Made in NY
Gang Starr's mic man Guru
by David Ma
This year, Gang Starr frontman Guru is starting a new phase in his already remarkable career. He recently released a new solo album, Version 7.0: The Street Scriptures, and is also planning a new installment in the Jazzmatazz series. But as distinct as his voice and delivery still remain, Gang Starr’s history still lingers in the face of Guru’s new endeavors.
“People will always remember Gang Starr’s history and revisit our records,” admits Guru, who also founded his own label, 7 Grand, earlier this year. “But I feel like I’m on the verge of many new things, and these upcoming years will be the beginning chapters of that.”
Gang Starr’s first project, No More Mr. Nice Guy, was released on January 1, 1989, on New York’s Wild Pitch label. In the decade-plus that followed, Gang Starr’s records would go on to achieve greater notoriety with each passing year, cementing Guru as one of hip-hop’s most respected MCs. With new endeavors afoot, Wax Poetics reminisced with Guru on past chapters, revealing Gang Starr’s formation, Wild Pitch’s growth as a record label, personal thoughts on his longtime partner DJ Premier, and how New York City, which has been a backdrop for their music for years, has affected his growth as an artist.
Wax Poetics: What was New York like when you first started listening to hip-hop?
Guru: For me, personally, it was the most exciting thing I’ve ever experienced. I mean, hip-hop was the beat of the city. From 42nd Street to Brooklyn to the Bronx, it was everywhere. There was a certain feeling in the air for me. It was magical.
How’d you get started rapping?
I’m originally from Boston and was doing things with a DJ there. I rapped and he produced and beatboxed. This was in the late ’80s, and we had only made a single. But those dudes wanted to be local yokels. They didn’t want to rough it, so I took all my stuff and moved to New York, and everyone thought I was nutso. I lived in a one-room apartment. After shopping demos around, I got signed to an independent label called Wild Pitch, which finally liked my demo after I had to redo it numerous times. [laughs] I remember reading The Village Voice, and I went to this place called Little Rascals in Queens. I remember chasing a dude for blocks, [laughs] because I didn’t like the way he mixed my demo. He was either gonna mix it again or I was gonna get my money back. But, um, that’s a funny memory of how I got my demo to Wild Pitch. What happened was these Boston cats would come up from Boston and sponge off of my hard work in New York. We had a fistfight and everything. Those dudes went back to Boston, and I cut them loose. It was a wild times. [laughs]
So Wild Pitch was responsible for Gang Starr’s formation?
Yeah, in a sense, you can say that. I mean, I told this dude from Wild Pitch my situation, and, at the time, he’d let me hang out in his office, which was actually his living room on 43rd Street. Sitting around up there, I picked up Lord Finesse’s demo and Premiere’s demo. So I was like an A&R for Wild Pitch, but the motherfuckers didn’t pay me. [laughs]
So you hooked up with Premier shortly after?
Yes. What I did was I took his demo home immediately and rhymed over it. I got his number from that Wild Pitch executive and called him up. I dug his vibe immediately. He was in school at Texas at the time and was gonna be back in New York in a couple weeks. He came back, we linked up, and hit it off.
What was it about Premier’s demo that struck you?
The first thing that struck me was his use of jazz. I remember how he used to layer his beats with four tracks. He’d start with one loop of breaks, layer some jazz samples over it, add some scratches and other fitting sounds. So, for sure, it was the jazz element and breaks that caught me. Like I said, I freestyled over that demo of his all by myself, all night long. I’ve always admired Premier’s consistency when we worked together. I’d remember hearing tracks he’d give to other MCs and thinking, “That should have been mine!”
So the first time you and Premier worked together was No More Mr. Nice Guy?
Yeah. It was so fun, but it was a learning experience. I mean, we did that record in two weeks and threw that shit together. You know, I don’t even consider that an album. I consider it more of a demo.
So you consider Step in the Arena you official first record?
Yes, definitely. I mean, we were better disciplined for that and had more time. It still stands as one of my favorite Gang Starr albums. It represents a magical time. Plus, it had that song “Just to Get a Rep,” which is one of my favorites.
