The code of the beat.

BeatTips Top 125 Beatmakers of All Time: #1 – DJ Premier

DJ Premier. One-half of Gang Starr, one of the Three Drum Kings of Beatmaking, creator of the DJ Premier sound, the scratch-hook king, sample-chops pioneer, and the most sought after and most prolific beatmaker in the history of beatmaking.

When you arrive at the #1 ranking of anything, it’s worth asking yourself: How did I get here? For most people, it’s difficult to see the difference between their favorite and who’s most deserving of the top spot. I’ve never had a problem with this. For easy analogy, let’s take sports for instance. My favorite basketball player was Dr. J. But I concede that he’s not the #1 basketball player of all time. In football, my favorite running back was Barry Sanders. But I concede that he wasn’t the #1 running back of all time. This is because I can make the distinction between my personal favorite and who is #1. With your favorite, you need not base your decision on anything more other than that you like one athlete or musician over another. However, any serious determination of who’s #1 demands that you consider a number of crucial factors — stats, influence, overall impact, etc.

There’s often talk about the runs that certain beatmakers had. There’s RZA’s run from 1993 to 1997 with Wu-Tang and Wu solo members projects. There’s Marley Marl’s run from 1988-1991 with the Juice Crew All Stars and LL Cool J. There’s Kanye West’s run in the early to late 2000s with Jay-Z and Rocafella and then his solo career. There’s Q-Tips run from 1989 to 1995 with A Tribe Called Quest. There’s The Neptunes run in the early to mid-2000s. All of these runs, and there are more from other beatmakers, are impressive. But then there’s DJ Premier’s run.

Oddly enough, Premier’s run isn’t even really a run at all. This is because since 1989, DJ Premier has never stopped his career as a professional beatmaker. He’s never retired. He’s never gone into semi-retirement. He’s never distanced himself from hip hop/rap music. He’s never moved on to a different music genre. All he has done is consistently make hip hop/rap beats since 1989…and counting. If this was major league baseball, you might say he was padding his Hall of Fame stats with random singles. But such an analogy would only be partially correct.

For sure, Premier could’ve have stopped around the same time RZA went into semi-retirement and took up acting seriously; or around the same time that Pharrell slid into his pop career; or around the same time J Dilla dropped Donuts; or around the same time Dr. Dre took an indefinite sabbatical; or around the same time the Ummah (Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, J Dilla) produced A Tribe Called Quest’s fifth album; or around the same time Marley Marl came out of semi-retirement and produced “L.A., L.A. (Kuwait Mix)” for Capone-N-Norega… But he didn’t stop. And even if he did stop at any of the aforementioned junctions, he’d still be arguably #1. In DJ Premier’s case, more than any other on the BeatTips Top 30, the sheer output and credits don’t lie!

Notwithstanding 2002, every year 1989 and 2001, DJ Premier has made the beat to at least 2 canonical (or Hall of Fame) hip hop/rap songs. This feat will never be matched. Then, in 2005 five, he resumed this record again. For any full-time beatmaker this would be amazing. But when you consider that between 1989 and 2003 Premier produced 6 Gang Starr albums (NONE OF THEM TRASH and all beats made by Premier on each album, save for the two songs he didn’t do on No More Mr. Nice Guy), it’s simply astonishing. Whether you like Premier’s music, his style of beats — which actually span a number of different styles and sounds, or are simply an opponent of the art of sampling, you can do nothing but tip your hat to him.

Then there’s criteria #4 from the BeatTips Top 30 list disclaimer: (4) The number of lyrically acclaimed rappers — in their prime — who rapped over their beats, and/or the subsequent “classic” songs created over the last 30 years. While a number of beatmakers on the BeatTips top 30 meet this threshold, DJ Premier actually stands ahead of the pack. For instance, he’s the only beatmaker to have made the beat for classic songs by Jay-Z, Biggie Smalls (Notorious B.I.G.), and Nas; all in their prime, all beats on their pivotal, paradigm-shifting debut albums. Obviously, this will never be matched. And it’s further worth noting how in demand DJ Premier has been throughout his career. Indeed, many rappers considered rhyming on a DJ Premier beat to be a career benchmark, a mark that they’ve arrived or a career-long wish.

