"It was just one note... I took that one note and pitched it on different drum pads on the machine - he came in like, that’s it!": How DJ Premier turned a mystery sample into the hook from The Notorious B.I.G.’s Unbelievable

dj premier
DJ Premier in 1991 (Image credit: Getty Images)

DJ Premier is one of the most - if not the most - acclaimed hip-hop producers of all time, having worked with a host of iconic artists that includes Jay-Z, Kanye West, Mos Def, Nas, D’Angelo and many more. So when he opens up about his creative process, we listen. 

That’s exactly what Premier did in a recent interview with Justin Richmond for a live recording of the Broken Record podcast at the On Air podcast festival, revealing details about his illustrious career and his unique approach to music-making.

In that interview, Premier recalls working with The Notorious B.I.G., on Unbelievable, a standout cut from Ready to Die. Back in 1994, Biggie was putting the finishing touches on that album, which featured production from Sean “Puffy” Combs, Lord Finesse, Easy Mo Bee and Chuck Thompson, but he was dead set on snagging a Preemo joint to round out the record.

"I turned him down, I was like, I’m too busy. I’ll get you on to the next album"

“He was like man, make anything… but I turned him down, I was like, I’m too busy. I’ll get you on to the next album. He’s like, I just need a quick joint for the streets, please!,” Premier recalls. Biggie said he was so keen to work with the producer that he wouldn’t mind if Premier used the break from Impeach The President, a track that had already been utilized in countless hip-hop beats. “It’s one of the biggest break records of all time in hip-hop culture - to use that you have to manipulate it and be creative,” Premier said. 

Premier ultimately relented:. “I said alright, come meet me there and I’ma chop it up and come up with some things”. Chopping up and rearranging Impeach The President, Premier pieced together a classic boom-bap rhythm, before sampling a single note from a record to create the stabs that form the song’s lead melody. “I found this one note that had a vibration at the end of the note, it was just one note,” says Premier, who was particularly taken with the vibrato on the sample. “I took that note and pitched it on different drum pads on the machine [...] then he came in like, that’s it.”

Premier’s interviewer presses him for the origin of the sampled stab, but Premier confesses he can’t recall where it came from. That hasn’t stopped hip-hop heads debating its source, including MusicRadar contributor and music professor Ethan Hein, who speculates that the keyboard snippet was lifted from Patrice Rushen’s Remind Me, at the end of a solo section around four minutes into the song. Others have suggested that the sample might come from Quincy Jones’ Summer In The City, which features some vibrato-laden keys that certainly bear some resemblance to Premier’s stab.

That half-second snippet isn’t the only inspired use of sampling heard in Unbelievable. Elsewhere in the track, Premier samples Biggie himself, lifting the line “Biggie Smalls is the illest” from The What (also found on Ready To Die) and scratching it on the turntable. There’s also a pitched-up R Kelly sample in the song that voices its title, a selection suggested by Biggie himself. 

DJ Premier is undoubtedly one of the most gifted samplists to lay his hands on a record, but where does his talent come from? Later in the interview, he suggests that it was his background in battle DJing that fuelled his creativity in the studio and his unique approach to working with samples.

“Part of my creativity comes from being a DJ. DJs have more of an understanding of how to manipulate sounds and make it into a whole new thing," Premier says. "When we DJ, if you’re a battle DJ, you’re taking records and destroying your opponent in a battle by taking the parts and reworking it in a way where the whole crowd goes ‘whooaa!’” 

Listen to the full Broken Record interview with DJ Premier.

Matt Mullen
Tech Editor

I'm the Tech Editor for MusicRadar, working across everything from artist interviews to product news to tech tutorials. I love electronic music and I'm endlessly fascinated by the tools we use to make it. When I'm not behind my laptop keyboard, you'll find me behind a MIDI keyboard, carefully crafting the beginnings of another project that I'll ultimately abandon to the creative graveyard that is my overstuffed hard drive.

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