DJ Premier on Gang Starr's 'Moment of Truth' Album Turning 20, Guru's Courtroom Battles & Their First Gold Plaque

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Gang Starr photographed in Chicago in 1998.

In a sit-down with Genius’ Rob Markman last year, DJ Premier called Moment of Truth Gang Starr’s “most important” album, not only because it was their first gold album, but also because it was a byproduct of a particularly interesting time for the duo of Preemo and the late Guru.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Gang Starr’s fifth studio album, which would end up being their most commercially successful project to date, the 52-year-old legendary beatsmith gives us some insight on the turbulent times the group was going through and some fascinating behind-the-scenes stories regarding many of the songs that made up the 78-minute musical journey. From Guru’s courtroom battles and DJ Premier quitting the group to Bumpy Knuckles' fascination with guns in the studio and which song still makes DJ Premier nearly break down in tears today. You can also shop at Preemo's site for Moment of Truth's 20th Anniversary collection here.

 

On his relationship with Guru during the recording of Moment of Truth...

Maybe halfway through the album we were going through issues because of his drinking. He’s been drinking since the day I met him but this was different. We started this album and were really excited. We had already started to format the album because Guru always gives me the titles way in advance and I just make the titles match the music. I was with a girlfriend that I was dating at the time who knew his behavior when he drank.

We were coming back from a late night out and I checked my answering machine. He was just cursing me out nonstop. But, if you knew him, it’s kind of normal for him to do that. However, for some reason, it bothered me that day. He had to have left 20 different messages that day about him being angry about everything. It wasn’t that he was mad at me, but it was very intense. I had to call him to tell him stop but he kept going on. He had it bad with adding “And another thing” whenever he wanted to continue arguing. He wouldn’t stop. I was fed up and I literally quit Gang Starr.

But I knew we was going through his court case at the time where he was facing five years for gun charges. His lawyer had told us that we should start promoting the album now in the event that he ended up doing time. I would have to promote it by myself. It was a tough time but his lawyer sat me down after I quit and told me to give it another shot. I knew what he was going through and he was really scared that he could lose his case and spend five years behind bars. I cooled off and we got back on the horse.

On “Militia” (Feat. Big Shug & Freddie Foxx a.k.a. Bumpy Knuckles)...

I remember Bumpy Knuckles came in wearing all mink everything and said, “Yo, when I spit my verse, I gotta pull my guns out and aim them.” He was serious! I told him that I was going to duck in the event that those guns accidentally went off. He pulled out the twin glocks, spit his verse in one take and said, “I’ve got a meeting to go to” and left! He came in at 10am, pulled out his guns, kicked his verse and then said he hoped we did a video —which we did — and then was gone.

On “Royalty”...

We always wanted to do a record on that level with a group of that caliber doing the hook. The great thing was that both K-Ci and JoJo told me to not make an R&B track that was reminiscent of radio hit records. "Make a Gang Starr track and we’ll write our lyrics to that," they told me. They couldn’t stress it enough. I wasn’t going to make something that wasn’t a Gang Starr track anyways but it was good to know that they were on the same page as me and didn’t want something as simple as a Stevie Wonder loop with them signing a hook. None of us wanted that. “Royalty” sounds like a Gang Starr track.

On “Above the Clouds”...

The RZA had to clear the artists back then. We wanted to explain what the song was about so me, Deck and Guru were on a three-way call and Deck asked what the song was about. Guru simply said, “Your mental.” Deck said “That’s it? Got it!” I remember going to the studio and sitting at the control board trying to come up with a dope ass intro before the beat dropped. I started running the beat so they could start writing. Deck was on one end of the board and Guru was on the other end like they were going to arm wrestle.

They would look down, start writing and one of them would look up and ask, “how much more do you got?” And start writing again. Then, they’d look up again and ask the same question. It was a race to see who could finish their verse first. They were in a zone.

On “Moment of Truth”...

The day we went back after he beat the case was the day he wrote the song “Moment of Truth.” When I heard his lyrics, I remember how emotional it was. We were going through deaths around us. The passing of my accountant Mary Coleman who was the first person I shouted out on “In Memory of…” was particularly devastating for me. She was beyond my accountant. She was my mother away from home.

That song made me want to cry. I’m not really a crying type. But to hear those lyrics and knowing everything that he was going through at that time was very, very emotional. Today, I perform it with my band and every time I damn near fall apart, but in a good way. Like when James Brown would drop to his knees when he performed. I didn’t know what to expect until he did it.  

On “Betrayal”...

That phone call you heard saying we should get Scarface on the album was Panchi from the NYGz. He was in jail at the time. But we reached out and had to keep getting at him about his verse because we needed it to turn in the album. This was before Pro Tools, he had to send it on a DAT. He literally turned that vocal in the day before we had to master the album. If he didn’t get it in that day, he just wasn’t going to be on the album.

His schedule was nuts but he came through in the clutch. That was a time before having features became the standard. Now, when you put out an album people ask who do you have on it. It wasn’t like that back in the day.

Personal favorite songs...

One of my favorite songs is “Next Time.” Mary had just died and I was really depressed. Who tattoos their accountant’s name on their body? I do. That’s how close we were. “Next Time” was the day that we realized that we needed one more song. I didn’t have a title for it and wasn’t really in the mindset of creating.

So I forced myself into the studio and I stumbled across the Monk Higgins “A Good Man Is Gone” sample. For some reason, that sample sounded like somebody was crying but looking to a brighter day. When I heard it, I decided to put drums to it. Guru walked in and asked what it was and started writing to it. “Next Time” is very significant to me.

“Robbin Hood Theory” is also one of my favorites. it’s not a hit or a radio record but I’ve always liked it. That was the first song we recorded for the album. That was the only beat that I said I wouldn’t give to another artist. I knew Guru would know how to touch it properly. I loved how he did the hook and spit to it. We just talked about the great ones who didn’t do interviews and we were tired of doing them ourselves.

On celebrating Moment of Truth being their first gold album...

Going gold was a really big deal. Guru used to always complain that we should be gold like everyone else. I told him that it would happen one day and in due time. We started drinking. We celebrated hard. When we got word that the album went gold, Guru -- who used to go to fashion school -- he was asked about designing the plaque. Guru designed them whole thing and we put it up in the studio. I’ll never forget the day JAY-Z walked into D&D studio and saw the gold plaque. For him, going gold was normal because he had hit records. But when he walked in I can remember him looking at me and saying [in a JAY-Z voice]  “How does it feel?” It felt good as a motherfucker.