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This or That: Gang Starr

by Travis on January 26, 2009

I was thinking of doing another “This or That” and was thinking, “Who could I highlight?” Then it hit me, I haven’t touched on one of the greatest groups that hip hop has ever seen, Gang Starr. How could I over look them? They have three great albums, in the form of Daily Operation, Hard To Earn, and Moment of Truth. I’ve seen many internet debates and have been a part of many debates with friends over this subject. we still can’t have a “This or That” without covering Primo and Guru, better known as Gang Starr.

My introduction to Gang Starr is like most of my introductions at that time, through the exposure on Yo MTV Raps. Honestly, even though I like both albums now, I didn’t care for either Step In The Arena or No More Mr. Nice Guy. Or should I say, I didn’t like the singles all that much, other than “Just To Get A Rep”. Then I would be intrigued with the “Jazz Thing” track that would appear on the Mo’ Better Blues soundtrack. Although I still shudder when Gang Starr gets labeled as a “Jazz Rap” group, it is one of earlier jazz influenced hip hop tracks that got major play and in some ways could be created with the whole Jazz-Rap thing that took off soon after. In the spring of ’92, Yo! would start showing the new Gang Starr single “Take It Personal.” I would be memorized by the hard drums from the Skull Snaps sample and it would quickly become one of my all-time favorite tracks. This set up my anticipation for the release of Daily Operation.

Daily Operation Released May 5th, 1992

Gang Starr and Daily Operation is one of the few groups/albums that didn’t put out their best material with their initial debut. If you have been following the “This or That” series, you will know a majority of groups/artists put out their best effort in their debut. Everything after that is down hill. Not so with Gang Starr. Neither No More Mr. Nice Guy or Step In The Arena can be labeled as “bad” albums, but I don’t think their sound really matured and meshed until their third album, Daily Operation. The first single that got play was “Take It Personal”, It’s the track that hooked me in as a Gang Starr fan. DJ Premier would use the drum track from the sample classic, the Skull Snaps “It’s a New Day”, and although he wasn’t the first (Steezo would have that distinction) to employ the incredibly hard hitting drum track, it was probably the first “mainstream” track to gain mass exposure for the sample.

Primo would adjust his sound for Daily Operation. The album is a much harder and grittier sound than their first two attempts. This is demonstrated on the albums first track, “The Place Where We Dwell.” It comes out with a simple drum track and constant cymbal sounds. There isn’t much there but hard New York boom bap. This can all be attributed to the maturation of DJ Premier as a producer. Up until ’92 or so, I don’t think you could say he had a “sound”, or that he was one of the top producers in the game. His sound was starting to be defined with the hard drums that were found all through out Daily Operation and the simple one to two measure loops that comprised most of the samples on the album made for a focused effort on the sonic level. It would soon become the trademark Primo sound and tracks like “Flip The Script”, “Take It Personal”, “B.Y.S.” and “2 Deep” encompassed.

As I previously mentioned, I didn’t get heavily involved with Gang Starr’s material until Daily Operation, so I didn’t get too deep into the first two albums until much later. It was probably after Hard To Earn that I checked Gang Starr’s first two efforts, but my opinion is that the variety of topics, sounds and song structures are another thing that makes Gang Starr’s third album much better than their previous adventures. The ever popular third single for it’s time “Ex Girl to the Next Girl”, had Guru spitting about a conniving ex that is all up in his B-I-IZ. Yes, you had “Love Sick” on Step In The Arena, but overall the sounds and execution on “Ex Girl….” is much more mature and on point.

You know I used to be a player, fly girl layer and a heartbreaker,
lovemaker, backbreaker but then I made a
mistake yes I fell in love with this ill chick
sweatin’ me for money, my name and the dilsnick
my homeboys told me to drop her for it would be to my benefit
she used to say I’d better quit hanging with those derelects
romancing is my thing but I can’t swing with no scheming hoes
wherever my beema goes you know that I’m driving
surviving in the 90′s is a must so I trust
that everyone listen up as my vocals give thrust
I bust my rhymes first never chasing a skirt
do much work while other suckas need more time to rehearse
now back to the ex-girls, ex-lovers, ex-friends
it made me mad to find that she was only after my ends
she phones me and goes on about her new life now
I wish she knew right now
I think she’s busted let’s discuss it
when I was with her no trust, just fights
just the he-say-she-say and the neighborhood highlights
bow I got my new girl or as I say my baby doll
but I’m still gettin’ crazy calls, my ex-girl’s got balls
don’t wanna play the field cuz I get lovin’ at home base
don’t gimme no long face just exit with a grace
you and I are the past, c’est la vie, much respect girl
but now you’re my ex-girl cuz I’m on with the next girl

Guru will never been seen as a lyrical master and in some ways, if it wasn’t for the production of DJ Premier, it would be easy to just forget about Guru all together. Yet that’s the beauty of the whole group concept, Primo brings out the best in Guru. His monotone flow and vocal tone just adds to the whole overall vibe found on all three of Gang Starr’s greatest albums, but again, it was Daily Operation that was the first to really perfect their chemistry together.

