Hatin’ on Premo
“If you put me in a box... you don’t know me or my history.”
It must be difficult to stay humble when you’re recording angel genius, but somehow DJ Premier manages to keep his ego in check. After more than two decades in the lab constructing the sometimes jazzy, often grimy boom-bap that helped shape the sound of urban America in the ’90s and beyond, the brother has nothing to prove. Still, that didn’t stop some internet suckas from hating on him recently.
“When I started posting the work I’ve done with my new artist Torii Wolf, some people were on Instagram accusing me of abandoning hip hop,” says DJ Premier, whose label To the Top Records (TTT) will be releasing Wolf’s forthcoming debut Flow Riiot on Friday. “I’m like, ‘Abandoned what?’ The MC Eiht album I worked on (Which Way Iz West) came out in June. I had one guy write me that he was going to stop listening to all my music. I know most of them are just trolls that need a hug, but sometimes I do find myself debating them and schooling them. If you put me in a box and think that hip hop is the only thing I can do, then you don’t know me or my history.”
As a kid growing-up in Prairie View, Texas, young Christopher Martin lived with his school teacher parents (Mom Dukes was also an abstract painter) and listened to soul music at home. By high school, he’d rebelled against R&B and dove into exploring the post-punk/new wave waters of The Smiths, Simple Minds and Siouxsie and the Banshees, as well as the heavy metal sonics supplied by Iron Maiden, Van Halen and AC/DC.
“I went to all of those concerts,” Premier told Wax Poetics writer Andrew Mason in 2004. “I recently found my memory book from high school and I got mad concert tickets of all kinds of shows I went to. I’ve been to see AC/DC millions of times.” It wasn’t until he was a freshman at Prairie View College in 1984 that he started getting deeper into rap music and eventually began spinning under the moniker Waxmaster C after joining forces with a crew calling themselves Inner Circle Posse.
The group disbanded when Waxmaster moved to Brooklyn, where he had family and visited often when he was a boy. In 1989, indie label Wild Pitch Records connected Premier with Boston transplant Guru, whose hip hop group Gang Starr had broken up; the rapper was allowed to keep the name.
Over the course of six Gang Starr LPs and two dozen-plus singles, he and Guru worked hard and fought like brothers while consistently making dope material. In addition, he was recruited by the most skilled emcees in the biz (Nas, Jay-Z, Big L, Biggie) to lace their respective albums with his uncompromising ghetto symphonics. But even back then, the burly b-boy refused to be confined to one genre.
In 1992, he and Guru co-produced Neneh Cherry’s single “Sassy,” and a few years later, he alone contributed a fresh remix of “Together Again,” the second single from The Velvet Rope his Virgin Records labelmate Janet Jackson. Eleven years ago, Premo went as far pop as he could go when he contributed tracks to Christina Aguilera’s bangin’ 2006 Back to Basics disc; their track “Ain’t No Other Man” won a 2007 Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.
The key trait these three women (Neneh, Janet & Christina) share is their determinative strength, the unbound boldness to create the kind of music they wanted; that same aural independence can be heard in Wolf’s moody output. Recorded at Premier’s new Headquarterz Studio in Astoria, Queens, the album’s production, which he shared with former mentor King of Chill, is comprised of heavy beats, turntable scratches and smooth grooves that aren’t far removed from the atmospheric, cinematic sounds of early Massive Attack, Tricky and Portishead.
“Those artists were a big influence on me,” says Wolf, who grew up in Long Island but currently resides in Los Angeles. With her partly shaved head and rock-girl intensity, Wolf has an androgynous style and a voice that recalls ice queens Björk and Kate Bush, but with a capacity to go beyond mere impersonation.
On the standout “I’d Wait Forever and a Day,” she and Premo take it Brill Building-deeper, creating a post-mod Burt Bacharach–inspired track complete with horns supplied by his group (yet another project) the Badder Band. The dreamy “Nobody’s Around” features our Wolf on guitar. “I was playing, just trying to find a cool sound,” she confesses, “and Premo sampled me and turned it into a beat.”
Minutes into our telephone conversation, I was on her case for not including a dope title track on the album. According to Prince, every dope title deserves a dope song. “Flow Riiot is an anagram of my name,” she tells me. “I love wordplay, messing around with words and letters. I think it is the perfect description of what I do.”
So far, TTT Records has already released five videos, including the creepy “Shadows Crawl” and “Big Big Trouble,” to give the public a taste of their collective vision. “I enjoyed making those videos, because I got a chance to voice my ideas,” Wolf says. “A lot of times, when I’m writing, I get these visual ideas.”
Managed by Ian Schwartzman, who also reps Premier and brought the two together, the project began with Wolf’s acoustic guitar demos, which Premo admits he wasn’t really checking for—initially. “I thought the music was cool, but not to the degree that I was willing to drop everything and work with her,” he recalls. “A year later, I met her, and I liked her a lot, but I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.”
His attitude changed after Torii went to work with homie/producer King of Chill (MC Lyte, Audio Two), whom he’s known since first moving to New York City—the man who taught Premo how to use drum machines. “When I listened to Torii’s demos, I was reminded of Sinead O’Connor,” King of Chill says. “In 1988, when I was working with Lyte, she did a remix with O’Connor called ‘I Want Your (Hands On Me),’ and that’s what I thought about when I heard her songs. She just got my creative juices flowing. The first track we did was ‘You’re Not There,’ and when Preme heard what we were doing, he got excited.”
Premo had Wolf come to his studio for ten days to see if the two would gel. The results speak for themselves. “She was quick, too,” he says. “I could give her two or three beats, and the next day, she was sending me the demos. Her stuff was more out the box than what I usually do, but Torii has a deep soul, and it comes through in everything she writes and sings.” Unwilling to lean on his musical legacy, DJ Premier’s sound continues to evolve. So what’s there to hate?