The 2010 death of Guru, the rapper who created indelible tracks like “DWYCK” and “Mass Appeal” as half of pioneering 1990s hip-hop group Gang Starr, seemed to both cement and finalize the group’s legacy. The group hadn’t released an album since 2003’s The Ownerz and, in subsequent years, saw a falling out between Guru and his producer, the long-revered DJ Premier, over everything from ego to the rapper’s problems with alcohol.
Still, Guru remained prolific in the years following The Ownerz. “He was always known to record all the time,” DJ Premier tells Rolling Stone. “So that’s what made me start going, ‘Man I know there’s got to be a lot of unreleased stuff that exists.’”
Those unreleased vocals form the bedrock of One of the Best Yet, Gang Starr’s recently released first album in 16 years, which also features appearances from Q-Tip, Talib Kweli, J. Cole, M.O.P., and Royce Da 5’9″, among others. Premier’s ownership of Guru’s vocal tracks comes after a years-long battle with John Mosher, a producer known as DJ Solar who befriended Guru in 2001 and battled with the rapper’s family in court over unreleased material following his death. (In 2014, a judge ruled against Mosher, allowing Guru’s family to control Guru’s estate.)
In 2016, Mosher sold 30 unreleased Guru vocal tracks to Premier for an undisclosed sum, laying the groundwork for One of the Best Yet. The album sounds like a time capsule: a record that could’ve been released immediately after the Ownerz or any subsequent year. It’s a new gift for fans of Premier’s boom-bap production that dominated the sample-heavy, New York-centric strain of hip-hop that peaked in the mid-to-late 1990s.
For the past 18 months, Premier has been crafting beats in his Queens, New York, studio with Guru’s ashes sitting 24 hours a day on the recording console. (“We got the actual ashes of Guru on the boards,” Royce da 5’9″ rhymes on One of the Best Yet track “What’s Real.” “He’s sitting right inside an urn in the session/Lookin’ down from heaven at Gang Starr’s current progression.”)
“They’re all brand new,” he says. “I didn’t have beats sitting outside that I matched to his vocals. I wouldn’t want to do that.” The superproducer spoke to Rolling Stone about his long, circuitous road to finishing the album.
It still sounds odd, in a good way, to hear about a “new” Gang Starr album in 2019.
Oh, man. That was one of the best things I ever heard or say to people because I know the impact that Guru and I had on the world. And I’ve always – just as a fan myself — have wanted another Gang Starr album to exist just because I know our process and what we had as far as the unreleased material.
But it’s also mainly for his son, who he loved a lot. You always hear about the family that left money behind and riches for the children to live off of. And the first thing that crossed my mind once he was gone was, “Damn, man, we got to make sure his son is straight.” And I didn’t care if [Guru] and I hadn’t spoken in a long time. I feel like we spoke when I went to the hospital. Even though he was in a coma, I know he heard me.
Did you feel a personal responsibility to take care of his family?
Absolutely. It’s the right thing to do. I’ve been doing it for family members [of other rappers] and [I did] the same thing when it came to Guru. Through this group, I had a very successful life and my career continues to ride. The way [Guru] died was really fucked up and tragic. I got to witness him in the hospital not awake. I went to court a few times and my attorney proved that all the copyrights were still in existence and our contract was still active. [Guru’s] wish that was supposed to be carried out was, “Make sure my son gets all the stuff and that he’s the heir to my legacy.” That should be the first and foremost thing that should’ve happened and no one has done that but me and my team.
You performed a sage-burning ritual every day in the studio with Guru’s ashes. What did that entail and why was that important to you?
I’m a very spiritual guy. I believe in karma; what you do will come back. The majority of my life is spent doing nothing but godly things, especially when it comes to dealing with other people. My intentions were to make sure that the blessings come from not only Guru’s spirit, but just from the godly energy that I put out every day. I just said, “I’m going to take some sage being that it is known to ward off evil energy.”
Once we got the vocals, the first thing I needed to do is bless the room. So I took out his ashes and I did a clockwise circle around the ashes where the smoke billows around it three times. Then I do it counter-clockwise three times. Then I do top to bottom and side to side three times. Then I kiss the bag [containing Guru’s ashes]. Then I let the smoke from some incense billow all around the [ashes] until it’s engulfed in smoke and I feel that’s Guru taking all the energy in to give back to us. Then I put the bag against the [Gang Starr] picture that I have on the console and I let the smoke billow in front of his face and my face, but I hold the bag to the frame so that it’s actually touching it.
And then I just say, “Keep that bad shit away from us.” Then I do clockwise around the picture, counter-clockwise around the picture, and then I billow the smoke one more time, kiss it and put it back in the bag. That’s my everyday. It takes five minutes; I do it the same every time.
