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Guru is Gone: The 5 Best Gang Starr Songs

by Dave on April 23, 2010

in Musical

Photo by Jennifer Taylor Gang Starr is easily one of my top 5 favorite hip hop acts, evah. To die of cancer at age 43 is tragic whether you’re a streetwise rhyme spitter or a sanitation professional. Keith Elam will be sorely missed and I’d like to thank him for his exceptional work by listing my personal top 5 favorite Gang Starr tracks (not sure if there’s a specific order). Whether you’re hearing these for the umpteenth time or the very first – revel in the talent that was Guru (Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal) and Premier.

Click the song titles if you’d like to download the MP3.

5. Take It Personal
The first time I heard this was as a boarding student at Vermont Academy in 1992. My friend, Jamal, was from Brooklyn and had someone send him Daily Operation on cassette the day it was released. The tune blared out of his dorm room for the better part of a week and I’d never heard anything like the machine gun kick drums which make up the beat. The scratchy old time piano and manic scratching of the Brand Nubian sample on the chorus rocked my young world and does to this day.

"I can see through you, cause I’m the Guru. So what you gonna do when I start to step to you?"

4. Who’s Gonna Take The Weight?
The standout feature of this song is the borderline-nerve-grating steam whistle noise which DJ Premier manipulates throughout. This sort of sound would become a huge hip hop staple in the coming years. House of Pain, Cypress Hill and others were definitely influenced by this track and that’s a big reason why it makes my list. And I think there’s also an underlying message or something.

"I be plannin’ to be rammin’ what I wrote – straight on a plate down your throat."

3. DWYCK
This is one of the silliest songs and videos from the 1990’s “golden age” of hip hop – but goddamn it’s catchy, funky and has retained a place of honor on my iPod… since it was a walkman. A rare Gang Starr “party jam”, Hard To Earn ’s DWYCK features Nice n’ Smooth and references to everyone from Cassius Clay to John McClane himself. It’s an incredibly enduring classic. Period.

“Lemonade was a popular drink and it still is. I get more props and stunts than Bruce Willis.”

2. Words I Manifest
One of the singles off their first album, 1989’s No More Mr. Nice Guy , Manifest features a devastatingly catchy sample from A Night in Tunisia by Charlie Parker and was probably the first Gang Starr song I ever heard. The video sees Guru playing up his uncanny resemblance to Malcolm X, but thankfully he lightened up after the afro-centric 80s and settled for a baseball cap like everyone else. Such a great, early, seminal hip hop track.

“I suggest you take a breath for the words I manifest they will scold you and mold you, while I impress upon you…”

1. Mass Appeal My very favorite track from the classic canon of Gang Starr. Not an easy distinction to make but this song stands out for me amongst a slew of deserving options. DJ Premier is a master at sourcing stand out samples which no one has ever used, and the repeating riff he creates from a few keystrokes of Horizon Drive by Vic Juris is one of the best you’ll hear throughout the short history of hip hop.

”Word is bond I go on and on, for you it`s tragic, I got magic like wands.”

In closing all I can say is, “thank you, Guru”. My 15-year-old self thanks you, my 36-year-old self thanks you and I’m quite confident that when I’m old and as deaf as a doorknob… the hook from Mass Appeal will still be ringing clearly in my memories of one of the best there ever was.

More Guru Memorials Worth Reading:

  • DJ Treats: “I would go so far to say Gang Starr is the reason why I have a career as a DJ, and more importantly a full-time job in music journalism.”
  • Guru’s Brother: “At his bedside, I stood and stared at his overly frail frame, his head that he had kept clean-shaven for the last 20 years uncommonly covered with hair, his body connected to a sea of tubes and wires.”
  • Guru’s Personal Goodbye: “"I write this with tears in my eyes, not of sorrow but of joy for what a wonderful life I have enjoyed and how many great people I have had the pleasure of meeting."

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“They say hip hop is dead, nah it’s up North with me. I can do this all day cause it’s part of my routine, but suppers almost done and tonight – POUTINE!” – Classified

This was sent to me today by a Canadian friend of mine – as I’ve been way out of the loop for a month and a half down here in Boston – and when I realized what I was about to watch I cringed. Probably visually. A pro-Canada song, by a white rapper from the East coast, just in time for the Winter Olympics… I mean, surely it must suck polar bear sack, right?

