When DJ Premier, one of hip-hop’s most iconic beatmakers, knew his friend and Gang Starr co-pilot Guru was about to die it didn’t make coming to terms with seeing him in a hospital bed any easier. But though a shock to the hip-hop community, the 2010 death of the MC at the age of 48 didn’t mean we’d heard the last from this rap titan.
After a lengthy legal battle to attain ownership of unreleased recordings, DJ Premier decided that the time was finally right to release a new Gang Starr album, even though the wheels for ‘One Of The Best Yet’ – which came out this November – had been in motion for almost a decade. “I came to terms with it from the day that I went to the hospital and I could tell that he wasn’t going to make it,” explains DJ Premier. “I just had to make sure his family was all good with the publishing, all the rights and everything that comes with all that. We still had a brand that we could make money off and that is still important to me”.
Gang Starr’s impact isn’t difficult to measure. DJ Premier’s (or Preemo) skills are still highly sought after, each episode of the first season of Netflix’s Luke Cage was named after a Gang Starr track, the duo has been sampled (officially) nearly 800 times and the logo is a global brand in itself.
On the intro to ‘You Know My Steez’ from 1998’s ‘Moment of Truth’, we hear a young Guru talk about how Gang Starr would never stray from their musical identity but always update their formula. Has Premier updated the formula once again for ‘One Of The Best Yet’? “Yeah, we’re still sounding like us, the formula’s still being updated,” he explains. “The key was that we sounded like where we left off in 2003 [when they released their last album ‘The Ownerz’] and the most important thing was that I wanted it to sound like he’d [Guru] written them there and then. Spiritually he did. I walked into the studio with a blank canvas and started searching for the sound. That’s my approach still.”
Every part of the new project was purposeful, from the previously unreleased Guru verses that Preemo picked to the big name featured guests; Ne-Yo, J Cole, Royce da 5’9”, Q-Tip and M.O.P, Big Shug and Jeru the Damaja. “Everybody that I got to be on the album, they sounded like they paired off with Guru correctly, it didn’t sound forced,” Preemo says. Sadly, one of the biggest names in rap, Nas, was asked to feature on ‘Bad Name’ but due to conflicting schedules was unable to.
The process of recording ‘One Of The Best Yet’ was ritualistic. Preemo would bring Guru’s ashes to the studio and burn sage to get the vibe just right. Hip-hop is all about honouring tradition and embracing the new, and it’s these small practices that allowed Preemo to feel as though Guru was there in the room with him. Perhaps that’s why ‘One Of The Best Yet’ doesn’t quite feel like your standard posthumous rap record – its purpose is to honour the legacy of one of rap’s greats rather than mess with it.
But the road to the album’s creation has been a rocky one. Since Guru’s passing, DJ Premier has been at odds with Guru’s friend, a producer called DJ Solar, because of a letter that was said to have been written by the late rapper which forbade Premier from using Guru’s name after his death. To this day, both Preemo, Guru’s family and the wider hip-hop community believe the letter was falsely written by Solar. “I know how Guru writes and when we used to live together, he’d leave little notes around the house and you don’t put ex-DJ when we’ve known each other for so long [how Premier was allegedly referred to in the letter], besides there were a few DJs Guru had worked with even before me,” says Premier.
It’s obvious that both Solar and Premier wanted to preserve the legacy of Guru in their own way, but Preemo is adamant that his closeness to Guru’s family – particularly Guru’s son Keith, who was only nine when his father passed away – means he’s acting out the will of his former bandmate. “That’s my guy man, we’re very close and I used to babysit him,” he says of Keith. “There are tons of pictures of us and I’ve watched him grow up, that alone adds confidence in who they [Guru’s family] go to when they need to know how to handle Guru’s affairs. I think our die-hard Gang Starr fans get it already, I made it for them and for his family because they should be able to eat off the proceeds.”
It’s clear that Premier still really, really misses Guru. “I miss everything, man. Even when he was mad or drunk out of his mind and cursing us out saying ‘fuck y’all,’ I miss that too!” he states. “I’ve been going through all of our archive footage… [it] takes me back and allows me to remember all of the fun we had.”
So, is the last we’ll hear of Gang Starr? Premier doesn’t seem to think so. “I wouldn’t call this the final chapter of Gang Starr, we still have a lot of unreleased material that I want to share one day,” he says. Preemo’s also still figuring out how to adapt ‘One Of The Best Yet’ into a live setting, but he’s vehemently against any kind of 2Pac at Coachella 2012 moments. “I’m not doing any holograms,” he states firmly, but suggests he’ll be putting old videos of Guru to use somehow. “We have years of footage from ‘89 to ‘92 and ‘98 up until his passing, so we’re figuring out how to extract his voice and to use it in sync with the footage. Thank goodness we filmed our shows because they’re now being put to use.”
‘One Of The Best Yet’ shouldn’t be seen as a reminder of the impermanence of life but as a time capsule of both hip-hop’s past and present. In death as in life, Guru is still giving hip-hop a vital boost of energy.
Gang Starr’s ‘One Of The Best Yet’ is out now