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A last hurrah from jazz rap’s early pioneers

  • Gang Starr, a pioneering duo of old school hip-hop, have a new album
  • It’s a throwback to the genre’s golden years but sounds eerily fresh

Gang Starr’s DJ Premier and Guru in San Francisco in 1991.
Gang Starr’s DJ Premier and Guru in San Francisco in 1991. (Photo: Getty Images)

In the pantheon of hip hop’s early luminaries, Gang Starr have always stood apart. A duo, comprising rapper Guru and DJ Premier, Gang Starr’s origins lay in Boston in the mid-1980s. Soon the outfit moved to Brooklyn in New York and came to the forefront of the East Coast hip hop scene, both in terms of innovation and influence. The combination of Guru’s rhymes and Premier’s sampling is widely acknowledged as one of the best in hip hop’s history, and they are seen as pioneers who tried to fuse jazz and hip hop to create what was then a unique sound.

But, although Gang Starr earned critical acclaim in heaps, commercial success of the kind that today’s (often mediocre) rappers achieve eluded them. Between 1989-2003, Gang Starr released six studio albums, besides compilations and singles. Heard today, Guru’s lyrics, decades after he composed them, seem like a breath of fresh air, contrasting starkly with the egregious misogyny, violence, and simply bad rhyming that (with a few exceptions) prevails on the hip hop scene. Theirs were elegant verses that dealt with social issues, street life, drugs, violence and tension, but also with softer, tender things like relationships and love.

Sometime in the early 1990s, when a friend of mine slipped me a cassette recording of Gang Starr’s third album, Daily Operation, I was, like many of my peers, not exactly a keen explorer of the genre. Bred on a wholesome diet of rock, jazz and the blues, and sharply inclined towards the psychedelic music of the 1960s and 1970s, hip hop then seemed alien to me. Besides, the little I had heard—the aggressive rhymes and usually sexist attitude—was unappealing. My friend insisted I give Gang Starr a try and I did. Suffice it to say that nearly 30 years later, Daily Operation keeps recurring on my playlist, as do several other albums by the duo.

With the exception of a few of today’s hip hop stars—notably Pulitzer Prize winner Kendrick Lamar, whose 2015 album, To Pimp A Butterfly, is stunning—contemporary hip hop’s lyrics can seem mundane and often incomprehensible. It doesn’t help that many rappers tend to mumble their words and spray their lyrics with obscenities. Gang Starr were different. Guru’s lyrics could be literary. On the 1992 single DWYCK , he sings: Smooth, I drop jewels, like paraphernalia/ I’m infallible, not into failure/ Like a rhinoceros my speed is prosperous. On another song, Jazz Thing, he goes: Its roots are in the sounds of the African/ Or should I say the mother, bringin’ us back again/ From the drummin’ on the Congo/ We came with a strong flow and continue to grow.

Combined with Premier’s sampling of jazz-based music, raw vinyl scratching, and an upbeat tempo, Gang Starr had the ability to convert hip hop haters into aficionados. “Had", because the group disbanded in 2003 and then, in 2010, Guru died, at the age of 48, of cancer. Their back catalogue of albums, singles and compilations continued to be revered among fans of old-school hip hop. Premier went on to build a solo career and also collaborated with others but those ventures were not nearly as influential as Gang Starr had been.

Then came a surprise. Early this month, close to a decade after Guru’s death, a new Gang Starr album dropped. Guru and Premier had had a falling out, involving one of their producers, before they broke up but after years of legal haranguing, Premier acquired several tracks of recordings that Guru, a prolific writer, had made but not released. Keeping things under wraps, the DJ worked on them and the outcome is One Of The Best Yet, the seventh and final album from the duo.

It’s a remarkable album. Remarkable because although the rhymes were recorded and penned decades ago, they seem fresh, relevant, and yet so much in contrast with what today’s hip hop artists offer. Old-school hip hop fans will lap up One Of The Best Yet; and, presumably, younger fans could be nudged by it to discover the duo afresh. If you know the backstory of Gang Starr and are familiar with their work, it could also seem eerie. Guru appears resurrected on the new album. His singular, gravelly monotone—articulate and rich in vocabulary—seems newly minted.

On Bad Name, Guru raps: Word to God, if Big and ‘Pac were still here/ Some of these weirdos wouldn’t act so cavalier/ We all know that the game has changed/ It’s crazy out here and rap’s got a bad name/ Think about it, what if bling never happened/ And the true artists were getting’ rich from rappin’?/ Word to God, some should give/ Let’s delete the politics so real hip-hop can live." The song is a prescient comment on the state of hip hop today and evokes the heady golden era of the genre when Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur were among the vanguards of hip hop, rapping about street life and real issues rather than things like money, material stuff, and jewellery.

A smattering of guests, including luminaries such as Talib Kweli, Big Shug and Jeru The Damaja, appear on the album, which is like a eulogy to one of hip hop’s unforgettable front-runners. Premier’s trademark funky, jazzy beats are another throwback to a bygone era, making the new album a compelling listen. If you are a hip hop fan, this one is a must. And if you have been leery of exploring the genre, this one could start you off.


Five tracks from Gang Starr to bookend this week

1. ‘Bad Name’ from ‘One Of The Best Yet’

2. ‘So Many Rappers’ from ‘One Of The Best Yet’

3. ‘DWYCK’ from ‘Hard To Earn’

4. ‘Form Of Intellect’ from ‘Step In The Arena’

5. ‘Soliloquy Of Chaos’ from ‘Daily Operation’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

Twitter - @sanjoynarayan

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