“A man’s dying is more the survivors’ affair than his own.” - Thomas Mann
So it came to pass that on Monday, April 19th legendary MC Guru from Gang Starr died.
Most of the focus of the discussion at this point seems to revolve around the drama that was his hospitalization and the involvement of "super producer" Solar, who somehow was appointed (or appointed himself) Guru's legal proxy either before or while he was medically incapacitated. I highly doubt that we are ever going to get satisfactory answers about Guru's illness, his involvement with Solar, the fallout with DJ Premier and every other related issue about how Guru really felt about his legacy with Gang Starr - simply because of the nature of his condition.
So where exactly do we go from here? Especially when it comes to the legacy of an artist who seemingly, for reasons unknown, turned his back on the impact of the music he made as a part of a group.
It's easy for me to tell you that Gang Starr were the best rap duo ever. The more complex part is defining why.
In 1993 there was an attempt to re-classify Gang Starr's music as part of a larger alternative Hip-Hop movement that fuzed Jazz music and textures with rap - mostly by people that weren't listening to the already sizable catalog of hardcore east coast rap music that Gang Starr had assembled over the course of their previous three albums: No More Mr. Nice Guy, Step Into The Arena and Daily Operation.
Gang Starr - Take It Personal
Can you imagine someone releasing a song like this in 2010 as a single??? With a video??? Let's recap:
0:00 - 1:00 - Guru's girl is apparently playing him with some other dude. Said dude gets yoked up (by Big Shug no less) and is left hanging from the ceiling in her apartment.
1:00 - 1:40 - Some unidentified buster snitches to an attorney about the samples Gang Starr are using (I think the 12" thats held up is "Words I Manifest" but I could be wrong) and less than 45 seconds later the attorney's case is thrown out and the snitch is leaking brain juice all over the desk. And here you thought the legal system was ineffective...
2:03 - 2:21 - Around The Way Kid is upset Guru is "too busy making power moves" like getting photographed in front of a fake courthouse by fake reporters after exposing a fake sampling loophole - kind of a strange thing to get upset about but whatever. Anywho, Around The Way Kid is telling Guru's business "like a daytime talkshow" and for that transgression he gets snuffed up by the Gang Starr Foundation at large and is carried screaming off into the night, probably wishing he wasn't such a bitch.
Note the quickening pace of dudes getting snuffed. Also the plain intent of the song - telling the presumed audience of suckers / biters / wack MC's and other individuals worthy of scorn to in fact take the implied diss personally.
With the release of Guru's 1993 solo effort "Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1" along with Digable Planets "Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space)", the convenient thing for journalists to do was play Dumb Person Math and lump Gang Starr, Guru's group, into that same category as Guru's passion project. Obviously some of Gang Starr's production was jazz loop based - see the 1990 "Mo' Betta Blues" soundtrack release "Jazz Thing" for the clearest example, but there was a vast difference between Premier's implementation of jazz samples and Digable Planets jacking the entire Blue Note Records catalog for their first album. Shit, I don't know that Digable Planets themselves wanted to be as "alternative" as they were branded, the blowback for which resulted in their criminally slept on 1994 release "Blowout Comb" (which was almost a Gang Starr tribute record in it's textures and themes), low subsequent sales, breakup and disappearance from the general public's collective radar.
Back to Gang Starr, it seems clear that the first song on their next release, 1994's "Hard To Earn", was a direct repudiation of any efforts to brand them as even remotely "alternative":
Gang Starr - ALONGWAYTOGO
What you need is more direction and get yourself some protection
I thought by now that you have learned your lesson
I'm stressin points and slammin all joints you call the real shit
Correct shit, you know the busta way you feel shit
Baby, I still don't think you understand
You lose the game, we get more props than Dan...Rather
And it don't matter 'cause when you flinch, you're weak
So i'mma step just to speak about the counterfeit, unlegit type of people
Those cellophane ones, the ones that you can see through
It's poetic justice 'cause I'm mad with a pact
So precise, my insight will take flight in the night
And in the daytime, 'cause I don't come up with corny rhymes
I'm too devoted to the concept of gettin mine
So here's the deal like Shaquille O'Neal
If you don't know what you're doing, how the hell can you be real?
