A revealing human characteristic is the habit of framing specific moments in history as the ‘golden age’, a stretch of time to act as a reference point for a musical genre or movement. These descriptions satisfy our desire for nostalgia, the craving for a distant past where music is seen as something pure and undiluted.
New York in the early 90s is one such construct. These are the supposed glory years of hip-hop and a period which is continually put on a pedestal to critique artists in the genre, modern or otherwise. Sometimes it can be hard to argue with numbers and the sheer quantity of seminal records released around this time speak for themselves: Enter The Wu-Tang, Illmatic, The Infamous, a slew of A Tribe Called Quest releases (take your pick of any from 1990-93), Ready To Die, Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous, Mecca and the Soul Brother, among many others.
One issue with framing history in this way is that smaller players can find themselves eroded from the narrative or era that they helped to flourish. Jeru the Damaja is one artist that has been, if not marginalised, then at least overshadowed by more famous contemporaries.
His second album Wrath of the Math (released 15th October 1996) is nearly a quarter of a century old this year, and its enduring brilliance owes not only to Jeru’s skills as an MC but also a Texas native who became as synonymous with East Coast hip-hop as any other producer.
DJ Premier was a powerful force in New York’s fertile scene, working with most of the day’s established rappers as well as launching the careers of many others. His production on Jeru’s first two albums are celebrated even in his vast discography, but Premier’s contribution as half of hip-hop duo Gang Starr is how he is most widely known. Along with rapper Guru, the pair set an incredible standard right up until their split in 2003, which would result in neither man speaking to the other for years.
Ultimately it speaks to a unique partnership that a producer from Houston and a Boston rapper stood toe to toe with any of the New York giants active during this period.
Read on for a rundown of Premier’s finest productions:
‘Jungle Music’ – Jeru The Damaja (1994)
If ‘Come Clean’ is the underground hit most identifiable with the Premier-Jeru collaboration, ‘Jungle Music’ remains relatively slept on by comparison. Evoking the Jungle Brothers from the previous decade, Jeru intones some of his most Afrocentric lyrics over a classic East Coast boom bap beat:
“More mics killed than slaves during the middle passages,
Who rapes and ravages and calls us savage?”
‘Me Or The Papes’ – Jeru The Damaja (1996)
It would be fair to say that Ahmad Jamal’s 1970 album The Awakening has spawned more than its fair share of hip-hop classics over the years. Ever wondered where the heavenly piano riff on Nas’ ‘The World Is Yours’ was lifted from? Pete Rock sampled it on Jamal’s ‘I Love Music‘, and ‘Me or the Papes’ uses a completely different section of the original’s soft tinkling keys to almost equal effect.
‘Step In The Arena’ – Gang Starr (1991)
Step in the Arena was not Gang Starr’s first album but it was the release that signalled an iconic musical duo were approaching the peak of their powers. The title track is vintage Premier; tight drums, squealing horns and pitched up vocals – it is undeniably catchy.
‘True Honey Buns (Dat Freak Shit)’ – Bahamadia (1996)
The perfect riposte to anyone who doubts if Premier is capable of slowing things down. It helps having someone as effortlessly slick as Bahamadia on vocals but this song definitely shows a different side to the producer.
‘Kick in the Door’ – Notorious B.I.G. (1997)
Released 16 days after Biggie’s murder, Life After Death features some of hip-hop’s most celebrated producers and Preemo’s effort sits comfortably alongside anything on the album. This track would be Biggie’s parting shot against other New York rappers who fell in his scope around that time; Raekwon, Nas, Ghostface and (following on from his Biggie diss on ‘One Day‘) Jeru The Damaja.
‘Mathematics’ – Mos Def (1999)
“Beats by Su-Preemo for all of my peoples”
Named a few years ago as one of Premier’s all-time favourite productions, what else is there to say? Mos uses his bars to completely eviscerate the racial inequalities of American society, but the chorus is a ludicrous exhibition in DJ cutting.
‘The 6th Sense’ – Common (2000)
If you listened to anonymous instrumentals of this list and then read the names of the rappers that appeared on them, it would not take much to connect the dots between this beat and Common. A joyous track and the only one from Like Water For Chocolate which was not produced by a member of the legendary Soulquarians, which in itself speaks volumes.
‘Bad Name’ – Gang Starr (2019)
After Guru’s death in 2010, a letter supposedly written in his final days was released which doubled down on the acrimonious break up of Gang Starr:
“I do not wish my ex-DJ to have anything to do with my name likeness, events tributes etc…and I have instructed my lawyers to enforce this. I had nothing to do with him in life for over seven years and want nothing to do with him in death.”
Given Guru was in a coma for the final months of his life, it is extremely implausible that he could have written this bizarre statement regarding one of his closest friends on his deathbed. It is widely acknowledged the letter was instead manufactured by DJ Solar, a musical associate who came under criticism for having a murky relationship with Guru and his family during the MC’s final weeks.
After lengthy disputes, court battles and negotiations between all parties, Premier purchased Guru’s unreleased recordings from Solar in 2017 after making sure they were vocals that not even he had heard before. He spent the next two years crafting the posthumous, and perhaps final, Gang Starr album One of the Best Yet .
‘New York State of Mind’ – Nas (1994)
Debates about the greatest hip-hop album of all time are by their nature a subjective exercise. What is beyond doubt is Illmatic’s place in that conversation, and ‘New York State of Mind’ is the perfect opening to what remains a monumental achievement.
‘Mass Appeal’ – Gang Starr (1994)
“And you’d be happy as hell to get a record deal,
Maybe your soul you’d sell to have mass appeal”
Before Hard To Earn was released, Gang Starr were becoming increasingly annoyed by the ‘jazz rap’ label that followed them wherever they went. Guru in particular was irate and these frustrations lead to a far more stripped down and darker sound on their fourth album. ‘Mass Appeal’ might be the best example of this new approach – the melody is so simple Premier said he initially produced it as a joke to mimic what he thought would get radio airplay.
With ‘Code Of The Streets’, ‘Now You’re Mine’, ‘Suckas Need Bodyguards’ and ‘Tonz ‘O’ Gunz’, there is a strong argument to be made that Hard To Earn is the finest Gang Starr record. Perhaps it is enough to say it remains Premier’s favourite.