Gang Starr’s Beginnings

DJ Premier outlines how the classic lineup of the legendary hip hop group came to be.

Gang Starr was anything but a sure thing. But Stu Fine knew there was something there. The owner of Wild Pitch Records felt that if he could simply pair up Keith Elam, AKA Guru, with the right producer, everything would fall into place. That producer turned out to be DJ Premier, a then up-and-coming beatmaker from Texas. In this edited and condensed excerpt from a 2007 lecture at the Red Bull Music Academy, DJ Premier outlines the struggle and the luck that went into the formation of Gang Starr’s classic lineup.

When I was in Texas I worked at a record store called Soundwaves, it was like the neighborhood store that everybody who was “ghetto” would shop at. For one, we had to all know our music. You had to know blues, you had to know zydeco because Louisiana was close. You had to know rock, you had to know hip hop and you had to know soul. So being that we had to know so many genres of music, everybody was that knowledgeable.

My man Carlos Garza, who already had a job there, he got me the job based on my knowledge of music. The reason why we met is because he had all the ill 12-inches of anything that I wanted, but I would change the prices on them before I went up to the counter to ring up the records. He caught me, and I still denied it. I was like, “I didn’t change the prices, your machine was wrong when you priced them.”

I went outside to go to my car and Carlos was like, “Yo man, I know you changed the prices. I ain’t gonna say nothing, but why are you doing that?” That’s how we got cool. He got me a job there. It’s crazy because I remember the boss there, the owner, Terry, was a major coke head. We found out he damn near almost made the store go under because he stepped up almost $80,000 worth of coke on the store’s money.

People used to try and stuff CDs in their pants and stuff, so you made sure you watched everybody.

I learned how to watch people from Terry, because he used to say, “Yo, whenever anybody walks into that store, when you hear that little bell, go over the door, look at everybody in the eye and say: ‘Hey, how you doing?,’ so that they know you looked at them walk in.” Because that’s when CDs were just starting to bubble, so people used to try and stuff them in their pants and stuff, so you made sure you watched everybody so that they at least know that you made eye contact. He said, “I don’t care if they get annoyed, always ask them do they need something.”

So when it came to my demo, I made it just for fun, you know? I made it for the purpose of doing records, but I was still shy and not really, really confident about being picked to be an artist. So we just did it in the crib. Then, when we stayed with my man Gordon in Brooklyn, his next door neighbor, Skeet, was in a house group called Total Science. He used to let me borrow his 4-track, taught me how to work it and I was like, “Oh, I can overlap my beats.” So I would actually cut the beat for five minutes non-stop, then the next track I’d layer a horn over it or a little scratch and now I have four tracks with my man Top-Ski rapping on it.

When we did the demo we went back to school again. Carlos used to be the 12-inch buyer at the time, and he would report to all the independent hip hop companies, and he told Stu Fine at Wild Pitch, “Hey, this guy…” I was called Waxmaster C at that time because my name is Chris and everyone was a Jammaster or Grandmaster. I just wanted [to be] some type of master so I was Waxmaster C, and he told them about me. So Stu said, “Man, I got this group Gang Starr that has three members right now but they’re really not getting along with each other. The DJ is fighting with the MC, the other MC doesn’t like the rhymes, and the other guy is really great but he just needs a tight team.”

I don’t let nobody see me sweat no matter how nervous I get.

So I was like, “Tell him we’ll be in the group,” and he was like: “Yeah, but…” I wanted my guys to be in the group with them so it’d be like Top, me and we’d join him and help him out and he wasn’t trying to see that.” So then I said, “Alright, I’m not interested, let’s try to shop my group.” They heard the demo and the demo happened to run across Stu Fine’s office but they were just a husband and wife company, so they had nobody to really A&R for them. So Guru used to listen to all the demos and Carlos copied my cassette tape demo and snuck it to New York, which I didn’t know he was going to do. And all of a sudden Carlos was like, “Man, I’ve got to tell you something. I sent that cassette but they like it.” And I was like, “For real?” And they were like, “Hey, we’re going to fly you up.” I went back and stayed with Gordon again, but they didn’t like Top’s voice, they were like, “Nah, he doesn’t have any flow.” So I was like, “Well, put us in a real studio and maybe we can make it sound better.” Went to the real studio, still didn’t like it and I was still wasn’t interested.

