Wax Museum

DJ Premier
Haze Presents New York Reality Check 101

DJ PREMIER IS a classicist. In 1989, as producer for Guru's Gang Starr, he sampled Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia," inventing jazz hop. The Digable Planets, and scores of now-forgotten acid-jazz groups, would come to share Premier's passion for hip hop/jazz fusion. But few had his good taste, and many Premier-inspired field trippers ran out of gas just short of the dubious off-ramp that is Herbie Hancock's Headhunters. In 1993, Us3 finally got it right, di-bee, di-bee boppin' their way through the Blue Note catalog and straight to the bank.

But Premier (a.k.a. Primo) had moved on to new challenges. Backing Jeru the Damaja, he buried samples of German avant-garde composer Karlheinz "Über Dupa Fly" Stockhausen in the thick mix of Jeru's The Sun Rises in the East, along with a confoundingly fresh rearrangement of beats from the outdated samples collection Ultimate Breaks and Beats. If that doesn't quite resonate as a gigantic accomplishment, think of it this way: An architect tears down Hibbing and uses the rubble to build Vancouver.

And now, on his recent release Haze Presents New York Reality Check 101, he sets out to rebuild the foundations of New York hip hop. On this recording, Premier compiles 14 independently released Big Apple hip-hop singles--a mix tape reborn on CD--with grace, precision, and a punk-rock passion for the integrity of "underground" hip hop. It's a great record, mainly because Premier loves records.

Listen to the way he treats Company Flow's "8 Steps to Perfection"--possibly the best indie hip-hop record of 1997. He takes the song's eerie, sinuous "melody"--a cat on a hot tin roof mewing through a flange--and lets it drip into the cracks of the track that precedes, Natural Elements' mean and metallic "Lyrical Tactics." As "Tactics" begins to fade, the DJ takes those cats and suspends them; the mewing melts. He lets it go molten. Bombs fly overhead as Premier loops one male and one female voice repeating his name ("Premier/DJ Premier/Pr-Pr-Pr-Premier/DJ Premier"). Then he lets the bravado burn: The bombs explode, and the DJ pounces on Co. Flow's maddeningly dense beat and elliptically crass lyric--"Buggin' like Rwanda!"--as if he's freakin' 'em on top of a fault line.

This is the rule throughout Reality Check. Premier blows out the best parts on his records, but he never lets himself get too smarmy or reflexive with his mix. He shouldn't: Many of these hard-to-find joints deserve space to breathe. Unless you're a DJ or a hip-hop fanatic, this package offers excellent records you've never heard before, and it gives a long, beautiful glimpse into a New York DJ-created mix-tape culture we rarely get a slice of out here.

The tradition is that of the record store in Manhattan or Brooklyn, where much of the best hip hop of the last few years has been DJ mix tapes by legends like Funkmaster Flex or radicals like Peanut Butter Wolf. Unless you own unknown cassettes like Primo's '97 mix The Five Deadly Venoms of Brooklyn, these recordings unveil a brand new way to think about the music.

Most novel (and weirdest) among Premier's picks for Haze is my personal fave: G-Depp's "Head Over Wheels." It's an atmospheric slow-jam that Whitney Houston couldn't wreck, as spooky as it is pretty (though its car-equals-dick lyrical conceit kinda ruins the mood). Traditionalists might appreciate the distant piano cluster in Shades of Brooklyn's "Change," or their thuggish Street Smartz posturing in front of a neat sonic backdrop of grim, post-Wu minimalism. But no track plays with the dark, rugged aesthetics of New York hip hop better than Godfather Don's "Properties of Steel," on which the Don drops punchy nonsense against a series of electro-squeaks that sounds like an Atari 2600 trying to hail a taxi.

And when the records aren't as imaginative as Premier is, he guilds the best part of the platter. Formally, he isn't a revolutionary: He plays records, finds the juiciest parts, scratches them, turns 'em inside out, and replays them until they become calling cards for the record or rapper. Premier ameliorates the half-assed beat on J-Live's "Braggin' Writes" by punchin' and re-punchin' the sonic boom at the front of the record, until it apes Live's brag, "My penetration's exact, like amniocentesis." But Premier also has the good sense to play around with his formalisms. There is a sort of Primo aesthetic: If the midsection on "Head Over Wheels" seems a bit too nice and easy, he repeatedly, but ever-so-slightly, ratchets up the groove, frustrating the track's silky smoothness to create the effect of listening to a CD in your car while bouncing over potholes.

These tricks abound on Reality Check. A Primo-fanatic friend claims that they effectively "out DJ-Shadow DJ Shadow"--in other words, Premier's less abstract DJ technique better preserves and amplifies the original music. I disagree. They're different in kind. Shadow blurs records to create "sound collages," and plays hide-and-seek in the spaces between the grooves. DJ Premier blows out the grooves and jump-starts the records. There isn't a better A&R man in hip hop.

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