DJ Premier Explains How He Got Nas, Kanye West, KRS-One and Rakim On "Classic"

By Kiani Shabazz

On the most recent episode of DJ Premier’s YouTube series So Wassup?, the legendary DJ/producer gave insight on the recording of his 2007 posse track, “Classic (Better Than I’ve Ever Been.)" The song features Kanye West, Nas, Rakim, and KRS-One, and Preemo explained that the record was put together by Nike and MTV2 in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the sportswear brand’s iconic Air Force 1 sneaker. The original track only included Nas and Kanye West, before Rakim’s verse was added, prompting KRS-One to get on the remix. 

“KRS-One called me and said, ‘Yo, we need a Premier version of this song,'” he remembered. “I had no ties to it, but when KRS calls, what do you say, no? No. You’re like, ‘Alright, what do you need me to do?’ He said, ‘The original is done; we even performed it already on MTV. But we still need one to do a video too, and we really want to get it a little more — not even uptempo, just more of a different type of energy.’ I said, ‘Alright.'”

Weeks later, the Gang Starr producer received Kanye West, Nas, Rakim, and KRS-One’s vocals and got down to work — not only on cooking up the bouncy, Carl Douglas-sampling beat, but expertly manipulating Rakim’s verse to match the tempo of the track.

“I got Rakim’s [verse] separately on a CD of an a capella of his vocal, but the thing is, [the song is] 100 BPM, but his [verse] was between 97 and 98. If you lined it up with my beat or the original, it’s not gonna line up; he’s gonna be behind lagging, and the beat’s gonna be ahead of him. Can’t have that. I know how to time-stretch, but I was like, ‘I don’t really wanna alter Rakim’s stuff.’ You don’t mess with Rakim! It’s a violation."

"I had a Pioneer CDJ-1000 … you could do a thing where it’s a pitch control where the vocal tone doesn’t change. This was before Ableton and all of these new devices … When I got Rakim’s [verse], I sped it up and kept pushing it and pushing it … Boom. I had pushed it, and when I do his verse, it’s the last verse. Comes out flawless. You wouldn’t even know the difference.”

Nike decided to shoot a music video for the single, including Rakim, Kanye West, KRS-One, and Nas. The video featured DJ Premier and Rakim in the studio, capturing their first-ever collaboration on camera. 

“To have Rakim come to your studios is already a blessing,” he said. “Mind you, I’ve always wanted to find him because he’s like a UFO. When we did the Gang Starr Full Clip album, Rakim appeared on ‘The Militia II’ with WC and Gang Starr, and I gave all of our plaques out to everybody that was involved with that album when we went gold. Rakim was the only one we couldn’t track down to give him his plaque. It had been sitting in my closet at the studio collecting dust.”

“He said, ‘I’ll come to the studio and shoot the video.’ The director says, ‘I don’t wanna put Rakim last in this video; I want him to go first. And I’m gonna record him with just live audio.’ Sorta like KRS-One’s video ‘My Philosophy.’ When he did the first verse, he cuts the music off.”

The original Rick Rubin-produced version of “Classic (Better Than I’ve Ever Been)” was nominated for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group at the 2008 Grammy Awards, where it lost out to another Kanye West-assisted track, Common’s Finding Forever hit “Southside.”