The ’90s were a great time for hip-hop, as hundreds of visionary artists rose up from the underground and opened up the genre to new sounds, creative lyrical content and complex rhyming patterns. In hindsight, the evolution of the style is almost as impressive as the style itself; the direction of the various ebbs and flows of the genre over the years may be as thought provoking as any one individual release.
No one artist was immune from these sea changes and perhaps no other group is a better microcosm of hip-hop’s evolution than Gang Starr. The duo represents hip-hop in its most simplified form: one DJ making the beats and one emcee spitting the rhymes. For more than a decade DJ Premier and Guru churned out some of hip-hop’s most recognizable productions and most meaningful lyrics. This feature focuses on the group’s six studio albums, but one cursory glance at their Wikipedia page indicates the two artists offered much more to their fans in the form of side projects, guest spots and solo albums.
MC Guru, aka Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal, aka Keith Edward Elam, passed away just over two years ago from cancer at age 48. The Gang Starr albums stand as a testament to his positive demeanor, socially conscious mentality, and flawless track record of never “fakin’ the funk.”
Listen to a playlist of selected Gang Starr favorites on Spotify.
No More Mr. Nice Guy
(1989; Wild Pitch)
No More Mr. Nice Guy is a fine debut album and a nice example of that punchy ’80s hip hop style, but, in terms of the Gang Starr discography as a whole, it’s a bit of an outlier. DJ Premier seems to be still finding his footing throughout the album and the beats don’t sync with Guru’s monotone flow as well as on future releases. Guru’s raps are in line with most other ’80s emcees and place a heavy emphasis on last word of each line. The style is charming but gets a bit tiresome over the course of an entire album. Of the disc’s 17 tracks, the clear standout is “Manifest,” which features a bouncing bassline as well as the more layered and balanced drum break that DJ Premier would continue to refine throughout the next decade.
Rating: 7.3 out of 10
Step In The Arena
The title track and opener to Gang Starr’s sophomore LP picks up right where “Manifest” left off with a colorful bassline, furious scratching, and badass rhyming. From the first verse it’s clear that Guru has stepped up his game with boastful lyrics that do more than enough to ensure no other rapper would dare challenge the self-proclaimed “gifted one.” The braggadocious rhyming continues on “Form of Intellect,” “Take A Rest” and “Here Today Gone Tomorrow,” with plenty of support from DJ Premier, who has also risen to the occasion with tight drum breaks and funky samples from artists such as The Meters and Funkadelic.
Guru can also do a lot more than put wack rappers in their place. On “Love Sick” and “What You Want This Time” he tells some light-hearted and easy-to-follow tales about girls causing drama in clubs, tying up his line, and worst of all, interrupting him while he’s “trying to cook spaghetti.” After a fun middle section, the album gets back to business with “Just To Get A Rep,” a serious song about a young gangster trying to prove his worth. Despite Guru’s masterful storytelling, DJ Premier manages to one-up him with a sublime sample of Jean Jacques Perrey’s 1970 song, “E.V.A.” On “Execution of a Chump,” Guru outclasses himself with each successive verse, culminating with the lyric, “following my calling in life so I can keep the/ minds in line to find divine designs of rhyme/ rewind this on your box one time/ but if you step up like the kid who did front/ then you will bear witness, the execution of a chump.” Step In The Arena still sounds incredibly fresh today and it’s an absolute must for any ’90s hip hop collection.
Rating: 9.4 out of 10
Daily Operation gets its name from a lyric in “Just to Get a Rep,” and like the aforementioned street soap opera, this 1992 album would present a new level of social and political conciousness within Guru’s lyrics. See exhibit A: “Soliloquy of Chaos,” perhaps the most important track on the entire album. On the surface, Guru raps about a show that gets cancelled because of a fight within the club, but the deeper narrative about black-on-black violence within society is where Guru truly shines: “whether you die or kill them, it’s another brother dead/ but I know you’ll never get that through your head/ cause we’re misled and misfed facts, we’re way off/ killing you and killing me; it’s the soliloquy of chaos.” If that wasn’t enough, DJ Premier perfectly sets the mood with a dizzying and hauntingly looped Ahmad Jamal sample.
