’d get him to kick a verse for him. And he would always kill it, and then boom, that’d be the end of it. And then next thing you know, I was doing radio at the time at WBLS and I remember Clark Kent brought Jay Z with him to give me a 12-inch record that they had just done called “In My Lifetime.” Jay gave me the record, I listened to it during the commercial break and right after the break as soon as we were back I went right into it and started cuttin’ it up. So from there, Jay gave me a bottle of Cristal and I didn’t know what that was. I was used to Moet. And he was like “nah, this is way bigger than Moet.” He was already into the whole finer things in life type of lifestyle. So he gave me the bottle of Cristal and he gave me a really dope Cuban cigar as a thank you, and next thing you know, everybody started playin’ that record, and this is way prior to Reasonable Doubt.
Ambrosia for Heads: Patrick Moxey ran Payday Records too and signed that “In My Lifetime” record. Were you the one who took it to Patrick?
DJ Premier: Well Patrick heard the record because it started getting a lot of love from the mix show DJs, and next thing you know, Patrick said “I’m gonna sign Jay Z to Payday [Records]” and it was for a single deal, not an album deal. So that’s when Jaz-O did the remix and then they shot a video, and they used their own money. I knew they were having issues getting funding from the label and they were like “how you gonna sign me to a 12-inch deal but you don’t want to pay for the video?” And then from there, things didn’t work out and they left. We used to all be in the same van together doing promo. Me, Big Shug, Jay, Lil’ Dap, Melachi the Nutcracker, and Jeru [the Damaga]. All of us in the van doing promo.
Ambrosia for Heads: You mentioned Jay had Big L behind him, Jaz-O was a supporter, he had signed to Payday, he knew you. Jay had all these people in his corner from ’89 on, yet it took 7 years for Reasonable Doubt to come out. Why do you think it took so long for him to release an album that got traction?
DJ Premier: Well it’s always about making the right record, number one. Number two, Big L at that time really had a lot of status. A lot. And a lot of respect where his cosign mattered. If he cosigned you, you mattered. And Kane as well, but Kane was also transitioning from the earlier days to the Taste of Chocolate days and all that stuff. And then on top of that, Jay Z always had just one guest spot. He didn’t have a body of work of stuff with him just rhyming by himself. “In My Lifetime” and “I Can’t Get With That” was just two records, you know what I’m sayin’? But around there, that’s when he did “Dead Presidents.” I remember when they were cuttin’ that record because he was starting to come to D&D [Studios] to do work and everybody knew D&D was the place to go. And at that time, we were really hot so Jay started coming to D&D. I remember he brought a white Lexus with a television in it and he popped the trunk and showed me the VCR. He was the first person I saw with movies playing on the headrest. So Jay Z used to be up there all the time with them. And that’s how Ski became a major part of the sound and shape of Reasonable Doubt. He was really the go-to person. He was the Premier of their crew.
Ambrosia for Heads: How did you get involved with the project?
DJ Premier: The mutual love and respect for each other and that we’d already known each other way before the record. So Clark reached out ’cause I knew Dash, but not to the level of doing business with him. Jay said he needed three songs and that Dash handled the business, so I dealt with Dash. I charged him $8,000 for three songs, and I was making around $20,000 to $25,000 a track for all productions at that time. But Jay was one of those guys where I’d say “I know you’re on the come up.” I know what it’s like to have to start up and get to a point where you can afford to pay more. Same thing with Biggie. I charged him $5,000 for a track and then I said “when you start makin’ some money, I’m gonna charge you” and he said “absolutely.” Then he went Platinum with Ready to Die I said “next time, I want $30,000” and he’d be like “here’s a check.” And, you know, Jay – same thing. When he got the Def Jam deal, they paid me like I wanted with no hesitation.
Ambrosia for Heads: You’ve done that for a few artists. I know in part it’s because of the love and your belief in their sound and what they’re going to do for the culture. But is it also part investment? Did you have a feeling at that time that Jay was going to blow up the way that he did?
DJ Premier: I knew because when you talk to the people in the street the way Jay was talkin’ to ’em, he did it the right way. And he sounded confident on every record. Everything he talked about, from hustlin’ to survivin’ and living through the pain of the hood…you know, I’m from Texas. I’m a small-town country boy, but I also represent the struggle from day one when it came to the music because Hip-Hop came out of struggle and hard times so I could already totally relate to Jay Z’s lyrics. I used to be in the street doing ignorant stuff too, so his album spoke to me. His lyrics spoke to me. If it spoke to me, I can imagine it spoke to our age group. You know even though Jay is younger than me, our age group still are the ones that that music was aimed at. And to top it off, during that time, you had to really come correct with the respect of all your peers to accept you. And he was makin’ the right records to attract us, so there was no way you could deny a Jay Z record at that time. They were all on point. “22 Two’s,” all that stuff. And at that time, he was sayin’ stuff about the West Coast, you know, all the dicklickin’ and stuff. Nobody was sayin’ that, but people felt like it at the time cause the West was dominating and starting to become the voice of everybody. And Jay did it. He wasn’t afraid to say it back then. That’s how underground he was at that time. I now know he wouldn’t say that stuff, but at that time, that’s how a lot of artists felt. So for him to do “22 Two’s” and do that live – and he would do it a cappella all the time at a show – it would make everybody say “ooooooohhh!” You have to be bold to make that type of a statement. So I already knew he was gonna pop off. I thought Reasonable Doubt was going to be the one that took him all the way, but it wasn’t until he did [Vol. 2…] Hard Knock Life where he went extra Platinum and the Grammys started coming. Actually my first Grammy was with Jay.
