Reaching the ripe ol’ age of 33 makes a Hip-Hop scholar nostalgic for the beats of lyrics from the days of yore. As I asserted on my last post, twenty years ago many classic albums in the realm of rap music were unleashed onto the masses. I remember it very well-being an astute listener, thanks to my parents giving me a deep appreciation for music, constantly digging for the great sounds permeating from the various genres that popped off in the 1990’s. Many classic Hip-Hop masterpieces came out in 1994, but this is my journey down memory lane. That’s why I’m bringing you down to my block where we only bang the classic beats laced with the fiery lyrics that used to mean something. One of these classics was the fourth album dropped by the group Gangstarr titled Hard To Earn.
The first time my eyes caught site of the album cover I was mesmerized by the overt redness with the solid chain link surrounding their logo reading GangStarr. The red is so blaring, but I was still fascinated by these two guys, MC Guru and DJ Premier. Once I flipped over the back I knew that this was the crew that no one wanted to fuck with. The menacing look of Jeru, Group Home’s Melachi the Nutcracker and Lil’ Dap, Premier, Guru and the ever-present Big Shug were all staring right at me, and I couldn’t stop staring back. For nostalgia’s sake I made sure to show the cassette version of the fold-out art cause who the fuck was buying CD’s, or afford them for that matter, back in High School? Not me. Once I popped in the tape the sound matched the cover perfectly, like Michael Jackson putting on his rhinestone uni-glove. The title screamed it all in fine print. This is some hard shit, and these guys didn’t play around, but were extremely serious about the music, and the state of affairs. It all starts with that fuzzy background you can only envisage coming from a Brooklyn basement, where the crew is writing rhymes, talking shit, drinking, rolling blunts, as Premier mans the turntables for that next sample to pop off. You then hear the “intro (The First Step)” with an overlying cool, slow, but fierce guitar lick, thanks to the sample from the Weather Report (The group not the news segment), as Guru in his monotone voice tells us what’s in store….
Guru tells it plain, saying that the rap game is not for everyone, and that his demeanor was always true and authentic from his heart. Unfortunately, in the present day everyone thinks they can be rap stars while overloaded with the bullshit. And then we embark on our voyage on the Gangstarr foundation’s charter boat to soulsville. It all begins with Phife Dog’s voice, as they sampled A Tribe Called Quest’s classic song “Check the Rhyme” to let you know that these guys are hard, and extra funky..
It’s all laid down from the start with Guru’s words saying “It’s a long way to go when you don’t know where you’re doing, you don’t know where you’re going when you’re lost.” The words are so solemn and true to the path of all people on this green earth. His words penetrate due to his voice and certainty as he kills the track, while Premier cuts each time as a chorus the words of Q-Tip from the same Tribe song. He also laces it up with samples of Melvin Bliss, Quincy Jones, and Richard Pryor. When I first heard the album this song prepared me for the ensuing onslaught of sheer talent and rugged energy.
The album touches on many themes and ideas as the Guru weaves through various subjects while riding the wave of Premier’s beats. It should be said that DJ Premier should be given credit for embellishing on the Rick Rubin rap song formula of a verse chorus scheme. Primo was tune with this and he sonically added to the songs by making his choruses in line with the great Greek tragedies of the past. On almost every track Guru rhymes and then Premier chides in with his signature scratches and cuts, making his style unique, which has been duplicated since he began doing this back in their first album. He was also in such high demand by the mid-1990’s that they even constructed a skit with the likes of MC Eiht and Nas calling Premier and leaving messages on his answering machine…..of course accompanied by a sick beat….
Another great example of Premier’s skills is the last single off the album titled “Code of the Streets.”
The song, and it’s video, speaks of the evolution of street crime, especially the art of car-jacking. Guru laments, while delivering the story like a news anchor, on the life of black youth in the poverty-stricken ghettos of New York City. The pace is set beautifully with the sturdy beat that reminded me of a James Bond theme throwback. The beat, provided with the samples by Melvin Bliss and Monk Higgins, punctures and the mundane tempo of street life and the street report is made more penetrating with Premier’s cuts with the ping noise.
The album holds a lot of weight where Guru can delve into the more serious and general problems plaguing society twenty years ago, and arguably to this very day, like Gun control. One such song to deal with this is the great ode to guns titled “Tonz O’ Gunz.”
It all begins with the spoken words of Malcolm X decrying American violence, while criticizing the fact that African-Americans were being drafted during the Vietnam War in order to kill people on the other side of the globe. Along with his words you hear a menacing beat resembling a scream as Guru spits that “The state of Affairs is in mad chaos.” He is decrying the proliferation of guns in his inner-city neighborhood, while also decrying the culture of violence in America. It’s prophetic when he says that more gums will come and more will cry.
We all know that this is the album that gave us the engrained classic that are deeply embedded into our childhoods and inner souls….and these are “Mass Appeal”
and the energy-laden “DWYCK” with the helping hand of guests (Greg) Nice and Smooth (B),
There are many more tracks on the album, but I want to point to two of my close and personal favorites, and the first one being the crew laden “Speak Ya Clout” where Guru shares the mic with Group Home’s Lil’ Dap and the amazing Jeru Da Damaja.
To put this track into context we have to realize that it’s sequel to the song off of their previous album Daily Operation titled “I’m the Man.” Unlike the earlier track, where Guru starts it off, Jeru begins with the first verse, and then each gets a specific beat to rhyme on top in tune with each rapper’s personality. It all starts with Jeru, as his words are cut up from his verse from “I’m the Man” as he glides over a hard beat backed by a Weather Repost sample. We then slow down with Lil’ Dap as he gets a funked up beat with the help of mysterious sounds thanks to the Quincy Jones sample. We then glide to the end as Guru wraps it up nicely over a Caesar Frazier sample. They all work well together as Premier waves his magic wand while cutting it all up perfectly for the ear to catch the mashup of samples making this masterpiece of a track.
The last song, and another personal favorite, is a theme that comes up on every Gangstarr album, the beautiful borough of Brooklyn!!!
Even though Guru hailed from Boston, and Premier from Texas, they both focused on Brooklyn as the Gangstarr homestead. It was actually Guru who came first, and then hooked up with Premier, as Gangstarr was originally formed in Boston under Guru’s mantle. It was when he moved to Brooklyn and later hooked up with Premier where we get the official Gangstarr roster. On every Gangstarr album Guru gives us his ode to Brooklyn, and on this album he gives us his most personal and from the heart account of his history in Brooklyn, A/K/A “The Planet.”
It all starts off with a quick snippet of soul thanks to a sample of Taj Mahal’s “The Cuckoo,” and then we go into the serious sounds of the track thanks to some old school samples by the Divine Force and MC Lyte. The song is Guru’s story of leaving home, maturing on his maiden voyage, and always confident that he’ll make it out in B-R-double O – Klyn – The Planet. As he rhymes we follow Guru’s evolution from life in East New York, to the dead-end job, and the journey to become one of the best MC’s of all time. This song is his testament, which spoke volumes to me as I banged this track living in New Haven, CT while dreaming of life in the big city, in Brooklyn, in the Planet. This never left me as I made sure to move to Brooklyn, and make it the only Borough I ever wanted to call home. Many faded nights, lost dreams, happy highs, and shitty lows all came to me in Brooklyn. As his voice fades out with the words “The Planet” I feel that we both experienced our unique life in Brooklyn.
Rest in Peace to one of the greatest of all times….GURU.