This is Criminal Minded. This is Road to the Riches. This is a classic on the day it's released. This is the timeless implementation of the hardcore Hip-Hop aesthetic the East Coast was known for.
Making timeless music would be what GangStarr did for the remainder of the 90's all the way till 2003 with the release of their last LP, "The Ownerz". Go through Gang Starr's catalog and you will find a purity and a purpose to every single song that is uncompromising - Hip-Hop that does not pander to the radio, that defines itself based on original style rather than what may be popular at the moment.
Specific to Guru, it's not as if he was technically the most amazing MC to ever get busy on the mic, but if the guy can pull of a line like: "Lemonade was a popular drink and it still is / I get more props and stunts than Bruce Willis" you can easily infer that he has more charisma than 100 of these half ass pooh butt rappers that are getting played 24/7 on your local radio station.
It's hard to talk about Gang Starr and lay out the reasons for why they are the best rap duo ever without sounding trite. I shouldn't need to tell you - this is really something you should already know. My indoctrination into rap music and Hip-Hop culture was in an era where everything was relative. You couldn't appreciate an artist like Big Mike without understanding the history of the Geto Boys. You couldn't get Redman without EPMD. You couldn't get Snoopp Dogg without knowing The D.O.C., N.W.A., Ice-T, etc. Knowing your history wasn't optional, it was *required*.
To that end, an MC from Boston and a DJ from Houston combined to establish their own self-referential standard for East Coast rap music - to a degree that won't be eclipsed anytime soon. Perhaps the challenge of living up to that same standard was part of the reason they stopped recording. If so, we're left with a body of work that is nearly unparalleled, regardless of whether or not Guru wanted to acknowledge the significance of the work that he and Premier put it, the music remains as a testament to that ideal. Raw, uncompromised Hip-Hop music. Gang Starr music.
I'll leave you with a couple of my favorite under the radar Gang Starr joints. First is Madlib's remix of "Just To Get A Rep", released in 2001 with a collection of other "unofficial" Madlib remixes. This song in particular takes Guru's already classic monotone delivery and pitches it down even further, combined with Madlib's somber production creates something that is far more melancholy than the original.
Gang Starr - Just To Get A Rep (Madlib remix)
Next is Gang Starr's contribution to the soundtrack of the 1993 film "Trespass" (which I saw in the theatre!) "Gotta Get Over". Some prefer the admittably fantastic remix by Large Professor, but at this moment in time I'll take the OG version for that classic Gang Starr sound.
Gang Starr - Gotta Get Over
Last is the video for "You Know My Steeze", the first single off of their 1998 album "Moment of Truth". Yes, it's an homage to THX1138. Yes, it's hilarious and dope at the same time. Nobody else could pull this off. No one.
Gang Starr - You Know My Steeze
Rap Pages - December 1994 - LA Underground cover photo left to right:
Ganjah K, Medusa, Ras Kass, Erule, Koko, AceyAlone
As a music industry outsider, trying to determine why certain records do well and others flop has always intrigued me. Especially during a time like the 90's when seemingly everyone and their mother had a major label record contract. As much as we like to remember this period as the "Golden Era" there was just as much shitty music getting released on majors then as there is now. Blood of Abraham, Tweety Bird Loc, Dog M.C., these guys:
(Label Guy: "Whats the album called? Nutt'in All Over Your Face? Sounds great! We'll sell a million!)
Browse through any rap magazine in the 90's and you will find a litany of terrible rap acts getting pushed by big labels. Again, this is my outsider impression, but it seemed that most of these major labels had no idea who or what they were getting into, and some of the quality of the artists that were signed during that time period is indicative of that relative inexperience.
Enter Erule and enter Pallas records.
