An emcee from Boston and a DJ from Texas helped define New York Hip-Hop forever. Gang Starr combined DJ Premier’s surgical approach to chopping samples with Guru’s uniquely flinty vocals to carry the flag of hardcore Hip-Hop for twenty years. Both traditionalists and innovators, street denizens and promoters of positivity, grimy and smooth, Gang Starr embodied everything that distinguishes hip-hop from other genres.
While their time as a group was cut short by internal conflict, and we eventually lost Guru to a protracted battle with cancer, the New York based crew’s influence and legend will live on forever. R.I.P. Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal.
This is The Primer: Gang Starr.
Be sure to check out previous installments of The Primer series where we highlight 10 songs worth knowing from artists.
1. “Step In The Arena”
After making a strong entrance into the game with 1989’s No More Mr. Nice Guy (Featuring their debut single, “Words I Manifest”), Guru and DJ Premier really hit their stride with their sophomore album, Step In The Arena, released in 1991. The title track was a clear indication that the Boston and Texas transplants were not to be taken lightly, as this was just a precursor to the greatness that was to come.
2. “Just To Get A Rep”
“Just To Get A Rep”, the lead single off Step In the Arena, showcased Guru spinning a cautionary tail of a stick-up kid who ultimately gets a dose of his own medicine when all is said and done. The duo also began to build a reputation for some of the most authentic music videos in Hip-Hop history, with gritty visuals and scenes shot around the way, allowing you to visually step in their arena.
3. “Take It Personal”
“Rap is an art, you can’t own no loops/It’s how you hook’em up and the rhyme style, troop.”
The Kings of Boom-Bap took it up a notch with their third LP, Daily Operation. Continuing their streak of hard hitting singles, Gang Starr dropped “Take It Personal,” a dedication to the two-timers, backstabbers and Guru’s ultimate pet peeve, sucker emcees. Preme and Guru–over samples from Skull Snap’s “It’s A New Day” and Brand Nubian’s “Step To The Rear”–gave fair warning that they were taking no shorts.
4. “Ex Girl To Next Girl”
Hardcore as they were, Gang Starr also had a more laid-back side to their music. Purveyors of Jazz, they united the two with the “Daily Operation” jam “Ex Girl To Next Girl.” Detailing the dirty deeds of a former lover turned ex, the King Of Monotone makes no apologies about moving on to the next faster than Premo could chop up the Caesar Frazier “Funk It Up” sample for this record.
“After the tour quits, I’ll come back with more hits.”
Gang Starr proved they were indeed the sure shot with this connection with fellow Big Apple rap duo Nice And Smooth. Originally released as the B-Side to “Take It Personal” in 1992, the cut became an instant smash, a regular occurrence for B-Sides in those days. Numerous quotables from Guru, Greg Nice, And Smooth B along with one of the more indelible beats from the Premo catalog equals one of the defining tracks of the mid-’90s.
6. “Mass Appeal”
“No Way, You’ll Never Make It, Come With The Weak Shit, I Break Kids, Step Into My Mind Mad Rhymes Will Stifle Ya”
Gang Starr returned to the scene in 1994 with their fourth album Hard To Earn. Featuring a more stripped down, bare-bones approach than their previous efforts, “Mass Appeal” might arguably be their signature song. Guru set up sh*t like a tent over a Premo track containing a sample of Vic Juris’ “Horizon Drive,” allowing the pair to send a direct message to posers and one-time wonders alike playing themselves in hopes of “mass appeal.”
7. “Code Of The Streets”
“So let’s get a car, you know, a fly whip/Get a dent, pull a screwdriver and be off quick/With a dope ride, yeah, and a rowdy crew/We can bag us a Benz and an Audi too.”
“Code Of The Streets”, the third single from 1994’s Hard To Earn, is a testament to Gang Starr’s notorious hard-edged sound. The King Of Monotone gives a lyrical glimpse into the criminal mindstate of the youth in urban America, with Premo utilizing a sample of Monk Higgins’ “Little Green Apples” for a beat that could make you pull a juxe on your own mother. But what makes this number even more notable is the accompanying music video, in which they shed light on racial profiling in the Guiliani era of NYC, particularly by cabbies scared to death of driving through Brooklyn in fear of getting robbed or worse.
8. “Moment Of Truth”
“They say it’s lonely at the top and whatever you do, You always gotta watch motherfuckers around you/Nobody’s invincible, no plan is fool-proof, We all must meet our moment of truth.”
After a four-year hiatus, Gang Starr re-emerged from hibernation with their 1998 effort Moment Of Truth. The lead single “You Know My Steez” grabbed most of the attention, but the title track is one that has truly stuck with listeners and has become an underrated gem in the duo’s storied catalog. A sample of Billy Paul’s “Lets Fall In Love All Over” along with Guru’s wise and thought-provoking lyrics created the perfect marriage, with the result being nothing but Hip-Hop at its finest.
This Moment Of Truth cut served as evidence that the elder statesmen of boom-bap had not lost a step. Guru was still lyrically strong arming sucker emcees, and Premo was still providing samples (The Manhattan’s “Devil In The Dark”) and cuts better than your local deli clerk. Adding to what already had been a monstrous year for Hip-Hop, Gang Starr proved yet again that their top billing was rightfully deserved.
10. “Rite Where U Stand”
Guru and Premo decided to part ways in 2003, but not before saying their last words with their sixth and final album Ownerz. They proved that they still had enough in the tank for another classic with the hard-hitting “Right Where You Stand,” featuring a John Stockton zinger of an assist from Jadakiss. Sampling The Temptations “Gonna Keep Tryin’ Till I Win Your Love,” Premo turned in an all-time performance on the beat tip, with Guru keeping up with one of the most highly regarded lyricists in the game. Not a bad way to go out at all.