Never overly prolific nor overly popular, Gang Starr nonetheless became and remain one of hip-hop's most admired acts ever, the duo's legacy nothing short of legendary in terms of influence. Dj Premier and Guru, the duo's respective producer/DJ and lyricist/MC, set standards for early-'90s hip-hop with their two touchstone releases: Step In The Area (1991) and Daily Operation (1992). Beginning with these releases, both listeners and critics heaped mounds of praise upon Premier and Guru — the former because of his DJ-style beatmaking and jazzy sound, the latter because of his socially conscious lyrics and no-nonsense stance. Following these two undisputed classics, Premier became one of New York's most demanded producers and crafted hits for the city's finest MCs: The Notorious B.I.G, Nas, Jay-Z, KRS-One, and more. Guru likewise collaborated with plenty of famous artists — Roy Ayers, Donald Byrd, N`Dea Davenport, and more — on his solo debut, Jazzmatazz, Vol.1. After this point, however, Gang Starr became somewhat of a side project for Premier and Guru, who both forged on with their respective solo careers. More albums came — each impressive, beginning with the tough Hard To Earn album in 1994 — yet Gang Starr had already attained their summit of popularity and acclaim in the early '90s and, as a result, continually battled their own growing legacy, as fans billed every successive album as a comeback.Premier and Guru began humbly enough, releasing No More Mr. Nice Guy (1989), an ambitious debut album seeking to heavily incorporate a jazz aesthetic into hip-hop. Ambitious or not, the formative album didn't impress too many (though there were promising moments like "Manifest" and "DJ Premier in Deep Concentration"), and Gang Starr took two years to reconsider their approach. The duo then returned with a new record label and a fresh approach. It worked marvelously as Step In The Arena (1991) set new standards with not only its beats but also its lyrics. Premier had blossomed into one of New York's most savvy producer/DJs, capable of using samples in ways never before imagined and garnered much acclaim for his subtle use of jazz. Similarly, Guu's literate, thoughtful, and, most of all, earnest lyrics stood out among the brash materialism increasingly plaguing the genre, and his trademark monotone delivery didn't hurt either. A year later came Daily Operation (1992). If Step In The Arena had been and remains a masterpiece, this album is nothing short of that mark; in fact, it's generally viewed as Gang Starr's crowning achievement. While both Step In The Arena and Daily Operation astounded critics and street-level listeners, the albums never inspired any big breakthrough hits, and Gang Starr remained somewhat of a cult favorite. Songs like "Just to Get a Rep," "Step in the Arena," "Take It Personal," and "Soliloquy of Chaos" became underground classics but never crossed over to the mainstream. Despite Premier's reputation as a hitmaker, Gang Starr openly spurned "mass appeal" and refused to adjust their style to any sort of trend.Hard To Earn (1994) strongly confirmed this anti-commercial stance, especially the "Mass Appeal" single, and the duo didn't return until four years later with Moment Of Truth (1998) and Full Clip (1999) shortly after. The former album and its big single, "You Know My Steez," proved that, despite Gang Starr's long absence , Premier and Guru could still make excellent hip-hop — an entire album of it, in fact. The latter album, a double-disc retrospective commemorating Gang Starr's ten-year anniversary, showcased some of the duo's best moments and added some bonuses for long-time fans.Following the best-of collection, Premier and Guru quietly rested the Gang Starr moniker. Even so, they remained active over the years: Guru continued releasing star-studded solo albums, and Premier continued producing countless tracks for New York's finest. While it's somewhat ironic that Premier produced so many across-the-board hits for others but not himself, Gang Starr never attained Nas or Jay-Z level stardom because of their uncompromising, somewhat highbrow style, something which the two refused to dilute with mass appeal, precisely the reason why their influence has proven so timeless.
