Thursday, April 29, 2010

Gang Starr Has Always Been The Sure Shot: Appreciating The Musical Legacy of Gang Starr

By Scott Tre

Ever since Guru's death on April 19th, all the wrong things have become the focus of the conversation. In the absence of anything real or factual, fans have given in to the rampant rumor mongering that has since become the norm. The plume of smoke has yet to clear, and the swirl includes that most feared of all: The gay rumor. The prospect of a celebrated rapper possibly being homosexual still makes old school rap fans uneasy.

In our rush to find answers and dismiss myths, the most important thing has taken a backseat: Kieth's music, or rather, the music he did as one half of Gang Starr. One of the most respected and prominent duo's on the east coast underground circuit, Gang Starr spoke for a generation of disaffected rappers and rap fans who struggled to find grounding in genre that no longer could be contained in the New York Tri-State area. Kieth was the ambassador for New York's post Golden era identity. One where New Yorkers no longer ruled the music.

While the grief suffered by Kieth's friends and family takes precedence over all else, I'd like to take a bit of time to speak on the very special relationship that Kieth Shared with his fans. Since 1989, we've have come to know Kieth by his stage name, Guru. Perhaps the most relatable and "real" rapper the East Coast Rap scene had ever produced. His sometimes overly bland presentation often proved an insurmountable barrier for many. This is a shame, as the character of Guru is, in a way, more layered than just about any other rapper of his generation.

Our journey begins in 1989 with the LP No More Mr. Nice Guy. I was 12 when the video for "Manifest" first started getting burn on Yo! MTV Raps. While I found it mildly entertaining, I was enthralled by the more flamboyant and prominent Hip-Hop personalities of the day. I wasn't mature enough to understand Gang Starr's "no frills" approach to the music. The "Night in Tunisia" sample still made an impression on me though (special mention goes to the episode of The Cosby Show that pointed out where musical backing came from)

Flash forward to 1991 and the release of Step in the Arena. Even at that young age, I was fully aware of the seismic shift that had taken place in the music over the last few years. Via the rise of West Coast gangsta rap and the emergence of Hammer, New York was no longer the center of the Rap universe. The west offered a sound that was more musical and appealing than that of the east, which many outside of the tri-state area began to view as antiquated and unrelatable.

This was partially do to a significant change in the New york Hip-Hop aesthetic. The big apple eschewed the more universal block party sound mired in 808's for something a bit more insular and less marketable. In the wake of the superlyricists of the late 1980's, complexity and Islamic influences became the order of the day. Groups like Brand Nubian, and the ever expanding Native Tongues collective exemplified this. Many folks outside the tri-state classified Gang Starr with that same narrow definition. Boring, fast talking rappers who made music that you couldn't dance to.

The lead single and title cut, Step In The Arena, was a bit more confrontational and sedate than anything offered by the duo before. A certain grit began to materialize. The sentiment was in keeping with the ever present battle motif of Hip-Hop culture and epitomized New York's early 90's non mainstream identity: Strangers in a strange land. A new generation of rappers that had to contend with real comp from the rest country, many with styles and sounds that seemed odd to those of us who hail from the northeast.

The song was basic in it's construction, the peppy roll of the drums supported by ceiling crashing 808's that seemed designed to remove houses from foundations. This stood in stark contrast to the growing sentiment at the time that New York Rap just didn't hit hard enough in the whip. The Miami Bass movement had given a whole new definition to what your woofers were capable of, as had the funky contributions of Sir Too $hort and his West Coast brethren. While Gurus delivery was sedate, the mudhole stomp of the bass signaled the arrival of someone, or something important. The horns where the musical equivalent of boxing's "Let's Get ready to Rumble!", announcing that a contest of epic proportions was afoot. DJ Premiere's flurry of cuts and scratches laced the hook together like a pair of boxing gloves.

Guru's rhymes where precise and sharp. In perhaps his most articulate performance ever,he describes the damage that will befall any and all inferior challengers:

In the arena... or rather colliseum
There's people gatherin by multitudes to see one
perpretrator fall to the dust after the other
Quickly disposed of at the hand of a known brother

Amazingly enough, at 14 years of age I again opted to leave Step in the Arena on record stores shelves. This was in spite of the testimonials by my older New York relatives to it's dopeness. The equally dope "Who's Gonna Take The Weight?" and "Lovesick" (one of the less laughable 'love raps' of it's era) notwithstanding, I was still too concerned with the flashier gangsta music and conscious rap of the time.