Rap Pages - August 1994 - Back Inside Cover
Pallas records was distributed by Universal, which is to say that they were under the umbrella of the biggest record label in the world. At the time, hiphop icon Fab 5 Freddy was employed as their CEO, but in hindsight it would appear that Fab 5's talents lay in areas other than label and artist management. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Erule's 12" single "Listen Up" with the b-side "Synopsis" was released in the summer of 1994 and was a semi-substantial hit. At this juncture let me provide a bit of a disclaimer. The truth is that I am hardly a disinterested party in this analysis, in that Erule's "Listen Up / Synopsis" single is probably my favorite rap single - ever. Ever ever. If I was stuck on an island with only three songs to listen to for the rest of my days, it would easily by my number one draft pick. You want evidence of my allegiances? I'll call this Exhibit A:
And if they had put it out on 8-track I would have copped that too
My rabid fandom aside, let's move onto the music:
Erule - Listen Up - Official Video
Erule - Synopsis
I don't even want to go on about how magical these records are because if you've got two ears, and they're properly functioning, that quality should be readily apparent. I will say that I believe there are definite parallels between Erule's "Listen Up" record and Dr. Dre and Snoop's classic "Nuthin' But A "G" Thang" in that their ultimate worth is all in their execution. Dre's sample of Leon Haywood's previously semi-obscure sex-funk classic "I Want To Do Something Freaky To You" was hardly groundbreaking. It's pretty much just a straight flip, and in the same way that "Listen Up" flips the Roy Ayers's comparatively more well known classic "Everybody Loves The Sunshine" as it's musical backbone. That being said, any asshole can loop the drums from Billy Squier's "Big Beat" over a break from one of the Conmen mixtapes, but a classic record this does not make.
In both G Thang and Listen Up there is a degree of sublime perfection in their execution that is rarely found. This is not the boisterous noise of any one of a million nondescript shitty pop rap hits, this is the combination of an MC and a producer blending their respective elements into something that becomes More Than. The end result is Special with a capital fucking S.
To that end, "Listen Up" was a success in 1994 terms. Rotation on Yo! MTV Raps, Rap City (shout out to Joe Clair for getting that commercial work), placement in every DJ chart list - the one missing ingredient being retail sales. No worries, the full length is going to come out eventually...right?
All this hype can't be for nothing right?
Rap Pages - August 1994 - Summer Sounds - Page 2
Wrong. If Nas's buildup from Live at the Barbeque to Halftime to Back to The Grill Again to Ain't Hard to Tell and then the Illmatic album was as an example of perfection in promoting an artist, this was the opposite. At the time of Rap Pages December 1994 profile piece on the LA Underground, the entirety of which I'll attach at the end, the album was still in the works. And that is as far as it got.
Fast forward 7 years later to 2001 and Erule releases an album of all new material entitled "Cold Currentz" on what I believe was his and his producer King Born Allah's own label, Flatland Region. I would say it was a generally uneven effort, but not without it's highlights:
Erule - One Rule - Believe it or not this was a Ja-Rule diss.
Erule - Nik Luv R.I.P.
Erule - The Real Me / Here It Is
One of the most interesting things about the "Cold Currentz" album was the interior of the CD insert, which was an exhaustive list of people, companies and organizations that from the view of Erule's camp conspired to prevent the release of his first album on Pallas Records. I'll include a small sample of it below - in all caps the way that it is written on the CD, because well, it's funnier that way:
"KING ISLAM WOULD LIKE TO SEND A VERY, VERY SPECIAL LOVE TO BILAL POLSON (JACOB/YACUBI) AT RAXOR SHARP RECORDS FOR SHOWING ME THAT EVEN YOUR OWN BROTHER CAN TURN YOU OVER TO THE F.B.I. AND SELL ERULE AS A SLAVE TO THE SLAVE MASTER PIMPS AT PALLAS RECORDS FOR HIS OWN MONEY, POSITION, AND POWER. TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOUR OWN WAYS AND ACTIONS AND STOP CAUSING TROUBLE AMONGST THE RIGHTEOUS. THANK YOU
TO JEROME (1ST ROUND CEO) FROM EAST WEST RECORDS WHO STARTED PALLAS RECORDS WITH MATSUO'S MONEY AND HIS OWN BLOOD, SWEAT, TEARS, LIES AND BROKEN DREAMS. THANK YOU FOR TEACHING BILAL HOT TO DECEIVE HIS THREE BROTHERS TO SIGN WITH PALLAS RECORDS. WE APPRECIATE YOU TEACHING HIM HOW TO SNAKE US AND SHOWING HIM HOW TO BE A BETTER SNAKE OIL SALESMAN. WE KNOW IT WASN'T PERSONAL BUT ONLY BUSINESS
TO FAB FIVE FREDDY (2ND ROUND C.E.O.) I WOULD LIKE TO PERSONALLY SAY THANK YOU FOR ALL THE HELP YOU DID NOT GIVE US. THAT INCLUDES ALL THE FAKE ASS BUDGET REPORTS, WASTED DINNERS, LIES, WEAK ASS BEDTIME STORIES AND PHONY TOURS. THANK YOU FOR NOT PUTTING OUT THE PROJECT. YOU SAVED OUR LIVES.