As for an analysis of DJ Premier’s music. Dig this: DJ Premier is genius… Any complete examination of Premier’s music must acknowledge one thing: DJ Premier has mastered many styles and sounds. In recent years, some have chirped about Premier’s signature hi-hat, kick, and snare as if it’s the only style or sound he’s ever done. Truth is, long before that style (and after it), Premier used an assortment of styles and sounds. He could make beats that featured full drum breaks as the main drum framework. He could make beats that featured a blend of drum breaks and individual drum sounds and stabs. He could make beats with a wide range of different bass-lines scopes. He could make beats with strings and piano phrases, with no bass lines at all. Sonically, he could make aggressive jeep music that rivaled The Bomb Squad’s boom. But Premier’s jeep music had a rough polish to it that was distinctly rugged but smooth at the same time, never chaotic or disjointed.

When it comes to chops and arrangement, Premier is one of the main pioneers in this regard. In fact, I believe it’s the work that Premier did (more than anyone else) with assignment cut-offs and ruptures that led to beat machines including mute-group like functionality. But even with or without mute-group like functionally, no one surpasses Premier in the cut-off sample-chop style and sound. And just as with RZA, Premier was a master with soul samples (and funk, jazz, etc.),
but he never made beats with choppity chops just for chops sake. But Premier certainly doesn’t always chop samples as conservatively as RZA. This is because Premier’s style and sound utilizes half- and spare-part music phrases that are blended, cut, or ruptured together into new main and sub-phrases.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Premier’s scratch-hook. (“You Whack M.C.’s…ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, see you later…”) Premier may have not invented the scratch-hook, but he’s the king of it, and it’s a mainstay of his signature sound. (Note: What he dug for in the crates to cut was often equal to how he cut!) Also, as a DJ, and just as with many beatmakers on the BeatTips Top 30, DJ Premier too possesses a savvy knack for diggin’ in the crates and he has a great ear. He can flip jazz; he can flip soul; he can flip funk; he can flip rock; he can flip obscure Gregorian chants. Whatever he samples, he puts his well-recognized stamp on. Even in the Gang Starr years, you knew a Premier beat from everyone else’s

DJ Premier must also be specifically recognized for his drums. Layered drum breaks, distinct hi-hats (well before the 2000s), innovative drum frameworks, sometimes individual kicks juxtapose agains the kicks in breaks, layered snares, mixed velocity claps, shuffling, filtered drum sounds. If you’ve heard it, Premier was doing it in 1991! Premier is one of three beatmakers who I like to call the Three Drum Kings of Beatmaking. (The other two drum kings are RZA and Pete Rock.) I use the “The Drum Kings” moniker to single out Pete Rock, RZA, and DJ Premier, not because there aren’t others with great and recognizable drums, but because Pete Rock, RZA, and DJ Premier created the most recognizable and influential drum styles and sounds in the history of beatmaking. Post-1995, more drum styles and sounds were generated from the roots of Pete Rock, RZA, and DJ Premier than any other beatmakers.

Whatever anyone says about the drums of this or that beatmaker, most drum styles and sounds post-1995 (e.g. off-beat, bounce kick and snare, stuttering snare breakdown, sleigh bell hi-hats, shuffles, etc., etc., etc.) can be traced right back to something that Pete Rock, RZA, or DJ Premier originated and pioneered. (Incidentally, there wouldn’t be a distinctively “new” drum style and sound until the early 2000s, when Bink ushered in the big drum and sweep style and sound.)

NOTE: If you want to study DJ Premier’s drums, start with Gang Starr’s “Tonz ‘O’ Gunz”. You will immediately understand Premier’s drum skills. Remember, drums isn’t just the drums alone, it’s how the drum framework fits with everything.

Finally, there’s the matter of Gang Starr. When measuring the weight of a beatmaker who also belonged to a group, you can’t ignore the profile and ranking of said group. For instance, RZA – Wu-Tang Clan. Large Professor – Main Source. Q-Tip — A Tribe Called Quest. Havoc – Mobb Deep. Showbiz — Showbiz & AG. The Beatnuts — The Beatnuts. 9th Wonder — Little Brother. J Dilla — Slum Village. Madlib — Lootpack. Try to objectively think for a moment about each of these groups and their standing. Certainly, there can be some consensus on notoriety or where in the canon of hip hop/rap music each group likely ranks. In this regard, Gang Starr was a formidable, classic hip hop/rap duo that has and will continue have an impact over the hip hop/rap music tradition for generations to come.

