Over a month of blogging, and no hip-hop?!? I hate to think what people are saying about us! Let's get this remedied right here and now. If you listen to hip-hop, I know you love DJ Premier. Because if you don't love DJ Premier, you clearly aren't listening to hip-hop. July's seen me on a full-blown Primo binge, as Kelly can wearily attest. I made the mistake of looking at an online discography page, and since then each minute without an mp3 of “Return of the Crooklyn Dodgers” has been a torture no man should be forced to endure. I still don't have that song, but I do have for you a few you probably already know, and a few that you maybe haven't heard. Each jumps out from the needle-drop as top-shelf Premier, built on a trainspotter's dream of only the finest hip-hop, jazz, soul, and funk. (A warning to sensitive ears – these all rate at least a PG13 for language.)
Mos Def – Mathematics (1999)
Were I introducing rap music to somebody for the first time, this'd be one of the songs I'd play. The numerical conceit continues through the whole song, and works better than this sorta gimmick almost ever does (though GZA's hyper-dexterous “Labels” is another fine exception to the rule). A cynical state-of-the-union address cast as a numbers game, “Mathematics” avoids the obligatory crack-rap, doesn't come off as preachy, and assumes a broad scope that even a middle-class white kid like me can nod head to without feeling like a total cultural tourist. As for the backing music, this is one of Premier's more minimal tracks (though not so pared down as his turn on KRS-One's classic “Outta Here”), giving the spotlight to Mos. Still, there's no question who we're listening to once you get to the “chorus that isn't,” a quick-firing sonic collage of vocal samples (including one from the greatest MC working today) that is the Premier trademark. An added bonus for fellow expats: Mos's “16 onces to a pound, 20 more to a key” comes in handy when trying to get a handle on the metric system.
Cormega – Dirty Game (2006?)
I found this on eMusic on some Source Magazine compilation, and I sincerely doubt I'll ever hear Mega sound better. Best known for his relationship (or, at times, lack of relationship) with Queens' most successful son, Nas (himself a longtime DJ Premier collaborator). As is his wont, he talks a lot about his prison bid here, but this time with focus. If his rhymes fall short of a revelation, they never fail to sound like the work of a man at pains to make the very most of an opportunity to work with hip-hop's greatest producer (something Madd Science might've considered trying). For Premier's part, he uses his turntables to splice together disparate vocal samples into what seems like a single thematic anchor, and that's why he's the best. Not to mention, this beat is all heart, with dramatic strings and a downbeat that sounds like the world-weary sigh that Cormega surely let out after he finished recording his vocal track.
Royce Da 5'9” - Boom (2002)
Five-foot-nine-inches isn't remarkably short, so I've never been sure at what point this measurement became part of Royce's identity, but whatevs. Royce is one of the most confident-sounding MCs in hip-hop, and perhaps because of this, his collaborations with Primo have always been standouts. Pretty standard issue hip-hop stuff – ridiculously big boasts, a persistent snare march, and a trunk-rattling low-end – but when does that ever sound this good? Royce's new album is on the way with more Primo beats, and in the meantime there's an all-Primo mixtape out there.
Rakim – It's Been A Long Time (1997)
Formerly of the classic Eric B & Rakim combo, Rakim belongs at or near the top of every list of the greatest MCs of all time. Back in the mythical days of '88, Big Daddy Kane was probably the only MC who could touch the hem of his garment, and even today he spits like the reigning champ. This track was like a homecoming, Rakim striking a John Lennon pose and calling his return the most hotly awaited “since Jesus.” For his biggest fans, there was indeed something rapturous about his first collaborations with Premier. This track is also one of the better examples of the ways Premier often manipulates these samples on the turn table, mining from blunt verbal delivery a roughly melodic quality. As a final word on Rakim, his records with Eric B can be a real hassle to track down on vinyl in the US (all of them having been bought up by Germany!), but his two solo CDs (both featuring multiple Premier productions) can almost always be found in the used bins for under $6.
Gang Starr – Next Time (1998)
Who am I kidding, I can't post on Premier without throwing in a Gang Starr track. Teaming up with Guru's monotone bragging, Gang Starr was Premier's priority project for years, and it was largely through Gang Starr that he built his reputation. From their second album all the way to 2003's underrated The Ownerz, every album they dropped was worth well more than the fifteen dollar price tag. But you know this....
In recent Primo news, dude has a show on Sirius radio, co-hosted with Big Shug, his cohort of choice these days. And because you're all such sweethearts, I'm going to tell you a secret: it's also available as a free Podcast! Finally, whatchya know about this little Nike-commissioned number? Featuring Kanye, Nas, KRS, and Rakim, the title says it all: a classic right outta the box. And Primo sounding better than he's ever been.
DJ Premier – Classic (2007)