...PALLAS RECORDS AS A WHOLE, FLATLAND REGION HAS ONE THING TO SAY, FUCK ALL YA AND THANK YOU FOR TEACHING US HOW TO BECOME AN INDEPENDENT LABEL AND TAKE OUR OWN MONEY IN THIS GAME. YOU FOOLS MADE US RICH, THANK YOU! PUNKS"
I'm not including the other stuff where they bag on the lawyer that apparently represented them on their contract who was also working for Pallas Records, the Japanese "Hood Rat" Keiko, or a certain Travon Johonson who is referred to as a "HOMOSEXUAL SLAVE TRADER". Suffice it to say, these are not guys that had what could be called a positive experience with the record industry.
Amusingly, around the same time that the "Cold Currentz" album was released Pallas actually pressed new copies of the "Listen Up / Synopsis" 12" which I can assume was a less than subtle fuck you toward Erule's new venture - or less sinister just an attempt to make more money on an artist that was at one point under contract with their label.
To this day, I don't know that there have been clear answers gleamed about the situation with Pallas. Erule and his camp certainly made their position known, and other than a website that only exists in the cache on Archive.org Pallas Records seems to be entirely dead, so I doubt that any counterpoint from their side is even possible. I'm not sure that there would be any value to continuing that exchange either way. The Pallas record never came out, and all bluster aside, I highly doubt that the "Cold Currentz" album made anyone rich.
So here we are, approaching 16 years since the summer when the "Listen Up" single debuted, and we're no closer to hearing what was recorded during those Pallas years. Erule has made infrequent guest spots on other rappers's songs both before and after the release of the "Cold Currentz" album. His one solo effort being the painfully titled 2008 single "Please Listen To My Demo"
Here we go again. Fantastic song - but you can't buy it! As far as I can tell, there was no conventional release of this song, no 12", no promo cd's, nothing. Just the above video.
Considering Erule's career and inability to find any significant traction in the record industry, there is a certain amount of powerlessness that I'm left with feeling as a fan. The way that it's supposed to work is that I use my wallet to support artists that I appreciate. In Erule's case however, it's been nearly 10 years since he's released anything, so how do I support his career? What can I do?
It seems clear to me that this is a man who is supposed to be MC'ing - the guy was born to do it. And be clear - there is a vast difference between the craft that exists in the composition of one single verse of any Erule song and what passes for "rapping" nowadays as it continues to be abused in pop music. This is an art form. That is a mockery.
But what do you do when major label record company politics prevent your album from being released? What happens when it seems as though the window for "making it" in the music business seems to be closing? Do you continue pushing towards a goal that seems entirely unobtainable? How much do you sacrifice in the name of art? How long do you put the rest of your life on hold to chase your dreams? How do you prevent the bitterness of failure from impacting the art you love?
Obviously, all these questions are rhetorical, and it isn't for me to provide the answers. I would like to think that in 2010, someone of Erule's pedigree could use the various social networking tools to get their name out pretty easily and build some buzz. Sadat X from legendary East Coast group Brand Nubian advertises on Twitter his reasonable rates for feature appearances, which to me is absolutely genius. If I was an up and coming rapper, given the opportunity why wouldn't I want someone of that stature on my record? And for Sadat, he's able to find a way to stay working some 20 plus years into a career in an industry that quite literally chews people up.
This morning I sat my 3 year old daughter on my lap and we watched the Listen Up video that I've linked above. Someday I'll tell her the story of when I first bought the "Listen Up" promo tape at a long since out of business record store for the tidy sum of 99 cents. Whether Erule's Pallas record ever gets released or not, the "Listen Up / Synopsis" single remains a record that will always be important to me, and who's value exists above all the record industry bullshit that accompanied it's release. Going forward, whether Erule wants to release any new music or not, I'm still going to be here, and I'm still going to be Listening.
Postscript - below are scans of the entire LA Underground article.