Indeed, around the world Gang Starr is one of the most well respected and beloved hip hop/rap groups of all time. And when you consider the facts about Gang Starr’s peculiar longevity, again you’re left with nothing but a deep respect for DJ Premier. In the time that DJ Premier and Guru were Gang Starr, they recorded six albums without any change in the lineup. Every Gang Starr album unquestionably had DJ Premier’s stamp on it; and not one album was trash.

The music and videos below are presented here for the purpose of scholarship.

DJ Premier Beats (Songs) Recommended for Study:

SPECIAL NOTE: Listen to EVERY Gang Starr album straight through.

“Manifest” – Gang Starr beat by DJ Premier

“Tonz ‘O’ Gunz” – Gang Starr prod. by DJ Premier

“Moment of the Truth” – Gang Starr feat. prod. by DJ Premier

“Unorthodox” – Joey Bada$$ prod. by DJ Premier

“Skills” – Gang Starr prod. by DJ Premier

“Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park) – Nas prod. by DJ Premier

“Make it Clear” – Cormega prod. by DJ Premier

“Kick in the Door” – Notorious B.I.G. (AKA Biggie Smalls) prod. by DJ Premier

“I Luv” – M.O.P. feat. Freddie Foxxx (AKA Bumpy Knuckles) prod. by DJ Premier

“The 6th Sense” – Common feat. Bilal prod. by DJ Premier

“My World” – O.C. prod. by DJ Premier

“You Can’t Stop the Prophet” – Jeru The Damaja prod. by DJ Premier

“Invincible” – Capone-N-Norega prod. by DJ Premier

“Above the Clouds” – Gang Starr feat. Inspectah prod. by DJ Premier

“Royalty” – Gang Starr prod. by DJ Premier

“On the Frontline” – M.O.P. prod. by DJ Premier

“Nas is Like” – Nas prod. by DJ Premier

“D’Evils” – Jay-Z prod. by DJ Premier

“Same Team, No Games” – Gang Starr feat. NYG’z and H. Stax prod. by DJ Premier

“P is Still Free” – KRS-One prod. by DJ Premier

“Screwball” – F.A.Y.B.A.N. prod. by DJ Premier

“It’s Been a Long Time” – Rakim prod. by DJ Premier

“Check the Technique” – Gang Starr prod. by DJ Premier

“The Come Up” – AZ prod. by DJ Premier

“Ain’t the Devil Happy” – Jeru The Damaja prod. by DJ Premier

“NY State of Mind” – Nas prod. by DJ Premier

“First Nigga” – Kool G Rap prod. by DJ Premier

“You Know My Steez” – Gang Starr prod. by DJ Premier

“Mass Appeal” – Gang Starr prod. by DJ Premier

“Pop Shots (Wu-Tang) – Ol’ Dirty Bastard prod. by DJ Premier

“Itz a Set Up” – Gang Starr feat. H. Stax prod. by DJ Premier

“2nd Childhood” – Nas prod. by DJ Premier

“Step in the Arena” – Gang Starr prod. by DJ Premier

“Just to Get a Rep” – Gang Starr prod. by DJ Premier

“A Million and One Questions” – Jay-Z prod. by DJ Premier

“Make ‘Em Pay” – Gang Starr feat. Krumbsnatcha prod. by DJ Premier

“Boom” – Royce Da 5’9 prod. by DJ Premier

“Ex Girl to the Next Girl” – Gang Starr prod. by DJ Premier

“Friend or Foe” Jay-Z prod. by DJ Premier

“Work” – Gang Starr beat by DJ Premier

“Unbelievable” – Notorious B.I.G. (AKA Biggie Smalls) prod. by DJ Premier

“Much Too Much” – Gang Starr prod. by DJ Premier

“New York (Ya Out There)” – Rakim prod. by DJ Premier

“Code of the Streets” – Gang Starr prod. by DJ Premier

“Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” – Gang Starr prod. by DJ Premier

“Take it Personal” – Gang Starr prod. by DJ Premier

“JFK 2 LAX” – Gang Starr prod. by DJ Premier

“Downtown Swinga ’96” – M.O.P. prod. by DJ Premier

“Come Clean” – Jeru The Damaja prod. by DJ Premier

“Your Dayz R #’d” – NYG’z beat by DJ Premier