I spent all of Tuesday in a tizzy, trying to research and write that obituary for Guru (not to mention juggling that with teaching two classes). I’m especially grateful to all the folks who gave me testimonials, including Joe Schloss, Jeff Mao, Bob James, Jeru, Kurupt (even though I received it too late to get it into print) and especially Harry Elam Jr. who was extremely gracious to speak to me on such a difficult day for the family.
I’ve been running on adrenaline this whole week since, besides the LA Times, obit, I also prepared this Gang Starr Music List for NPR.org and the piece I’m most proud about, an appreciation for Guru that aired on All Things Considered on Friday. It really hasn’t been until the tail end that I’ve slowed down enough to realize, f—, Guru is dead, Gang Starr is never coming back. What I mourn is not only the loss of the man, but I suppose I’m also mourning the permanent passing of an *idea* from possibility into memory.It’s not like I was waiting for Gang Starr to get back together; to be honest, I forgot they had even disbanded back in 2004. But despite that, the idea of Gang Starr has always loomed large in my mind. Throughout the 1990s, when I was deepest into hip-hop as a listener, critic, DJ and scholar, I don’t think any group awed me as much as Gang Starr. De La Soul were the reason I got into hip-hop but their quirkiness and charisma were meant to be more accessible. Likewise, A Tribe Called Quest blew my mind with their next level musicality. But Gang Starr were godly in some old religion way, throwing down thunderbolts and shouting proclamations from the heavens. To put it in a less pretentious way: their shit hit hard. For all their jazz/hip-hop dabblings, by the time their second album came out, the defining tracks were “Who’s Gonna Take The Weight” (a masterpiece of post-Bomb Squad squalor) and “Just To Get a Rep,” (“ultimate robbery song!” to quote Mr. Cee). In short, Gang Starr promised hype-ness. Their branding guaranteed that whatever they wanted to serve up, you’d find something to break your neck to. Listen to Mr. Cee’s tribute from Tuesday afternoon and think about all the classics he did NOT play. That’s scary good.
And so now, I’m sobering to this new reality where Guru and Gang Starr can only ever be memories, not a new, possible reality. Flipping through Noz’s tumblr page of Gang Starr-related imagery just made me sad in unspeakable ways. I remember buying that copy of The Source with Primo and Guru in the subway car. I remember how crisp Guru’s v-neck looked on the cover of Daily Operation. I remember first hearing “Robbin Hood Theory” go into “Work” and just being giddy with excitement over what the rest of the album might end up sounding. Look, this is all incredible solipsistic, I know, but for me, hip-hop – more than any other cultural force – marked my coming of age and few artists are so intimately tied into my memories of the ’90s than Gang Starr. They were the decade’s *definitive* artists to me: more than Biggie, more than ‘Pac, more than Dre or Snoop, etc. And if I was already feeling melancholy for the ’90s, Guru’s death is a stark reminder of how fast that past is receding from us.
But I come here not to bury Guru but to praise him and let’s just address the elephant in the room: it’s become conventional wisdom over the years that Guru was an inferior MC carried on the strength of Premier’s beats. I have no trouble admitting that Primo’s beats were the main reason I got into Gang Starr but in reflecting on the Gang Starr songs where Guru made the deepest impression, you realize how vital he was in making Gang Starr, Gang Starr. My man Noz nailed this in his testimonial:
Thereâ€™s been some question in the internet era about Guruâ€™s capabilities as a rapper. They should be dismissed. His is the greatest case against the modern, dogmatic definition of lyrical lyricism. Because Guruâ€™s strength lied not in hot punchlines or clever multi-syllable rhymes but purely in his ability to instill wisdom. Maybe that particular brand of wisdom has aged poorly or maybe itâ€™s just that the whole positive (and never negative) aspects of his raps donâ€™t hold up under the cynicism of todayâ€™s new jacks, but to grow up listening to Gang Starr was to be schooled. Having a Gang Starr tape was like having a wise uncle. And yet Guru was never soft. NWA presented the idea of street knowledge only to quickly tip the scales too far to the streets. Many of Gang Starrâ€™s successors only ever focused on one side of the coin. Guru was balance.
In that spirit, I thought about which Gang Starr songs represented Guru’s most memorable moments and here’s what we have:
This certainly wasn’t the first Gang Starr single but it was the first that mattered (sorry Shug!). I don’t know if Guru ever sounded quite this loose again or maybe it’s just the irresistible groove of the track that makes me hear it that way. But in terms of a song that showed you what the potential of having Guru and Primo team up together was, this song is better than anything you could imagine.
Jazz Thing (Movie Mix)
From Mo Better Blues OST (Sony, 1990)
“Jazz Thing” may lack a certainly subtly when it comes to hip-hop/jazz fusions (compare with, say, Low End Theory) but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better ode to the legacy of jazz coming from a hip-hop artist. This represents an important era for Guru and Gang Starr and I really like the change in beat on this “Movie Mix” which allows Primo to showcase some of the suite-like skills he’d put to use later on “I’m the Man” and “Speak Ya Clout.”
Straight up, the entire future of Gang Starr was laid out in this single. The A-side gave you Guru as lyrical filmmaker, making this one of the all-time classics in street-shit-cautionary tales while the flipside, opening with, “I was raised as a Muslim, praying to the East” put Guru in the middle of hip-hop’s NOI-era of Black consciousness-raising. This is precisely the “balance” that Noz was speaking to and throughout the rest of his carer, Guru would try to play off these two themes. (And we also, of course, need to say that these two tracks also opened our ears to how incredible Primo was going to be as digger (“E.V.A.”!), producer and DJ. This is a top 10 all-time A/B-side 12″.
Am I the only person to guess that Guru had a lot of relationship problems? Because he included at least one “Lovesick”-type joint on practically every album I can think of. I felt like one of these needed to be represented and of the batch, “Ex Girl To the Next Girl” is my favorite, not the least of which is because I like how Guru involves his family in the lyrics (and Primo’s beat doesn’t hurt either).
Never taking shorts ’cause Brooklyn’s the borough. Brooklyn produced some of hip-hop’s greatest but even with Black Moon, Masta Ace, Biggie and Jay-Z also repping the borough, when I think Brooklyn, I think Gang Starr. Especially with “The Planet,” probably my favorite Guru song of all time (I love autobiographical/coming of age joints like this), you really get a sense for both how much danger AND potential Brooklyn promised for a generation of young men, wishing they were on with Red and Marley.
Four songs, four different looks at Keithy E.M.C. as lyrical braggart over the years. “Dwyck” includes Guru’s most beloved (and lampooned line): “lemonade was a popular drink and it still is” but in terms of fun, freestyle-y cuts, you can’t front on this track. “The ? Remains” is one of the great Gang Starr B-sides (of which they are many) and Guru has rarely sounded as in control of his craft as on here. And “You Know My Steez,” along with “Full Clip” are some of Guru’s best moments on mic before the end of the ’90s. I’m still more or less disappointed by The Ownerz overall but “Right Where You Stand” was one last glimpse of Guru repping his craft before the group disbanded.
And look – I know I’m leaving off at least a dozen or more other songs I could have included here but I wanted to pick out what, to me, were some of the representative highlights of an incredibly productive career. Feel free to add in some of your favorites in the comments.
Don’t forget to peep out DJ Premier’s own tribute to his fallen ex-partner.