"I'm too deep and yes much too complicated, my lines when stated are quite often underrated."
As one half of the legendary Hip-Hop duo Gang Starr Guru was part of a force which quietly shook the foundations of Hip-Hop and played a tremendous role in elevating it to it's golden peak of the early 90s. However his partner most often overshadows Guru in the eyes of Hip-Hoppers. That partner is DJ Premier. Premo's legacy in Hip-Hop is untouchable. Having broke massive ground with Gang Starr he went on to provide beats for New York's Hip-Hop elite, both mainstream and underground, always expanding and progressing his sound and so he remains relevant and active in Hip-Hop to this day. Premo is the main contender for the title of greatest Hip-Hop producer. Therefore it is understandable that Guru,sharing a group with a Hip-Hop god should be unrecognised by many as one of the greatest lyricists of recorded Hip-Hop.
Emerging from Brooklyn in the late 80s Gang Starr released the promising "No More Mr. Nice Guy" in '89 which had a number of accomplished cuts but was overall an inconsistent effort. Gang Starr's Hip-Hop monuments came with 91's "Step In the Arena" and 92's "Daily Operation". Yet these releases seemed to operate just under the radar. Even The Source gave both albums a shocking 3.5/5 mics rating, a decision rebuked by Hip-Hop fans of the time and abhorred by Hip-Hop fans of today. Nevertheless it is undeniable that both "Step In the Arena" and "Daily Operation" left the duo's debut in the dust and played a huge role in uplifting Hip-Hop to its golden heights.
Of course I'm not going to try to downplay Premo's role in Gang Starr, namely his production. It was genius. He often infused his rugged and raw beats with jazzy samples and laid down sublime scratches as hooks. He also used vocal snippets to astounding effect. Guru's rhymes were given a towering platform from which to be heard and he came correct.
On "Step in the Arena" and "Daily Operation" Guru holds true to the values of high level lyricism and technical skill set out by Big Daddy Kane and Rakim. As well as this he was clearly inspired by the intelligent, incendiary socio-political messages of Chuck D and KRS-One. His famous monotone maximises the impact of his thoughtful lyrics and gives his raps a distinct and easily recognisable sound.
On the title track of "Step In the Arena" Guru flexes his vocal chords with an awesome battle rap. It is riddled with internal rhyming and using word choice and imagery Guru compares his rap battles to gladiator duels yet somehow he never veers from his tight rhyme structure.
"But now I must bow to the crowd as I stand proud
Victorius, glorious, understand now
Cause battles and wars and much fights I have been through
One MC got beheaded, and you can too
Forget it, cause you'd rather be just a spectator
An onlooker, afraid you may get slayed or
Struck by a blow from a mic gladiator
I betcha that later you might be sad that you played yourself
Cause you stepped up, chest puffed out
And in just one lyric, you got snuffed out."
"Here Today, Gone Tomorrow" is a merciless antidote to wack, one hit-wonder MCs but more than that, it illustrates the way the music industry eats up new jack rappers, reaps the profits and then spits them out without giving them a chance to make a positive, lasting contribution to Hip-Hop. Written over 15 years ago it is even more relevant to Hip-Hop today than it was then.
"Step In the Arena" makes an overall statement about the position of inner-city blacks and the hardships and barriers facing them. However Guru does not dwell on the petty violence and ignorance that plagues the ghettos. He recognises the huge creative and spiritual potential of his peers. In the most powerful socio-political statement on the album "Who's Gonna Take the Weight?" Guru suggests that that potential may be realised through embracing 5% Nation ideology. He calls for awarness, unity and responsibility.
"Still, all of that is just material
So won't you dig the scenario
And just imagine if each one is teachin' one
We'll come together so that we become
A strong force, then we can stay on course
Find your direction through introspection
And for my people out there I got a question
Can we be the sole controllers of our fate?
Now Who's Gonna Take the Weight?"
On Daily Operation Guru explores the trials and tribulations of black inner-city life with more depth on tracks like "Soliloquy of Chaos", "No Shame In My Game" and "The Illest Brother." There are so many quotables on Daily Operation. Guru has his feet in the streets but he never loses sight of the bigger picture. What's more Guru is one of the few who doesn't reserve judgment for criminals and thugs. This is evident in Soliloquy of Chaos. He recounts how a show Gang Starr was set to perform at descended into Chaos after someone is shot. Guru has words for the shooter.
"This can happen often and it's really f**ked up
So I'll ask you to your face homeboy what's up?
Did you come to see my show or the stupid n****r playoffs
Killing you and killing me, it's the Soliloquy of Chaos."
Guru also describes the vicious cycle of violence that affects the ghetto.
"And if you live in the cities where streets reek warfare
People getting nowhere but you go for yours there
You'll find it doesn't pay to front or play the role
You could get stole or maybe beaten with a pole
Then you'll wanna retaliate, regroup and come back
So you set the brothers up for a sneak attack."
He goes on to show the futility of the killings and recognises that outside factors play a part.
"Whether you die or kill them, it's another brother dead
But I know you'll never get that through your head
Cuz you're misled and misfed facts from way off
Killing you and killing me, it's the Soliloquy of Chaos."
Perhaps the most powerful track on the album is Conspiracy in which Guru shrewdly takes to task institustionlised racism. He focuses on America's centralised media.
"And every time there's violence shown in the media
Usually it's a black thing so where are they leading ya?
To a world full of ignorance, hatred and prejudice
TV and the news for years they have fed you this
Foolish notion that blacks are all criminals
Violent low lifes and then even animals
I'm telling the truth so some suckers are fearing me
But I must do my part to combat the conspiracy."
He also indicts the "snakes" who attempt to co-opt and neuter Hip-Hop in order to maximise profits. The snakes being record label executives. Guru's words are startling because, written in 1992, they prophecise the cause of Hip-Hop's subsequent demise.
"Even in this rap game all that glitters ain't gold
Now that rap is big business the snakes got bold
They give you wack contracts and try to make you go pop
Cuz they have no regard for real Hip-Hop."
Guru is often criticised for his montone flow and some feel he lacks charisma. Guru's voice may not be as pleasing to the ear as Biggie's but this is a superficial complaint. Guru's lyrics make that argument completely irrelevant. His scathing battle raps were superb and his complex, thought provoking lyrics that addressed issues surrounding the black community are amongst the best in Hip-Hop. Another critisism of Guru is that he was a mere sidekick to DJ Premier. While it is true Guru needed Premier more than Premier needed him that does not take away from his brilliant lyrics which a lot of people should listen to more closely.
In short Gang Starr was a group of two halfs: a DJ/Producer who set the standard for authentic and creative sampling and scratching (that only an elite few could match) combined with an MC who wrote intelligent, empowering lyrics and also possessed the technical skill to deliver them with clout. Working together, they created Hip-Hop at its purest and best. The duo was firmly planted in the streets from which Hip-Hop was born yet they completely defy the misconception that "street" means bragging about how much crack-cocaine you sell and how many people you've murdered. Leaving a collossal legacy in their wake and a golden example for future Hip-Hop artists, Gang Starr is quite arguably the definitive Hip-Hop group.