(Gang Starr at D&D Studios, 2003. Photo by author.)
I interviewed Gang Starr at D&D Studios in 2003 for an URB cover story. I later shared a few excerpts from that interview in 2010, after Guru’s passing. I was reading through this new New York Observer Q&A with DJ Premier about the closing of D&D and that inspired me to go back to my interview notes and share other bits from it. (Note: both Guru and Preem were at D&D that day but I interviewed the two of them separately since I had different questions for each.)
Guru on Gang Starr’s songwriting process:
The formula to the way we do our stuff is…I’ll come up with a list of song titles, Premier will go through them, see what he likes, what he doesn’t like…we’ll narrow it down and then he starts making the tracks to do the song titles. Then he’ll leave me the beat…most of the album, I mostly did on the spot here because I already had concepts in my head. Once I hear the track, all he has to do is leave me alone for a couple of hours and I’m going to be able to knock it out. It’s a method I call freestyle writing – under pressure writing.
Guru on artistic collaborations:
That’s one trend in hip-hop I do like – the whole collabo thing. I would still like to do one with Nas, that would be my first choice and that’s probably going to happen soon. I like Black Rob, I like Busta. I would like to do something with DJ Quik. Erick Sermon. Redman, I want to do something with and Method Man. Anyone in the Wu.
Guru on career highlights and mentorship:
We’ve had a lot of really big highlights, like doing the Apollo with Public Enemy and Eric B. and Rakim. Going on tour with EPMD – that’s why we asked M.O.P. to come on tour with us, we felt they were underrated and now they on the Roc but when we first became tight with them, we were reaching to them the same way EPMD reached to us because we were killing the underground but we weren’t getting the right push.
Premier on learning how to chop up drums and filter samples:
Marley Marl was one of the first to really use the kick and the snare and not just the break and start taking the actual snare to where “Impeach the President” could actually be made into a song. I used to wonder how everybody was getting the same “Impeach” snare and kick and using it to make different songs and then I noticed they were just clipping the pieces so I started doing the same thing.
Large Professor taught me how to filter – I didn’t even know. I used to go this his crib and I started being a filter head for a minute then I got into the chopping…anything to make it less clearable first of all but to also show that I can be more creative and really dice it up and still come up with a hot beat.
Premier on scratching:
I’m always telling people like DJ Riz, Roc Raida, even Q-Bert, any of them, I want to learn this certain style, they’re like, “man, you don’t need to learn nothing. You can do what you been doing and it’s just love because you’re the only one who does it that good in that format, period.” I can do the crab, I’m not an expert and it took me a while to learn it, and they were like, “you ain’t got to learn it. If you can’t do it, we’re not going to be like, ‘oh, Preem can’t do the crab’. You don’t have to because you laid a style down and people started to copy the way that you cut.”
Premier on listening to other people’s music:
You gotta still love the game like as if you just started out. Me and Guru are still like calling each other like, “yo, did you hear that new joint by so and so? Yo, he said so and so in the lyrics!” We still blown away by shit and you got to study the shit even if you’re a veteran, you got to keep up with the younguns and see what they’re doing and see what’s making the crowd jump on them.
Premier on being the “Jerry Rice of hip-hop”:
We’re like Jerry Rice – he’s an OG, still playing, he’s going to the Superbowl. We’re like the Jerry Rice of hip-hop. We really study our craft and he really loves the game of football so he’s still playing. He could retire right now if he wanted to, he’s got paper but he still loves the sport. So if you still love sport and you still have it in you, play it as hard as you did when you started out and I think we do that.
Premier on the mixtape game:
If you buy every mixtape that’s out right now, put 10 of them next to each other, everybody got the same list. Only difference is, #1 might be #8 but everybody got the same list. What the fuck is up with that?
Premier on song selections as a DJ:
I listen to a record for a good 20, 30 seconds and I can tell you if I’m going to play this. And if the beat is banging, banging and the rhymes are horrible, I’m playing the instrumental. I won’t rock the vocal if it’s trash. There are certain records I’ve heard where the beat is incredible and I’m like “goddamn” and then they come on half-assed, I’m like “You’re not getting your voice heard muthafucka.”
Premier on the Fat Boys:
I wish I could work with the Fat Boys, all of them, rest in peace to [Darren Robinson]. They were incredible, they were MCs, they rhymed like MCs, they had the attitude, they were funny, they were the whole package. They’re history in the hip-hop game.
Guru and Premier on their favorite Gang Starr songs:
Ex-Girl to the Next: We kept it rugged and street but that was some real, 10 easy steps on how to be smooth, like a pamphlet. It was rugged though but it was also classy so classy girls liked it to. (G)
Mass Appeal: We got on the Arsenio show with that, I got a video of us doing that shit live and that’s one of my favorite videos to watch of our old shit. (G)
It was real different from anything that was rocking at that time. We were making a joke at radio saying how half the time, songs had to sound happy like that in order for it to get played. I was really making a spoof on how radio accepts hip-hop at the time and it ended up being one of the beats that everybody really really likes. (P)
Robinhood Theory: That’s one of my favorite records. That beat is very abstract and very different and I didn’t know if Guru could mess with it but he did exactly what I wanted. He put the right lyrics to it, right attitude to it, it was all there. (P)
Just to Get a Rep: That dictated what was going on in the streets and what’s still goes on now. That’s timeless in terms of street life. (P)
Guru and Premier on Gang Starr songs they might have liked to have done over:
Suckas Need Bodyguards: I don’t regret making but I got to live that out so I’m always either by myself or with one or two dudes. Even if I do get that big superstar status one day, I’m still going to have to hold that down. It’s good though because I look at those cases with Biggie and Pac and I feel bad about their mothers and none of those cops workin security, none of them shot back. These guys, if they’re not your friends, they’re not going to fucking jump in front of no bullets for you. I’d rather roll with my boys or just by myself, whatever. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. (G)
Mac a Mill: I insisted on Premier letting me put that song on there but then I didn’t like it after we did it. It could have been left off the album and Big Shug and my other friends, they rib me about that. That song wasn’t wack I just didn’t think it went with the album. (G)
As I Read My S.A. – I wish I could redo that. I love it but there are certain things I wish I could have added to it, like basslines, just certain shit. (P)
My random “scene-setting notes”:
A lone snack machine stands in the hallway of New York’s D&D Studios and sandwiched between the candy bars and potato chips is a row of Philly Blunts, preferred brand of the cannabis connoisseur. An open carton of the bargain cigars sits in Studio B as Premier idly splits a Philly with his thumb, a line of weed stretching across the copy of Mr. Lif’s Emergency Rations EP balanced on his lap.