Classified’s tribute to Canada… Kinda fuckin’ rules, buddy.

I love the fact that he’s not standing around with a bunch of black guys and wearing a ton of tacky jewellery for “street cred”. I love the fact that he only mentions pot to remind the rest of the world that it’s legal. I love his line referencing “90’s hip hop” and subsequently the song sounds a heck of a lot like just that. He doesn’t refute the stereotypes – he embraces them. Was that Mr. Lahey? Did he just give SCTV a shout out? What the frig is this?

Anybody else think maybe Maestro Fresh Wes, Snow or the Swollen Members are feeling a little left out right now? This kid is good and I’m going to hit the nearest record store (wink) and get myself acclimated. It’s probably, like, my friggin’ duty or something too, eh?

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This isn’t my list of all-time “golden age” favorites. That collection would include at least a few timeless gems that you probably have on your own iPods. What I’m doing here today is some serious brain-wracking and crate digging. I was massively into hip hop during this period and my references run deep. Here are 10 rap tunes from the art form’s greatest era which will hopefully bring a smile to your face – and possibly have you doing the running man down memory lane.

10. Fu-Schnickens – “La Schmoove


I far prefer their song Ring the Alarm, but had to choose this video for two reasons – First, Phife Dawg is in it. Second, the light skin guy who raps at the end’s dancing used to crack me up whenever I’d watch this back in the day. Chip-Fu, on the other hand was an amazing MC and I’d definitely like to know what happened to him. Hopefully he still has nuttin’ to prove.

9. ATCQ and LONS – “Scenario Remix


This B-side never had a video but someone’s taken the time to put it on YT and I’m obviously not the only person who thought this song was as good or better than anything on The Low-End Theory (which everyone knows is a classic record). I remember the first rapper on the track, Hood, was supposed to be A Tribe Called Quest’s hot new protege but was shot to death shortly after this was recorded. Too bad because the kid was good.

8. Leaders of the New School – “What’s Next?”


I remember this grossly underrated song had an actual video (I had it recorded on a well-worn Yo! MTV Raps VHS) but could only find this live performance from Arsenio. It’s fun to watch, but the intricate funkiness of the backing track is lost. Have a listen to it here to get a better idea – amazing production. I only had said video tape when I started my second year at Guelph University in 1994 as the CD wasn’t released before my usual summer in Boston was over. I was obsessed with this song, and bombarded my dorm mates with it for the entire month of September that year. You’re welcome.

7. Souls of Mischief – “Make Your Mind Up


I used to consider the album this song is from, 93 Till Infinity, to be the Sergeant Pepper or Pet Sounds of hip hop. Although in retrospect that vanguard obviously has to go to Paul’s Boutique. Regardless, every song on this record was amazing and I still listen to it frequently. It was hard to select a favorite track, but I finally settled on this one. A rare example of a hip hop record which is comprehensively solid from beginning to end – rap fans know what I’m talking about. If you like this tune watch the video for That’s When Ya Lost and the title track.

6. Organized Konfusion – “Who Stole my Last Piece of Chicken?”


From the Richard Pryor samples to the “days of wayback” lyrical reminisces to the ridiculously funky drum beat – this song is definitely a 90’s sleeper worthy of rediscovery. Most rappers with 2 or more albums have a “this is what I did when I was a kid” song in their repertoire, but this is by far the best of them. The video is as humorous as the song, and I’ve never forgotten the animated chicken dancing on the record label or the fat kid sucking on the chicken bone. It still makes me hungry, too.

God how I miss you, 1990’s hip hop. You were very, very good to us and I’m confident that the reason I think rap today is putrid gutter-slime covered in rat shit is not because I’m old, but because it’s putrid gutter-slime covered in rat shit. This was my own personal list of forgotten 90’s rap songs and I’d love to hear about some of yours in the comments below. Stay tuned for part 2 coming next week, homies.

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Even if you don’t give a fig about the movie – you have to watch this. Super-creative and also hilarious. Sounding quite a bit like The Streets, two English guys have taken it upon themselves to carefully edit the movie Predator in time with a narrative rap they’ve written describing the plot of the movie. They claim in the description that it took them 9 months to do this, and after watching I’m prone to believe them.

“My team always works alone, Homeboy.”