Ambrosia for Heads: You produced “D’Evils,” “Friend or Foe,” and “Bring It On.” Were those tracks you’d already done or were they made specifically for him?
DJ Premier: “D’Evils” was the first one that I did, and Jay used to call me and do the rhyme over the phone and tell me the whole concept of the song. Like “yo, I’m about to do this song ‘D’Evils,” and then he’d do the rhyme on the phone a cappella and he’d tell me what to scratch. Every scratch on there I did ’cause he’d tell me to scratch. Once he told me the whole vibe of the song, I went in that same day and he came down after I’d cooked up a track and played it for him. I wanted to fit the emotion of what he delivered over the phone, and he was like “that’s exactly it.” The other two, I was just scrambling for other beats to make, and “Friend or Foe” was the next we did and it got to the point where when Jay heard those horns, he was like “yo, let me jump in the booth and record to that real quick.” And he just started doing that verse and we was just like, “yo this dude is dope.” I can totally relate to a drug dealer going to another drug dealer and saying “hey, you can’t move and set up here when I got these blocks on lock.” And [Jay Z] did it so witty, and it was just so well done. And especially the “don’t ever ever ever ever come around here no more”…everybody knew Friday and Chris Tucker and that particular scene…he referenced things that everybody is familiar with and that’s the thing. When you talk street records, you gotta be familiar in order to understand it. “Bring It On” was one with no concept. That was the first time I met Sauce Money and we got to kick it. I had never heard him rap, and he went in there and set it off and I loved his verse. Jay went in right behind him and I loved his verse. And of course Jaz-O.
I’ve never gotten the chance to speak about Jaz-O making statements in past interviews about how me and a couple other producers couldn’t loop up “Seven Minutes of Funk” to do the “Ain’t No Nigga” beat. I was called to do that beat and Jay told me “I got this girl Foxy Brown, she’s incredible and I need to get this song done and need to loop up ‘Seven Minutes of Funk.'” And I was like “well I can’t do it today, maybe I can come tomorrow.” And he said “nah, I need it today. She gotta get home. She’s young and she has to be home at a certain time so I need to do it tonight.” So Jaz-O was like “I’ll do it.” It’s a common break. Anybody can loop it, and Jaz looped it with his hand. He didn’t even program it. All of that was done by hand, straight to tape. I found a few different interviews where he was sayin’ me and Clark Kent had problems with loopin’ it up and it’s like, ‘Dude. Why would I have a problem with looping up anything?’ Like, I’m doing the most intricate samples and the most crazy, crazy stuff at a time when my name was really, really up there. So “Seven Minutes of Funk” is not a complicated sample to loop. It’s just not true that I could not hook up the beat. I just couldn’t come in at the time frame that they wanted me to loop it up. That song is so easy, it’s pretty much whoever could get down there that night could do it. So when I saw those interviews, I was furious, like ‘Damn, man. You puttin’ that out there like it’s true? Nah, that’s bullshit.” Put some ‘respekk’ on my name. I ain’t gonna say no’ mo’.
Ambrosia for Heads: In “Bring It On,” you use a sample from the remix you produced for Fat Joe’s “Shit Is Real.” Now looking back on that and given the history that Joe and Jay had, what do you think of the “All the Way Up” remix they recently released, and its significance?
DJ Premier: I thought that was long overdue. I mean they’ve been having their little tension with each other for years and years and years, and for them to bury the hatchet to get on a record together and rock out, that was dope. And everybody killed it, you know? Everybody got busy on their verses. It was well done on everybody’s end.
Ambrosia for Heads: You talked about Jay and the rhymes he would do over the phone. It’s always been reported that he doesn’t write. Was that the case back then? What was it like to see him just go into the booth and just start kickin’ a rhyme?
DJ Premier: Yeah, man. Him and B.I.G. At least in my sessions, they just went right in and did it with no paper. Jay used to always sit at the desk at the control board and you could hear him rhyming to himself. Except for “D’Evils.” That was premeditated and he just needed the music to match his vision. But the other ones I just did based on what I felt like I could hear his voice on. Actually on “Bring It On,” “if you think you can hang” was already on the song. That’s why we gave it that title. I had already had that loop in ahead of time before they put lyrics down.
