Washed Up or Boxed In?
Last November's Scratch Magazine cover, featuring Nas and DJ Premier together again, raised the pulse and hopes of a nation full of Hip-Hop heads. Although the duo hasn't worked since 2001's Stillmatic, a mere photo shoot and hint of collaborative plans was enough to gather momentum once more. But then you still have your cynics who would say, "stop trying to recreate Illmatic, Nas needs to work with new producers, that Primo sound is stale in 2006." To those trying out that argument, I give you the following piece written by Dr. Claw (of M.A.D.).
The here-today-gone-tomorrow, fad-driven world of rap music is often unkind to artists whose careers span decades, so for DJ Premier to still be recognized for quality Hip-Hop music, seventeen years after his first recordings with Gang Starr and Lord Finesse, is quite a feat. However, lately it looks to many, even his long time-fans, that the Grim Reaper of Hip-Hop is looming large over the super-producer / DJ and priming Premier to give up the ghost.
Compared to Premier's most prolific, yet sonically static period (1999-2001), recently, the amount of work he's put out has been rather minimal, reduced to familial jobs and underground singles, with some of his once-recurrent clients (Jay-Z, Nas) passing him over entirely on their latest projects. To top it all off, the last album he cut as one-half of Gang Starr, The Ownerz, went ignored in the midst of 50-Mania and received mixed reviews, many of which derailed Premier's production as uninspired. People said his sound was too throwback, too stagnant, that he hadn't changed for the times. Well, yes, DJ Premier has a standard, a sonic imprint that has appeared in his production going back to the times when he was first learning the art of studio engineering from Schlomo Sonnenfeld and beatmaking from Lord Finesse at Wild Pitch. Yet, while that Primo sound may hearken back to the age when a Jeru The Damaja could actually get some play, it is still in tune with some of the trends of the 00's. In this way, we can find evidence that DJ Premier's music has evolved.
To start, Premier's more conventional drum patterns seem to be inspired by the likes of Jeff Porcaro, Danny Seraphine, Bernard Purdie, and a number of other session drummers that played on the records he's gone to for samples. In fact, Premier's swing, and habit to go from a bass drum immediately into a snare, seem directly lifted from their grooves. This is especially evident on a song like Conscience Be Free, where Primo uses the triplet hi-hat Porcaro (and sometimes Steve Gadd) used as a fill-in between measures. Over time, Premier's drum grooves have become rather "hip hoppy", doubling up on the bass drum rather quickly. Now, in the '00s, he's eschewed hi-hats almost all together, completely silencing them, except at key points in the track to maintain a groove. This trend, largely popularized by the Neptunes from '98-'00 (actually, the Neptunes don't even use hi-hats at all) is one of the best signs of Premier updating his formula.
Additionally, although he is almost entirely a sample-based producer, as of late, Premier has taken to layering his own keyboard work, for texture, over the groove. (This is perhaps best exemplified on Nice Girl, Wrong Place from The Ownerz.) Then, regarding basslines, whereas they have been key in the recent sound of Hip-Hop, for Pemier, prior to 1996, they were rather non-existent (he largely relied on the source material for the "bass", rarely did you hear him apply one); however, since that point, they've become more prevalent. He doesn't play his bass across the whole measure because that's someone else's style. He doesn't do bass-stabs ala Dilla because that's someone else's style as well. Premier's own style is to place a bass tone (or tones) where it is sorely needed to drive the tempo of the song, e.g. O.C.'s Win The G.
Overall, what really has happened in Hip-Hop is that tastes are in the process of changing all over again. The rise of the South has moved toward a sound that has more in common with the 808-era, though with an even more dissonant, unfunky tinge to it than its '80s progenitors. Hi-hats are high in the mix, and often played in the sixteenths rather than the quarters. Premier doesn't make that sound and isn't looking to compromise his own standard for a buck, as many artists with a pedigree often refuse to do. And since he's being passed over because of this, people haven't had a chance to hear what he really has in store. This makes it all the more surprising that pop star Christina Aguilera took the risk and called him up not only to produce her lead single, but four other tracks on her big-leap double album. There, on Back To Basics, the sound is vintage Premier, but with a twist. He seems to be inching toward something more melodic, more upbeat than most of what he has done in recent years. Still, that aforementioned Primo sonic imprint remains: his drum pattern style and tailor-made scratch montages. Unfortunately, Hip-Hop fans may not get the chance to hear most of it.
Maybe now that DJ Premier has little to prove, he can use his time out of the limelight to show that he isn't all about the same old-same old. Because for every so-called cookie-cutter, "mercenary" piece, he'll come out with a 2nd Childhood (Nas), a Guilty (Heather B), a Skillz (Gang Starr), an Evening News (Cee-Lo), or a Doobie Ashtray (Devin The Dude) to throw his detractors off track and show you where he's really coming from. So the question isn't whether Premier has fallen off, but when he will eventually convince listeners that he really has progressed his sound while still maintaining that classic Primo feel?
Christina Auguilera: Still Dirrty
Cee-Lo: Evening News
Devin the Dude: Doobie Ashtray
Gang Starr: Conscience Be Free
Gang Starr: Nice Girl, Wrong Place
Gang Starr: Skillz
Heather B: Guilty
Nas: 2nd Childhood
O.C. f/ Freddie Foxx: Win The G