Pete Tosiello is our premier Premier scholar.
It’s the twentieth anniversary of Livin’ Proof, the DJ-Premier produced debut from Brooklyn duo Group Home. As an album, it squarely falls within that odd realm of second-tier nostalgia. We’re retrospectively celebrating of art that reflected the rear-view mirror mindset in the first place. If Group Home felt so compelled to pine for the good old days in ’95, why should we now so similarly pine for the past? Are we really never better off than we were four (or twenty) years ago?
Even more so than Pete Rock and J Dilla, most of Premier’s iconic work (“Memory Lane,” “The 6th Sense,” “2nd Childhood,” “A Million and One Questions,” the entire Moment of Truth album), is defined by its wistfulness. These are melancholy songs grasping for a time and place somewhere in an indeterminate past. Livin’ Proof looks entirely backward with dreamlike longing. The Kings County of this album is untouched by Wall Street’s ‘80s excess, the federal government’s ‘90s surplus, or broken-windows policing.
What’s both fascinating about Livin’ Proof and what bars it from immortality, of course, is that Lil’ Dap and Malachi the Nutcracker are horrific rappers. Their energy and decent voices can’t make up for the fact that they can barely ride a beat. Their syllabic structures are cringe-worthy and their raps sound like nursery rhymes. Even in his prime Pete Rock was accused of giving too many good beats to unworthy MCs (peace to Deda Baby Pa), but Premier was always the worse offender. For God’s sake, they’re still making Big Shug albums.
One can’t help but wonder what would have become of these beats in the hands of Nas, Guru, or Jeru, but I think it might be better this way. This isn’t music for verbal acrobatics, poignant street observation, or deep autobiographical accounts. Premier’s beats are a standalone composition. They lend a distinct, bittersweet sense of place, even if I can’t for the life of me figure out what that place is, which makes it even more haunting. As Pete Rock said, the intent may be simple escapism in itself.
These songs are nominally about the inherent injustice of inner city living, but the Group Home guys are as awe-struck by Premier as the listener. Still, part of me thinks this was a conscious decision on Premier’s part, and that to hand these songs to more accomplished performers would have detracted from the effect. On the one hand, it’s almost funny to behold how focused the music is when contrasted with the scattershot rhyming. On the other hand, the setting is so smoky and vague—albeit vividly so—that it’s appropriate that Group Home can’t figure out what they’re rapping about. Was this inadvertent, Premier’s master plan, or a mean joke? Does it matter?
There’s actually more musical vision here than on any Gang Starr or Jeru project to this point. The “low budget” sound of crackling drum patterns and dusty samples is visual and visceral. Sad, but not debilitatingly so. There are a number of short interludes—often just instrumentals—that are as effective as the actual songs. The 48-second intro is a simple two bar loop but is almost as powerful as anything here, dripping with attitude and ambience.
“Serious Rap Shit” is a posse cut about nothing at all. With such deep, complex orchestration, it excuses the three rappers not named Guru. “Suspended in Time” uses some sort of audio feedback—Birds chirping? Distorted crowd noise?—for an otherworldly effect. “2 Thousand” is the most exuberant song here, but even so it remains anchored in pensiveness.
There are two mixes of “Up Against the Wall.” The first is brilliant but the second may actually be the single finest DJ Premier production we have. It’s ingenious in its simplicity, exuding heartbreaking remorse with nothing more than snare, static, and a simple piano loop. For the chorus, Premier stitches together vocal bites from other tracks on the album, and they make more sense than they did in their original context.
The thirteen-track LPs DJ Premier submitted during Gang Starr’s mid-‘90s hiatus are studies in contrast. Jeru was probably the best rapper Premier ever collaborated with for a full-length (ed. note — Guru is the correct answer), and The Sun Rises in the East features some of his sparest post-Hard to Earn orchestrations. He smartly recognized that the Damaja thrived when his words could act as headliner. Group Home was the worst act to ever grace his beats, so to make them passable he had to mash on the gas like never before.
Thanks to Dap and Malachi, Livin’ Proof doesn’t fall among Premier’s epochal work, but maybe it couldn’t have anyway. I think that might have been the point. I don’t have the key to its tantalizing lock, and that’s what makes it all the more impressive.