Skip ahead another year to 1992. My cousin had recently signed to Wild Pitch records as part of the duo Hard Knocks and released an album called School of Hard Knocks. Over the previous year he had continuously sang the praises of DJ Premiere and his work on Step in the Arena. He also related a story to me about how Guru pulled a gun on label founder Stuart Fine in order to "negotiate" his way out of his contract. Around that same time, I began to reconnect with my New York roots and my growing music collection reflected that. I decided to finally take a chance and pick up the cassette of Gang Starr's third effort, Daily Operation.

Accompanied by the first single "Take it Personal", Gang Starr's sound seemed to be getting grittier and even more stripped down. The considerable vocabulary that Guru exhibited on Step in the Arena seemed to fall by the wayside. This didn't take away from the quality of the music, but the change did not go unnoticed by my cousins who deemed Daily Operation to be a lackluster follow up to Step In the Arena. This was much to my chagrin, as I was mostly pleased with the album. From the beat machine precision of the drums on "Take it Personal", to the deeper darker themes found on "Soliloquy of Chaos", I could see nothing wrong with the album. The latter especially stuck out in my mind do to the inclusion of a single phrase:

So I'll ask you to your face homeboy what's up
Did you come to see my show or the stupid nigger playoffs
Killing you and killing me it's the soliloquy of chaos

Stupid Nigger playoffs. Guru had found the perfect phrase to categorize the ignorant and destructive behavior that often took place at concerts, clubs and any number of venues where young black people congregated and Rap music was played. He called out the behavior for what it was. Some may disregard it with a shrug, but you also have to consider the time in which he was saying this. Though the Black consciousness movement was in full vogue, the nihilism of gangsta music was casting an ever growing shadow over the genre. Ignorance became par for the course, and in some cases a badge of honor. Guru spoke for those who enjoyed the music but would rather not be caught up in the tough guy nonsense. In that sense, SSoliloquy was similiar to Ice Cubes "Us" thematically.

The smooth "Ex Girl to the Next Girl" unwittingly fit the description of what car stereo enthusiasts might call "riding music", as a friend of mine with a low riding Cadillac equipped with considerable knock would demonstrate. The Jazzy layout of the track as well as Guru's narrative about evolving from simp to pimp appealed to the latent player in most straight males. Preme employs the 808 to great effect.

Guru also was one the first to openly acknowledge the fraudulence of Gangsta Rap, with songs like "The Illest Brother":

Fake gangsters come and fake gangsters go
real gangsters chill cuz real gangsters know

Many disregarded such attitudes as thinly veiled animosity that the east harbored towards the west's cash cow. Such criticisms aren't without merit, but the same couldn't be said for Guru's observations. There was a clear difference between real life gangsterism and the alleged reality being "reported" by the self appointed ambassadors of "The Hood". Though it may have been motivated partially by hate, Guru's enthusiasm for exposing fakeness was a sentiment shared by many.

Later on that same year, Guru and Preme contributed to the soundtrack for Walter Hill's rather pedestrian effort Trespass, which starred Ice Cube and Ice T. While the film left a lot to be desired (especially for a burgeoning movie buff and hip-hop fiend like myself), the soundtrack managed to be even more forgettable. Bland offerings from the likes of Ice Cube, Ice T, Black Sheep and even Lord Finesse only added insult to injury. Not giving in to mediocrity, Gang Starr offered their most bone chilling testament to a hustler's ambition yet: "Gotta Get Over (Taking Loot)"

The stark Blaxploitation vibe of the track is set off the violin intro and maintained wah wah guitar stabs. Guru's dissection of a hustlers mindset is cold and clinical. Not as in your face as the west coast version of the same, but crisp and clear nonetheless. Guru's nasal, deadpan delivery only adds to the detached feel of the song. This is a guy who only cares about his paper. As Nino Brown once put it "It's always business, never personal".

1993 was a relatively quite year for Gang Starr. The east slowly began to lay the foundation for a resurrection that wouldn't truly catch fire for another two or three years. Wu-Tang Clan laid started the first chapter of their with Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers. Black Moon dropped the dark and violent backpacker opus Enta da Stage. Onyx made a splash with Bacdafucup. All of those albums pointed towards a new east coast identity that was less concerned with black consciousness and more about reestablishing street credentials.

While this was taking shape, Guru further indulged his passion for Jazz with Guru's Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1. The synergy of Jazz and Rap had always been a major element of Gang Starr, but here Guru took it one step further. Jazzmatazz was an avant garde offering that had the misfortune of being released after The Chronic had fired the first shot in the G-Funk revolution. Again, the west offered something the general public was much more familiar with. The sounds of Parliament Funkadelic are much more suited to partying, and when compared with Funk, Jazz had always been more of an acquired taste.

