DJ Premier Discusses The Making Of Gang Starr’s Hard To Earn 25 Years Later
Twenty-five years ago this month (March 8, 1994), Gang Starr released its fourth album, Hard To Earn. A rightful inclusion in one of the Rap genre’s most celebrated calendar years, the work displays some of the finest chemistry between Guru and DJ Premier, who had already galvanized a creative and personal bond worthy of its title. While the Chrysalis Records LP garnered some “Mass Appeal” in the subsequent quarter century, the two focused creators held tightly to their integrity on the album. This record satiated devoted fans, challenged peers, and punched critics right in the jaw.
During a crossroads for Rap music, an ever-evolving Gang Starr did not yield; they strutted through their pivot. This 25-year-old LP is molded with timeless wisdom, righteousness, and pride. Gang Starr knew the code of the streets, and warned all who didn’t take heed.
Hard To Earn has had a profound impact on the path of my life. A few years after release, its lyrics and music guided me through adolescence. It promoted style, swagger, courage, and authenticity in the face of posturing. Eventually, “The Planet” gave me the faith to uproot and chase a difficult dream under much bigger skylines. That path would lead me up the rickety elevator to D&D Studios nearly 17 years ago, to Gang Starr concerts, handfuls of conversations with Guru and DJ Premier, and ultimately, to writing this Ambrosia For Heads feature. This week, I spoke with Preemo about Hard To Earn, what was happening behind the scenes, and how these songs were reflections of an incredible time in Hip-Hop.
Ambrosia For Heads: “The Planet” is one of my favorite songs of all-time. On the vocal side, Guru tells the story of his journey and the sacrifice to make it happen in Hip-Hop. Musically, on that song, was that you telling the story of your journey?
DJ Premier: The subject matter is always first; I make the music match the subject. Guru always gives me the titles, and we’d type it out, stick it on the wall, and leave it there at the studio until we’d finish the album. We don’t go in any particular order, we just go. I always do the singles last. Whatever our first single’s gonna be…like for [Hard To Earn], he said “Mass Appeal” is gonna be it. And he puts little, short notes under the title. So it’ll say “Mass Appeal (our first single).” So I like to do that when the album’s pretty much done so [the single] sounds literally that new. And I’ve always followed that same map to this day. He’d even [note] our second single.
For “The Planet,” he [wrote] “My journey from Boston to New York, and makin’ it.” That’s what it said; I actually still have that paper. It’s really faded out, ’cause it’s printed out [from] the early copy machine. It reminded me of me leaving Texas and makin’ it. So he spoke for both of us.
AFH: I know it was “No More Mr. Nice Guy” from the very beginning, but from “Intro (The First Step)” to titling the album Hard To Earn, were you trying to send a statement of “don’t take our kindness for weakness”? That intro is a message that every artist trying to get on needs to hear…
DJ Premier: Oh, you’re talkin’ about the beginning of the album? We were both just goin’ through that. Like anywhere we’d go, people would always [push themselves]. At that time, we were living in Branford Marsalis’ brownstone; he’d moved to L.A. to be the music director for The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. So we were all living with him, his wife, and his son, temporarily until they moved. So all of us were in the house. Once [the neighborhood] found out that we lived there…this was right around the same time that we met Biggie. Because we’d always go down to the corner; we were all 40 [ounce beer] drinkers back then. We drank very heavily; we’d always see Biggie and all of his crew.
[We] shot the “Code Of The Streets” video on our stoop. Everybody was passin’ by. We shot it with Lionel Martin and Ralph McDaniels from Classic Concepts [and Video Music Box. So then] everybody knew that we lived there. And whenever we’d have a show, our whole crew pulls up. That is where [the concept to] “Soliloquy Of Chaos” came from because it was always the same routine, “Meet us at our house.” We’d get into the cars one by one by one, all with systems blasting, and we’d convoy to the gig.