Ambrosia for Heads: You’ve worked with the greatest rappers in history, from Jay Z to Nas to B.I.G. What are the commonalities you’ve seen in them?
DJ Premier: The hunger to be the next thing in Hip-Hop and to be recognized for bringing another original style. None of the three of them were alike. And, you know, originality is very key because every time somebody pops off in any type of genre of music, you always get about 30 more copycats who are doing the same exact thing because they’re seeing that it worked for somebody else. Just like you hear somebody say “turn up,” now everybody’s saying it. You make Trap beats, now everybody wants to make Trap beats. And it’s like, why don’t you just do what works for you so we can have a variety of things that we can invest money into? I don’t want to have ten Jay beats. I don’t want to have ten Nas beats. You know what I’m sayin’? One is enough.
Ambrosia for Heads: Jay Z mentions D&D Studios in “So Ghetto,” which you produced for Vol. 3…Life and Times of S. Carter. Thinking about that environment, what role do you think being in that studio played for him in terms of allowing him to re-channel that Hip-Hop spirit and that hunger he had that he conveyed so well?
DJ Premier: At that time, if you wanted to have your album certified, not just by having me on it but by having a street record, that’s where you went. I saw an interview with Timbaland where he was asked what he thought of me, and he said “man, DJ Premier got the streets on lock. I might have the clubs and the radio, but when it comes to the streets, DJ Premier is the king.” And I was just like, “wow.” That really made me feel good, ’cause that’s really my aim.
Ambrosia for Heads: You and Jay worked on a lot of records after Reasonable Doubt. What’s your favorite song you guys made together?
DJ Premier: Definitely “D’Evils.” And “A Million and One Questions/Rhyme No More.” That was another one where he rapped over the phone. He told me he wanted it to have some type of break down. Like when “Rhyme No More” comes on and the beat drops, he told me all of that. I remember he brought Too $hort with him that day, ’cause they was doin’ “A Week Ago” and they were at D&D in the D room. ‘Cause they had the A, B, and the D room. And Jay had every room blocked out so that he could just rotate and get his album done. So I was in there cookin’ those two and he heard “A Million and One,” he spit it, and said “aiight, I’m goin’ back in the room with Too $hort and next thing you know, I got “Rhyme No More” poppin’, he came in and spit, and went right back in the room with Too $hort again. Even when Biggie came in to do “Brooklyn’s Finest,” I was there for that just to be a spectator. Like I said, I knew Biggie from the block back in the day. He and Guru used to freestyle together, and Junior M.A.F.I.A. and [Lil’] Kim. So it was just normal for all of us to be in the same room.
Ambrosia for Heads: What was it about “D’Evils” and “Rhyme No More” that made them so special to you?
DJ Premier: Just the whole idea and the concept of why Jay wanted to do it, number one. But not only that, he told me “Rhyme No More” was going to start the album and you know, I’m very album oriented. There’s nothin’ wrong with singles, but albums and puttin’ them together, I studied all the great ones. Earth, Wind & Fire, Prince, Michael Jackson, the Commodores, the Isley Brothers, James Brown. The way they constructed their albums, the sequencing and putting songs in a certain order and even the gaps in between the songs. Like, why is that only a one-second gap, but this is a three-second gap? So when it came time to when Jay said I was gonna start the whole album off, that was really dope. I love “So Ghetto” as well, but [“Rhyme No More”] was just so different from what we did on Vol. 1 and Reasonable Doubt. And it’s so emotional, you know. I love when he says “I got mouths to feed ’til they put some flowers on me/and kiss my cold cheek, chicks crying like I was Cochise.” I remember Cooley High. Everybody remembers Cooley High and Cochise, and how sad it was when he died. And then when Jay says “headstone reads ‘he was holdin’ no leaks,’ it’s just like yo…that’s such a dope line. Everything he said was just totally relatable.
Ambrosia for Heads: What was it like being in the room for the recording of “Brooklyn’s Finest”? Could you see the competition, the two heavyweights going at it?
DJ Premier: Aw, man. That was dope. I was already blown away by how Clark Kent hooked up the beat. We used to roll dice a lot, so all of us were there rollin’ dice, you know what I’m sayin’? Just thousands of dollars, and it was an every day thing. We were always playin’ pool or shootin cee-lo. Every day. Me, Afu-Ra, Jeru, Jay, Big. Everyone’s in there calmly rollin’ dice. I became a cee-lo champ. Jay and Big recorded “Brooklyn’s Finest” in one session. Neither one of them wrote it down, they just went in and just kept going four bars for four bars. And that’s light work for them. That’s just what they do.
Ambrosia for Heads: Looking back on Reasonable Doubt 20 years later, what would you say about its place in your career and Hip-Hop history?
DJ Premier: It’s definitely a monument. It’s on the Mount Rushmore of great albums. Of the ’90s era, definitely put Reasonable Doubt in my top five. It’s a top five ’90s classic.