Originally a threesome, Gang Starr started out in Boston during rap's late-80's pro-black era. Early members included MC Keithy E (later renamed Guru), Damo D-Ski, and DJ 1 2 B Down (also known as Mike Dee) - other contributors came in the form of Donald D, J.V. Johnson, and DJ Mark The 45 King - but in 1989, after the release of a few singles on Wild Pitch Records, the group split and reformed as a duo with DJ Premier taking the second spot alongside Guru (an acronym for Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal).
Beginning their partnership after Premier, who at the time was known as Waxmaster C, sent a demo tape to Guru, the duo hit it off instantly. Then, with the album being more a learning experience than anything else, 1989 saw the release of their debut LP No More Mr. Nice Guy. While not too impressive, by their future standards at least, the album did include a few promising moments - 'DJ Premier In Deep Concentration' and the 'Manifest' remix being two of them. Needing to refine their sound and reconsider the musical direction in which they took next, Gang Starr's love affair with jazz music would go on to see them well.
While critics tagged it as jazz rap, the sound that Gang Starr would eventually find solace in later became the authentic New York Hip Hop sound that many artists would go on to be influenced by - ironically both Guru and Premier were from Boston and Houston respectively. Introducing this new sound on their 1991 album Step In The Arena, considered a classic, the duo perfected the template that would launch them into underground stardom.
Released via new label Chrysalis, the album played both sides of the fence. Both educational and hardcore, Guru's monotone raps offered street teachings over Premier's slick sample pickings and ear-cutting scratches. Cuts such as 'Who's Gonna Take The Weight?' and 'Just To Get A Rep' drew listeners in with their jazz fused backdrops and laid back rhymes, while the likes of 'Check The Technique' and 'Execution Of A Chump (No More Mr. Nice Guy Pt.2)' hit them over the head with beefy instrumentals and hardcore rhymes.
On a run that would eventually see them become cult favourites, 1992 saw Gang Starr's third album hit stores. Titled Daily Operation, with the help of yet more jazz soundscapes and lyrically intellectual subject matters, the Gang Starr signature sound was born. Established with the help of tracks 'B.Y.S.', 'Take It Personal' and 'Ex Girl To Next Girl', DJ Premier's production genius was beginning to shine through. A master of tempos, he was able to sample pretty much anything and make it sound right at home over the top of a dope drum loop. Not only that, Guru's intricate tales of life's many situations extended the type of lyrical fiction made famous by Slick Rick. Also adding to the type of cinematic street tales that would later influence famed storyteller The Notorious B.I.G., to catch certain stories on Daily Operation the rewind button would become the listener's best friend on more than one occasion.
With Jeru The Damaja making his debut on 'I'm The Man', which hears three separate instrumentals pieced together to form one, the Gang Starr Foundation was born. Founded by Vikar in 1993, the Gang Starr Foundation was formed as a collective of east coast rappers who worked closely with Gang Starr. With names such as Afu-Ra, Group Home, Dream Warriors, Big Shug, Freddie Foxxx, and of course Jeru The Damaja, all a part of said foundation, there was no questioning the amount of talent on offer - Jeru's debut album, The Sun Rises In The East, which was produced entirely by DJ Premier, is often regarded as one of the quintessential Hip Hop albums of the 90's.
Starting with Vol.1, Guru's Jazzmatazz series began to take shape in 1993. Viewed as Hip Hop soaked in jazz, the albums bridged the gap perfectly between jazz and rap. And while Guru was enjoying some solo fame - 'No Time To Play' became a hit on a more commercial level - Premier found himself to be one of the most in-demand producers on the New York rap scene. His production for the likes of Nas, Jay-Z, and KRS One stood out as some of the best work NY had seen in a long time.
Continuing to do what they did so well, 1994 saw yet another Gang Starr release by the name of Hard To Earn. While notably different from its two predecessors, Hard To Earn still embraced the signature sample sound with jazz incorporation that the duo had made such a success, just this time it was laced with concrete tough rough edges. Spawning the aggressive 'Tonz O Gunz' and 'Code Of The Streets', you'd be forgiven for thinking you were listening to an early Wu-Tang Clan record because of the harsh undertone and pushy lyrical content. Tighter than a zip lock bag, tape decks were on fire with this one, and the fact that it didn't feature a single throwaway cut led you to believe that you might just be subjecting your ears to rap perfection.
