DJ Premier on the Making of Gang Starr’s Moment of Truth
by David Ma
Fist fights. Improper farewells. Alcoholism. Guns in suitcases. The agonizing emotional depth from which Moment of Truth emerged was unlike anything seen in Gang Starr’s previous decade of work. According to DJ Premier: “We’ve never been as depressed while making an album.”
1998 was a fertile year—Lauren Hill was miseducated, OutKast were astrological beasts, while Mos Def and Talib were the best alliance in hip-hop. All were hurling towards the millennium with stunning vigor, experimentation, and contemplative material. Guru and Preemo, at this point by comparison, had four releases under their belt stretching back to their 1989 debut, No More Mr. Nice Guy.
The pair had just come off a successful run of celebrated works, Hard to Earn and Daily Operation, both of which helped forge a style that would forever define the East Coast’s sonorous aesthetic. Gang Starr still spoke to New York’s rap coterie but, this time, more of the world was listening. Guru deconstructed his handle to an acronym—Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal—while Preemo’s cuts and flagship production aided (and in many cases, anchored) projects by Group Home and Jeru the Damaja, respectively. Minus a handful of cuts and lead singles, Moment of Truth was overall a subdued effort, shook and inward, directly introspective. “Robin Hood Theory,” “What I’m Here For,” “JFK 2 LAX,” and others all have an undeniable sunken quality to them.
There’s also a feeling of tenseness woven throughout, all of which was wholly due to the state of Preemo and Guru’s working relationship. Not only did future projects hinge on a looming court case, but years of collaboration were slowly being drowned by years of addiction. “I left the recording sessions during the making of this because Guru’s drinking had gotten out of hand,” says Preemo. “Guru was also about to go to jail and the trial came up so we made sure the album cover would match in case he was actually locked up while it was released. There moments during the making of this where we stopped speaking to each other. I told him unless he gets his alcoholism under control we ain’t doing this anymore. He agreed.”
“You gotta understand, you cannot make project after project with someone you don’t love. If we had bad energy our music wouldn’t have come out right,” Preemo remembers. “We’d literally punch each other in the face but next thing you know, we’d be at the bar with our arms around one another.”
In late 2007, I interviewed Guru and made sure to mention Moment of Truth. When asked which among Gang Starr’s projects were his favorite, he replied: “It’s a tie depending on my mood. [laughs] Step in the Arena or Moment of Truth, definitely.” “Hard to Earn is my favorite,” says Preemo. “But as far as the most important Gang Starr album? Moment of Truth ranks number one for me. It was very personal for me and Guru.” As it stands, Moment of Truth remains the only project both members mention as personally impactful to both of them. As the release turns two decades old, I reached out to Premier and had him break down the album, track by track, to explore the transpirations behind the making of a Gang Starr masterwork.
“You Know My Steez”
For one, we always knew how to pick our singles and we’ve always presented what we wanted to the label rather than the other way around. Sometimes they tell you what they are feelin’ or what they’re not, but at least with our structure, we’ve always had some say and they trusted us and it worked. So we picked “You Know My Steez,” “Royalty,” and “The Militia” to roll out the album.
We always had a list of ideas that Guru wrote down and was in charge of, and we’d tack it to the wall of the studio. And we’d just randomly go. We don’t say, “Let’s do the club hit today,” or “Let’s do the single today.” We just come in and do what we feel. If there wasn’t a title yet, Guru would have parentheses next to the each track number with our notes with a description. With this one, the notes said this would be the single.
I already had the idea of what I wanted to do with the Grandmaster Flash “Flash It to the Beat” sample. Showbiz used it on a skit for Runaway Slave. We used to all hang out—me Showbiz, Large Pro, Pete Rock, Diamond D; we saw each other all the time. We were cool and shared what records we used. So I wanted to do my own interpretation of it after hearing how Showbiz used it. And the lyrics on the hook are obviously from GZA’s “Shadowboxing.” It just always stood out to me. I was really happy I finally got the chance to use it.
“Robin Hood Theory”
This is actually the first song we recorded for the album. It’s the first one I already had that beat looped as it is. I used to drive around bumping this beat for months. [laughs] It’s a subtle beat, it’s more quiet, the drums are not heavy, and there isn’t a hard snare. I just love this beat. When I played it for Guru, he loved it. And this isn’t one of those beats I would present for any artist I was working on a song with. It’s not a dope beat for a hard single—it’s an amazing beat for when you’re working closely with someone and they know how to construct themselves around it. It was the definitely the right song to go on after “You Know My Steez.” I’ve been sequencing every one of our albums since day one. I’m used to sequencing. I sequenced all the Gang Starr records. I mean, I sequenced Illmatic.
This was actually done for the movie Caught Up, so it was already a finished record. We really liked it and wanted to add it onto the album. So we pushed for it and after the film was released, they granted us rights to put it on this project. We had to wait for a certain time frame for the movie to have been out. I felt like it set the album up perfectly sound wise, as well as the direction of the following songs.