Reupped: Gang Starr - No More Mr. Nice Guy
You don't hear much of Step In The Arena on Gang Starr's first album. In fact, aside from some scrupulous lyrical stances by Guru ("Manifest," "Positivity") and some of Dj Premier's hallmark brilliance behind the turntables, this Gang Starr isn't instantly recognizable as the duo who would soon become one of the most respected rap groups of the 1990s. The Gang Starr of No More Mr. Nice Guy still has a leg knee-deep in the old-school aesthetic. As a result, Premier's beats are quite a bit simpler and sometimes cruder than fans have come to expect (though they are still several cuts above the rest of the class), and Guru spends considerable energy talking up his own microphone skills and tearing down the next MC's (sometimes electrifying, as on "Gotch U"). That is not the same thing, however, as saying that No More Mr. Nice Guy is a subpar album. It is not, by any means. In fact, it's quite good in its own way, but it's also safe to say that the recording is not representative of the Chrysalis-era Gang Starr that devotees would eventually come to revere. Approach this album on its own terms, though, and it has a lot to offer, namely its early, tentative steps into the sampling of jazz. The most conspicuous attempt in this direction is the fine "Jazz Music," which was, nevertheless, reworked to much better effect a few years later for the soundtrack to Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues as "Jazz Thing." The scratching showcase "DJ Premier in Deep Concentration" is an antiquated delight that dips into jazz as well, while the conscientious "Cause and Effect," the steely "2 Steps Ahead," and the uncharacteristic guest production from Dj Mark The 45 King on "Gusto" are all classics waiting to be rediscovered. Indicative or not, fans of the group will want this album, as will those with a jones for the original new-school revolution. More casual fans can probably start their collections with Step In The Arena, which is a required purchase. [The 2001 Wild Pitch Classics reissue adds three bonus tracks, the strongest of which is "Here's the Proof."]
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Gang Starr - Step in the Arena
The album on which Dj Premier and Guru perfected the template that would launch them into underground stardom and a modicum of mainstream success. Guru's deadpan monotone delivery was shockingly different from other early-'90s MCs, many of who were either substituting charisma for substance or engaging in hardcore "realism" without really commenting on black inner-city life or offering ways to alter the situation for the better. But it is Guru who sounded like the real clarion call of and to the street on Step in the Arena ("Why bring ignorance/where we're inviting you to get advancement," he intones on "Form of Intellect"). Step in the Arena was the first real mature flowering of his street-wise sagacity. His voice would grow more assured by the next album, but here Guru imparts urban wisdom of a strikingly visible variety. It's easy to allow yourself to get caught up in the fantasy of hardcore rap, but it is somewhat more involving and disorienting to hear truth that avoids exaggeration or glorification. Guru is not easy on any aspect of the inner city, from the "snakes" that exploit the community ("Execution of a Chump") to those that are a product of it ("Just to Get a Rep"), and the result is a surprising but hard-fought compassion ("Who's Gonna Take the Weight?" pleads for the acceptance of responsibility, for not taking the easy path). He seems to have somehow developed a hopefulness out of the bleak surroundings. Dj Premier was already near the top of his game at this early point. His production seems less jazz-fueled on Step in the Arena, opting more for spare guitar lines and tight beats, as well as his unmistakable vocal cut-up style of scratching for a slightly warped and out-of-phase soundscape.
Gang Starr - Daily Operation
On Step in the Arena, Dj Premier and Guru hit upon their mature sound, characterized by sparse, live jazz samples, Premier's cut-up scratching, and Guru's direct, unwavering streetwise monotone; but, with Daily Operation, the duo made their first masterpiece. From beginning to end, Gang Starr's third full-length album cuts with the force and precision of a machete and serves as an ode to and representation of New York and hip-hop underground culture. The genius of Daily Operation is that Guru's microphone skills are perfectly married to the best batch of tracks Premier had ever come up with. Guru has more of a presence than he has ever had, slinking and pacing through each song like a man with things on his mind, ready to go off at any second. Premier's production has an unparalleled edge here. He created the minimalist opening track, "The Place Where We Dwell," out of a two-second drum-solo sample and some scratching, but is also able to turn around and create something as lush and melodic as the jazz-tinged "No Shame in My Game" without ever seeming to be out of his element, making every track of the same sonic mind. For an underground crew, Gang Starr has always had a knack for crafting memorable vocal hooks to go with the expert production, and they multiply both aspects on Daily Operation. Every song has some attribute that stamps it indelibly into the listener's head, and it marks the album as one of the finest of the decade, rap or otherwise.
Gang Starr - Hard to Earn
Gang Starr came out hard on their 1994 album, Hard to Earn, an album notably different from its two predecessors: Step in the Arena (1991) and Daily Operation (1992). While those two classic albums garnered tremendous praise for their thoughtful lyrics and jazzy beats, Hard to Earn seems much more reactionary, especially its lyrics. Guru opens the album with a tough, dismissive spoken-word intro: "Yo, all you kids want to get on and sh*t/Just remember this/This sh*t ain't easy/If you ain't got it, you ain't got it, motherf*cker." While this sense of superiority is undoubtedly a long-running convention of not just East Coast rap but rap in general, you don't expect to hear it coming from Gang Starr, particularly with such a bitter tone. Yet this attitude pervades throughout Hard to Earn. Songs such as "Suckas Need Bodyguards" and "Mass Appeal" take aim at unnamed peers, and other songs such as "ALONGWAYTOGO" similarly center on "whack crews." The best moments on Hard to Earn aren't these songs but instead "Code of the Streets" and "Tonz 'O' Gunz," two songs where Guru offers the type of social commentary that made Gang Starr so admirable in the first place. Yet, even though Hard to Earn is a bit short on such thoughtful moments, instead weighed down a bit with harsh attitude, it does offer some of Dj Premier's best productions ever. He's clearly at — or, at least, near — his best here. There isn't a song on the album that's a throwaway, and even the interludes are stunning. Given the subtly bitter tone of this album, it perhaps wasn't surprising then that Guru and Premier took some time to pursue solo opportunities after Hard to Earn. You can sense the duo's frustration with the rap scene circa 1994. The two didn't return with another Gang Starr album until four years later when they dropped Moment Of Truth, a succinct comeback album that reaffirmed their status as one of New York's most thoughtful and artistic rap acts.
