Hall of Records

Gang Starr: Mass Appeal: The Best of Gang Starr

by Michael Tatum

Released: December 26, 2006 (Virgin/EMI)

Back when Big Bank Hank was toiling in a pizza parlor tossing dough and figuring out what to do with his oceanography degree -- only to be snatched up by Sugar Hill impresario Sylvia Robinson to be exploited for "Rapper's Delight" -- hip hop aspired to the big time. Like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, and the other pioneers of early rock and roll, the early rappers were interested in reaching teenagers by any means necessary, not fretting too much about the "purity" of the music so long as they burned up the charts. But by the early '90s, with the ascent of fatuous pretenders like Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer on one hand, ambitious Daisy Agers like De La Soul and Tribe on the other, and KRS-1 stopping the violence excepting when applying it to the pudgy mug of P.M. Dawn's moony Prince Be, crossover was a very dirty word indeed. Consider the beginning of the video for EPMD's song of the same name (and, surprise surprise, their biggest hit): stereotypical fat cat record exec, siphoned directly from Central Casting, burgundy tie flopping over his corpulent belly even as he leans forward in his swivel chair: "You want to live comfortable like me? You've gotta open up to a wider audience!" His na´ve charge, facing him on the other side of his desk, baseball cap turned backward, protests: "But I don't wanna change the way I look and sound!" The exec shakes his head, his (unlit) prop cigar accentuating his point: "Trust me, kid: when I get through with you, your name will be on a platinum record right there on my wall!"

Gang Starr weren't averse to platinum records, but they steadfastly wanted to do it their way, catering to hip hop aesthetes rather engaging in outreach, one of the main reasons they've never fully been embraced by the generalists-not-specialists who curate pop music history. Their first single, the cocky statement of principle "Manifest," didn't rely on white rock and roll sources to come on tough in the manner of the commercially dominant Def Jam stable -- an acolyte of the legendary Marley Marl, DJ Premier instead incorporated elements from black artists: Big Daddy Kane's "Word to the Mother (Land)," James Brown's "Bring it Up (Hipster's Avenue)," Joe Tex's "Papa Was Too," and Charlie Parker and Miles Davis' "Night in Tunisia" (well, the Big Daddy Kane track bit the '70s disco project Le Pamplemousse, commandeered by two white producers, but we'll let that do the Electric Slide). With Guru, Gang Starr's MC-ing other half, maneuvering stealthily between the grooves, the resulting beat was as terse as it was lean and economical -- impressive even today, especially given that Premier was still working with primitive sampling technology, and had to address each musical element piecemeal, integrating each ingratiating component into a seamless flow. Though the debut album to which that song was attached failed to arouse the cognoscenti, the four album run they inaugurated with 1990's Step into the Arena, continuing through 1992's Daily Operation, 1994's Hard to Earn, and 1998's Moment of Truth, are considered touchstones by those who live and breathe the genre. But for the generalist-not-specialist who wants the cream, the well-named Mass Appeal: the Best of Gang Starr, released by Virgin with little fanfare the day after Christmas 2006, is a boon -- like A Tribe Called Quest's masterful Anthology, it enables outsiders to hear what gets the insiders gushing superlatives, by astutely culling keepers, skipping strict chronology, and crafting a compelling setlist that moves like one thing. It's not only an improvement on their discography, it's an improvement on the more sprawling, less focused two-disc, thirty-track Full Clip: A Decade of Gang Starr, itself a revelation in 1999 (playlist hounds should note there are only fourteen repeats between the two compilations, with the great "You Know My Steez" one of the casualties).

