Here’s the amazing story of how the night this picture of DJ Premier, J Dilla, D’Angelo & Alchemist were in a studio back in 1998. In this firsthand account, told by DJ Premier to Ambrosia For Heads, Preemo explains how “Devil’s Pie” was originally for Canibus and the magical night at Electric Lady studio.
“Gang Starr Moment Of Truth was out. We were feeling a real good way ’cause Guru had just won his trial. He was facing five years in prison, and he won the trial, which is why we named the album Moment Of Truth and had the court room setting as the theme of the album cover. He didn’t know if he was gonna beat the case or have to go to jail once the album was released. His lawyer—who actually [since] passed away, God bless him—told [Guru], ‘If you lose, the album’s still gonna be out while you’re in prison, so we need to promote it as much as possible the best we can in case you do go to jail. So that was a pivotal moment of him winning the case, and our first gold album—that was our first gold [Gang Starr] album, ever in our career.
Then Belly came out, at the same time that I did [‘Devil’s Pie’] with D’Angelo. I remember [then Def Jam Records CEO] Lyor Cohen asked us if we could put it in the movie. They showed us the scene that they wanted it to be in. It ended up being in the movie as well, which got us another check and more exposure for the record. The record actually happened because…it was originally Canibus. We had worked on the song at my studio, D&D [Studios] at the time. It didn’t pan out to do the record. Once Canibus left, that same maybe hour later, D’Angelo just called me out of the blue. Like, ‘Hey, what are you up to?’ I’m like, ‘Yo, I’m just ending a session. I was working on a beat for Canibus, but we’re not using it.’ He said, ‘Can I hear it?’ I said yeah. He said, ‘Well, come over here to Electric Lady [Studios]. I’m over here just bangin’ out my album.’ So I went over there. I already knew D’Angelo from when his first album, Brown Sugar came out. We were [Virgin/EMI Records] label-mates. We knew each other through mutual people. So we were already cool with each other.
So I went over to Electric Lady, played him the beat. He immediately just screamed, ‘Whooooooo! Oh my—yo! Let me do somethin’ to it! I’ll come over [to Electric Lady Studios] tomorrow!’ That whole night, before I came back to cut the vocals with him, he wanted to film me scratchin’ on the turntables so he’d have it for the archive footage. So we were just runnin’ the beat. I guess he has the footage. His engineer, [Russell “Dragon” Elevado] may have it. Dragon is in the picture too—in the background, the Asian guy. I just remember they were filming for almost a half hour, nonstop, of just me goin’ off, doing crazy things with his D’Angelo 12″ records that we had there, in the room. I was just finding little things to bug out on just to show him—I was freestyling everything. I did that for maybe a half hour, just to show me scratch.
The next thing you knew, the next day, when I got there, I had Alchemist with me. We had just got done touring together for The Smokin’ Grooves Tour, which was with Public Enemy, Cypress Hill, Busta Rhymes and the Flipmode Squad, the Black Eyed Peas—who were a brand new group that nobody even heard of. They had a small band and they were doin’ all these dance moves. They were nothing like they are now; Fergie wasn’t in the group yet. Mya was on the tour. Wyclef [Jean] and Pras was on the tour. Canibus was on the tour with us. Literally, right after is when we did the record. Everything’s all love with me and ‘Bis anyway, ’cause we did a record [‘Golden Terra Of Rap’] after that. It was a massive tour. I told Al—he liked to smoke, I liked to smoke, ‘We’re gonna go over there and blaze up, so bring some of that Cali’ good.’ [Laughs] He was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll roll wit’chu.’ So when he came over, Questlove was just finishing up doing drums to ‘Untitled (How Does It Feel?)’—the one where he was naked in the video. He was there. Raphael Saadiq had just left. And J Dilla was there at the session.
Al was in the loop with the Dilla stage, so he could lamp with us and smoke for a lil’ bit. We just hung out. I knew him for a long time as well. So we were just buggin’ out and smokin’, and whatnot. I forgot the guy who took the picture. But I know somebody ran into me last year, and was like, ‘Hey man, I know the guy that took that picture.’ I said, ‘Tell him I want an original copy of it. Because I always wondered what happened with that picture because I never had a copy. Back then, it wasn’t email or text messaging a pic on the phone. We weren’t even at that stage in ’98. The [copy] I got has a lil’ splotch on it. If you Google it, it has a lil’ splotch. I want the clear copy. If he wants me to pay for it, everything’s negotiable. Whoever that guy was that took it captured an incredible moment. Hey, we’ll give you your credit. That was a great moment.
On the third day is when Lyor Cohen said, ‘Hey, we want to put it in Belly.’ First D’Angelo said, ‘No. We want to save it just for the album.’ Then I saw Belly; they showed us the film. I was like, ‘You know what? I think it’d be dope—especially where they put it [in the film]. They were showin’ the drugs, how that applies to what he meant [by] ‘Everybody wants a slice of devil’s pie’ in the lyrics. I remember there’s part where he mumbles, and said, ‘Yo, I’ma leave it like that. I didn’t know what to put there.’ But whenever it came on in the clubs or around women—’cause I always gauge certain records that have a groove to it based on how women react–I said, ‘Alright, I guess we got a banger.’ [Laughs] That actually [resulted] in my second Grammy that I earned. Jay Z’s [Vol 2. Hard Knock Life] album, which I was on, I got a Grammy for that one. I got one for Voodoo, ’cause I was one of the producers on there besides D’Angelo and his team that produced a record on the album. And Voodoo was just a dope album anyway.
