“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