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New American Songbook

DJ Premier's Tiny Desk Concert | New American Songbook


Many people familiar with public radio will also be familiar with NPR’s series of Tiny Desk Concerts.

The basic premise is that a band plays a short set in the offices of NPR, specifically at the desk of All Songs Considered host, Bob Boilen. The musicians are generally charming, and the performances range from twee to spectacular, but generally well within the NPR modality of carefully curated creativity.

Hip hop and rap artists have been appearing more frequently, and for the most part they’ve played to the room, sometimes subbing in coffeehouse instruments for turntables, sometimes cleaning up the lyrics just a touch. Not so with DJ Premier, the most recent guest on Tiny Desk, who brought an almost aggressively pure hip hop set to the heart of NPR.

As Premier spins through decades of his collaborations with some of hip hop’s greatest talents, it’s hard not to hear both the whole of hip hop history and the present moment in the set. KRS-ONE’s ‘Emcees Act Like They Don’t Know’, which features ironic observations of the white gaze in hip hop, and the closing track, Gang Starr’s ‘Moment of Truth’, seem both ancient and prescient in light of the recent prominence of white supremacy in the news cycle. The M.O.P. refrain ‘this is war, give me something to prove’ doesn’t feel so much like a call back to the glory days of New York hip hop as it does a call to arms, right now.

If such a brash music in a genteel space sounds crass, it’s because genteel spaces are crass—once again, hip hop puts the lie to the notion of politics-free music, only this time DJ Premier does it at the center of a carefully curated cosmos, and the best part is they invited him to do it.