Obviously, Step in the Arena represents an important time for you. How do you look at Daily Operation and Hard to Earn nowadays?
Those albums are no doubt my favorite to perform — especially the song “Mass Appeal.” To this day, I still open with that track. Those records are filled with crispy samples and verses that I think are really important. I mean, many consider “Mass Appeal,” a classic and it was a song with an actual purpose. I was addressing a certain type of rapper with that song. It’s funny, because that song ended up getting us a lot of exposure. I mean, it took us to The Arsenio Hall Show! At that time, if you got on Arsenio, nobody could say shit. That song and those records gave us great experiences, man. Lyrically, it was about dudes who were gaining mass appeal by portraying fake imagery and selling out. I wasn’t about that. I also purposely kept the record vague, because I don’t like to attack MCs personally. I’d rather throw them in one group, and if the shoe fits, wear it.
Well, speaking of revered songs, what do you recall about “Words I Manifest”?
It is very special to me. I was finding myself as a rapper and forming more spiritual beliefs. I wanted to be true to my lyrics. What I mean by that is that I wanted to have themes behind my words. I wanted to say things that were true to me. Rappers, then and now, would always talk about things they didn’t have, like diamond rings, furs, and money. But I didn’t want to talk about that stuff, ’cause I didn’t have any of it! So I started to talk about what I knew, and that record was the start of that. This was very important, because I was defining my identity.
Out of all of these respected projects, which are your favorites?
It’s a tie depending on my mood. [laughs] Step in the Arena or Moment of Truth, definitely.
New York’s obviously been a theme, a backdrop, and an entity in your verses over the years. What goes through your head when you walk through Brooklyn?
The feeling I get, first of all, is that the Brooklyn borough raised me. This town makes me proud. When I go through there, I get chills from all the visuals. Every little thing was important to me here. Even the way we rolled blunts was special to me. [laughs] It’s funny you ask that, because just the other day, I saw a spot where Me, Biggie, and Lil’ Cease used to chill. We’d be smoking blunts and drinking forties. I remember telling Biggie to make a video for his shit. He blew up quick and was out! Those were good times, man. [laughs]
After all these years and many memories later, do you remember the first place you played at in New York?
Yeah, [laughs], I definitely do remember. I was a place called Hotel Amazon on 14th Street in Union Square. Each week was a different theme named after a candy bar or some shit. So one week, it’d be called “Milky Way” or something. [laughs] But it was actually at a Wild Pitch showcase that was my first time on stage. I swear, this was the only time I was ever nervous. I’m about repping the music and communicating with the audience, and I take pride in that. But I’d look into the crowd, and gods like 45 King and the Flava Unit were there, so I bugged out! Plus, some friends were heckling, ’cause I was a new jack at the time. [laughs] But when I finished, I got a nice round of applause, because they realized I was fearless and my true MC character came out. Before that night, I had only just repped at open mics.
Speaking of memories: Were you in New York on September 11?
Yes. I was sleeping, because I was up late and got woken up from a barrage of phone calls. I turned on the news, and, like everyone else, was deeply saddened. But at the same time, I wasn’t too surprised. I knew something was going down after the World Trade Center had already been attacked. Plus, all the precautions like the safety command center were in the newspaper. I was sad but not too shocked.
Do you notice a difference in the general vibe of the city after 9/11?
Yes, definitely. This free city that is known for freethinking is now constricted. It’s turned into a police state. And I know the intentions are good and it for our overall safety, but, at the same time, it pushes other issues that mostly affect poor Blacks and Latinos even further back. Things like homelessness was already disregarded, but now it’s a non-issue. Even more underneath this is the issue of the homeless children rate rising. Not only in New York, but also all over the country. This really fucking bothers me, and it gets no media attention. In a country this rich, there should be no such thing as a homeless child.
You’re a part of hip-hop history, and New York is a part of Gang Starr’s history. What does New York mean to you?
New York made me.
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