Too Deep and Just Right Enough: Musing over Gang Starr

Amendment: This article was written before the One of the Best Yet album dropped in 2019.

As a lyricist and front-man, the late Guru was always very ‘listenable’: easy on the ear in terms of delivery; sounding assured and correct at all times; a laid-back artist whose subtle yet committed style perfectly dovetailed with DJ Premier‘s driven and perennially-catchy productions. From the get-go, Gang Starr had more than a certain something to elevate them above the street, separate them from other hustlers, the skills which self-professed gangsters lacked.


DJ Premier (Chris Martin), ghettoblaster and Guru (Keith Elam)


Once they moved on from being on Wild Pitch records, where it seemed they were lowly on the pecking order behind Main Source, Ultramagnetic MCs, Lord Finesse and the rest – if that was the case, perhaps understandably so due to the competing talent (and ‘Words I Manifest’ hasn’t dated particularly well) – the duo really started to put some space between themselves and their spars.


Guru could thug it or be conscious in his rhyming – man was 100% a liquid cipher – often in the same four bars. And if, allegedly, all of John Lennon‘s songs were written with the same three chords then Premo managed to do something similar in carving out a niche for himself in hip hop history.

Bap beats and great bass-lines always featured and Chris and Keith started to hit their mark with instantly catchy tracks like Dwyck. I and the rest of the switched-on world quickly recognised four bars of a looped piano was a regular motif for Premier coupled with melodic, self-referential scratching that was a snug fit for the track and the rhymes over it.

But before Just To Get A Rep, Full Clip and the rest, there was Jazz Thing.

I’m not sure if any of their later work – and would certainly say this for Guru’s star collabs on the Jazzmattaz series of albums – quite affected me in the way Jazz Thing did. Stopped me at that time in a sense.

This is an odd thing to think as it’s nowhere near as memorable an earworm as the offerings on the Daily Operation or Step Into The Arena LPs. The drums weren’t Bonham‘s – they came from Kool & The Gang‘s live rendition of Dujii – but they had a thunder and fury which matched that of the Kashmir sticksman. With a live feel that gave the impression the guy on the stool could go off at any time on a Cobham or Tony Williams workout, I mentally signed up and bought into the trance state offered.

Lyrically and melodically, with a special mention to the brass and horns that feature [purloined from Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington], it all paid homage to the past whilst marking these cats out as aware as much as conscious of putting down a marker as to their intent. Just as Futura, Haring and Basquiat took graffiti into galleries and then the world beyond the Bronx and SoHo, Gang Starr landed on the Mo’ Better Blues soundtrack and started to flex their artistic selves. 

More serious than Tribe; urban not suburban like De La; less preachy than PE but with as many didactic street smarts: Gang Starr were far more reliable than so many other crews who delivered a killer twelve but then failed to give an equally good follow-up and/or vanished from sight.

Even on that last sprawling album, 2003’s The Ownerz, which was a consolidation of success, more a showcase for hungry but forgettable neighbourhood heads reciting gun types than any groundbreaking cohesive statement by the pair, there were nice moments: Put Up or Shut Up, Capture (Militia Pt. 3) and PLAYTAWIN to name three.

The far-too-early demise of Guru meant the duo were done and the name retired, but the second-to-last track on that last album, Zonin‘, which had a chorus part-built on Mass Appeal, indicates that the well was close to running dry for the pair in terms of inspiration and perspiration.

In contrast that year, a certain James Yancey debuted on Stones Throw and casually dropped Nothing Like This and the rest of Ruff Draft, “…straight from the motherfuckin’ cassette”, and the world moved on…    


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