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It's been five years since Gang Starr released a new album -- practically an ice age in hip-hop. Guru and DJ Premier know a lot has changed, but if they're worried, they're not letting on: They no longer have to step into the battle arena to earn their rep, because they own the damn venue. And like a disgruntled landlord who's seen too many tenants disrespect the premises, the group has come back to clean house.
"Certain people in the industry are renting and leasing hip-hop, and they've got to give their share back," Guru says. "We own our share, and we've been owning our share, and we're not going anywhere."
The Ownerz, Gang Starr's new record, suggests that the duo hasn't strayed from the hip-hop foundation it began building in the '80s. One of the original "conscious" MCs in rap, Guru - which stands for Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal --has always been revered as a lyricist with depth, and that quality is again abundant on The Ownerz. Tracks like "Sabotage," which chronicles the life of a teenage dope dealer coming of age in Guru's home town of Boston during the crack epidemic in the '80s, recall the storytelling style of classics like "Just to Get a Rep." On "Deadly Habits," Guru juxtaposes the personal and the political: "They will never know/What this stress is like/And why I'm on point, ready to fight.../America, your deadly habits got us all in the mix/War without, war within, holy war, mortal sin/Tell me, what's the origin?"
"One of my traits as an MC that people respect is that I can take a personal experience and really put it in a lyrical format that relates to anybody," Guru says. "'Deadly Habits' starts with some of my personal experiences and then it goes to talking about industry people to talking about America."
Far from presenting a Gang Starr mellowed with age, The Ownerz exudes the energy and versatility that have won the pair a wide cross-section of fans. With Premier's trademark urban, street-jazz production complementing Guru's bebop, B-boy rhyme flows, the album offers a little bit of something for everyone -- from those who like to chill with some Coltrane to others who thug out to 50 Cent. On "Capture," the group re-enlists old friends Big Shug and Freddie "Bumpy Knuckles" Foxxx to represent the militia; Snoop Dogg comes along for a ride through the blocks on "In This Life," which questions why we build more prisons than schools.
"It's not the typical Snoop Dogg track where he's partying or braggadocio," Guru explains. "It's a commentary on what's going on in the world. It's got an only-the-strong-survive type of theme. Me and Premier call [The Ownerz] struggle music, because it's not a happy album. It's not what we like to call 'Tinkerbell rap.'"
Struggle is something Gang Starr knows something about. The group has worked to cement its standing in the rap world and earned a reputation as a grandfather of the genre. But it took a while for Guru and Premier to reap any dividends. In terms of record sales, Gang Starr is an anomaly: Most successful rap artists have one or two big records -- usually their debut and sophomore releases -- then watch as their careers steadily decline. Audiences' tastes change; record labels move on. Gang Starr's ascension has been more slow and steady. The group didn't earn its first gold certification until the release of its fifth record, Moment of Truth, in 1998. Full Clip: A Decade of Gangstarr (1989-1999), a stellar compilation that followed in 1999, also went gold.
Why did it take the public a decade to catch on to what these cats were doing? For starters, the two have never followed trends and have never strayed too far from their ideals.
"If I'm not doing rhymes about sex, drugs and money, then maybe I won't sell as much as someone who is, but I'm committed to having a purpose and a message in the music without preaching," Guru says. "That's what Guru and Gang Starr really represent.
"We always have had that inequality about popularity versus sales, and that has always been frustrating," he continues. "But instead of quitting, we kind of used that frustration and put it back through creative means. With this album, we've been in the marketing meetings, we've been in the promo meetings, basically making our demands about what needs to happen."
The rapper's upbringing has something to do with his strict values. Born Keith Elam, he grew up in the Roxbury section of Boston, the son of parents well known in their community. His mother worked as a librarian and helped introduce him to the power of the written word. His father was a lawyer who became a judge. "He was voted by the community to be one of the first black judges in Boston," Guru says. "He was that guy in the community with the law office on Martin Luther King Boulevard, in the hood, and everybody knew him. He was the guy with the white gloves counting the money with the Reverend."