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?"
Common, with Gang Starr, Blackalicious and Talib Kweli
6 p.m. Sunday, March
Fillmore Auditorium, 1510 Clarkson Street
"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."
At first, Guru's parents didn't know what to make of their son's interest in a new art form called rap. All they knew at the time was that it made him dress and talk funny.
"They didn't understand it. My mom was always supportive, but my pops didn't like it at all: 'I'm not sending you to college to be doing all of this,'" he says, imitating his father's voice. Now, though, "he's very proud of me, because I'm a self-made man."
As a young rapper, Guru also took the education route and attended the prestigious Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he eventually earned a degree in business administration. Around that time, he formed an early incarnation of Gang Starr with his partners Shug, Damo D Ski and DJ 1 2 B. After graduating from college in 1982, he moved to New York without any financial support from his parents: "I left Boston with $1,500, a duffel bag and a dream," he says.
The dream was deferred until 1986, when Guru got a call from Stu Fine, owner of Wild Pitch Records, a small independent label that would go on to put out records by the Ultramagnetic MCs and the Coup. Guru soon connected with up-and-coming producers Donald D and DJ Mark the 45 King and produced a series of twelve-inches that saw release in 1986 and 1987. Some of these tracks would later appear on Gang Starr's debut, No More Mr. Nice Guy. Soon after, Guru met DJ Premier, who had sent a demo of his group to Wild Pitch while he was still a student at Prairie View A&M in Texas. Fine liked what he heard in Premier's tapes and invited him to New York as an in-house producer. Then known as Waxmaster C, Premier was already a fan of Gang Starr's.
"Premier asked the guy at Wild Pitch about me," says Guru. "I was asking about him at the same time, and I actually stole his demo because of the beats he was doing. It was like that next-level shit. I took the demo, and I would ride the subway and rhyme over the other kid's verse. I kept asking about him, and finally Stu put us together on the phone and we hit it off, and from there we were talking like every other day."
With a rapport and chemistry that were undeniable, the two began to collaborate on what would become No More Mr. Nice Guy.
"We did our first album in like a week and a half because we had so much material. That was when I had two albums in my head and I was just killing 'em. That was the beginning," Guru says. "The first album was before Premier really mastered the art of programming. Step Into the Arena was the real first album and when we really started defining our sound."
Yet even if No More Mr. Nice Guy didn't capture the sleekness of the band's future recordings, it did hint at the creative direction Gang Starr would follow. The album contained the classic "Manifest," one of the first tracks to successfully fuse bebop with hip-hop. That marriage of jazz and hip-hop has remained a theme ever since. Right before the release of Step Into the Arena, Spike Lee enlisted Gang Starr to record the cut "Jazz Thing" with Branford Marsalis, who was in charge of the soundtrack for Lee's movie Mo' Betta Blues.
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"[Lee] wanted us to work with Branford and do a song about the history of jazz," Guru explains. "He heard our first album, and he knew we were from Brooklyn. He was surprised that we knew who Branford was. He didn't think we knew, but we did. We really got along well with Branford. He was really easygoing in the studio, and he let us do what we wanted."
The pair developed a lasting friendship with Marsalis and other Brooklyn artists, including Biggie Smalls, who held court up the road, on Fulton Street. "We used to see Biggie all the time," Guru says. "I had the pleasure of being able to feel his spirit in the beginning."
Not too many artists can boast of working with artists as stylistically divergent as Biggie and Branford. That's one of the things that have made Gang Starr a diverse and unique force in hip-hop culture. And few artists working in rap can rival Guru and Premier's catalogue. With each release, the group has evolved and innovated while staying true to the core ideals of the hip-hop pioneers. And even though some have declared hip-hop to be in a state of emergency, Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal and DJ Premier continue to create classics.
"My flow and my style are timeless," Guru says. "I've got the fountain-of-youth spirit in my rhymes."