The combination of Guru’s rhymes and Premier’s sampling is widely acknowledged as one of the best in hip hop’s history.
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.
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.
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. Guru appears resurrected on the new album. His singular, gravelly monotone—articulate and rich in vocabulary—seems newly minted.
The song Bad Name 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.