I stayed in New York. I remember me and Gordon, he took me everywhere. I saw Marley Marl and Heavy D. I remember Heavy D had on an all-grey sweatsuit, and he had the big fat Dukie cable underneath but you could see it bulging out the neck and I was like, “Damn, this is real.” I’m just sitting there shaking like this with my cassette. Of course, once they popped up, I stopped shaking because I don’t let nobody see me sweat no matter how nervous I get. I [eventually] gave Marley the tape, saw him again and he said he didn’t like it. He said it wasn’t up to par, so I went back to the drawing board, made another demo, and it was way better. That’s where I had a record called “Let My DJ Get Hyped,” which turned into “DJ Premier in Deep Concentration” on No More Mr Nice Guy. At that time pretty much everyone talked about “My DJ, my DJ, my DJ...” The DJ always gets his little solo part and he gets to go off, so that turned into that.

At that time I was still like, “Give Top another chance,” and they said, “We really don’t wanna do that, we really just want you. Why don’t you come out with us all tonight and meet Guru?” So we went to a club called The World and I remember Busy Bee performed that night, Melle Mel, Kool G Rap, Ice Cream Tee. I remember Ultramagnetic MCs walked in with all these walkie talkies, they all had mink coats on and the Dapper Dan stuff and the Luis Vuitton and the hats and I was like, “Man, they look just like the cover.” I was around all of this like, “Damn, I’ve got to do this.”

I came in the studio... all Mr. Arrogant... and that hampered me.

So during that time me and Guru had a good vibe with each other, I explained to him my situation of why I wanted to be in the group. Couple of months passed and Top pretty much got fed up and was like, “Yo, this stuff is not going to work. I’m going to go into the military.” And I was like: “Yeah, alright.” And then one day the recruiting officer came, knocked on the door and said, “Yeah, I’m looking for Theodore Campbell.” And I was like: “For what?” He said: “Oh, he registered to go to the navy and we’re here to get him.” And I was like, “Top? Oh man, now what am I going to do?” So I called and said, “Yo, my man left.” But that shows my loyalty, I was not down until that happened because I was like, “Damn man, you’re not sticking it out with me, so now I’m all by myself.”

So No More Mr Nice Guy is more like my resume album because me and the group had to get our chemistry to learn how to make an album together because Guru already had experience making records with other producers, with 45 King and with Donald D. So they already had like three 12-inches out prior to me joining the group.

I had to learn that the process of recording is totally different.

The process of how I made the demos is not how they do it in a real studio. I remember the first day I came in the studio. I brought Gordon and his brother Gary, and I came in there all hardcore and looking like I was ill, I had my hat on all broke down and I was like, “Yo, set my turntables up so that we can start recording.” And I remember my man, the engineer, SloMo Sunnenfeld at Sound on Sound Studios was like, “You’re not setting those turntables up for like another week, you don’t need that.” And I was like, “What? You better set my shit up,” and Guru’s trying to explain, “Man, they don’t go like that,” because I’d never made a record. So I’m like, “No, set my shit up.” I’m all Mr. Arrogant, and that hampered me because now I had to learn that the process of recording is totally different.

The first record we did together was “Words I Manifest.” I said to him I had to go back to school again, one more time, to tie up some loose ends and I sent him the beat. I was really into jazz samples because no one really capped those. It was the James Brown era. It was like if you didn’t have a James Brown loop you weren’t in the loop, basically. No one was really messing with jazz samples. My grandfather was in a jazz band, so I figured, “Let me see how to put hardcore beats to those types of sounds,” being that they were instrumental. I wasn’t on a jazz mission or anything like that. We started to get labeled as jazz rap. And, to me, jazz rap means you rap about jazz. We did two records like that.

[Around that time] US3 came out, Digable Planets came out, so it was kind of like this little jazz craze thing, and it was confusing what Gang Starr stood for. That’s when I started rebelling and I said, “You know what? I’m going to start stripping things down and making everything raw and crazy,” and that’s when I tried to expand my production style. [But] “Words I Manifest” was my first record. And the crazy thing was, I remember when Marley Marl played it first – the original, not the remix – and also Red Alert. At that time, if Red Alert and Marley Marl was playing your record, you made it. When Red Alert played “Manifest” we was just like, “Oh, man.”

By DJ Premier on March 21, 2014