Overall, I usually claim Daily Operation as my favorite Gang Starr album. Is it because of the nostalgia factor that surrounds such releases like a first love? It might be, I’m pretty comfortable with saying it probably isn’t the best of the three albums from a musical perspective. I’ll save that title for the next album.

Hard To Earn Released March 8th, 1994

I can still remember the day I bought this CD, it was March 8th, 1994. I only had a class or two that day and jetted by the local mom & pop CD store to grab a copy with my fairly new girlfriend in tow. This would be her first time around me when checking out a new CD, and especially one of Gang Starr’s caliber. She started yapping on the way home and I had to tell her very politely to shut her trap. It’s a wonder we made it through those first few months.

In all honesty, after the first listening, I wasn’t quiet sure where I stood on Hard To Earn. Some of it was, well, kinda of weird. Hip Hop was changing in that time, with the Wu and RZA dropping some crazy ish as far as beats went and Primo would follow suite with some of his production found on Hard To Earn. The albums first track, “A Long Way To Go”, just sounded….weird to me on that first listen through, which put me in an more pissy mood, which lead to more arguing between the chick and I. After chilling the girlfriend out, I would give the album a listen again while driving around. I remember hearing tracks such as “Code of the Streets” and that wicked violin sample, the hard drums and Guru’s monotonous delivery pillage my ear drums. It was any true hip hop fans dream.

Primo was on point with this album, dropping some of his finest productions on Hard To Earn. He switched things up from his previous works. The work he did on was more bare bones, drum breaks and simple sounds assisting the beat here and there. On Hard To Earn as well with Jeru’s The Sun Rises In The East, he had a lot more “sounds”. There was a lot more muscle in each beat, a lot more experimentation. I already mentioned the albums lead off track, “A Long Way To Go”, there was also the whirlwind of drums and sounds found on “Brainstorm”. It’s a perfect example of what type of shit Primo was on for the production on Hard To Earn. Then there is one of my all time favorite beats found on Jeru’s verse on “Speak Ya Clout”. My fondness for weird ass sounds ala The Bomb Squad was intrigued from the start with the weird ass echo/siren shit that is found on that first beat of a three beat song and it’s an excellent preview of what we would hear from Jeru only a few months later.

As I’ve mentioned, Guru isn’t the flashiest MC in the world. He doesn’t need to be. The thing with Guru, he’s very consistent, you know what you are getting with him in terms of lyrics. They won’t be flashy, they won’t make you go “holy shit, what did he just say?” He just does his thing, not taking away anything from the song and in most cases making the perfect verse for a incredible Primo beat. “Mass Appeal”, might possibly be one of my favorite tracks on Hard To Earn, both in the terms of the incredibly dope beat Primo cooked up on his MPC, but also in terms of Guru just dropping lyrics like these:

Oh yes I’m greater than all MC’s when I breeze give me room please
I be like fascinatin when I be updatin
Cuttin off wack kids, pullin their trump cards
I thump hard, and make em say that I’m God
Niggaz be pretendin they hardcore
Never know the meaning of raw
But I get props like a slogan and no man
Could ever try to diss when I kicks my jam
Lyrically def and connecting complete mic wrecking
No double checking vocals kill like weapons
But if I have to I go all out with no mic
Yeah that’s right cause I survived mad fights
And for my peeps I truly care
Cause without some of them I wouldn’t be here
And they all know how I feel

Guru would also come up with some nice concepts in the form of “It’s Mostly The Voice”, in which he makes some good points. I thought the song was one of the more interesting ones in the Gang Starr discography up until that point. The other track that would grab my attention as far as being lead by Guru is “Suckas Need Bodygaurds”, in which Guru, in typical MC fashion, called out all the weak ass MCs. It’s hip hop in all it’s goodness. Guru even sounds harder (pause) and hungrier on the mic in one of the few tracks that has him coming with a different flow. It works so well that you almost wish he would done this more often.

In all, Hard To Earn is another excellent effort in the Gang Starr legacy. It’s really hard to say exactly where this one ranks in their discography. One could argue for it’s spot on the top with classics like the previously mentioned “Mass Appeal” as well as the previously released b-side classic “Dwyck”. Hard to Earn really cemented Gang Starr’s legacy in hip hop and put them on the level of an EPMD, A Tribe Called Quest or Public Enemy, if they weren’t already.

