Thursday, August 19, 2010

Gang Starr: One Of The Best Yet

[we love g.s: here's the proof]

"Poetry comes from within / and will always win" - Gang Starr, "Beyond Comprehension"

"I'm ready to lose my mind / But instead I use my mind / Put down the knife / And take the bullets out my 9" - Gang Starr, "Moment Of Truth"

Earlier this year saw the death of Guru, from cancer, aged 43: all the more saddening given that we'd been spending a fair bit of time with our Gang Starr records even in the few months before that. And that we'd slept on the opportunity of seeing the man play in London, an opportunity that of course has now slipped away forever.

When Keith Elam (aka Keithy E the Guru and then, much more sensibly, just the Guru) hooked up with one Christopher Martin (no, not that one, but the artist also known as DJ Premier) it really took the hitherto unknown Gang Starr up the league table. Strange, in so many ways, that we like GS so much: after all, many describe or dismiss them as "jazz rap", and we are not renowned as jazzateers. But, in the same way (a few of you might want to close your ears here) that the most vital hip-hop took templates created by Parliament and James Brown and frankly improved on them, Premier's careful picking of jazz instrumentals, a genre beloved by both men, was the platform for original and high quality new music. As for Guru, while sadly better known for the unhinged lyric to "DWYCK" rather than the acres of fine rhymes that he did come up with, his style was measured, laid back (surely Rakim-influenced) but normally authoritative, his only overplayed thematic trait a seeming obsession with his height (5'8 or '9, depending on the tune), a penchant which Royce Da 5'9" of course continues to this day.

The first album featuring Premier, "No More Mr Nice Guy", is a little dated, we'll admit, and it's p'raps surprising that "Jazz Thing", for example, was a very minor UK hit at the time (er, 66 with a bullet). Mind you, it's an elpee worth copping for "Words I Manifest", "Knowledge" and especially the single "Positivity". (Early B-side "Here's The Proof", a bonus track on the CD, also well merits yr aural attention, being the most obvious bridge between their first and second LPs). But it was that second album, "Step In The Arena", which saw Gang Starr take off almost vertically, suddenly delivering track after track of single quality including, but hardly limited to, the actual singles. "Just To Get A Rep" is a lyrical idea that's been stolen a thousand times, but Guru plays it just right as he recounts with ultra-realism (and, refreshingly, a touch of analysis, rather than the old "jus' holding a mirror up to society" get-out) the sheer pointlessness of gang violence in the projects: and "Who's Gonna Take The Weight ?", also on the "Rep" 12", was astonishing, musically a PE-style killer with their signature brass / kettle mash-up thing going full pelt. It starts with a sample saying "KNOWLEDGE IS POWER" and finishes with a "kettle" solo to fade: matchless. The cutesy "Lovesick" was sadly not an Orange Juice cover, but *was* a relatively unclumsy crossover tune, with Guru even coming over as straightforward and sensitive, in bleak contrast to the depressing, testosterone sexism that counts for "romantic" hip-hop in the current capitalist rap free-for-all. In reaching a paltry no. 50 over here, it was to be their biggest UK "hit".

While "Step" proved perhaps to be the peak, the albums that followed in the 1990s, "Daily Operation", "Hard to Earn" and "Moment of Truth" are all pretty solid, flecked with prime cuts. Even many of the guest spots stand up to scrutiny today, such as the Wu's Inspectah Deck on "Above The Clouds", M.O.P assisting with "B.I. vs Friendship" and, especially, Scarface's turn on the maudlin but menacing "Betrayal". Great tracks like "Daily Operation"'s "Now You're Mine" - taken from the soundtrack of "White Men Can't Jump" - and the legendary "Soliloquoy of Chaos" found themselves somehow relegated to B-sides, but you couldn't gainsay their class, nor that of pointed political commentaries like "Hardcore Composer" and "Conspiracy". "Daily Operation" (its title taken from a line in "Just To Get A Rep") also gave us the excellent "2 Deep" single, which included Guru shedding more light on the memorable opening lyric ("I was raised like a Muslim") of "Take The Weight".