I love the way in which they rhyme the lyrics they’ve written with actual quotes from the movie: “Now he can see why Dillon was sent as his minder – ‘You cooked up a story and dropped the six of us in a meat grinder’“. And the way they’ve taken special care to include Hawkins’ jokes is also appreciated by this particular fan. Well done to you, sirs.

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Q-Tip's - The RenaissanceQ-Tip has one of the most undeniably distinctive voices in hip hop. That’s been mighty helpful recently because I was sure he’d been abducted by aliens shortly after the release of the wholly under appreciated “Amplified” and its killer single, “Vivrant Thing“, back in 1999. The first time I listened to his brand new album “The Renaissance”, and first release in 8 years, my response was a resounding “meh”. During a long drive yesterday I listened to the record twice more and am now subsequently hooked. I rarely end up liking albums that really impress me the first time I listen to them. And let me tell you, kids – I’m already across the street and down the road from ‘impressed’. This record isn’t a Renaissance for rap – it may end up being its savior. Sufficiently over dramatic enough for you? I’ll explain.

A Tribe Called Quest was a group of monumental importance to music in general (I am deadly serious) and probably my very favorite crew from what many now refer to as the Golden Age of rap. This era isn’t to be confused with “Old School” which predates it by a good 3-5 years. No, the Golden Age is generally considered to be from 1990-95 and includes such acts as De La Soul, Biggie, Gang Starr, Leaders of the New School, Craig Mack, Black Moon and other personal favorites of mine. I’m glad timing was on my side and that I was the age I was in the midst of it all. Fore t’was a special time in the history of hip hop music – before bitches and bling completely took over the ‘subject matter’. Before previously lost, rich and creative samples found by people like Pete Rock and Diamond D during hours spent digging through ancient record crates were replaced by modern rap production that sounds like a challenged 4-year-old banging away on a rundown Yamaha Port-a-Sound.

Q-Tip “Gettin’ Up”

“Gettin’ Up” takes an old early 1970s Black Ivory single, makes it gleam with modern sheen and lets Tip loose on the kind of love jones you’d expect from a man with 15 years’ worth of relationship experience and maturation since “Electric Relaxation”.Pitchfork

I could feature the whole of The Renaissance on Wadio today – it’s comprehensively the best rap long play to rear its head in a very, very long time. I’m always asking myself: does rap suck now or am I just old? I’ll never know the real answer (Yes I will. I’m 35 as opposed to 19), but am still so delighted it has come down the pike when it did. I’d given up on the musical genre I once loved.

The name (The Renaissance for anyone not paying attention) is perfectly appropriate as upon listening one almost feels as though they’re looking back through a musical time warp, complete with quick glimpses of Arsenio and the Philly Blunt logo. Harkening back to an age where, you know, rap wasn’t… embarrassingly awful. Yet all the while Q-Tip stays relevant talking about Blackberrys, web pages and email – via the sort of smooth verbal gymnastics only he can effectively vocalize. I’m not sure what that means, exactly, but you’ll see what I’m getting at the first time you hear “Dance on Glass”. More on that in a second.

My favorite song is the awesome “Won’t Trade which you can click to download or listen to below. It features amazing delivery, sharp lyrics and a beat which samples real drums (gasp!) while lifting a catchy snippet from “You Made A Believer Out Of Me” by Ruby Andrews.

Q-Tip’s “Won’t Trade”. Welcome back sir!

Tip’s beyond-welcome return to form doesn’t end there. “Dance On Glass” sees him rapping acapella for a full minute before a snare drum finally busts in and reminds you that you were listening to… acapella. That’s the power of the man’s voice and delivery which is as strong on The Renaissance as it ever was rapping alongside Phife Dawg – who recently had a kidney transplant and whom I wish all the luck in the world. “Move” features two completely different sounding halves which are both amazing nods back in the direction of the golden age, even borrowing Black Sheep’s “here we come yo, here we come” chant from 1991’s The Choice is Yours. Come to think of it, I haven’t once skipped over any of the record’s 12 tracks. It’s a solid piece of work to put it mildly.

Little Malik Taylor and Jonathan Davis have brought me a lot of joy over the years and I am thrilled that Q-Tip has pulled off such a stunning comeback LP. Do yourself a favor and I really mean that. If you’ve ever misplaced your wallet in El Segundo, gotten lost during an award tour or simply walked down Linden Boulevard – Buy “The Renaissance” on CD or download the MP3 version – right frigging immediately now.

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