Moment of Truth

What was to be the last of the “super dope, supreme, uno numero” releases of the Gang Starr legacy (We all know that while The Ownerz was decent, it doesn’t match up to the other releases), Moment of Truth dropped at a time transitional time for hip hop in general. In 1998, you had the Golden Age “hangover”, you had Puffy and his club hop ruling the airwaves and finding good quality hip hop was becoming more of a choir. Toss in the fact that the internet was starting to make some waves in hip hop, and you had a storm on the horizon. The year 1998 was kind of one of upheaval for me, but I still remember my first exposure to Moment of Truth, which was “Above The Clouds” before the actual album dropped. I used to cop Tony Touch mixtapes from this shop in Salt Lake City, I think this particular one was #54 or something like that. Of course, the track is arguably the best from Moment of Truth, with one of the wickedest Primo beats he’s ever made. This was a month or two before the album dropped, so it automatically had me pumped for the album.

I picked up Moment of Truth the Tuesday it dropped and right off the bat, I knew I wasn’t going to be disappointed when “You Know My Steez” filled my car’s interior. The the thick horn sample that leads into the familiar guitar sample just makes the hair on your neck stand up in attention. It’s a great way to leadoff the album, and for the whole album, Primo does little to disappoint. For me personally, this was the Primo in his prime, and probably marks the time when I started saying Primo was my all-time favorite producer. It’s the beats found on Moment of Truth that make a lot of people say Primo is their favorite. Beats like that found on “Work”, are just amazing. The piano stabs found on “Work” or second to none and his chops are not to be duplicated by anyone. There are so many beats like this found on the album, there is the aforementioned “Above The Clouds”, which as I said probably ranks as one of Primo’s top 5 audio triumphs, as he uses the wicked far east sounding sample that just causes me to shudder to this day. Primo truly does his thing on Moment of Truth.

Lyrically, and I didn’t really catch on to this until today when I was talking to Paten Locke (aka Therapy of The ABs and the Smile Rays), but Guru was starting to lack on some of the tracks found on Moment of Truth. A lot of songs on Moment of Truth are hit and miss for me, and I didn’t really realize because the good tracks are as good as anything Primo and Guru have done. Not saying Guru didn’t have his shining moments as well, “Rep Grows Bigger” (which I forgot to mention for having an ill beat) is one of the better performances by Guru on the track.

You do your first bid and dirt to get your name known
You never talk too much to get your spot blown
Now you’re no longer just a face in the crowd
You’re gettin so much respect that niggaz might as well bow
And movin up with your hustle like you planned it
Rakin dough like the world’s greatest bandit
Always got one eye open, for the stick-up kids postin
So much cream chumps they can’t understand it
Ladies flock to your jock like it’s golden
Curious, to test the weight you be holdin
but you ain’t got no time, to be chasin felines
If she’s the chick that you pick then she gets chosen
People treat you like you’re ghetto royalty
And all your staff shows you utmost loyalty
You paid your dues, refuse to lose in this scenario
The rep grows bigga, you’re a legend and a hero

But far to often, despite strong beats found on songs, the subject matter and rhymes failed to hold my attention, so I did a lot of skipping. Tracks like “She Knowz What She Wants”, which was produced by Guru himself, “My Advice 2 You”, “New York Strait Talk”, and others just don’t do much for me as far as the lyrics and what is being said. There is also a large influx of guest appearances found on the album, most of which work. The Inspectah Deck verse is only second to his verse on the Wu’s “Truimph” as his best. Then of course we have the one of the best posse cuts of all-time found on Moment of Truth, with “The Militia” on which Freddie Foxxx drops the most energy arousing verse of all-times:

