As the song “New York, New York” goes, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere,” New York City has a way of taking any shortcomings, whether personal or professional, and magnifying them. Some feel the burn under the lights like ants being tormented by toddlers wielding an eye loupe while others treat it as a spotlight.
For DJ Premier, the city was where he’d go from a Prairie View A&M house party DJ to the man whose sound is widely considered to be New York City.
The Big Apple had always made an impression on him. As a kid, he stayed with his grandfather in Bed-Stuy, and the two would frequent Yankees games together. However, it was a particularly gruesome sight he witnessed in the fifth grade that made him vow to move there when he got older. As he and his grandfather waited for a train, a man committed suicide by jumping in front of it. Premier returned to Houston and told his friends about the amputated arm that was still moving on the tracks. While the sight was macabre, he believed that the city was a place where anything could happen for him.
His fascination with all things NYC only intensified as he was exposed to the burgeoning Hip-Hop culture in the late ’70s. When he was a teen, Times Square wasn’t the Disneyland environment that it is today. He vividly recalls seeing the Rock Steady Crew breaking outside of the Marriott Marquis on 7th Avenue and 44th Street to the sounds of “Apache” by the Incredible Bongo Band and “It’s Just Begun” by the Jimmy Castor Bunch.
In 1988, Premier finally made good on his fifth-grade promise and relocated to Brooklyn with a crate of records he took from his music-obsessed mother. He also brought a demo tape with his group MCs in Control, which was formed four years earlier during his freshman year at Prairie View A&M. Top-Ski was from Boston, Sugar Pop was from Dallas, and Stylee T was described by Premier as, “Flava Flav before we knew anything about PE.”
He was risking a lot by making the move. Premier’s father was the dean of Arts and Sciences at Prairie View A&M and had instilled in him the importance of getting a good education. However, Premier believed that his demo tape would set him up better in life than a diploma ever would.
DJ PREMIER. / Photos By JONATHAN MANNION
He bounced between staying with his grandfather in Canarsie and his college pal Gordon Franklin’s childhood home in Brooklyn. Franklin’s father had no objections with putting him up as long as he obeyed two house rules. First: Don’t sit at home all day. Second: Get a job. He and Top-Ski got jobs working at Young People’s Day Camp.
“It was all inner-city kids from Brooklyn,” Premier recalls. “They were all wild-ass kids, like the Bad News Bears and shit. They had a shortage of two counselors, and we just proved that we could handle it so they gave us the job without experience. The kids fell in love with us because we were out there beat-boxing, and Top would rap.”
Although Stu Fine of Wild Pitch Records had made it clear that he wasn’t a fan of Top’s skills on the mic, Premier was convinced that if they re-recorded his vocals in a more professional manner than from his childhood bedroom in Houston, the record executive would warm up.
“So we did that,” Premier says. “[Stu] said, ‘Still not liking him, but we’d sure like you to be in Gang Starr if ever there’s that opportunity.’ I said, ‘I will never leave my guys.’ Top was my main MC. If he leaves, everything’s not going to work and not going to happen.”
MCs in Control eventually changed their name to Inner Circle Posse and then ICP. They did a few more demos, and Premier made good on his promise to stay with his original group despite the tepid response from the music industry at large. Then, Top dropped a bombshell.
“He got to a point where he was like, ‘Yo, in the next three, four months if we don’t get a deal, I’m going to join the military,’ ” Premier says. “I’m like, ‘Come on, dude. You’re not even cut out for the military. Man, give it a few more months.’ ”
Premier woke up on a Saturday morning to the sounds of knocking on the front door. He and Top slept in the basement, so he had to trudge up the stairs and look through the peephole.
“I’m like, ‘Is that the police?’ ” Premier says. “Because he’s got the little uniform hat on. I opened the door. ‘Yeah, can I help you?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m looking for Theodore Campbell.’ I’m like, ‘For what?’ He said, ‘He signed up. Today is his day. He’s leaving.’ ”
Premier bounded back downstairs. Sure enough, Top already had his bags packed and was ready to ship out with the Navy.
“He’s like, ‘Yo man, this rap shit ain’t working. We can't get a deal. I’m gone.’ ” says Premier. “I’m like, ‘Well how long did you enlist for?’ He said, ‘Four years.’ I’m like, ‘Oh dude, I’m not waiting four years.’ If he said a year, I was going to wait. I was going to stick it out, maybe go back home or try to get a DJ gig. But he said four years, and I’m like, ‘Dude, I guess this is it.’ We parted ways peacefully, all love. I called back Stu and said, ‘Yo, Top just went to the Navy, man.’ He’s like, ‘So are you down?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah’.”
Premier and Guru met for the first time at a Kool G Rap concert at a venue called The Whirl. They liked each other, and Premier agreed to send him a couple beats. One in particular stood out: “Words I Manifest” would become the first Gang Starr single under their new partnership: It was formed around a sample of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis’ song “A Night in Tunisia.”
* Banner Image: DJ Premier / Photo by Jonathan Mannion