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Timeless Affairs: Gang Starr - Hard To Earn

Welcome to Timeless Affairs, the corner within Steppin' Into Tomorrow, where we'd like to shine a spotlight on essential albums that have shaped our culture (and lives in some cases). We lovingly revisit, explore and zoom in on these gems in their full length. Digging out stories and fun facts from the making of the masterpieces that have built the foundation of the music today and continue to shape the future.

Few hip-hop groups have been able to craft a sound as instantly recognizable as Gang Starr. Guru’s smooth baritone and the beats DJ Premier handcrafted using samples and his signature bounce have left a strong impact in the history of hip hop. This year marked the 27-year anniversary of my favorite Gang Starr album ‘Hard To Earn’, an album that I hold very dear to my heart. It took this particular record to introduce me, personally, to the abundant catalogue of these two hip hop heavy hitters. On top of that, today would have been Guru's 60th birthday, so it’s about time we revisit this outstanding piece of music again and celebrate Gang Starr. Let’s go.

Pic by Tijmen de Nooy Fotografie

1994 was a ground-breaking year for hip hop music. Widely considered as the greatest year in hip hop. Ever. Also, it is the year in which hip hop exploded from the underground onto the mainstream with albums like Nas’s ‘Illmatic’, Biggie’s ‘Ready to Die’, ‘The Main Ingredient’ by Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Common’s ‘Resurrection', Outkast’s ‘Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik’, Warren G’s ‘Regulate…G Funk Era’… and on and on. Gang Starr, formation consisting of DJ Premier & Guru, were right there at the forefront of style on the New York streets, holding it down with the underground sound. They’ve established a collective called Gang Starr Foundation, consisting of Gang Starr, Boston legend Big Shug, Jeru the Damaja, Afu-Ra, Group Home and more.

DJ Premier a.k.a. Preemo, originally from Houston, Texas, has been actively feeding the world with heavy beats since the 1980’s and is continuously widely considered to be one of the best hip hop producers of all time. His skills as a beatmaker & DJ/turntablist are undisputable, phenomenal cuts and scratches solidify this album as much as anything that he touches. As Guru said best in the ‘DWYCK’ track:

“Premier’s got more beats than a barn’s got hay.”

…and the statement continues to be true even two decades later. This snippet from Re:Generation Music Project by Grammy’s Association beautifully illustrates that his musical genius shines through, even when completely taken out of his comfort zone.

The late great emcee Guru (acronym for Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal), was one of the most distinctive voices in music, period. Not everyone can move the crowd and uplift it the way he did. The smooth baritone, the layers of originally braggadocious rhyme and superb syncopation are unmatched. Massachussets born, he moved to NYC to study at the FIT school (Fashion Institute of Technology). Man could really draw, after all, he's the one who designed the iconic Gang Starr logo, the chain surrounded star, together with Big Shug (fellow Massaachusettsan). They wanted the logo to stand out. According to Preemo’s breakdown, the chain symbolizes the bond of all the artists involved with Gang Starr Foundation collective and the star itself is the talent.

On March 8th 1994, one of the group’s most critically acclaimed projects, the 4th studio album ‘Hard to Earn’ has been released to the world. Consisting of 17 tracks with features from Nice & Smooth, and members of the Gang Starr foundation, it became one of the all-time hip hop classic albums. When it comes to features, we got the ‘Speak Ya Clout’ posse cut with Jeru da Damaja and Lil Dap (of Group Home), ‘F.A.L.A.’ with Big Shug and Melachi the Nutcracker of Group Home appears on the ‘Words from the Nutcracker’ track. The ‘Aiiight Chill’ skit features voicemail messages from emcees like Nas, A.G., Masta Ace, MC Eiht, and more, even though none of them are verses per se. Guru wrote ‘Now You’re Mine’ day after a huge fight with Preemo, who said:

“It was the first fight we ever had in our lives. But a dope record came out of it.” — DJ Premier

And I gotta say I loved the trumpet sample so much that it brought me on to discover this snazzy track, where Premier took the horn samples from. Miss Bessie’s Cookin’ by the jazz legend Buddy Rich is a gift that keeps on giving. Same thing goes for Monty Alexander's Love & Happiness, cover of the Al Green classic. If you're also intrigued by the samples & references used on this album some more, we've gathered most of them here.

The club hit ‘DWYCK’ featuring Nice & Smooth was a B-side to ‘Take It Personal’ recorded during their collaboration on in 1992 that didn’t fit the ‘Daily Operation’ album, somehow. However it would be a shame to just leave it hanging, so it was placed on ‘Hard to Earn’ two years later.

And yeah, ‘Mass Appeal’ might be the ultimate standout track on this record, although it was originally recorded as a joke. It features DJ Premier’s most quintessential and recognizable production elements, the original recipe. The song makes fun of the music that was played on the radio at the time. Ironically this track probably got them the most radio-play.

From their existing repertoire, ‘Hard to Earn’ was the first studio album that received a Parental Advisory sticker. It is quite raw in comparison to the previous releases of theirs. Hard ‘n gritty, less musical on purpose, since at this point they were trying to break away from the “Jazz-Rap” label that was so often used for their music until this day (due to Premier’s heavy use of jazz samples in his beats). It was a conscious decision to separate themselves from what had gained them popularity up until that point, which in itself is a testament to their artistry and their legacy at the end of the day.

The duo proceeded with the releases of ‘Moment of Truth’ and ‘The Owners’ in the upcoming years. Gang Starr has officially split in 2009. In April 2010, Guru passed away far too early at the age of 48, after a year-long struggle with cancer, nevertheless his legacy is everlasting and continues to inspire infinitely. One of the many examples is that each episode of the Luke Cage Netflix series based on Marvel Comics’ superhero is named after a Gang Starr song.

Two years ago the final goodbye in the form of a posthumous album ‘One of the Best Yet’ saw the light of the day. It featured previously unreleased vocals from Guru and guests appearances from Q-Tip, Royce da 5’9’’, M.O.P. and Talib Kweli among others. The standout ‘Family and Loyalty’ track with J.Cole being a total highlight on the record.

Rest in Peace, Guru. Gang Starr Forever.


James Brown
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