With all of that, it just became so monotonous with people ringin’ our bell, unannounced, doin’, “Yo, my man raps, can you listen to him real quick?” It’s like, aight. It’d be horrible, then another guy would ring the bell. They’d want you to hear it right now. I mean, I still go through that to this day. Now, the only difference is, I’ll be in the barbershop in the hood and cats’ll take their phone and just put it right in my face, into my ear. I’m like, “Yo, I can’t listen to it like that. There ain’t gonna be no bass comin’ through.” They’ll be like, “Just listen to it a little bit.” It’s like, “No. You can send it to me.” I’ll give ’em the direct email to send the music and everything, but I’m not gonna listen to it on no phone. ‘Cause I don’t come from the phone era. I come from boom-boxes and driving cars—and I been driving cars since I was 11 years old. In Texas, we drive early.
But we were all tired of that sh*t. It comes with what we were doing. But when we’d see artists [in our early days], we’d just be like, “Yo man, love your sh*t”—wanted to say more, but I felt like I’d be sweatin’ ’em and d*ck-riding. So I’d always be like, “I’m comin’ out one day; you gonna see me.” I’d keep it that simple. Whether they believed me or not, that’s it. I didn’t want them to be like, “This guy’s annoying.”
AFH: I was 10 when the album dropped; I can’t front and say I bought Hard To Earn when it was brand new. It was a few years later. To me, “DWYCK” was always part of the album. You recently spoke to my man and former colleague Andreas Hale about how that song was intended to be added to Daily Operation. Twenty-five years later, how do you think “DWYCK” has become part of the fabric of Hard To Earn?
DJ Premier: It was gonna work no matter where we put that one. When it became such a huge hit for the summer of ’92, we got to witness it. At that time, we were still in the hood, in the projects and everything. We had our own crib, where Branford lived, obviously, but we’d still hang out in the projects with our friends that was still in the PJ’s. Drivin’ by, every car in the whole hood is blasting “DWYCK.” Like, majorly.
Again, the fact that it was supposed to be on Daily Operation and didn’t make it, I was like, “It’s gotta appear on some album.” It was an automatic [inclusion]. We got that many complaints from fans that would see us [and tell us they wanted it on CD]. Like, constantly. So we were like, “We gotta put it on Hard To Earn so on at least one of our Gang Starr albums, you can find it.”
AFH: You mentioned drinking a lot of 40 ounces. Was the way you were partying in the studio or elevating your minds any different on Hard To Earn than other albums?
DJ Premier: Nah, it was always like a frat house: girls, gettin’ high, gettin’ drunk, everybody passed out on the couch. I look at certain younger artists now [doing the same thing]. That’s just the scenario of a Rap singer. [Chuckles] But it was always [about] havin’ girls in there, ’cause you want to show off, “Yeah, yeah, we got a session today. You want to come? Oh yeah? Bring your girlfriends.” Even they’re excited, “Wow. Who knows who’s gonna be up in there?” Next thing you know you’ve three, four, five girls; five turns to 10. Next thing you know we’re partying there. Then it’s like, “Yo, let’s go to our house.” The party literally continues. We were 24 hours-Animal House, minus the destruction of tearing the place up. But a lot of things were broken: glass, bottles, all the time. And we’d do it again the next day after recovery from the hangover.
AFH: You mentioned the crew. The back cover of the album is great. It shows how Gang Starr looked and felt, like a gang of people. We think of Wu-Tang, Hammer’s entourage, Naughty By Nature. Obviously, you guys had always been like that. But at this point, Big Shug is on the album, Group Home, Jeru The Damaja—you’re touring with M.O.P. How did that entourage affect your confidence?
DJ Premier: Everybody was comin’ with their A-game. Group Home had “Supa Star.” It wasn’t a single [yet]; they weren’t signed yet to Payday [Records]. Jeru had “Come Clean” and [The Sun Rises In The East coming], so he was really making a lot noise in New York. Shug had just come out of prison. That’s why on “F.A.L.A.,” he says, “I did my time and now I’m free” you hear Guru [exclaim in the background]. We bought Shug a whole wardrobe of clothes; he’s just getting his feet back into the [Rap] game. He’s one of the founders of the group, so we were like, “We gotta work on demos until he gets tight.” When he spit that verse, it was, “Shug sounds dope!”
