Poetic Justice, a 1993 film depicting urban poetry and peril, could serve as a metaphor for the current plight of the hip-hop music genre. Behind an attractive facade (Janet Jackson and the late Tupac Shakur) is a story overwrought with drama, gunplay and no sense of direction.
Hip-hop today is more about the video and less about the vernacular, but if the genre had a league of superheroes to save it from destroying itself, the dynamic duo known as Gang Starr would be leading the coalition. Beats and rhymes, the very intrinsic qualities of hip-hop, are embodied in the teamwork of DJ/producer Premier and rapper GURU (Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal).
For 10 years, the two have practiced and packaged the code of the streets. GURU's unique voice has a monotone quality that conveys a certain seriousness, while Premier's primary expression is through vocal cuts and scratches. To listen to Gang Starr is to listen to precision, rhyming and timing and knowledge. (Premier has also produced beats for rappers such as Nas, Jeru the Damaja, KRS-ONE, and the late Biggie Smalls). Currently, the pair have a spot on this year's megamike tour, Smokin' Grooves, and their new album is rapidly approaching platinum.
But street knowledge, intellect and spirituality are Gang Starr priorities, and, of course, these qualities don't add up to fame and fortune. The pair's five-album catalogue is like a road map for a hip-hop highway that they've continued on steadily, too busy and driven to notice Billboards or rest stops. Along that road, a lot of other groups have whizzed past them, but many of them have ended up on the side of the road, broken down or out of gas.
Gang Starr's latest joint, Moment of Truth, is a mind-expanding collection, packed full of THC (tight, hype cuts). The 18-song disc is their best since 1992's classic, Daily Operation, and it definitely lets heads know how they feel about the rap game. The first cut, "You Know My Steez," announces that the real hip-hop is here. GURU raps, "I can't get caught up in the hype, I keep my soul tight," over choppy octave-guitar riff samples and a Brooklyn cadence. The message is clear: All those traveling with commercial baggage should be checked.
Lyrically and musically, Truth hits everybody willing to listen. There's "Royalty" for radioheads, "The Militia" for hardheads and a didactic duet called "Betrayal" for the knuckleheads. With all of Premier's neck-snapping beats, a chiropractor's phone number should have been included in the CD's packaging.
GURU recently took a few minutes out from Smokin' Grooves to discuss the state of hip-hop and just why Gang Starr has got to be the sure shot.
New Times: What's your take on what's happening to hip-hop today?
GURU: I think there's a lot of people that are influenced by the mainstream concepts and commercialism. There needs to be more different types of hip-hop to be played on the radio so that people don't think that there's only one idea of what it's about. There's a lot of dope stuff that gets missed. It's been that way for a while.
NT: Do you find some things about the genre to be pretentious?
G: Yeah, the way everybody is dangling on this gold and platinum thing--it's only because everybody says it in their records now. And everybody's trying to be something they're not. If you can't afford to dress jiggy, then why dress jiggy? What, you're gonna work all week just so you can dress jiggy? I don't get it.
It's like there is no knowledge of self--it's like people are brainwashed. We can't let that happen; that's why there has to be more conscious forms of rap that are available as well. I could talk about guns and sex, but I do it in a different way that will elevate your mind. That's why I did that joint "Betrayal" with Scarface, 'cause I've always looked at Scarface as more than a gangster rapper. He always has a message in his shit.
NT: Everything cycles, though. Do you see some positive backlash?
G: Now it's coming back to more original beats and rhymes a little bit. It's not just about New York and L.A., either. It's about wherever you're from as long as you've got some tight stuff. A lot of guys are coming out and selling 150,000 records in their own areas and getting really fat deals, and end up having much more control over their careers than artists who are getting signed to majors. It's like it's wide open for a lot of things. It should be the heads that decide how things are gonna be--not some stuffed shirt in the industry.
NT: What do you think of the media coverage of hip-hop in terms of all the reported negativity?
G: Once people find some news, they want to print it, and sometimes it's even the people that are supposed to be down for the cause. It's not just Kurt Loder or whoever; it could be VIBE magazine.
NT: What about the artists that perpetuate that negativity?
G: Well, there's definitely some cats out there doing that, but then again, you know, for MCs, shit is dangerous anyway 'cause we've already lost Biggie and Tupac, and people don't realize that. New York to me is one of the most dangerous places in the world to live. You got motherfuckers running around trying to rob rappers just to get a rep. What we go through and what we gotta do to protect ourselves is real. You'd be surprised at how much shit goes on that's not in the news. People getting robbed and people running up in your house, you know.
There's two sides to it: One side is, yeah, we've gotta be conscious of how we conduct ourselves in public and realize we're role models, but the other side is that this is still survival--this is not an easy game to play. I mean, they're not robbing basketball players, and they have more money. It's because rap is connected to the street.
NT: Do you think that a large part of society doesn't realize that it would be worse if there were no hip-hop?
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G: Yeah, I think that the music is a healing force and without it the world would be in chaos, and especially in these large cities because this is our voice and if we don't have a voice in these urban environments about what goes on, there's gonna be mad chaos. The educational systems have failed. When somebody that sits on the bench of a sports team makes four or five times more than someone that teaches a kid in an urban school, you know something's wrong. The people that are creative enough to reach these kids aren't teaching. You can't make a living in New York off that teaching salary. That's why the kids don't wanna stay in school--there's nothing there for them, and then they fall into that vicious cycle. We didn't ask for crack and guns and liquor stores on every corner--we didn't ask for that in our community. But they wanna blame us for all of that? That's crap! But at the same time, we can't sit and blame society anymore, either. We have to know this is going on and educate ourselves.
NT: What up-and-coming MCs do you like?
G: Noriega, DMX, Big Punisher, Jayo Felony, Camron--to name a few.
NT: Are you enjoying this lyrical Lollapalooza you're on?
G: Yeah, and the show is dope. The thing with us is that there's no gimmicks, no frills. You're not gonna see anything fancy--just straight up, raw hip-hop--but you can feel it. It's been a blast so far; we gotta go across the country and do 40 more shows. Cypress has been doing this for a few years, and I see why they're successful with it. It starts early, there's heavy security, and the groups are all professional. Everybody gets along.
Gang Starr is scheduled to perform with the Smokin' Grooves tour on Wednesday, August 12, at America West Arena, with Public Enemy, Cypress Hill, Wyclef Jean, Canibus, Busta Rhymes, and Black Eyed Peas. Call for showtime.