It’s a fool’s errand to argue that hip-hop has a single, definitive sound but if one were forced into such an impossible choice, wouldn’t you expect to see “Works of Mart” as a production credit? Christopher Martin, a/k/a DJ Premier, first hit the hip-hop landscape in the late 1980s, as half of Gang Starr, and by the mid-1990s, when his services would lace dozens of releases, “Works of Mart” became an imprimatur for emcees to chase after, boast about, envy. It guaranteed a gut-punch, neck-snap of a beat, evocative of iron and concrete, the walk-on music for players in camo hoodies and black Tims.
Ask any rapper for their 10 favorite recordings and chances are, at least one of them was a work of Mart. For his own top 10, Preemo not only pays tribute to his hip-hop forebearers - Marley Marl, The Bomb Squad - but a slew of ‘80s recordings from across a diverse musical range. That a Prince song made the list may not be surprising but Devo? AC/DC? His list is a reminder that while great music-makers might produce a signature style, they get there by drawing from a broad spectrum of sounds.
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1. Whodini - Back In Black (Jive, 1986)
DJ Premier: I remember back in the day, on Sundays, we’d go to a park in Houston where all the ballers and girls hung out. And at that time, you had to have a dope system and it was all about Monte Carlos and Camaros. People were dropping ‘em and putting big rims on ‘em. And mind you, this was when it was still the new thing to do. I was with my best friend’s older brother in his Monte Carlo and he had the 6 x 9 speakers in the back and other speakers on the front doors. He had such a dope system and would play the Ohio Players and other classics that would bump. But when he played this album, it was huge! I’ll never forget it. The energy and vibe of the album really changed how I looked at records and how fun they can be.
2. Prince - Dirty Mind (Warner Bros. 1980)
DJ Premier: I’m a huge Prince fan and this wasn’t just cutting edge and against the grain, but it was spectacular too! I mean, dude had panties on! I was never homophobic or anything, but other cats would talk about Prince being gay or whatever. I never cared, I totally got it! I always understood what he was doing. There’s shock value in his work. And the music is totally a middle-finger to the world! His mentality was just to make solid, solid, solid music without being apologetic. Every song on here, one after the other, is just perfect.
3. Run-DMC - S/T (Profile, 1984)
DJ Premier: I used to play football in school and my friend came in one day and just kept saying, ‘Its like that, and that’s the way it is!’ I was like, ‘Man, what are you saying?’ So my friend told me about the record and I went out to the record shop and got their single right away. I was completely blown away and the flip was “Sucker MCs”! It was just so hard and sounded nothing like the a-side. These guys were on some other shit and it let me know that Run-DMC was gonna be on the rise and be a force to be reckoned with. I was a sophomore in high school and wasn’t even in NY yet. This album and just how Run-DMC was as a unit let me know that I needed to be a part of hip-hop. This record for sure changed my life.
4. AC/DC - Back In Black (Atlantic, 1980)
DJ Premier: This was the time when Brian Johnson joined the group and I absolutely loved [Angus Young's] schoolboy outfit. I liked how he performed too, how he’d crawl on the ground and all over the stage. This was just a really big part of my high school upbringing. I went to public school and was sort of known by everyone as the music guy, more specifically, as the hip-hop dude. But I was always into all kinds of music. I’m a huge Angus Young fan and loved the way he played guitar. I just enjoyed this record so much and it’s a big part of my soundtrack growing up.
5. LL Cool J - Mama Said Knock You Out (Def Jam, 1990)
DJ Premier: The production on here that Marley Marl did was on a whole other level. As a fan of his for awhile up to that point, it was nice to hear him branch out and do something different — it was still Marley but his sound and samples were switched up a bit on here. The way the album was sequenced too was amazing. I love LL on here but for me it was mostly Marley’s tracks that got me. I remember Marley told me that the day that record came out, Russell Simmons called him and said, "Hey, start looking for a new house!" That’s a beautiful thing to be told.
6. Devo - Freedom of Choice (Warner Bros., 1980)
DJ Premier: It’s hard going with this one because it’s really a toss up between this album and anything by the Smiths or the Police. That was really my era. I saw them in high school when I was a senior. The way they transformed their set, from one song to the next, and even some costume changes, everything, just blew my mind. They were really in their prime then. They changed the stage set three times. There was distorted noise and then they had these yellow suits on, different hats, and their live show used all kinds of shadows and silhouettes. I was like, "Oh my god!" They had acoustic bass and guitar and switched them out for electrical shit and would go into different modes. Love these dudes! And like I said, this album and their live show blew my mind.
7. Public Enemy - Yo! Bum Rush The Show (Def Jam, 1987)
DJ Premier: It was just so stripped and raw. This whole album just does it for me and I love and adore It Takes A Nation of Millions… I am such a big fan of Chuck D, and Flav was just a great accompaniment. It was so noisy and so deep too. “Too Much Posse” and “Rightstarter (Message To The Black Man)” are just incredible, man. It’s one of the illest records to ever be created. The production was so creative and the S1Ws just took rap to a whole other level in terms of performance and theatrics. [At that time] I never saw them live before, but once I finally did, it changed my life in a major way.
8. Eric B. & Rakim - Paid In Full (4th& B’way, 1987)
DJ Premier: From the sound of the record, to the way they looked, to the clothes they wore, everything matched. I always felt that Gang Starr, for example, we looked like how our records sounded — EPMD and De La Soul, same thing. The songs themselves on here are so groundbreaking. By the time the album finally came out, I already had “My Melody” and “Eric B. Is President” on 12-inch. Then, “I Ain’t No Joke” dropped and we were buggin’! Just Rakim’s rhyming, especially his wordplay, was on another level. This changed how I viewed rhyming the art of what it is to be an emcee.
9. Boogie Down Productions - Criminal Minded (B-Boy Records, 1987)
DJ Premier: I never heard an album so solid before. Lyric-wise, beat-wise, everything. KRS was just perfect on here. He’s so smart. And the guns on the album cover and the whole look of the images just set the vibe for the whole listen. I remember first hearing this and thinking there wasn’t gonna be anything this good again. Of course, there’s always new stuff that improves on original material but this really set the guidelines for all albums after it, in my opinion. It’s amazing.
10. James Brown - In The Jungle Groove (Polydor, 1986)
DJ Premier: I think this was a double vinyl and it was a funk era where things were still popping off. The grooves on here are just too great and he really changed this album into a whole other thing. There was no limit to what James could do and especially on this he feels invincible. He makes you think he can do anything. Overall, I like this entire album, every track, even though it’s a comp of his '60s and '70s stuff. He turned music into a whole different thing of his own on this one. James Brown is pretty much my idol.