Gang Starr - Biography
By Paul Glanting
One of the cornerstones of Hip Hop is its ability to bolster the livelihood of the people involved within the culture. From deeyaing to rapping to breakdancing, the culture is largely based upon competition. For better or worse, the consequence of this dynamic is that the music develops a fairly self-centered and individualistic tone. Out of necessity, team work came out of the Hip Hop "duo." Brooklyn-based tag team Gang Starr may not have been the first duo to find prominence in Hip Hop, but the chemistry which thrives between DJ Premier’s bass-heavy soul music contortions and Guru’s thick baritone rhymes is uncanny has been an influential innovation in Hip Hop and certainly is due credit for innovating the Hip Hop duo. Guru’s smooth voice has become one of Hip Hop’s recognizable and DJ Premiere has become arguably the most influential producer to emerge from New York.
After migrating to New York from his native Boston, Keith Edward Elam along with with several young Hip Hop producers, began laying down tracks and collectively called themselves Gang Starr. While the original incarnation of Gang Starr didn’t last long, they did yield a trio of 12” singles with Believe Dat! (WIld Pitch-1987)The Lesson (Wild Pitch-1987) and Movin’ On (Wild Pitch-1988). In 1989 the group disbanded, however, Elam, calling himself Guru (Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal), still had it in mind to keep the name Gang Starr intact, while he pursued his own projects. Guru would soon befriend another New York transplant, a beat-smith from Houston named DJ Premiere. A cassette featuring some of Premiere’s beats fell into Guru’s hands who was impressed. The two immediately began collaborating and in the same year of their first encounter, they yielded the new Gang Starr's first single Words I Manifest (Wild Pitch-1989). “Words That I Manifest” showcased Guru’s relaxed delivery which took a good amount of inspiration from the early rap-battles, which pitted the extemporaneous rhymes of two MCs against one another. These lyrical duels were pivotal in the formation of Hip Hop’s competitive nature and Guru consistently pays tribute to his Hip Hop roots in his lyrics. “Words That I Manifest” led up to the first full-length from Gang Starr No More Mr. Nice Guy (Wild Pitch-1989) and thus, the now-legendary Gang Starr was born.
No More Mr. Nice Guy was critically praised for Guru’s sly and relaxed battle-raps which slid over DJ Premiere’s production. Guru’s loyalty to his Muslim beliefs remained consistent and unbending. However, while No More Mr. Nice Guy found a positive reaction from critics, it would be overshadowed by other Hip Hop albums of the time such as De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising (Tommy Boy-1989). Nevertheless, the album would lay the groundwork for one of the most enduring Hip Hop groups in the fickle world of Hip Hop.
Gang Starr’s second album Step In The Arena (EMI-1991) would hear the dynamic created by the group continue to bloom. DJ Premiere was steadily becoming one of the most respected producers in Hip Hop, reworking and subverting samples from groups like Kool and the Gang, The Delfonics and Funkadelic for Gang Starr's signature sound. The album featured tracks like “Trying to Get A Rep”, which like many other early Gang Starr records, hears the duo dabbling with content ranging from the fulmination of rappers they deem sub-par as well as erroneously posing as being violent merely for the sake of a reputation. Gang Starr were also never afraid to look sensitive and created some of Hip Hop’s greatest love songs, as can be heard on the track “Lovesick.” Many critics commended the musicianship on Step In The Arena and the album was named one of The Source’s greatest albums of all time.Their sophomore album is largely seen as having cemented the duo as one of the most progressive groups driving the quickly growing genre of Hip Hop.
While Gang Starr had always been socially aware and concerned with the purity of Hip Hop culture, they had only lightly dabbled with politically active themes. Their third album, Daily Operation (EMI-1992), which sported a cover where a photo of Malcolm X watches above the two, aggressively began to pounce on topics such as inner-city oppression and governmental hypocrisy. Gang Starr’s leap into more politically aware territory on tracks like “2 Deep” and “Conspiracy” were well-received and the album is seen as a classic. Daily Operation also hears the first appearances of Jeru The Damaja, another future-underground mainstay, whose career was launched largely thanks to his appearance on Daily Operation’s “I’m the Man” as well as plentiful collaborations he did with DJ Premiere after Daily Operation.