“Royalty (ft. K-Ci & JoJo)”
Obviously, Moment of Truthwas very feature-heavy, because at the time, that was beginning to be the new thing. Before, Guru and I never really had outside collaborators besides those who were already in the inner circle—our team, the guys you heard on Daily Operationor Hard to Earn. Guru said that he wanted someone that had equivalent success as us with singing skills to work on this album.
So the label finally connected us through the phone and the first thing K-Ci and JoJo said was like, “We don’t want to do an R&B type beat, or a popular loop, and just have us sing on it. Make a Gang Starr track and have us on it.” So I already thought that was real cool of them, and we connected right away. Most people would’ve just had them sing over some shit and make it work. But I think with this it actually sounds like a Gang Starr track.
“Above the Clouds (ft. Inspectah Deck)”
Guru had always wanted to get Ghostface on this album. He also wanted to get Raekwon on here too, for that matter. And since Cuban Linx popped off so hard, Rae and Ghost were seen as in a different tier than some of the other Clan members. Where Deck is that underdog MC compared to Meth or something. So I said maybe we should get Deck instead of any of the others, and Guru agreed. This was before email existed.
We got on the phone, and Deck asked us, “What is this song about?” And Guru just said, and I’ll never forget, “This song is about your mental,” pointing to his head. Deck goes, “Is that it? Just write about my mental?” I was sitting there thinking, “Umm, let’s elaborate a little more on this, guys,” but Deck just said, “Yup, I got it! I’ll meet you guys.”
So he comes to the lab later. Both him and Guru are standing on opposite ends of the control board facing each other and everyone had their notepads out. I threw the main loop on and told them to keep writing while I put together an intro. There was no Pro Tools, so I really wanted the intro to set up everything perfectly for when the beat kicks in. While I’m working on the beat, I keep seeing them look up at each other like little kids in class. Guru then said he was ready and wanted to go first and we were off and running. I kept peeking up to see them working and they kept taking off their headphones and smiling so I knew it was going to be good.
“JFK 2 LAX”
This whole song is a real true story. Even the voicemail you hear was real. Guru had a late session all the way up to the time he had to get ready to head to L.A. And at that time, someone would always have a pistol packed, even if it were just a recording session. Back then in those days, having a pistol on you wasn’t a big deal. People could see you in the studio for a lengthy amount of time, think you got money because you’re making records, and try to rob you as you’re leaving. So you had to be protected.
Guru ran home after this late recording session to grab one of the suitcases that he had already packed. It just so happened he grabbed the one suitcase with his pistol in it. So when he tried to get pass security with a gun in his carry on, you got caught. I had hired a criminal attorney at the time for some other criminal stuff. We have an entertainment lawyer too, of course, but this guy was there to help us with criminal stuff and that’s what That track just matched the feeling of the whole ordeal. Guru had once told me that he wanted to do a song about this situation with the gun and the song captured the right emotion we thought.
“Itz a Set Up (ft. Hannibal)”
Hannibal Stax—now he’s just called H.Stax. They were tied to Illkid stuff we did as well. They had a song off the third Illkid release Guru put out. So we wanted to extend the branch a bit and let them get on and be part of the foundation. It’s a hard track and I think he delivered great on this. This wasn’t meant to be anything deep, just more having our friends on and delivering hard since all the other songs were slower an heavier.
“Moment of Truth”
The first verse was a universal verse anyone could relate to. Guru was going thru a trial at the time, so it was really heartfelt. That’s why the second verse was about his fear of going to prison for five years. And that’s why he told me to name the album Moment of Truth, because our attorney told us that if he did go to jail, it would be right when the album drops, and he wouldn’t be ’round to do any of the promo. This entire track is real personal but also has a very universal appeal to it. Everything that Guru wrote about, all the fear and anxiety, all of it, he was really feeling inside.
“B.I. vs Friendship (ft. M.O.P.)”
MOP by that time were already family. So the first verse was supposed to go to Jeru but it didn’t because we just had a falling out with each other over some business stuff. So we wanted to address it and Guru felt the best way to do it was through song. MOP being on there didn’t mean we were co-signing them over Jeru or anything. Jeru and I went back to being the best of friends a few years back, and I hadn’t even seen him since like ’98. I’m happy to say Jeru lives in Germany now and has all his paper shit all right, so he helps us bring a lot of artists out there to Hamburg. It’s all love. We saw each other at a friend’s funeral years back and we hugged and caught up. This year we’re going to work together again. So this song addresses all of that.
“The Militia (ft. Big Shug and Freddie Foxxx)”
The plan was to always have a posse cut. We’ve always been a Freddie Foxxx fans. Before we even worked with each other we always had a lot of respect for him. We used to see him with the Paid in Full posse. He was like, “Yo man, we need to get in the studio one day!” and we just all clicked and had so much fun. He came in the studio with a mink cap, mink gloves, and mink coat. And he had two glocks on his hips. And he was like, “When I spit my verse, I need to take these guns out!” And he did. He did the verse in one take with two guns clenched in his hands. I was sitting to his left and remember thinking hopefully them shits don’t go off while I’m recording this verse! So I moved seats. He left the building after one take because he had another meeting to go to.