In the spring of 94, Gangstarr returned to the scene with the single "Mass Appeal". Sans a real bassline, the spacey keys emphasize the barren feel of the sound scape. Guru sounds a bit more angry than we have heard him before. He admonishes rappers who would completely compromise themselves to attain the mass appeal of the title. Nothing complex, but effective nonetheless.

"Mass Appeal" was the first single off of the angry and somewhat bitter set Hard to Earn. Mainstream success had eluded Gang Starr since it's inception, and that built up frustration seemed to manifest itself on the stark beat collages arranged by Premiere. Boasting a selection of samples and sound effects that would be right at home in B-level horror film, some of the production choices are downright baffling. Guru seems less approachable this time around.

Songs like the somber "Code of the Streets" are offset by the menace of "Suckas Need Bodyguards", which displays Guru's disdain for phony gangsters and whack rappers in his boldest manner yet. Never before has the underlying frustration of Guru's persona been this palpable. The album also includes the NY mix show standard DWYCK, which was always more amusing than dope to me.

This was also the point in time when Premo became the most respected east coast producer of his generation, if not the most popular. His brand of gritty, simplistic boom bap became a must have feature for any New York rapper that took themselves seriously as a "super" lyricist. The earth shattering knock found on No More Mr. Nice Guy and Step in the Arena had given way to a muddier, more New York centric sound. The chopping of samples become more important. Premo's work on two classic debuts, Nas Illmatic and The Notorious B.I.G's Ready to Die, would give him a whole new level of prominence and a slight lead in the unofficial Pete Rock vs. Premo debates that where becoming the norm wherever east coast hip-hop was discussed.

Gang-Starr would not release another album for four years. Those four years would be the most traumatic that Hip-Hop had seen yet. The New York rap scene would return to prominence on the strength of the commercial success of B.I.G and to a lesser extent Wu-Tang Clan. The growing animosity that had long since festered between The Empire State and the rest of the country manifested itself in the fabled East coast/West Coast war. At the center was a seemingly personal feud between 2pac and B.I.G. Years of percieved "east coast bias" on the part of the Hip-Hop media and industry drove the conflict, making New York's return to the spotlight bitter sweet.

Also, the rise of the south entered it's first wave with the ascendence of Master P and his No Limit empire. While the south had produced many successful acts and labels before this, Master P brought the do-it-yourself entrepreneurial approach to the forefront in a way no one had before him. Seemingly over night (though that was far from the case), The No Limit tank seemed to be everywhere. "I'm Bout It" found it's way to New York radio after being a hit for years in the south east. The South was officially in the house.

In the midst of this, The Gang Starr foundation swelled considerably. Jeru the Damaja released his debut The Sun Rises in the East to acclaim, becoming the unofficial mouthpiece for the Easts growing disdain towards Gangsta Rap. The lyrically challenged Group Home released their debut Livin' Proof in fall of 1995. Both albums were produced solely by DJ Premiere, with Livin' Proof setting a high water mark of sorts. The production on the album was a aggressively consistent, featuring eclectic yet mellow grooves out fitted with the grittiest of drums. While the Group Home came up lacking on the lyrical front, they showed a level of heart that went a long way toward redeeming them.

Premiere also contributed to B.I.G's second blockbuster album Life After Death, crafting two of the albums most memorable songs. Guru released the second volume of Jazzmatazz in 1995, with many considering it more accomplished than the first. Jeru released his second album Wrath of the Math in 1996. While not as cohesive lyrically or musically as it's predecessor, it produced a memorable first single and video with ""Ya Playin' Yaself"" which was yet another admonishment of gangsta music, his time zeroing in on the east coast mafioso subgenre. The video featured martial arts fight choreography worthy of any Hong Kong action classic. Premiere's work with Bahamadia and M.O.P were also notable, raising his profile even further.

In 1998 Gang Starr returned to the stage in a big way with the prophetically titled Moment of Truth. The set was ushered in by the sinisterly militant first single "You Know My Steez", which was equipped with a video inspired by George Lucas Dystopian sci-fi film THX 1138. While quietly effective, the song barely hinted at the sense of purpose and musical textures to be found on the LP.

