As I learned from Michael Gonzales, March 8 is the 20th anniv. of Gang Starr’s third album, Hard to Earn. (Obligatory “20 years already?” lament)
I always felt I was in a minority of fans for whom Hard to Earn is our favorite GS album. It always seemed perpetually stuck outside the top 3 (though still regarded higher than their first and last LPs) and I still don’t understand why it’s not considered their best. At the very least, I think it’s one of DJ Premier’s best sonically realized efforts. It’s not just that his sampling game was ace (flipping Vic Juris? Props but the whole feel was so goddamn hard and aggressive, a runaway subway car of an album, smashing into concrete. Even that opening skit, with Guru trying to put younger cats up on proper game behavior, is dark and unsettling, its background loop pulsing like a nightmarish EKG. And from there, it goes into the ridiculously fonky soundclash of “ALONGWAYTOGO.” The whole album is seeped in dissonance and disquiet, with sinister whines borrowed from ’70s soundtracks and one beat (“Brainstorm”) that sounds like an alien invasion force being repelled by a crew of East NY roughnecks.
I could go on (and I will!): for “F.A.L.A.” Primo decided that Big Shug, of all people, should be backed by the trinkle-tinkle of a piano (and a shrill siren of a horn stab) and then flipped “Blind Alley” into a barely recognizable loop on “Comin’ For Datazz.” And I haven’t even mentioned the holy triptych of “Speak Ya Clout” or tikka tikka tension on “Tonz ‘O’ Gunz.” But if I had to narrow things down to the album’s best moment, it might very well be 8.5 minutes that begin with “The Planet” and end with “Aiiight Chill.”
The former is one of the best biographical songs I know, tracing what, at heart, is a simple narrative – a boy leaves home to become a man – but it’s also the ur-hip-hop story. How many other countless hopefuls spent their nights listening to Red Alert and Marley Marl, wishing they were on (kid)? For those of us who had never been stepped foot within the tri-state, “The Planet” made Brooklyn sound mythical: a place of infinite danger and possibility. I don’t know if there’s a single Guru verse I like better than hearing him talk about giving his father a hug and then turning around – it’s a simple description laden with all kinds of meaning.
As for “Aiiight Chill,” this was one of the first examples I remembered where you got a peek behind the curtain about how artists in the game related to one another. I loved hearing Masta Ace asking Primo for advice on “making beats to fuck n—-‘s heads up” or DJ Scratch inviting Preem over to “practice on these skills” or a supremely zoomed out Nas, playing Monty Alexander over the phone. The sign-off everyone used was the punchline but the real payoff is what came before they got(s) to “chill.”
If I listen to this album again after another 20 years, I’m confident I’m feel the very same way then as I do now as I did then. Brooklyn’s finest.