I met Dilla through Q-Tip years ago—back when [A Tribe Called Quest] was doing Midnight Marauders. We met then. I think Large Professor was with me. It was just one of those days where…we used to just all be around each other. Me, Large, Pete [Rock], Q-Tip as well—we’ve clearly each got bugged out memories. I got stuff that’s crazy! [Laughs] But we all got memories. We were all very active and high on the level of popularity during that era. Tribe was big, Gang Starr was big, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth was big, Main Source was big. And then all of us as producers, we were all poppin’. Aside from our groups, we were all getting a lot of work doing a lot of remixes and production. Me and all of us…and Dilla were already doin’ [production work outside of our groups]. As the years passed, Dilla got even crazier styles. His styles went a whole different direction.
His approach to sampling was not like any other. I know Madlib is an extension of what we miss about Dilla. But Dilla formed his own crazy world of samplin’ that I never heard from anybody. Nobody was doin’ it like Dilla. And no one [has since]. The closest thing is Madlib, and I know they had the kind of relationship where I know Dilla rubbed off on him, to a certain degree, to carry that torch, so to speak.
DJs and producers, we’re scientists. So we really dissect where we place things. You look at The Bomb Squad in all of those Public Enemy productions. You look at where they placed stuff. Marley Marl, where he placed stuff. We would know what it is. ‘Yo, he took such-and-such and where he put it!’ Dilla was just the most upside down—the man without eyes who could still hit his target. He’s crazy, man! Nobody placed the stuff like he did. He just did it in a really, really strange way—and I like strange. [Chuckles] The weirder you are the better I like it.
He was playing the drums when I was in the session with D’Angelo. But we all play drums. That’s the way I mix the bass and drums the way I do with my beats when I do Hip-Hop. Yeah, there was a nice drum kit that was set up at Electric Lady. When I got there, Dilla was on the drums. Quest’ had just laid the drums to ‘Untitled,’ and he had to leave. So Dilla was on the drums, bangin’ out. The one thing I do remember [about what we were listening to] is…I’m a big Prince fan. I know Prince as much as Prince knows himself. I go back to the For You album, all the way to what he’s doing now. And I met Prince, with D’Angelo. He told me he was a Gang Starr fan. I introduced myself; Treach from Naughty By Nature was standing right there with me in the back room at Tramps, which no longer exists. That was a club that used to have a lot of Hip-Hop [at a time] when there were really no performances in New York, in Midtown. Prince was back there, and Treach from Naughty By Nature was standing there. I walked right there said, ‘Oh my God, this is Prince!’ He was like, ‘Yo, I just want to let you know that I’m a big Gang Starr fan.’ I was just like, ‘…what? Fuck.’ But me being a Prince fanatic, owning all of his imported records, B-sides, all the collections, all of his [Paisley Park] umbrella…I remember D’Angelo had the 1999 picture of the whole Revolution, which was—and they weren’t called The Revolution to us yet. If you look at the 1999 album, it says “Prince and The Revolution” on the one, in the middle, real small. [D’Angelo’s recording studio room at Electric Lady] had the Venetian blinds, The Isley Brothers album cover in the room, Parliament, Sly & The Family Stone, and of course [Jimi] Hendrix everywhere. He left those up. He said that was his inspiration to lay it all out when he was recording.
This was way before [J Dilla] got sick. He didn’t tell people. Again, we already had a relationship prior to D’Angelo; we were already cool. So it wasn’t, ‘Hey, it’s so nice to meet you. Let me hear some of your stuff,’ it was, ‘Hey, what up, my nigga?’ Alchemist was the new guy. ‘Cause I told him to come with me, [D’Angelo] was like, ‘Yeah, yeah. Bring him.’ I brought him.
[D’Angelo] played me ‘One mo’Gin.’ Once I heard that—I didn’t need anything else—I was like, ”Yo, whatever else you got on that album, it doesn’t even matter. [Chuckles] It’s gon’ bang. I was just a big fan of ‘One Mo’Gin’. He played me maybe three songs, ’cause he’s very meticulous about playing stuff [before] it’s done—we’re all like that, really. We always feel like you’re gonna judge it before it’s done and not understand what stage it’s at unless you are an artist. If you’re an artist—a true purist like we are, you’re gonna get it, even if it’s rough. He played me maybe five joints. But he would always give me the disclaimer, ‘Okay, this one’s gonna be this right now. It’s not gonna have this, it’s not gonna have that.’ But it didn’t matter to me; I knew how to gauge a rough song that’s not finished versus a finished song. The labels and A&Rs and execs all go, ‘Hey, bring in these guys. You can bring in this guy to finish this.’ It’s like, ‘Yo. It’s not done yet. Let me finish it before you start commenting.’ D’Angelo would say what records he wanted to roll with. No one told us what to do. It made it easier for them to do the marketing and promotion because we knew what would work as far as what would make the records really big.
[I did not know that Alchemist would reach] the stage that he’s at now. He was already playin’ beats on the tour bus. We would hang all the time on the Cypress Hill bus, on the Gang Starr bus. We were all on each others bus, ’cause we also had M.O.P. and Freddie Foxxx, and Big Shug. All the Gang Starr Foundation, they were all on tour with us. We just hung like a family, man. If there was any drama in a town, we like, ‘Yo, we ridin’ together. We fightin’? We all jumpin’ in. Whatever goes down, we all together.’ We protected each other and never had any problems.
[That photograph] will carry major effects for the rest of our lives. Dilla’s not here, physically. His music will always speak to us like he is physically here. To have [known] him prior to his being sick and puttin’ the memory of that session together, that’s my screensaver at the studio. It penetrates every time it comes on. Even when I turn off my computer, before it goes black, I always say, ‘Peace out, Dilla.’ And I take my hand and fist-bump his face to salute him before it goes black. It’s a little spiritual thing that I do. Honestly, I can’t turn away from that because that’s energy he still possesses in my life and everybody else’s.”