From a musical standpoint the LP was quite simply satisfying. Never before had Premiere's ear for samples both obscure and instantly recognizable served him better than it does here. From the classic Motown vibe evoked by the use of "It's Time to Breakdown" by The Supremes to the tear jerking Xylophones on "In Memory Of...". Each Gang Starr album seems to represent a different stage in the groups musical and thematic development. Though Guru's flow was more simplified than ever, he was more introspective and focused on smaller life truths instead of more grandiose themes Hence the chorus from the albums title cut:

Actions have reactions, don't be quick to judge
You may not know the hardships people don't speak of
It's best to step back, and observe with couth
For we all must meet our moment of truth

Though it may seem trite and preachy to some, Guru delivers it with complete sincerity. The anger and bitterness found on Hard to Earn has given way to world weary reflection. Now vets of the industry with a recording career spanning nearly a decade, Gang Starr had entered the most commercially potent phase of their career. As if the result of gradual progression toward an ultimate goal, Moment of Truth became Gang Starr's first album to be certified Gold by the RIAA. This milestone is considerable, as Gang Starr never really had a mainstream presence and was always viewed by detractors as being a non factor outside of the New York underground circuit. It seemed there was an audience for Gang Starr did, and this time they stood up to be counted.

1999 saw the release of Gang Starr's double disc package Full Clip: A Decade of Gang Starr. The set included a handful of new songs, most notable of which was the title track which has since become a staple of opening sets for DJ's up throughout the northeast. Like it's immediate predecessor, the set was certified Gold. Gang Starr finally seemed to start winning on a commercial front.

The next four years was another dormant period for the group. In their absence, the ascendance of the south continued. Musically, southern rappers developed at a prodigious rate, staying true to their musical roots but never allowing pretense or hubris to pigeonhole them. The west coast, which had been diminishing in visibility and relevance since the death of 2pac and implosion of Death Row, was increasingly dependent on Snoop Dog as their sole representative. Despite 50 Cent's star rising with the force of a Nasa space shuttle, the east coast was gradually heading in the same direction as the West.

Into this musically stale enviornment, Gangstarr released their sixth and least well received album, The Ownerz. The Ownerz represented a stopping point (some might even say progression) in the musical and artistic growth of the group. Premiere's mid-90's winning streak had since stalled. Most of his tracks post Moment of Truth were relatively unremarkable when compared to his most potent work. The album, while not whack by any measure, seemed stale and dated. The passion wasn't their anymore, and judging by the musical landscape, Hip-Hop had not heeded Guru's warnings in regard to the ever elusive Mass Appeal. East Coast rappers especially seemed prone to shamelessly chasing after it.

While the funky, break beat driven "Skills" got the blood pumping, the majority of the LP found the duo going through the motions. "Right Where You Stand", featuring Jadakiss, played like a crash course in Premo 101. Unimaginative and static. A dark cloud of mediocrity permeated the set. None of the songs really seemed able to make it off the proverbial runway. Guru and Premiere had long ago settled into a formula, but never before had said formula been so plainly in need of an update. Still, Guru and Premiere had a considerable catalog boasting at least for albums of undoubtedly solid material. That's more than many of Rap's most storied and beloved groups can say for themselves.

While the whirlwind of rumors whizzes about us, we all stand helpless. We grit out teeth and spew venom toward Solar and anyone who dare believe his claims. We cover our ears and eyes, refusing anything that contradicts our image of who Guru was. Some of the less respectful among us have taken the opportunity to do our own personal stand up routines at the expense of the situation. This is now officially a media circus, with Solar himself taking center stage.

The most intelligent and logical thing is often the hardest to do. I vote that all of us who were truly moved by Kieth's art should take a time out, using the music of Gang Starr as a refuge. This was the music that went a long way in shaping our idea of what Hip-Hop should sound like. How many of us lamented the inherent gimmickery found in mainstream rap, only to brand Guru and like minded MC's as boring when they offered up exactly what we were asking for? As great as he is, Premiere never truly carried Guru in the way so many of us claimed. Rather, Guru realized that Premiere's beatscapes provided ample fireworks. There was no need for him to become an overly animated caricature for the sake of marketing. He let the music itself do the talking, stubbornly refusing to offer the placebo of "charisma" to make it go down easier. He was simply a guy who knew how to rap and had something say. That's it, that's all.

I propose that we as fans pay Kieth's friends and family the respect of allowing them to sort this mess out. If in fact Solar is lying, let's allow divine justice to do it's job. That's not to say that we should remain silent, only that we should show restraint and common sense. None of us knew Kieth personally, but we cherish his music. Kieth's spirit has ascended into the next world, but it's essence remains in the art he crafted with Premiere. In a time where Hip-Hop shakes off the traditions and attitudes held dear by those of us born in the 70's, it is all the more important to preserve the legacy of those who fought the good fight and refused to give in.

Peaceful journey Kieth Elam, and thank you. My high school years would not have been the same without your music. Rest in peace with the knowledge that you work had a major impact on those of us who enjoyed it. Goodbye brother.


  1. if ever i need a thorough education in hip hop i know where to come. props mayne.

  2. After reading the article for 3 times I completely understand it's vision. You have provided really an amazing knowledge.

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