Gang Starr - Moment of Truth
By the release of Moment of Truth in the spring of 1998, Gang Starr were rap veterans, having spent nearly ten years as professionals. That elapsed time meant that the album was positioned as something of a comeback, since the duo had been inactive for four years, and it had been even longer since they had a hit. They knew they had to come back hard, and Moment of Truth almost accomplishes their goals. Retaining the swing of their jazz-rap fusions, Gang Starr nevertheless have their rhythms hit at a street level, and Guru's rhymes are his best in years. It may not have the thrill of discovery that made their first albums so exciting, and it does suffer from a few slow spots, but on the whole it's a successful return.
Gang Starr - Full Clip: A Decade of Gang Starr
Considering that the only previous hip-hop hits collection to stretch two full CDs came from 2Pac (and that only after his death), Gang Starr's Full Clip is a surprising release, though it's incredibly welcome. The duo of DJ Premier and Guru has been one of the longest continuous acts on the rap scene, beginning with 1989's No More Mr. Nice Guy and a spot on the soundtrack to Spike Lee's 1990 film Mo' Better Blues. And as demonstrated by Premier's stunning productions on classic early tracks like "Who's Gonna Take the Weight," "Words I Manifest," and "Just to Get a Rep," Gang Starr hit its stride early, and just kept on hitting peak after peak during the '90s with "Speak Ya Clout," "Code of the Streets," "Tonz 'O' Gunz," and "You Know My Steez." And new tracks, usually the bane of any best-of collection, provide quite a few highlights here — including "Full Clip," "Discipline" (featuring Total), and "All 4 Tha Ca$h." Also, the set compiles several notable B-sides — "The ? Remainz," "Credit Is Due," and "You Know My Steez (Remix)" — as well as soundtrack works like "1/2 & 1/2" (from Blade), "Gotta Get Over" (from Trespass), and "The Militia II (Remix)" (from Belly). Though Guru's monotone raps can grate over the course of two hours, Full Clip documents one of the best, most underrated hip-hop groups ever, from their jazzy beginnings into Premier's harder productions from the mid-'90s and beyond.
Gang Starr - The Ownerz
Quite a few chart-topping rappers came and went during the five years between Gang Starr's fifth and sixth LPs. So many, in fact, that it's tempting to think that commercial rap had taken a turn for the worse simply because the duo hadn't been back to tend the fires since 1998. Angry and intelligent as they'd ever been, Guru and DJ Premier came right back with guns blazing, ridiculing radio DJs and program directors as "f*cking robots" and proving their case with an album full of tough, kinetic hip-hop that blows away anything on the rap charts. Guru, never the most talented rapper on the East Coast, tightened his flow considerably to match his cutting verse, and DJ Premier only continued waxing lyrical with turntables and samplers. (Compared to his outside productions during the interim, it's clear he was holding back for Gang Starr a few can't-miss productions: "Put Up or Shut Up," "Skillz," the title track.) Guru's wordplay and imagery are vivid, whether he's relating yet another inner-city tale ("Sabotage"), excoriating the record industry ("Deadly Habitz"), or casually making a play for a girl ("Nice Girl, Wrong Place"). Surprisingly, most of the guest features are pedestrian, including the lame guns-and-gangstas posturing of "Who Got Gunz" featuring Fat Joe and M.O.P. or "Capture (Militia Pt. 3)" featuring Big Shug and Freddie Foxxx. Also a letdown is Snoop Dogg's "In This Life...," the return of a favor Premier did for him on two tracks for his Paid tha Cost to Be da Bo$$ LP of a year back. (The only great collaboration is Jadakiss' full-flowing rap on "Rite Where U Stand.") All the Gang Starr trademarks are in place, from Premier's perfect upchoruses to Guru's reedy voice cutting or instructing, and sounding better than ever.
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