Don't however, enter the premises expecting anything on the order of barnburners like "Scenario" or forthright winners like "Award Tour" -- that's not how these Brooklyn transplants roll. For quiet as its kept -- Guru, born Keith Elam, passed away of cancer in 2010 -- no crew extant relied less on lyrical prowess. Oh, Guru certainly had verbal dexterity, which he sums up in the killer "Skills," literally and stylistically, thusly: "Top rank, point blank, we vital (skills)/Spit flows, rip shows, peep the recital (skills)/Now you feel it when we drop those (skills)/Hot beats, stop foes, killing shit we got those (skills)." Knotty internal rhymes abound, and he's also got a penchant for enjambment -- like many improvising battle rappers, he's memorized so many pairs of rhyming words you know he's already thinking ahead as to how much assonance he can squeeze into one phrase before the meter runs out. But operating in the persona of a street-wise philosopher who has no use for thuggery, in terms of lyrical subjects he's strictly a meat and potatoes man, full of the boasting and bragging that is every battle rapper's mainstay, as you might ascertain scanning the titles: "Step Into the Arena," "Put Up Or Shut Up," "Check the Technique." What's more -- and this is one of the main stumbling blocks to accessing Gang Starr's albums proper -- he's the least melodic rapper on the planet (one of his nicknames is "the King of Monotone"). Any time a B-level guest star makes a cameo (Inspectah Deck? Krumbsnatcha? Freddie Foxxx?) it's a reason to rejoice, offering a welcome contrast to Guru's dry, laid-back baritone, as is any time Premier sneaks in some help into the peanut gallery (Queen Latifah calling out: "This mic in my hand, I'm rulin'!"), hence why the "hits" laid back to back have more jam than the original albums. And because the format captures the duo at its highest, it gives you a unique opportunity to appreciate the way Guru makes up for what he lacks in drama and timbre by carefully honing his rhythmic attack, often accentuating key words by nailing them on the off-beat. Twenty odd years ago, I raised my eyebrow when an admirer swooned over Guru's "jazz-like" sensibility, but listening closely with distinct pleasure over the last month I suspect this may be what he meant.

But as anyone who ever had the misfortune of exploring Guru's deathly dull, literal-minded Jazzmatazz side projects knows, the reason Guru's dry delivery in the end inhabits so much spritely musicality despite its shortcomings is that Premier, born Christopher Edward Martin in Houston, Texas, complements his style as no other production style could -- I mean, did Jeru the Damaja, Group Home, or any the other artists in his stable sound this hot? Often mentioned in the uppermost percentile in the most thoughtful lists of greatest hip hop producers, Premier was a staunchly proud minimalist in an era that either crammed as many bits of information into one space, or lazily turned a familiar hit song into a yammering backdrop. Premier's trademark is to take the minutest, discrete bits of crate-dug rarities -- a bass part here, a drum pattern there, a stray bit of an ascending horn line -- and weld them together so each part fits the subtly-orchestrated whole, rather than erecting a monolithic slab that functions as the "hook." In this respect, he's as thoughtful an accompanist as an intuitive pianist, albeit one with a broader palette: the triumphant "DWYCK," which closes out Mass Appeal's proper eighteen-track sequence before giving up to two bonus tracks that don't detract a whit, incorporates the bass line from Clarence and the Enforcers' "Hey Jude," the drums from Melvin Bliss' 1973 disco obscurity "Synthetic Substitution," and nicked vocals from Thunder and Lightning, Redd Foxx, in-the-flesh guest stars Nice and Smooth (twice), and...Gang Starr themselves. That brings me to Premier's other gift, his ingeniously well-timed scratching, which provides deft side commentary whether he moves the vinyl back and forth (check out "Take it Personal") or lets the needle ride (listen to the way he manipulates Da Youngstas in "Mass Appeal") -- there's a reason the dying breed of hip hop turntablists worships at the man's altar.

Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson notes in his recent memoir that the Roots are the last of the hip hop bands, that after the advent of Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys and Run-DMC the music became dominated by solo acts. Where now lone ranging rappers depend on the auspices of a producer-helpmate to bring in loops and beats, you no longer see posses that function as a symbiotic self-contained unit of MCs plus DJ. Something may have been gained -- the wealth of tools and trickery at a producer's disposal is far vaster now than it was even ten years ago, when Gang Starr recorded their swansong The Ownerz -- but the partnership of Premier and Guru are so perfectly tailored to each other's respective voices it makes me wonder what's been lost. Aesthetes have been celebrating it for years. Be thankful there are records like these to enable those of us admiring from the sidelines to hear it for ourselves.

June 13, 2014, Odyshape