Another influence that truly began to manifest on both No More Mr. Nice Guy and Step In The Arena was the pair’s fondness for Jazz music. Guru would create an entire project that combined the confident swagger of Hip Hop with a tribute to Jazz legends. Jazzmatazz Vol. 1 (Virgin-1993) was one of the first Hip Hop albums to use a live Jazz-band. Backing Guru’s gritty rhymes were established Jazz icons like Roy Ayers, Donald Byrd, Branford Marsalis, among others. While groups like A Tribe Called Quest had expressed an interest in jazz, Guru’s actual original compositions brought a good amount of acclaim to the album, which would spawn several sequels.
Meanwhile, DJ Premiere would continue to craft the sound of hardcore east coast Hip Hop. Premiere produced Brooklyn rapper Jeru the Damaja’s first album The Sun Rises in the East (Polygram-1994) and provided the grimy yet soulful landscape for Jeru’s didactic rhymes. The progressively street-centric zeitgeist on The Sun Rises in the East, along with album’s like Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The 36 Chambers (Loud-1993), are often credited as leading the charge of the resurrection of East Coast Hip Hop.
Again joining forces, Guru and DJ Premiere dropped Gang Starr’s fourth album Hard To Earn (EMI-1994). Gang Starr were now mainstays in a genre where careers rarely last long. Hard To Earn was another lauded album for the two. Tracks like “Tons O Guns” continued to aggressively maul the credibility of rappers whom Gang Starr deemed a threat to the progress of Hip Hop. Meanwhile, over an immensely ubiquitous Vic Juries sample, Guru spat his confident rhymes effortlessly and subsequently, “Mass Appeal” would grow to be one of Gang Starr’s most recognizable singles.
Guru released a second edition to his Jazzmatazz series with Jazzmatazz, Vol. 2: The New Reality (Chrystalis-1995). And, while the colorful collision between Jazz and Hip Hop was slightly more muffled than the original, the album was still supplemented by musical greats like Freddie Hubbard and Chaka Khan and contemporaries like Me'Shell Ndegéocello.
DJ Premiere had now come into his own as a producer and kept busy by crafting songs for other artists tirelessly. His most notable work outside of Gang Starr was his work on iconic Hip Hop albums like Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt (Roc-A-Fella-1996), Nas’ Illmatic (Columbia-1994) and the late, great Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die (Bad Boy-1994), on which he produced the track “Unbelievable.” DJ Premiere’s dusty soul-based production was a perfect fit for B.I.G.’s often uplifting but sometimes morose tales of Brooklyn life. And, while he only produced one song for the tragically slain rapper’s debut, his contribution to The Notorious B.I.G.’s sophomore album Life After Death (Bad Boy-1997) would be even more prominent.
After a four-year absence, Gang Starr again emerged with Moment of Truth (Virgin-1998). After producing the sound for essentially a who’s who of prominent fixtures in Hip Hop, DJ Premiere’s sound had evolved aesthetically, yet it also remained loyal to the orthodox Hip Hop that the pair built their name upon. Guru had also evolved as an MC, now regularly tackling social issues. Songs like “Work” and “You Know My Steez” further established Gang Starr as one of the Hip Hop underground’s most respected and prolific groups. And, giving a nod to the duo’s contribution to Hip Hop, the album was supplemented by appearances by the likes of Wu-Tang’s Inspectah Deck and Houston-rapper Scarface.
The next year Gang Starr released Full Clip: A Decade of Gang Starr (Virgin-1999), which was primarily a greatest hits album but also included three unreleased songs with “All 4 the Ca$h”, “Discipline” and “Full Clip.” The fact that Gang Starr had a sizable decade’s worth of work in their catalogue was a noteworthy accomplishment in the always-changing landscape of Hip Hop.
DJ Premiere remained one of Hip Hop’s most sought-after producers, laying down music for Hip Hop artists like Mobb Deep and Ludacris. Meanwhile, Guru put out another jazz-inspired album with Jazzmatazz, Vol. 3: Streetsoul (Virgin-2000), which was helped by work from DJ Premiere, as well as The Neptunes, Herbie Hancock, Erykah Badu and The Roots.
Gang Starr then released their sixth and thus far, final album with The Ownerz (Virgin-2003). Gang Starr’s sixth effort was not surprisingly well-recieved and was accompanied by appearances from contemporaries like Snoop Dogg and Jadakiss, perhaps a homage to Gang Starr’s longevity.
Gang Starr have always been purveyors of Hip Hop purity. One DJ and one MC, Gang Starr remained true to Hip Hop’s most basic roots yet they continually helped Hip Hop evolve. Guru’s rumbling voice still summons goose-bumps from Hip Hop fans’ skin and DJ Premiere’s groundbreaking production has helped shape the Hip Hop sound-scape we enjoy today.