Infusing conscious lyrics with a beat-making jazzy sound, Guru and DJ Premier were arguably the best MC-DJ unit of the ’90s. Mr Thing picks out 10 classic and 10 lesser known Gang Starr tracks that are essential to any hip-hop collection.
Words: Mr Thing
Where do I start with Gang Starr? They’ve been a huge part of my musical landscape since I heard the “Words I Manifest Remix” on the radio, one night back in ’89 / ’90. The combination of Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal and DJ Premier is one that’s pretty much untouchable for me as the ultimate MC/DJ group, together they’ve made a lot of mine and other fans favourite hip-hop records of all time.
They never went with current music trends and instead stayed a step ahead of everyone else with Premier’s amazing ear for samples and great choice of complimentary guest artists on songs. Everything on the songs felt like a natural fit, and Guru was never afraid to touch on subjects like guns & conspiracies but would be just as comfortable rhyming about relationships and everyday life.
There’s such a solid catalogue to draw from that it was really tough to pick just 10 classics and 10 lesser known (single B-Sides, songs done for soundtracks or even unreleased songs), but these are the ones that have stuck with me the most. So here goes!
Listen to our essential Gang Starr playlist and scroll down to explore the records individually:
Gang Starr “Words I Manifest (Special Remix)” from Words I Manifest (Wild Pitch, 1989)
The LP version is really good (from the No More Mr. Nice Guy album, done with other producers such as the 45 King), but this remix was the one. The drums are totally different, whole lot of other music up in the mix, just a great, great record that I still play out to this day!
Gang Starr “Just To Get A Rep” from Step In The Arena (Chrysalis, 1990)
First single from the Step In The Arena LP saw a change of labels and a whole new sound. The Nice & Smooth sample for the hook is perfect (“Stick up kids is out to tax!”), plus musically and lyrically this is totally different, Premier using a now famous French electronics break for Guru’s scary tales of street life.
Gang Starr “Mass Appeal” from Hard To Earn (Chrysalis, 1994)
Big first single from the Hard To Earn LP, it’s deceptively simple, a hypnotic one bar jazz loop and a bare drum pattern, with a scratched chorus courtesy of Da Youngsta’s and Guru. That’s it. Still an incredible record, stripped down to basics but an absolute banger!
“Dwyck (Featuring Nice & Smooth)” from Take It Personal
I did read recently what “DWYCK” actually meant, but it was still pretty confusing. No matter, B-Side wins again for the flip of Take It Personal, first single from Daily Operation and one of the best posse cuts records ever, Nice & Smooth and Gang Starr a great fit together on this one!
“Full Clip” from Full Clip
Lead single for their best of album of the same name, this is still a party starter and probably the most well known song of theirs. The “Big L Rest In Peace” intro is always a DJ favourite, my own double copies of this are pretty worn out!
“Above The Clouds (Featuring Inspectah)” from Moment Of Truth
(Noo Trybe, 1998)
This is another great combination. Inspectah Deck from the Wu-Tang Clan delivers a classic verse which fits perfectly on this LP cut from Moment Of Truth. Apparently this was made on the spot for Deck, the sample choice and the way its put together is a great example of Premier’s ear for the unusual.
“You Know My Steez” from Moment Of Truth
(Noo Trybe, 1998)
The first single from Moment Of Truth was a huge hit, again a different sound and as Guru says on the intro to the album “we always update our formulas”. It’s very stripped down again, but the choice of cuts for the hook and the music/drums make it stand out, another amazing piece of sample work!
“Ex Girl To Next Girl” from Ex Girl To Next Girl
Probably a bit of a controversial choice, but musically this is a personal favourite of mine and shows a lighter side to Gang Starr. Also has possibly the catchiest scratching ever on a record, the way the cuts are put together for the hook are brilliant. Fun fact – the record used for this is the same as for the last beat on “Speak Ya Clout”, but a different part.
“Jazz Thing” From Mo’ Better Blues
Done for Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues soundtrack, this was a landmark record. Talking about jazz’s place in musical history and all the great jazz musicians, this was a big song that got them a lot of fans from perhaps people who wouldn’t have listened to hip-hop like this, amazing stuff.
“Moment Of Truth” from Moment Of Truth
(Noo Trybe, 1998)
It’s impossible to pick a favourite from this LP, but since Guru sadly passed away on April 19th, 2010, the lyrics in this song have a huge emotional meaning now. Listening back to it now is whole different experience for me.
“DJ Premier In Deep Concentration” from No More Mr. Nice Guy
(Wild Pitch, 1989)
There’s no way I could do an essential Gang Starr roundup without this one. When I got the tape of the No More Mr Nice Guy album, I rewound this so much to catch it all, take it all in. One of the best DJ tracks ever, it slowed the tempo down and made you realise that scratching didn’t need to be aggressive, and could be musical.