Guru did that [original beat]. I was like, “Give me the reel.” I just re-tweaked it to make it better sonically. Guru [had planned that] for either Ill Kid Records or Baldhead Slick. Guru always liked when I liked one of his tracks. He was like, “Yo, you like that?” I was like, “Yeah, we should put this on the album.” [He was really happy], because sometimes he’d think I’m not gonna like it ’cause he produced it. I’m like, “Dude…” Guru—all the time, my whole career, would wonder if I’d be against [something] ’cause it’s not produced by Premier. Nah, if it sounds good, I don’t front on anything. I don’t care if it’s somebody I don’t like. I don’t care if I don’t like you personally. The same thing with R. Kelly and [Michael Jackson]; I can’t abandon the music if the music’s good.
But [“F.A.L.A.”], I liked it off rip. I [just wanted to] mix it down and match the sonics of my tracks. Guru would usually produce one [song on every Gang Starr album], and it was usually a chick record. “She Knows What She Wantz,” he did that. On Group Home’s [Livin’ Proof], he did “Serious Rap Sh*t.” And Guru’s a good A&R; he has a good ear. He used to tell me what scratches to use.
AFH: Like two Hall Of Fame athletes on a championship team, the two were brothers and teammates, but I know that sometimes, in the moment creatively, you would have differences of opinion or tiffs or whatever. Did the times when you were frustrated with one another creatively make for better art?
DJ Premier: Um, I don’t think it really ever affected the music, because we would always get that in-sync with one another when we made joints. I even smoked crack and would do coke and everything else and it never changed me. We all did. We were all smokin’ woolas; we’re from the woola era. Like ’85-’86, not everybody but a lot of people in the industry were doing it. Even when I ask other artists, [they admit it]. I wasn’t a pipe smoker, I didn’t smoke the stem; we’d put it in a blunt. But it’s still crack. [Laughs] But it never affected my creativity either way. I’ve never been ashamed of anything I’ve ever done because it is what it is. You never saw me walkin’ around with my teeth missing, selling my equipment, or all skinny and falling apart. We looked normal, and we weren’t on it like that. It was more recreation—a new way of spiking your weed. I’m off of it, I been off it. You get to a point where you’re like, “This ride is over.” None of us had to worry about going to rehab or anything like that. It was never that serious. In the music business, drugs, sex, R0ck & Roll, it all goes with the same territory. Fighting [too]. We’d fight, punch each other, bloody lips. Even that stuff was normal, in my opinion, because I watched Sting talk about him and Stewart Copeland from The Police talk about getting off stage and throwing punches like, “F*ck you.” We’ve done the same thing. I never looked at like it was bad for us. Because every time another record had to get made there’s no way we could’ve made this group [last] seven albums [without tensions].
AFH: One of my favorite illustrations of your and Guru’s chemistry is “Brainstorm.” The way that he hits the rhythm of those drums–
DJ Premier: –I love that; that’s one of my favorites. I love that song so much! I wanted to show that I could use other sounds, besides Jazz, as samples, being that we were heavily on that for Daily Operation, and especially Step In The Arena. I would see so many [reviews] talking about how that’s all we do [and] make our beats from, I said, “Man, I’ma strip this album down and show I can use anything: alien sounds [and] weird space effects. That’s why with “Brainstorm,” you hear that weird effect. [Mimics the beat] It’s still effective. Even “Aight Chill” is just a drum beat and phone calls. I knew the Hip-Hop Heads would get it and the reviewers would not. They said the same thing on The Ownerz when Panchi from NYG’z did the “(Hiney)” skit. They said, “Premier must’ve ran out of ideas.” No, [they] didn’t get it ’cause you’re not a f*ckin’ true Head. [They were] one of those motherf*ckin’ fake wannabes, and I don’t acknowledge those people, man. I respect all, but they’re so in the way of understanding a culture.
We’re always creative, man. My creative juices have not faltered. I’ll be 53 next week, and my creative juices are still dynamically heavy. I’m always [thinking]. I’m still like that. Look man, my brain is…all the partying and sh*t—the drugs and drinkin’ I’ve done, I still function very, very normally. [Chuckles] And I give thanks everyday, man. As soon as I wake up, the first thing I said is, “thanks.” I’m glad to be alive and still be able to bang out this Rap sh*t. I love doing Hip-Hop joints, and I love still keeping it boom-bap style.
DJ Premier has released a special merchandise collection for Gang Starr’s Hard To Earn.