Daily Operation is also responsible for the debut of one of New York’s greatest ’90s emcees, Jeru The Damaja. He appears alongside Lil’ Dap (of Group Home) and Guru on “I’m The Man.” Jeru The Damaja is the man on this track and his camaraderie with DJ Premier would continue two years later on his classic full-length debut, The Sun Rises In The East. On “Ex Girl To Next Girl,” Guru no longer displays the same patience for “honeys” that he displayed on last album’s “Love Sick” and “What You Want This Time”; if she’s not right, he simply says “next.” “Take Two And Pass” is surprisingly the only song in the Gang Starr discography centered around weed, and it doesn’t disappoint in terms of smoothness, potency and taste — dank. If there’s one thing that Daily Operation has in spades it’s songs heavy on braggadocio. Of the 15 non-interlude cuts, eight of them are about Guru telling us why he’s the “Illest Brother,” or how he’s “2 Deep” and especially how there’s “No Shame In [His] Game.” All of these songs hit the mark and make up the bulk of an album that somehow feels both refreshingly raw and painstakingly refined.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Hard To Earn
“How far must you go to gain respect?” The exact distance is unclear, but after three studio albums and notable side work from both parties, Gang Starr was there. On the album’s first song, “ALONGWAYTOGO,” DJ Premier takes the lead with his signature drum breaks and crisp turntable scratches, delivering what should be a clean and safe opener. However, a high-pitched tone throughout the verses forces the listener to cling to Guru’s monotone lyrics while also perfectly transitioning into the looping strings and high key scratching on the album’s next track, “Code of the Streets.” In some ways a spiritual successor to 1991’s “Just To Get A Rep,” Guru is once again the keen observer of project plight; but instead of sticking to the third person he asks, “why is it me?/ am I the target for destruction?/ what about the system and total corruption?”
Guru’s subject matter continues to grow more mature and engaging on “Tonz o Gunz” and “The Planet,” two songs about gun [control] and Brooklyn respectively. A voice message interlude is then followed by two posse cuts, the first of which follows Daily Operation‘s successful formula and features Jeru The Damaja, Lil’ Dap, and Guru all rapping over their own Primo beat. A little competition has always been good for hip-hop, and on “Dwyck” Guru pushes Nice & Smooth to the top of their game while also delivering one of his most hilarious and off-kilter lines: “lemonade was a popular drink and it still is/ I get more props and stunts than Bruce Willis.” Moving on from fruity drinks and actors, Gang Starr come up with one of their biggest all-time hits (somewhat ironically) with “Mass Appeal.” DJ Premier chops up one of the most menacing piano loops of all time (right up there with RZA’s beat on “Duel of the Iron Mic”) and Guru crushes each verse as he embarrasses all the wack rappers that would “sell their soul to have mass appeal.”
Rating: 9.7 out of 10
Moment Of Truth
(1998; Noo Trybe)
Moment Of Truth really should be my favorite Gang Starr album. In fact, for many years, it was. The 20 tracks (all songs, no skits) provided tons of replay value, and as Guru says to Primo at the very beginning of the record, “The rhyme style is elevated, the style of beats is elevated, but it’s still Guru and Premier [cool hand slap/pound/daps] and there’s always a message involved.” Tough to argue with that, especially when that prelude transitions right into “You Know My Steez,” a definite standout with one of my favorite Gang Starr drum breaks (sampled from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five) and rhymes that find Guru getting a bit more philosophical with age, “It’s often easier for one, to give advice/ Than it is for a person to run one’s own life/ That’s why I can’t be caught up in all the hype/ I keep my soul tight and let these lines takes flight.” The reflective and contemplative mood seems to suit Guru quite well, and he maintains the vibe on “Robin Hood Theory,” “Above The Clouds,” “JFK to LAX” and the title track. The latter finds Guru supposedly on the brink of suicide, before he reaches his “moment of truth.” Attentive audiences may find that Guru lays down the wisdom a little too obviously here, but ambiguity has never really been hip-hop’s strong point so perhaps that’s an unfair gripe.
DJ Premier is really in top form on this record. From all of the aforementioned songs, to “Work,” “What I’m Here 4,” “My Advice 2 You” and “Next Time,” he makes some stellar beats. His sampling technique has also been polished and tweaked by this point: “Work” is made possible by this subtle piano loop found in this Manhattans song around the 1:18 mark. As I said, Moment Of Truth should be my favorite Gang Starr album; the sum of the parts on this record is probably greater than any other Gang Starr album, but the intangible aspects just don’t come together in the same way as on the previous three releases.
Rating: 8.9 out of 10
I told one of my friends that I was doing a feature on Gang Starr and the first thing he said was that I should “take it easy on The Ownerz.” It’s true that I don’t really care for this album and definitely don’t play it in my spare time, but in some ways it’s tough to blame DJ Premier and Guru for the end result. It had been six years since their previous LP and the hiatus had left fans crying for more. The duo responded with 19 tracks of bumping beats and tight rhymes. But, if I can at all fault Moment Of Truth for not possessing that certain gusto that made the earlier albums so special, that’s certainly the case here.
Songs such as “Skills,” “Put Up or Shut Up,” “Rite Where U Stand,” “In This Life…,” “The Ownerz” and “Zonin'” provide some short-term thrills, but few surprises (except for the Snoop Dogg cameo on “In This Life…”). Gang Starr deserve respect for the making the record and pleasing fans in the process, but the duo are sadly past their prime throughout the duration of the LP.
Rating: 6.2 out of 10