Music News

Owning Up

So when's that new Gang Starr album gonna drop?

In May, now that you mention it. Hip-hop fans have been waiting impatiently since 1998's gold-selling near-classic Moment of Truth and the 1999 retrospective Full Clip (one of only a few truly essential hip-hop compilations) for rapper Guru and the progressive DJ Premier to reunite on record. In the hip-hop universe, where fans have the memories of gnats and marketing is as crucial as songcraft, five years is an eternity, especially for old-school holdovers like Gang Starr, which erupted from the jazz-sampling movement of the late '80s. Guru wholly acknowledges the challenge.

"It wasn't our plan to take four years between albums," says the rapper, among the most respected MCs in the genre. Blame the politics of the struggling major-label music business, which led to mass executive turnover at Virgin Records and a series of false starts as a result.

Even so, the 38-year-old Guru says that with The Ownerz, the new Gang Starr album due May 6, the duo combats potential irrelevance the old-fashioned way - by competing and flat outshining the kiddies.

"We still have that intensity and that hunger," Guru (born Keith Elam) says from Seattle. "Me and Premier have respect for one another. We change with the times. This is one of the most timely pieces of work we've ever done, because of the climate of what's going on in the world. Our music is serious. It's not really some happy-dappy type of music."

Obviously, the rapper's referring to the potential Iraq conflict and the consequences of "regime change." But closer to home, Guru says, the increasingly chaotic, Darwinian nature of hip-hop, where even unsigned rappers get shot and neighborhood jealousies boil over in the stupidest of ways, has put him and everyone else on notice.

"When I was coming up in Boston, those streets were rough," he says. "Those streets prepared [me] for the New York streets. But the industry itself is even iller."

How else to explain what happened to Run-D.M.C. DJ Jam Master Jay, whose head was blown off last fall during an apparent petty beef.

"Who the fuck has the nerve to kill Jam Master Jay?" Guru says. "Does this guy get respect amongst killers? He shouldn't. The shit is fucked up."

The duo addresses hip-hop's growing artistic and moral bankruptcy repeatedly on The Ownerz on cuts like "All My Life," which features a guest shoutout to Jam Master Jay from Snoop Dogg -- poignant when you consider Snoop was caught up in that whole East Coast-West Coast murder game of the mid-90s.

Elsewhere, Guru claims his turf as a serious rapper, a defender of the hip-hop elements and the music's integrity. On "Right Where You Stand," a duet with Jadakiss of the LOX, he gives props to "Rakim, LL, Ice-T and them niggas" for surviving their careers without compromising.

If that makes him sound more like a wise old uncle than one bad mother, he's earned the right. As Guru rightly points out, Gang Starr is the only group of its era that either hasn't broken up (A Tribe Called Quest, 3rd Bass) or gotten so musically stodgy (Public Enemy) as to short-circuit itself. A large part of that credit goes to Premier, who along with RZA, Dr. Dre and Marley Marl stands as an all-time great. From his agile scratching to his textured, bangin' drum programming to his ability to fuck with horn, guitar and keyboard samples to the point of non-recognition, Premier's sound is at once instantly identifiable and unprecedented.

Over the years, Premier has become a superstar beatmaker, manufacturing classics for the Notorious B.I.G., M.O.P., Jay-Z and many, many others - another reason for the long layoff. While Premier spends his time spreading like wildfire in New York studios ("I'm proud of that, too, because they're buying into the Gang Starr sound," Guru says), the rapper concentrates on promoting young New York rappers and crafting side projects like Jazzmatazz, which invites legitimate jazz players and soul singers in for a hip-hop amalgam.

"It's always the most intense to come back home to Gang Starr," Guru says. "We just give each other a little space to do other projects."

He says the two stuck to their usual process. Someone comes up with a song title, Premier retreats and cooks up a challenging, wacked-out beat and Guru takes the beat, locks himself in a room and writes stream-of-consciousness. In other words, they play a never-ending game of "Top this!" "I call it my fountain of youth flow. That's my shit!" Guru jokes.

Ultimately, with props that pour in non-stop from the Ja Rules and Jay-Zs and a cult status as giants among the headiest of the heads, about the only thing Gang Starr has yet to top is the charts. While Hard to Earn topped the 500,000 sales mark, it is the best-selling group album to date, leaving the duo somewhat bitter that they have to keep pimping themselves individually just to make a comfortable living and be left in the radio lurch.

Who's to say, though, with Premier's sound a fingerprint and Guru's insider presence so solid, that they can't find commercial riches, even at this late stage?

"What those idiots at my label don't understand is that [superstar rappers] say to me and Premier, We love you guys!," Guru says. "They think we deserve a shot. The set-up isn't right."

"But we're still in the game," he says moments later. "Our music is relevant. We've never been on a rap label or hip-hop label. We signed to a major [label] and got jerked."

"I get some feelings of jealousy. I can't front."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Christopher O'Connor