thinking about ... gangstarr
by Dave Heaton
Last summer, two events reminded me of the greatness that is Gangstarr...
DJ Babu of the World Famous Beat Junkies spins records to a crowd of appreciative hip-hop fans in Lawrence, Kansas. People watch attentively, dancing here and there, nodding their heads. In the middle of the club, people watch an intense group of breakdancers, dressed in black, doing their thing. Babu has been mixing up a variety of hip-hop tracks, some hits, some not, in a fast, furious manner, quickly jumping from track to track. About halfway through his set, he drops the instrumental start of Gangstarr's "Code of the Streets," and just lets it flow. If you haven't heard it before, it's amazing, a complex sonic picture built from four simple parts: four notes moving down a keyboard, another ghostly rising synthesizer part of a few notes, a repeating bass line of a few notes, and the beat. The first three repeat over and over, occasionally dropping in and out. It's a beautiful thing. Anyway, DJ Babu keeps this going for about 10 minutes without touching it, and the crowd is just in awe. I feel this silence in the air, like everyone is just stopping to give their respect to Gangstarr. It was amazing: where before some people were paying attention and some weren't, now it seemed like everyone was pretty much giving their full attention, to Babu and to Gangstarr. Babu, who has been cutting and mixing left and right the whole set, hardly interrupts the Gangstarr track at all. He just keeps repeating that instrumental break, over and over. The only interruption is when he throws into the mix the audience chant from the beginning of Gangstarr's "Full Clip," a tribute to recently passed MC Big L., and briefly gets the Lawrence audience to chant along ("Big L, rest in peace, Big L, rest in peace") The cheers after this section of his set are louder than any other until the end.
Gangstarr released Full Clip, a two-CD career retrospective that is one of the best collections of previously released material that I've ever heard, in any genre of music. Usually I'm down on "greatest hits" releases; they take songs out of their original context and, in general, give lazy fans a limited understanding of what a group's about. People think the "hits" are all they need, and never get a real appreciation of what a group's about. But Full Clip doesn't damage Gangstarr's legacy at all, it celebrates it. Maybe it's because Gangstarr's music just isn't celebrated enough, I don't know. But Full Clip shines light on Gangstarr's greatness by featuring such a variety of solid material. It covers all of their albums, including their biggest singles and the songs that all but the biggest fans have forgotten, and also includes three new tracks, four from soundtrack albums, and four rare b-sides. And the rarer songs don't drag the discs down, they're as good as most of the album material. The main way this collection reminded me of Gangstarr's greatness was by including so many songs that I had forgotten about, or had overlooked in the context of their original albums. Their singles are here, but so are tracks I overlooked like "Work" and "Speak Ya Clout." It's still missing some of my favorites ("Alongwaytogo" "Beyond Comprehension"), but the absences, combined with the fact that nothing on Full Clip is subpar, make me realize how much fantastic music Gangstarr has made.
I can see dimensions of light and sound around my mic
If you don't know, Gangstarr is Guru and Premier, Premier and Guru. Premier is one of the most skilled DJs in hip-hop. He uses beats and samples in a sparse way that builds a track from components; you can hear each part separately, understand how each fits into the track. But the sound they form together has a magic that makes the track unmistakably Premier's. Plus he samples in a subtly adept way that treats sampled parts as sounds, not as references. In other words, you won't listen to a Premier track and hear a chorus you instantly recognize as drawn from a famous R&B or pop song; instead you'll hear interesting sounds and notes and wonder if they're samples or not, and where they come from. Besides Gangstarr, check out some of the artists he's worked with (either as producer, mixer or DJ): Common, Mos Def, D'Angelo, Jay-Z, The Notorious B.I.G., Nas, KRS-One, Janet Jackson, Fat Joe, Rakim, Brand Nubian, OC, Rah Digga, M.O.P., Big Daddy Kane, Buckshot LeFonque, Bahamadia. And the list goes on. Premier's left his stamp all over hip-hop.
It's mostly tha voice that gets you up
Sometimes Guru talks about his "monotone style" of rapping, and that's pretty accurate. It's what made me a little resistant to Gangstarr when I first heard "Words I Manifest." He sounded stiff to me. At the time I heard a radio DJ on a St. Louis hip hop show who was a lot harsher, said he was the worst rapper ever. Over time, though, I realized what I knew, that any truly unique voice is hard to get adjusted to. But eventually it becomes such a comfortable sound that it's an immediate pleasure when he comes on the mic. It's impossible not to recognize Guru's voice in an instant. The other day, believe it or not, while I was sitting on my apartment floor writing notes for this very article, the sound of hip-hop rising through the floor from my downstairs neighbor's stereo, I was stopped with a quickness by the sound of Guru's voice over the pounding bass track. I immediately leaned over and put my ear to the floor. I didn't recognize the song, it sounded like a guest appearance on someone else's album, but Guru's voice was unmistakable.
The weight of the world is heavy on my mind
Gangstarr is one of the few groups to talk about "the streets" in a way that is understanding and critical. The mantra of a million thugged out MC's is that they're just telling it like it is; Gangstarr has long demonstrated that you can tell it like it is without celebrating. Take "Code of the Streets" again, for example. Guru breaks down what leads a young, poor youth to pursue a life of crime, deconstructing the notion of the common thug: "They might say that we're a menace to society/but at the same time I say why is it me? Am I the target for destruction? What about the system and total corruption? I can't work at no fast food joint/I've got some talent, so don't you get my point?/I'll organize some brothers and get crazy loot selling d-r-u-g-ss and clocking dollars troop/Cause the fat dough yo that suits me fine/I've got to have it so I can leave behind the mad poverty/never have it always need it/if a sucker steps up then I leave him bleeding." Gangstarr's songs describing crime, money and power also dissect the criminal justice system, the government, and capitalism in an astute, journalistic way. There's that often-repeated Chuck D. quote about hip-hop being "the black CNN." That applies almost more to Gangstarr than it does to Public Enemy (or any of the other great hip-hop activists), because Gangstarr reports on what they see while PE tries hard to make you do something about it. Gangstarr are less activists than reporters. But Gangstarr's songs have the depth and understanding missing from real news media. They know the areas and subjects they're talking about, and why they are as they are.
One of us equals many of us/Disrespect one of us, you'll see plenty of us
The Gangstarr family "rolls thick." Indeed one of the great things about Full Clip is how, in selecting songs, Gangstarr picked so many that include appearances by their friends and fellow MCs. On Full Clip 11 of the 33 songs include appearances by other musicians, from a pair of R&B groups (Total and K-Ci & Jojo) to a ton of talented MCs. from hip-hop stars to their closest friends: Jeru the Damaja, Lil Dap, Big Shug, Freddie Foxx, Inspectah Deck, Nice & Smooth, M.O.P., WC, Rakim, Scarface, The Lady of Rage and Kurupt. This fact has as much to do with Gangstarr paying respect to their peers as it does their paying tribute to hip-hop music in general.
My religion is rap
More than anything, Gangstarr's music is an absolute celebration of hip-hop in its purest form. They break hip-hop music down to its essentials: an MC with a mic and a DJ with two turntables. For 10 years they've really been "keeping it real," not in the fake, "look at how cool I am" way, but in a quiet way that preserves the history of rap music while keeping it moving.
Our music pertains to those who remain
note: the blue statements, after the first, are from Gangstarr songs: "Beyond Comprehension," "Mostly Tha Voice," "Who's Gonna Take The Weight," "The Militia," "Mostly Tha Voice" (yeah, again), "Stay Tuned." They're all on Gangstarr albums so check em out.