“The Rep Grows Bigga”
That was the only song where I already had the hook done first and gave Guru guidelines on how to go in and do it. I never exactly know what I want to hear lyrically on a track but I had the frame of the song ready and Guru just did what he did and it ended up being really good. I want to shout out our friend Matoka who shouted out all female prisoners. Most guys just shout out other guys. But Matoka just came off of a long bid and shouted out all female prisoners on and others off the top of her head; the judge, her home girls, her guy, all that.
“What I’m Here 4”
This is how we get down period. I love the piano loop on this one. This song represents what we do to the fullest. There’s a message in the song and at the end of the day we feed the people with the Gang Starr shit. This is a melodic one. It’s also slow and focuses on our feelings. It also sets up the tempo for the next track.
“She Knowz What She Wantz”
Guru usually has a track on our albums that he produces. Like he did “Code of the Streets” for example on Hard to Earn. He’ll bring me the elements for the songs and I help put it together, or he’ll have them all done and I just go back and revamp the drums or something. Or I’ll add some more bounce to things. So I just took the vocals and sharpened up. He had already done this for a TV show or something. It’s a little different on how his original uses the sample, but I just programmed the drums. He presented it already done and I just made sure everything sonically blended on this track.
“New York Strait Talk”
I was doing bass-line loops and wanted a hard bass loop for follow up the last joint. This was mainly to pay homage on how New York accepted us being even though we’re original out of town— I’m from Texas and Guru’s from Boston. But I’m proud to be considered honorary New Yorkers because through the years, no matter what, we laid it down for New York. And people can tell just how much we love NY. It’s also just saying how people love us when we go home as well as when we’re in New York. I mean, when I go home they call me Chris not Preemo.
“My Advice 2 You”
Guru came up with the concept. We have a lot of friends who need to borrow a lot of money or needs this or that. They’re always in the pen and they always turn to us. It’s sometimes annoying when they ask too much, but every now and then if you need a loan, it’s all good because they’re our loved ones. And sometimes you don’t even get the loan back, [laughs] but it’s all good. It comes with the territory. These days if someone asks, I’ll just say no, especially at my age. [laughs]
“Make ’Em Pay (ft. Krumb Snatcha)”
Guru did this one too. He had the beat almost finished and presented to me. Guru had already did the vocals and we didn’t have the Krumb Snatcha part yet. Guru had always been a fan since. When I met Krumb he had just gotten out of the hospital and was shot nine times. He was eventually around a lot. He got a “Hip-Hop Quotable” inThe Source and that’s hard for an unknown album. Anyways, I liked it but I asked him to give me all the parts and let me resample other parts. We got Krumb on it and after I re-worked stuff this is how everything turned out.
“The Mall (ft. G-Dep and Shiggy Sha)”
This was just a let’s have fun song. We used to go to the mall to shop all the time and also to pick up girls. G-Dep was a homie. Sometimes people would run up to us at the mall and next thing you know we’re at a house party with them. We used to throw house parties a lot back then. So this was just a fun, less heavy track than the others.
“Betrayal (ft. Scarface)”
This one almost didn’t happen. My friend, call me and made a suggestion. He was like, “You guys need to get Scarface on there, man!” We were waiting for his verse for so long we almost missed the deadline because we needed to send it to the record label. We got to a point where we were like, “Yo, we really need to master the album to make the release date. If we don’t get it by tomorrow this won’t happen.” It takes a long time to get everything together including the vinyl manufacturing and everything. I knew Scarface from my Texas roots and made sure Rap-A-Lot was down. This one barely made it though and was by the hair of my chinny chin chin. [laughs]
This is the only one we didn’t have a title for. Plus Guru wanted another song on there. And our accountant had just past, Mary Coleman, I used to call her Mommy Mary. I have a tattoo on my arm that says Mommy Mary with her birthdate and some clouds. Being that she just died, she died the day after we shot the “You Know My Steez” video. It was Jerry Heller’s nephew, Terry Heller, who directed the video.
I remember trying to call Mary. I just kept calling and calling there was no answer. She had cancer and was dong really bad but was hanging in there. I finally got in touch with her daughter who told me which hospital she was in. Mary had given me info that if she checked into another hospital other than the regional one, it would be under her maiden name. So I called and called. I was told I had to wait. I even told them I was her son. I got the run around and more run around and they kept passing the phone to someone else. By the sixth time they put me back to the first person I spoke with and he told me Mary had just died a couple hours ago.
Guru wanted one more song for the album but I was so depressed I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t function. I was crying all day everyday and couldn’t even focus. So he pulled me into the lab and I pulled out some records to sample and just made that beat for us. The sample I used sounded like it matched my depression. Guru walked in and loved it right away. I couldn’t come up with anything energetic or happy. He said we was gonna call it ‘The Next Time.’ I didn’t think people were going to like it. I really love this song because it wouldn’t have existed if Guru didn’t force me to make it and the song is a dedication to Mary. The sample sounds like it’s crying to me.
“In Memory Of…”
We had just known so many people who we loved that died by the time the record was done. Mary was gone. Cats from Guru’s recent tour had passed. It was supposed to be an interlude outro thing but Guru decided he wanted to rap over it because he wanted more. We all wanted so much more.
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