For its part "Hard To Earn" spawned "Mass Appeal", another of our favourite 45s: a fruitful 1994 saw the duo roll out that, "2 Deep" and the "Code To The Street" EP as singles. And even the maligned "Moment Of Truth" long player boasted not just an uplifting, thoughtful, title track but also "You Know My Steez", a song to come back to time after time, another 12" we can hardly bear to leave out of our sight, when Guru stormed out of the blocks and dropped effortless flow over Premo's luxuriously underplayed, rolling beats. (Guru also references PE's "Welcome To The Terrodome" early on, making this a great track to follow "Terrordome" on a mixtape). Our copy of the 12" was nearly physically wrestled from us once by a burly geezah who was convincingly deadpan in only letting us keep it because "it shows you got taste". And only the other day we managed to get hold of the Lady of Rage-featuring remix, tucked away on the B-side of another top single from the LP, "The Militia" (you know, "one of us / equals any of us / disrespect any of us / and you'll see plenty of us"... ooh, and the "Part 2" remix of that, which featured Rakim, no less, alongside our fellow Westside Connection member WC, was even better than the orig).

The double-album "Full Clip: A Decade Of Gang Starr" compilation in 1999 joined most of the hits with a few new tracks, such as the club-friendlier but still born-from-golden-era "Discipline", which was released as a single at the same time and in which Guru, this time abetted by sleek R&Bsters Total, continued to rhyme about the importance of keeping your head while all about you are wilding. It was only really with 2003's final suite, "The Ownerz", that Gang Starr dented their own reputation a little, for while it was easy to put Eminem and co in the shade - as they most assuredly did - we were judging them by their own rather higher standards, and aside from the title track it was a comeback they didn't quite nail despite appearances from Jadakiss, Fat Joe and Snoop Dogg, and the ever-durable "The Militia" franchise getting a Part 3.

In a way, the fact that "The Ownerz" was merely a very good hip-hop album was a sign that Gang Starr's moment had passed, and the OK but not-all-that "Skills" 12", the first single off it, would be the last of theirs that we rushed out to buy within nanoseconds of release. After "The Ownerz", Premo and Guru began to get all that post-break up stuff out of their systems, Morrissey / Marr style, with DJ P. cementing a reputation as producer of choice, Guru launching his "Jazzmatazz" sets and shows that fully indulged his love of those records he'd grown up with at home. And we'd found, thanks to our fanzine, that we were dipping our toes back into indie-pop more often, and after a while we stopped paying the pair the attention we'd once lavished on them.

But, just like the Smiths, a truly worthwhile legacy had already been created, one which we will always cherish. So believe this. There won't be any time soon when Guru's flow isn't bursting out of our speakers.


* * * * *

postscript #1: in love with these times, in spite of these times recommended Gang Starr listening (with impressive restraint, we've narrowed this down to a mere thirty-three tracks from their 100+, although tunes from the first and last albums are included really so you can listen to their musical progression, while the second to fourth albums in particular probably deserve wall-to-wall attention):

from No More Mr Nice Guy: Words I Manifest, Positivity (remix), DJ Premier In Deep Concentration (old-school DJ cut a la Eric B's solo turns on early EB&R albums: also on the B side of the "Manifest" 12"), Knowledge, Here's The Proof (bonus track on the CD, and again on that "Manifest" 12");

from Step In The Arena: Step In The Arena, Execution Of A Chump, Who's Gonna Take The Weight ?, Check The Technique (there's a remix of this on the 12" version of the title track), Beyond Comprehension, Just To Get A Rep, As I Read My S-A, Precisely The Right Rhymes. We're well aware that's half of the whole record;

from Daily Operation: Soliloquoy of Chaos, Take It Personal, 2 Deep, Conspiracy, Hardcore Composer;

from Hard To Earn: Code Of The Streets, Tonz O'Gunz, Mass Appeal, Now You're Mine, Blowin' Up The Spot;

from Moment Of Truth: You Know My Steez, Moment Of Truth, Betrayal;

from Full Clip: Full Clip, Discipline, Gotta Get Over (Taking Loot) (an excellent single, also on the soundtrack to "Trespass", fondly remembered by us for the mere fact of 2 of our all time heroes and "wish they were uncles" Ice-T and Ice Cube teaming up on celluloid and, in retrospect, probably only for that);

from The Ownerz: "Sabotage", "Rite Where U Stand", "PLAYTAWIN", "The Ownerz".

postscript #2: in love with these times, in spite of these times [essential] essential Gang Starr listening (i.e. as an alternative, if you've only got seven minutes to live):

"Who's Gonna Take The Weight ?", "You Know My Steez".

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