March 8th was the 20th anniversary of a very important album in my life: Hard to Earn by Gang Starr. There are many "important" albums throughout my life, and many came out approximately 20 years ago (a fact made possible by 2 converging forces: it was the time of my life when I was the most impressionable, and it was a time that many consider the peak of my preferred music genre). I chose to write about Gang Starr because we have lost one of the members (RIP GURU) and because I think they are highly under-rated and often overlooked when talking about hip hop legends. People who know hip hop would never overlook them, but the average music fan does, and I think that's a travesty.
Gang Starr holds a special place in my heart for many reasons. They were a bold, confident duo (on the mic and on the beats) who I admired as a mostly quiet, reserved teenager. Their subdued boldness and unassuming confidence provided me with the courage to purchase their album Daily Operation as a 12 year old, despite the fact that it had the dreaded "Parental Advisory" sticker. I didn't let that stop me, and I came up with the brilliant-for-a-twelve-year-old-kid solution: I peeled off the sticker before my parents could see it. The cashiers at Sam Goody didn't mind letting little kids buy whatever they wanted, but my parents were another matter. I couldn't even watch Pulp Fiction in my parents' house as a college graduate, so an explicit rap album as a pre-teen was obviously out of the question.
I needed that album though. I needed to own those gritty masterpieces instead of waiting for them to come on Rap City Tha Bassment with Joe Clair.
Take it Personal
Ex Girl to the Next Girl
My bravery was rewarded with audial amazement, and the brilliant strategy of peeling off the sticker that I devised because of this album allowed me to get dozens of other classic rap albums that I may not have had the courage to buy otherwise.
At that time, I had almost completely transitioned from listening to groups like Motley Crue and Def Leppard to groups like Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince and A Tribe Called Quest. Gang Starr finalized that transition. Daily Operation opened up a window into a world of darker, grittier hip hop, and Hard to Earn blew the doors open.
Hard to Earn is one of a handful of albums (cassettes) that I remember taking on my 8th grade trip to Washington, DC. (Enter the Wu-Tang, and Masta Ace Incorporated: SlaughtaHouse are the other two I remember right now). It was a long trip, I had a walkman, and I played those tapes out. To this day, I can recite most verses and remember the exact sequencing of the songs. From the lyrics to the voice and flow, to the drum patterns and samples, even the artwork, it was a perfect album to me.
And a perfect hip hop single...
On one of the many classic songs I made with the legendary unsigned hip hop collaborative known as the ChipMunk Crew, I completely jacked Hard to Earn's skit "Aight...chill" (where random rappers leave a message on DJ Premier's phone over a beat) for our classic single "Say it Twice, Or Even Two Times." As they say, blatant imitation is the best form of music, right?
Gang Starr defined an era (again, an era known as the greatest ever in hip hop) and inspired countless musicians. After Hard to Earn, they put out another 2 albums (Moment of Truth - a classic in its own right - and The Ownerz) and a greatest hits album with some excellent new material. While doing all this, Guru, the MC with the golden voice, made countless guest verses as well as the very cool Jazzmatazz album series; and DJ Premier collaborated with basically every legendary MC ever (Biggie, Jay-Z, and Nas, to name a few, Jeru the Damaja, Group Home, Rakim and KRS-One to name a few more) crafting classic albums and songs year after year.
But Guru and Premier were always at their best with each other. Their chemistry was so powerful and natural, it felt like they were two parts of a whole, like twin brothers. Unfortunately, when Guru passed, they were not on the best of terms. But friends go through those periods, and true friends, friends you call family, always reconcile. I want to believe they would have at some point. Reading this article about the making of Hard to Earn gives me that feeling. Premier seems to almost break down when reminiscing, saying, "I miss that dude so much, man." There is no mention of any disagreement near the end, it's all fond memories. The best part of the interview is when he describes their first fight (and yes, it sounds as much like a marriage in the article as I made it sound just now). He talks about how violent the fight got, pointing to the still visible scar where Guru bit into his knuckles. Like many other great music groups, and many other families, they fought. Intensely. But they worked it out. Immediately after the fight, they were in the studio recording. Guru laid down the vocals for "Now You're Mine" then asked Premier if it was good. Premier said yes, Guru replied, "Fuck you" then walked out.
That's a beautiful scene, because that was the chemistry, the realness, they were able to express so vividly through their music. Their songs almost felt like battles between two geniuses: Guru wanted to destroy any beat Premier gave him, and Premier wanted to make beats that blew Guru away. And they both succeeded, their tumultuous relationship resulting in a cohesive, hypnotizing soundscape. You can feel the intense love and hate emanating from these two representatives of the most important elements of hip hop, the MC and the DJ, coming together as one. That somewhat violent tension is what keeps their music sounding as fresh today as it did in the early 90s.
So stop sleepin on Gang Starr. Cuz Gang Starr has got to be the sure shot. Peace.
I Love You All...Class Dismissed.