Having been a fan of old school and underground hip-hop [and some of the goofy shit too] since my mid teens I was always perturbed by my ambivalence towards Gang Starr, one of the pioneering East Coast groups of the early nineties. It didn’t help that my introduction to them was via Daily Operation, which despite enjoying the clattering drums of the opening track, I found, well, tedious. No, that’s not quite right. I didn’t find it tedious, I found it soporific. The production is so thin that cling film would look at it superciliously. And the rapping? My God, the rapping. Ever found a dead spider, one that was just a hollowed-out husk that looked as though it would disintegrate if you so much as breathed on it? Yeah? Well, the rapping was like that. So, for the longest time I dismissed Gang Starr, I paid them no mind.
When I was a kid I would buy or get a copy of a cd, listen and like it, or not; my understanding of what I was listening to was unsophisticated. I knew next to nothing about instrumentation, and production; in fact, one of the things I liked about hip-hop was that I had no grasp whatsoever on how those songs came into being. As I matured I became more studious, and I started to learn about producing, about sampling, scratching and so on. At this time, my interest in rappers diminished; I was far more interested in who had produced a record. If I bought or listened to an album that was the first thing I’d check. And, of course, I then started to notice that the same producers seemed to be involved in a lot of my favourite songs, people like Pete Rock, or J Dilla or even Kanye West or Dre.
However, one producer stood out for me: DJ Premier. Premo. It was his contributions to Nas’ Illmatic that first caught my attention, then Biggie’s Unbelievable. There was something about his sound that captivated me; it was off-kilter, experimental, yet cinematic and, unusually, sometimes even moving. So, I became obsessed with seeking out the songs he had produced, and I made some amazing discoveries, things like It’s All Real by Pitch Black. It was only at this point that I realised that he had been a member of Gang Starr, that he had, in fact, produced all of their records. Of course, I considered this a bounty; I was certain that I had misjudged the group in my younger days and that now I would love everything they ever put out.
I went back to Daily Operation first, as that was the one I owned, and, uh, I still didn’t get it. I even had to check the credits, just to make sure it was definitely Premo. It was. I figured that I ought to try another album, that maybe Daily Operation just wasn’t for me. I picked up Moment of Truth, which is very highly regarded, and, yeah, there it was, there was the DJ Premier sound. But, again, I just couldn’t get into it. It was the fucking rapping! Listening to Moment of Truth is like meeting a hot girl with a smoking body but a lousy personality. The fusion of Guru’s flow and Premo’s beats just doesn’t work; the two don’t marry. Premo’s production is widescreen, it needs a swaggering rapper with a big personality, yet Guru sounds like he recorded his vocals while on the toilet.
So, where do I go from here? I thought to myself. To their fourth album, Hard to Earn, actually. Make no mistake this was their last chance with me; I was like a woman whose husband has been found dicking half her friends. Fortunately, the album was one of the best musical discoveries of my life. The production on Hard to Earn is, well, harder, heavier; there’s no soulful female vocals, no strings, no melodrama. In a way it is a classic East Coast record, it’s tight and crisp and almost militant-sounding. But, of course, there’s still Guru and, to misquote TS Eliot, the rapping, the rapping. Cards on the table, Guru’s rapping on Hard to Earn is still kinda wack. However, his monotone [you might say catatonic] delivery suits the production, it blends with Primo’s beats. I’m not going to go through each track individually, but among the numerous highlights are DWYCK, Mass Appeal, Speak Ya Clout, Suckas Need Bodygaurds, The Planet. That’s, like, a third of the album, yo. Inevitably, there a few missteps, a few tracks that don’t work as well but mercifully there are no girl cuts [I refuse to take Guru seriously as a ladies man. He sounds fundamentally disinterested. You’ve got to actually be awake to check out a girl’s arse]. The album is cohesive; there’s a unity to it that means the weaker moments don’t really stand-out as all that weak.