Effortlessly cool MC Guru died more than nine years ago, but parts of the just-released seventh Gang Starr album could move a true-school rap fan today. “Word to God, if Big and ‘Pac were still here/Some of these weirdos wouldn’t act so cavalier,” he raps on “Bad Name,” “You used to support your fam off of this/Now you can’t even buy Spam off of this.”
Thus is the magic of the first Gang Starr album in 16 years, constructed from 30 unreleased Guru recordings. The stripped-down, elemental timelessness of Gang Starr’s music – Guru’s jazzy monotone and producer DJ Premier’s staccato punches – make these tracks both retro and current, both a museum piece and a shot in the arm.
On six albums released between 1989 and 2003, Gang Starr were the platonic ideal of rap music, the hip-hop version of rock groups like Aerosmith or ZZ Top. Other groups had bigger hits, more iconic songs, more critically adored albums and bolder presences, but Premo and Guru represented the absolute essence of a genre. Unwavering in their dedication, consistent in their output, virtuosic but never flashy, Gang Star were skilled technicians of all the things hip-hop purists stand for: “boom bap,” “real hip-hop,” “that old New York rap,” cuts, beats, rhymes, life.
However, the 16 years that followed were marked by a labyrinth of legal and interpersonal troubles. Guru died in 2010 at age 48. Rap rewrote its narrative over and over. Gang Starr’s legacy did live on, but mostly in underground artists like Joey Bada$$, Flatbush Zombies, the Griselda Records axis, Your Old Droog, Mayhem Lauren and more. (Though it does warrant a mention that all 13 episodes of Luke Cage Season 1 were named after Gang Starr songs).
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One thing that the narrative overlooks is that DJ Premier never stopped making his intensely funky, Nineties-head comfort food beats. The rap spotlight strayed to Atlanta trap houses and European dance clubs and Chicago streets and Florida internet connections, but Premier spent a decade and a half quietly making bucketloads upon bucketloads of awesome music for Royce Da 5’9″, Blaq Poet, NYGz, Torae & Skyzoo, Bumpy Knuckles, Big Shug and more. It’s a testament to a unique talent that he’s never lost his touch.
So it’s clear that on One of the Best Yet, Guru’s legacy is in the right hands. The results are, naturally, mostly great. There perhaps isn’t enough of the rapper as one would want – many of the songs are short, the album loaded with guests – but there are moments where it feels like one of the most beloved rap groups in history are picking up right where they left off. Making absolutely no concession to modern rap whatsoever, the M.O.P. collab “Lights Out” kicks off with a vintage Funkadelic sample and Billy Danze shouting “Now fuck who ya crew is, fuck what the true is/Gang Starr forever, fuck what the new is.” “Take Flight (Militia 4)” reunites Guru with the hard-head lineup of Big Shug and Bumpy Knuckles from the long-running series of “Militia” posse cuts.
The illusion does get shattered, however. Royce paints a vivid picture about rapping with Guru’s ashes on the mixing board. Ne-Yo is beamed in from a post-Gang Starr generation, and J. Cole sounds especially anachronistic since he’s kicking a very 2019 slightly out-of-the-pocket flow. Though all of these vocal tracks have never been heard before, Guru originally recorded them to different beats, as opposed to a catalog where his flow followed a Premo beat. In turn, some songs fit like a familiar glove (“Bless the Mic”) and others feel a bit off – would Baldhead Slick have been that on top of the beat on “Business or Art”?
Single “Family and Loyalty” is the album’s highlight, Guru rapping over a lush, melancholy Premo beat about keeping his loved ones close. It’s a sad reality that one of rap’s greatest duos had to be reunited like this, but the music speaks for itself.