Rap groups that manage to be both tough and smart are rare, but Brooklyn’s Gang Starr is both. Rapper Guru (Keith Elam) and DJ Premier (Chris Martin) are both perfectionists, with scholars’ dedication to the study and lifestyle of hip-hop. Although both have successfully pursued other projects — Guru has released two albums under the Jazzmatazz aegis, while Premier clocks dollars producing records for every other hip-hop artist — together they make genre-defining music.
The duo didn’t start all that auspiciously, however; No More Mr. Nice Guy finds Guru (Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal) Keithy E struggling to define his rap style and lyrical focus; while he touches on the topics that he would nail cold in future records, he sounds amateurish and hackneyed here. DJ Premier provides samples, beats and rhythms that are perfectly adequate, if not up to his future level. Most significantly, “Jazz Music” announces the duo’s interest in getting busy with a different idiom.
Step in the Arena is a mind-blowing breakthrough; it’s clear that Guru (no longer using the “Keithy E” handle) and Premier have recognized their mission. The record is hard, intricate, forceful and represents. The samples are particularly stunning, with Premier drawing on sources well outside the norm. “Execution of a Chump” and “Check the Technique” are just two of the outstanding tracks from this dense, complex record.
Daily Operation maintains the high quality, although it doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Guru continues to boast about himself, his group and his borough (“Come to Brooklyn frontin’/And you’ll get mushed quick”), to speak out about the oppression of the black man (“Conspiracy”) and then boast about himself again. “Take It Personal” is a sludgy mix of beats and a catchy riff laid under Guru’s confident, sexy voice, delivering a warning to someone who betrayed him (“When I pay you back I’ll be hurting you”) and then explaining it as a musical beef (“Rap is an art/You can’t own no loops/It’s how you hook ’em up and the rhyme style”).
Hard to Earn doesn’t do anything wrong, but it isn’t remarkably different from the previous two. Jeru the Damaja and Big Shug (who also appears on both Jazzmatazz records) make guest appearances. The single, “Mass Appeal,” is just a boast about how rap groups trying to gain commercial success can’t compare to Gang Starr; “I’m so real to them it’s scary,” Guru says.
On his first Jazzmatazz album, Guru works on the blend he undertook on the Mo’ Better Blues soundtrack (“Jazz Thing” with Branford Marsalis, although Dizzy Gillespie does not play the sax, as Guru repeats ad nauseam), bringing such jazz legends as trumpeter Donald Byrd, guitarist Ronny Jordan, pianist Lonnie Liston Smith and vibraphonist Roy Ayers into the studio to add flavor and style to his music. He also spotlights French rapper MC Solaar, Brand New Heavies singer N’Dea Davenport (the sexiest tracks are their duets) and Carleen Anderson. Guru’s theory, which he goes into at length and proves by example, is that both hip-hop and jazz are “musical cultural expression(s) based on reality,” so the two have much more in common than some might think. With his overwhelming enthusiasm and excellent songwriting (most of the rhymes are spontaneous freestyles), Jazzmatazz Volume 1 is a classic record that bends genres together to create new ones.
Volume II: The New Reality is much less intriguing. Although there are moments — the duet with Chaka Khan (“Watch What You Say”) and tracks produced by the Solsonics (“New Reality Style,” “Defining Purpose,” “Maintaining Focus”) — the record suffers from Guru’s excessive pride, already duly documented on Gang Starr records, at having achieved his mission on the debut. The combination of styles is far less seamless, and the songs-less hip-hop/jazz melds than hip-hop/R&B-flavored jazz blends-take fewer risks. Buying his own hype, Guru seems willing to bask in, rather than build on, his accomplishments.