DJ Premier Talks Gang Starr's 'Hard to Earn' 25 Years Later: 'I Had a Chip on My Shoulder With This Album'
On March 8, 1994, DJ Premier and Guru released their follow up to 1992's critically acclaimed Daily Operation in the pivotal Hard to Earn. The set came at a time where the duo found themselves fending off criticism that they relied too heavily on jazz samples for their production: criticism that woke up a beast in Premier, who made it his mission to deliver an album that sounded nothing like its predecessor.
Underrated at the time of its release, Hard to Earn ended up being the album that truly defined the sound of Gang Starr -- while spawning such signature tracks as "Code of the Streets,” “Tonz O’ Gunz,” the classic lead single "Mass Appeal" and the legendary Nice & Smooth team-up “DWYCK" -- and perhaps more importantly, cemented the versatility of Premier, one of the era's most vital sonic architects.
To celebrate its recent 25-year anniversary, Billboard spoke with the 52-year-old DJ Premier -- currently knee deep in several projects, including De La Soul’s upcoming album -- on the Hard to Earn recording sessions, why “DWYCK” ended up on Hard to Earn instead of Daily Operation, and how “Alongwaytogo” was originally slated for the soundtrack for the 1993 John Singleton drama Poetic Justice.
Twenty-five years later, what immediately comes to mind when you think about Hard to Earn?
The change in my sound, because we were always been categorized as only using jazz samples. It seemed like the media at that time was pigeonholing us into, almost like James Gandolfini playing Tony Soprano -- like, where you could see him in any other movie, and he's still Tony Soprano.
Guru was the reason why [his collaborative solo series] Jazzmatazz was born, because he always said that he wanted to protect the Gang Starr name and brand by showing that the versatility lies in Gang Starr, where Jazzmatazz has a certain focus. And that's why I said, "Well, you know what? You do that project, and I'll stick with producing on the side" -- and then we always we reunite to do another album.
You also began incorporating other elements into your production that was first heard on this album.
A lot of people were saying, "I never hear Premier use other sounds," and stuff like that. So I was like, "You know what? I'm gonna start getting a little weird on this one" -- and that's why you started hearing the little space sounds in the background, the little alien things and swirly noises, like on “Brainstorm,” or even the way “Speak Ya Clout” was done.
“Mass Appeal” was the most musical [track] on that album, you know what I'm saying? And even that was made as a joke. We were making fun of radio, because it was watering down the sound of hip-hop.
How, exactly, did "Mass Appeal" make fun of the radio?
I kept telling Guru, "Yo, hip hop don't sound like it used to. It sounds like elevator music." So that's where I was looking for sounds that would sound like you were in an elevator. It didn't even have drums. You could hear that in an elevator. You're kind of just waiting to get to your floor, and you kind of just move your head. That was really the approach to the song. So that became a hit, which, we didn't know it was going to be. We just [recorded it as] our first single to approach that topic, and then, it ended up being one of our biggest hits, to this very day.
What’s the story behind “DWYCK” and why was it originally slated to be on Daily Operation instead of Hard to Earn?
Man, we were very upset with the label, and the labels always let us do our own thing. “DWYCK” was only intended to be a B-side of “Take It Personal,” because we had done a record with Nice & Smooth for their album, Ain’t a Damn Thing Changed, called “Down The Line.” They were returning the favor with “DWYCK,” being that we let them borrow the “Manifest” instrumental.
We didn't know it was going to turn into what it turned into, but it ran the whole summer. So, being that it was really, really popping, we were like, "Yo, let's shoot a video of that." We went to Atlantic City and didn’t even have a concept. We just walked around the boardwalk and was bugging out. By the time the video dropped, the label was like, "Yo, you should add this to the Daily Operation album" -- because Arrested Development, who were our labelmates, had just done it with “People Everyday.” The album version wasn't the same as the song everyone knows. And then, when they doctored the song and shot the video to that, they tacked it onto the album and it went double platinum.
So we thought adding “DWYCK” to Daily Operation would work like that for us. I went back to mastering and find a place for it on the album. Maybe a week or two later, when we're thinking, everything's going into motion, they said, "Ah, we're gonna go ahead and pass on adding it to the album." And we were so upset, and very, very, just angry, because all of our fans were complaining.
You just decided to wait two years and place it on Hard to Earn?
This was way before social media, where people could push to get it added by sending tweets online. Back then, it was just people complaining to me and Guru. I figured that it had to be on one of our albums. I didn't really want to put it on Hard to Earn, but it made sense, because it was the next album, it's a year later -- and people who want “DWYCK” can buy that album and get it.
You mentioned going away from jazz samples on Hard to Earn, but “Mostly tha Voice” has a very jazzy bassline. Was that recorded before the Hard to Earn sessions?
Nah, that was one of the last songs. That and “Comin’ For Datazz” were the last two songs we did. “Mostly tha Voice” is still paying tribute to me doing jazz samples -- to show that we still there, but just not as much.
What was the first song recorded for the Hard to Earn sessions?
It was already done, but “Alongwaytogo” was really our first song. But that was really for the Poetic Justice soundtrack, and John Singleton passed on it. He originally showed us the movie and we wrote that song to match the movie. You know, with them riding in that postal van to Oakland and taking all those detours. That’s why Guru said, "There's a long way to go, because you don't know where you're going." If you listen to the first verse, Guru even says the name of the movie. [Singleton] just turned it down. But with Phife Dog’s “Here’s a funky introduction” at the beginning of the song, I figured that it would be the perfect way to start this album.
“Code of the Streets” was the second song down, because Guru originally produced that for a TV show on, either NBC or CBS. It was about the epidemic of car theft. So he produced it, and did a little video with Channel Two news, and I saw the video. He gave me a copy of the video, and I was like, "Yo, man, I should have put this on the album.” Three months later I got the Monk Higgins sample -- which was already cleared for the TV show -- reprogrammed the drums, and gave it the DJ Premier bounce.
What’s your favorite Guru verse on the album and why?
The entire fucking verses for “Brainstorm.” I love that jam. Just the whole way he was flowing. And I told him, "I don't want no music in it. I just want some weird alien sounds." And I always wanted to do a record where you fade it while he's still rapping.
I know it's not on Hard to Earn, but was Jeru tha Damaja’s “Come Clean” created during the Earn sessions -- considering he's also on “Speak Ya Clout?”
That was done for Guru's Ill Kid Sampler that he always does to showcase new artists. Patrick Moxey, who was our manager, still was just starting Payday Records, and the only artists he had on the label at the time was Mos Def's brother and sister. They were called UTD, what was Urban Thermal Dynamics. And then, Showbiz and AG was the second artist on Payday, and then Jeru was the third. So, Patrick was like, "As long as you produce it, I'll sign them. I don't even need to hear anything else, just because I love 'Come Clean.'"
What is the significance of Hard to Earn to the Gang Starr catalog?
I had a chip on my shoulder with this album, where I wanted to show the people, the critics, that I can do any sound, and still make it sound dope. I like showing versatility. Prince, Bootsy Collins, Earth Wind & Fire and Parliament all had albums that sound different. I wanted to show, as a hip-hop producer, I'm one of those that can do anything, because I was raised on so much music aside from rap and hip-hop. I'm a big rock 'n' roll head, I love country music, I love yodeling music. But I’m still black and funky. I can’t even run from that. The funk will always be in me and I wanted to show that versatility on this album.