Breaking away for a few years, the group didn't return together again until 1998. Sticking to their guns by refusing to adjust their approach to mimic any style or trend that may have been going on at the time, the release of their album Moment Of Truth (released on Noo Trybe) further cemented their position as respected rap veterans. Combining swing, jazz, and rap - and soul to a certain extent - it held its own helping both Guru and Premier achieve the success they'd hoped for. Considered a comeback by many, the album featured acts such as K-Ci & JoJo (of Jodeci), Inspectah Deck (of the Wu-Tang Clan), and Scarface, and it went on to achieve gold status - something the duo had not achieved up until this point.
Closing out the Gang Starr legacy with a greatest hits collection - 1999's Full Clip - and the duo's final album The Ownerz (2003), things became complicated within the Gang Starr camp as time went on. With tensions rising and less time spent with one another, Guru continued to put out Jazzmatazz projects - Volumes 2, 3, 4 all gave Guru a bit more recognition amongst circles outside of the Hip Hop community - as well as a few other solo albums away from his jazz inspired series, while Premier proceeded to pursue producing for some of the industry's best.
Caught up in a controversial passing, 2010 saw Guru die at the age of 48 following a cardiac arrest and surgery. According to reports, not much was known about the illness Guru had been living with for quite sometime. With his [then] musical partner, MC Solar, not allowing friends and family to see the rapper on his deathbed, strange happenings began to set in. According to Solar, a letter was penned by Guru claiming that he didn't want Premier to have anything to do with his name, likeness, events, and tributes after his death. While the authenticity of the letter is still being looked into, Premier told XXL Magazine in 2010 that there was a new Gang Starr CD/DVD project in the works.
s a group who have never felt the need to dilute their style, Gang Starr, with the help of their jazz influenced instrumentation and educational lyrical content, really do stand up as one of the greatest duos in Hip Hop. With an extensive back catalogue, and an influence so timeless that acts such as Royce Da 5' 9", Termanology, and the NYGz can pick up where they left off, authentic Hip Hop is still alive and well. It may have been born in New York, but Hip Hop was definitely perfected by a duo with roots in both Boston and Houston by the name of Gang Starr.
Words: Will "ill Will" Lavin
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.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
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.
Words: Jason Birchmeier
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.
Words: Stanton Swihart
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.
Words: John Bush
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.
Words: Stanton Swihart
The fact that Mass Appeal: The Best of Gang Starr is the second greatest-hits compilation released by Virgin simply attests to the importance of the duo, one of the first great MC/DJ-producer teams in Hip Hop (and both of who, incidentally, have gone on to do well as solo artists, Guru with his whole Jazzmatazz series and DJ Premier most recently on Christina Aguilera's Back to Basics). But while 1999's Full Clip was two discs of 31 tracks (some of which were remixed versions), Mass Appeal limits itself to one disc of 20 songs, and includes almost all of their singles ("You Know My Steez" is the most notable exclusion), which means that while the scope is actually greater, spanning all six of their studio albums, the depth is less. Though the tracks are not listed chronologically, the jazz-based beats of Premier and Guru's relaxed flow are highlighted and strong in each. Gang Starr staples "Take It Personal," "The Militia," "Just to Get a Rep," "Mass Appeal," "Ex-Girl to Next Girl," and "Step in the Arena" (all but the latter also found on Full Clip) are found on the compilation, as well as lesser-known though not obscure cuts like "Check the Technique" and "B.Y.S." More serious fans may be intrigued by the bonus tracks, "Natural" and "Tha Squeeze," but considering that both are also found on the 2004 Japanese import of The Ownerz, Mass Appeal is probably a better pickup for fans who've heard about the glory and genius of the group but don't own all the albums.
Words: Marisa Brown