Without the interplay between you and Guru in the studio, how different was it putting this album together versus past Gang Starr works? Did you try to emulate your process in the past, or did you purposely go about it in a new way?
No, I totally emulated it, like the same way we always did it: 100 percent. I go in with that attitude that he’s in the room and that we’re doing it the way that we’ve always done our formula. The only difference this time is he always wrote to my tracks; this time, I had to write to his vocals. The formula never changed and it always worked for us. So I wanted that same approach to happen with this process.
“The first time I heard [Guru’s vocals] … I was getting goosebumps and my hairs were standing up.”
What was your initial reaction to hearing that his unreleased vocals existed?
Once I knew these are vocals that no one out there, including myself, was familiar with, my brain was already like, “Wooooo, man, if I can get my hands on this …” This was a hope, a wish and a dream. [Some fans suggested] taking some of the old songs and reworking them just so we can have something new. And it’s like, no, I’m not doing that because I’m just not with that shit. I wanted it to be where it’s like, “I ain’t never heard these rhymes before.” All the posthumous projects people have put out sound salvaged. I didn’t want it to sound like a salvaged album; I wanted it to sound like a brand-new album. I didn’t want it to sound like I’m just fighting to save these vocals just because there’s nothing else out there that I can work with.
Emotionally, what was it like the first time you heard the vocals?
The first time I heard them, I sat with a lawyer present to make sure they weren’t lyrics that I had heard before. Cause if they were, I already was like, “It’s not what I want.” It had to be a new Gang Starr album. I needed to know that this shit really has hooks and verses before I invest in purchasing all of this stuff. I was getting goosebumps and my hairs were standing up. The first song I did was [album track] “Bless the Mic,” and I was so nervous. I kept hesitating like, “Man, I’m not ready to do this shit.” It was almost scary for me, but in a good way. Once I [had a few songs], I was ready to go full throttle.
Can you talk about the first time you spoke to Solar about this project?
Naw, we never did. Everything went through my management and my lawyer. The last time we talked was 2004.
“It took a lot of spirituality to keep me calm and focused on this shit happening.”
You used the heavily loaded word “ransom” in a recent interview to describe paying for the vocals. You only hear that word in kidnappings or hijackings.
100 percent. That’s definitely right. That’s what it felt like just to finally close on getting them. I know how much value it is in giving this to the fans, and I know the fans want me to do it. I came to rescue [his vocals]. We were going to call the album The Rescue, but I was like, “Nah, I don’t need to throw no jabs. Everybody know how real I keep it.” For all the ones that hate me, it’s because they can’t get my love because they’re full of shit.
My main focus was the excitement as a fan even though I’m in the group. Also the fans getting another album that’s produced by me because that’s what they want and that’s what they deserve. And then thirdly is that his son eats off of this because he was nine years old [when Guru died].
DJ Solar claimed the songs were stolen from him. What’s your response to that?
Hilarious [laughs]. You can’t get away with stuff like that when you’re on the level that I am. My name is too big to even get away with something of that magnitude without being in trouble. Maybe if I was an unknown guy that no one knew and I did all this shit you can’t really find because I’m under the radar. Maybe. But not when you’re DJ Premier. How in the hell can I do that and get away with it? There’s no possible fucking way.
Does it concern you when he says he plans to take legal action unless his name is added to the album’s credits?
No. Do whatever you want. We did everything by the book. All the paperwork’s legit. We’re not thieves. We don’t have a history of doing [shady] shit to anyone. So do whatever you want to do. We’re not here to fucking railroad anybody. We’re here to make sure everything is legitimately sealed to make sure that the fans get their part, the family get their part. And at the end of the day, what was fairly done was fairly done.
So it’s fair to say there’ll be no names added to the credits.
Oh, hell yes. You’re correct.
Are you worried that the dispute with Solar will overshadow the music?
Never. The fans have their own conclusions on how they feel and the fans were not happy ever with all the stuff that was going on prior to [Guru’s] passing.
Have you thought about how you may present the new material live? Would you ever consider a hologram?
I would never, ever do a hologram. It’s too blasphemous. We have over 700 hours of [live] footage from 1989 all the way up to 2004. Since we have so much live footage, now you have devices where we can strip down the music and just have his vocals present and sync him to playing live with my band or my turntables and it’ll be his own voice and you get to watch him move. We just tested it out a little bit, but we need to perfect it.
How would you sum up the last three years in three words?
Emotional. Exciting. Spiritual. It took a lot of spirituality to keep me calm and focused on this shit happening. I knew how much it was going to take of my soul to make this thing really sound like what is expected of a Gang Starr album.
Does this album bring you any closure?
Yeah, the closure for me is to get an album out after all this bullshit that makes everybody ignore anything in the past of his final days of living physically. I knew it would come. I felt it.