You niggaz owe me for my rhymes, I come to collect
For you dope fiend niggaz in rap, I here to inject, check
My style is water baby, spread it around
But when you niggaz don’t flow it right and fuck up my sound
I get down; in ’89 I spit the buck in the face
of every MC that came in the place, a scar you’ll never erase
MC’s are only recognized for their flows
I’m worldwide for the bitches, that I turned into hoes
You heard me spit it on Jew-elz, that’s how it goes
For all them faking ass niggaz and how I bust up they nose
And while your, nose is drippin, and drainin blood
I be standing over you screamin, “Nigga, WHAT, WHAT?! Nigga WHAT?!”
Niggas feel my presence, like I’m right in they palm
Cause a stormy day is coming, when you see me so calm, it’s on
No more twin glocks, they jam up my plays
Now its twin .40 calibre Walther PPK’s
I’m in the control of my game, you must respect me like The Ref
Uh-huh, you disrespect *gun clicks* you get the tech
I turn you fake niggaz on and off, like I’m the clapper
I rob so many niggaz, they should call me Jack the Rapper
I’ll the illest nigga doing this, dead or alive
Gloria Gaynor on you motherfuckers, I Will Survive
You can try to come at me, but do you want the kick back?
You snap inside the cage of a pit, and you get bit back, huh
My war is so tight, my drama so ill
Beef with me hangs around like a unpaid bill
I push these lyrics through any MC, and make it burn
So the niggaz who be rhyming next, will miss a turn
When you speak of who’s the dopest MC, I don’t come up
But when you speak of who’s the livest MC, I stay what up, what’s up?
I got stripes while you got strikes and bogus mikes
Do what bitch niggaz do best *UTFO sample* bite
You niggaz can’t make up a law that I don’t overrule, overthrow
Prim’ brought Bumpy these tracks so I can let you know
Before I slide I’ma leave you this jewel
Even mechanics walk around with they tools
It’s the Militia

It’s amazing that I haven’t punched someone in the face while listening to his verse, especially around the time he starts screaming “What, WHAT, WHAT!!!” The Scarface appearance, which at the time seemed somewhat strange from the casual observer is also a nice track, and one in which Guru does another nice job. Of course there is Krumbsnatcha, before he had his falling out with The Foundation, on “Make Em Pay”. Despite a somewhat weaker (compared to other beats on the album) beat from Primo, Krumb does his thing as well.

The album isn’t horrible by any means, hell, it’s damn good, but I think we saw a glimpse of things to come in the future for Gang Starr. Primo shines on the album, but some of the songs just don’t measure up to the first two Gang Starr joints, but it’s still strong enough and popular enough to be mentioned in the same breath.

The Final Verdict

Trav: Truth is, I’ve been working on this particular post for over a month, only because I’ve had a lot of stuff going on. During that time though I’ve had a lot of time to think about each album and which was my favorite. I went into this whole thing declaring Daily Operation as my all-time favorite Gang Starr release. Since then, I think I’ve made an argument in my head that any of the three could be proclaimed at the penicale of the Gang Starr legacy. Since really sitting down this week end finally hammering this out, I’ve found myself gravitating toward Hard To Earn.

SoulClap: Moment of Truth. It had the dopest tracks, I loved every single track on there. Hard To Earn would be my second favorite.

P. Locke aka Therapy: For nostalgia, I want to say Daily Operation, but they really hit their stride with Hard To Earn. Moment Of Truth is not there for me. I’d say Primo was at his peak on Hard to Earn, he was in between looping and the chop/Primo of today. Guru’s voice was at its peak, gravely from the drank, but still on beat, which he wasn’t much more after Hard to Earn. Daily Operation was old style Primo product, ill two bar loops, but Hard To Earn was the best of both worlds. Aw man, “Tonz o Gunz”, “Along Way To Go”, “Mostly the Voice”, frigigin “Code of the Streets”, “Mostly tha Voice?” That LP was fuckin bonkers. Gotta go with Hard to Earn. Anyone disagreeing is old like me but they on that nostalgia tip. Its a no brainer, Preem had stepped it up on that one.

Akrobatik (via Paten): Daily Operation was a classic. Hard To Earn was a masterpiece. Nuff said…..

Has-Lo: I think we can all agree that these are the 3 greatest albums in all the Gang’s catalog. Picking a favorite out of those 3 is a gargantuan task. Each one is a classic in its own right and we all know, some days it may be a Daily Operation day. Some days its a Moment Of Truth day and so on. This day I think I’ll have to choose Hard To Earn. I love, love, love the Moment Of Truth lp. Their 1998 opus represents the pinnacle of their formula. Premier had fine tuned his production to surgical sharpness. Guru gives a spirited performance and when you throw in the various guests that made up Gang Starr foundation and subsidiaries, you quite literally cannot lose…and if the gold plaque they snagged for this album is any indication, they didn’t. BUT- Hard To Earn comes from a place before the years hardened them. Before genuine hip-hop was something you had to fight for. I didn’t “get it” when it came out. I didn’t think it was wack, my ears just weren’t mature enough…yet. Later, I picked it up and realized how genius Hard To Earn was. How replayable, rugged, underground…how NATURAL it was. It was/is as pure as hip-hop albums get.

Final Verdict: Hard To Earn

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{ 1 comment }

mrc March 22, 2010 at 7:38 pm

great article, i must agree hard to earn is my absolute fav gang starr album, and some of primo's finest work. but like you said the other two are classic albums in their own right.

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