30 years since they formed, re-emerging after the tragic death of founding member Guru, the hip-hop titans have returned to remind us of their enormous influence
When it comes to hip-hop duos, Gang Starr are arguably the most iconic. Sure, there’s EPMD, Outkast, UGK, Clipse, Mobb Deep and so many others, but there’s always been something particularly special about the chemistry possessed by Guru and DJ Premier.
They’re revered as champions of simplicity – two turntables and a mic is all they’ve ever needed – yet they’re also purveyors of high quality music; soon after their debut album ‘No More Mr. Nice Guy’ hit shelves 30 years ago they became a benchmark that many in rap measured their musical output by. Formed in 1986, they released six studio albums and two compilations before going their separate ways in 2006. Then tragedy struck in 2010 when Guru (a backronym for Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal) died at the age of 48, from cancer.
‘One of the Best Yet’, Gang Starr’s seventh studio album, is a special moment for hip-hop. For years it looked like a new Gang Starr album would never materialise – especially being as Preemo didn’t own any of Guru’s posthumous vocals. Instead, they were owned by producer Solar, a former collaborator of the late rapper.
Controversy ensued as Solar refused to hand them over to Guru’s family, but that’s all in the past. Guru’s family now have control of his estate, and a selection of the late rapper’s vocals are now with their rightful owner, DJ Premier.
Set off by a live call-and-response over a selection of the duo’s classic instrumentals, ‘One of the Best Yet’ is littered with highs that usually start with a punch in the face from Preemo’s instantly recognisable production. ‘Lights Out’ plays like a stick-up that hears Guru and M.O.P.’s Billy Danze and Lil’ Fame go straight for the jugular. The hot-tempered tough talk continues on ‘Hit Man’ and ‘What’s Real’, which features an exceptional guest verse from Royce Da 5’9”, as Guru takes it back to the days of testosterone-driven battle rap as Preemo’s brand of machine gun funk thumps in the back.
Saying what we’ve all been thinking for years, on ‘Bad Name’ Guru spits: “Word to God, if Big and ‘Pac were still here/ Some of these weirdos wouldn’t act so cavalier.” A potent statement that rings true for a lot of people, it’s a shot at wack rappers who threaten the very foundation that hip-hop culture was built upon. And that’s exactly the kind of guy that Guru was: fearless. He was never afraid to say it as he saw it.
Given this tone, it’s not a surprise when Freddie Foxxx calls out Solar on ‘Take Flight (Militia Pt.4)’: “On Gu’ and them, I never let Solar rest.” The fourth in a series of posse cuts that started on the duo’s 1998 album ‘Moment of Truth’, Guru, Foxxx and Big Shug go to war armed with a series of sinister piano runs, hurried hi-hats and a full clip of Preemo’s unmistakable drum kicks. It’s raw. It’s dangerous. It’s authentically Gang Starr.
Instead of rushing out to get whoever the hottest young rapper is right now, Preemo pretty much kept it in-house, pulling from the pool that is the Gang Starr Foundation. Besides Foxxx and Shug, the likes of Jeru the Damaja (‘From a Distance’), Group Home (‘What’s Real’) and M.O.P. (‘Lights Out’) were brought in to further amplify that feeling of familiarity.
A Gang Starr album wouldn’t be complete without Preemo’s signature sample cuts taking pride of place. Dotted all over the project, they’re never more effective than on ‘Bless the Mic’, when a snippet of Eric B & Rakim’s ‘Check out my Melody’ sounds right at home ingrained deep into the track’s misty soundscape.
True: this album is not without flaws, ‘Get Together’ is a track you’ll want to forget in a hurry. It falls short of the R&B-tinged magic the pair managed on 1998’s ‘Royalty’ with K-Ci & JoJo, as Ne-Yo‘s overly polished vocals not sit well and Preemo’s production sounds uncharacteristically remedial.
Sometimes, too, Guru’s absence is a little too noticeable. For example, a track like ‘Business or Art’ probably wouldn’t have come out the way it did if Guru were still here. It feels unfinished, almost like a reference track. The tempo appears off and the late rapper’s vocals fail to pack any real punch. There’s no question he’d have reworked his vocals.
But these hiccups aren’t enough to derail the album’s quest to remind fans why the duo’s name is mentioned amongst the hip-hop greats. Celebrating life, love and legacy, ‘One of the Best Yet’ is a win for everyone.