‘Above The Clouds’: DJ Premier Brings The Gang Starr Legacy To A Close With ‘One Of The Best Yet’

Gang-Starr-OOTBY-Album-Artwork (1)There are few Hip-Hop groups as beloved and respected within the genre to a level as that of which Gang Starr has attained. As forbearers of the iconic New York Hip-Hop sound of the early 90’s their unmistakable sonic blueprint crafted by DJ Premier himself for many remains the benchmark for classic golden era Boom Bap production; with the duo practically universally regard as titans in the Hip-Hop pantheon. Likewise, perhaps no other group has had such an unlikely, as well as extraordinary journey as that of Gang Starr. With Guru, originally hailing from Roxbury, Boston and DJ Premier from Houston, Texas the unlikely duo would end up becoming not only one of the most recognizable acts in the genre but come to define and embody the sound and aesthetic of rough, rugged and raw underground New York Hip-Hop. From 1989 to 2003 Gang Starr would release six studio albums, a two-disc greatest hits compilations as well as supply original music for soundtracks to films such as Mo’ Better Blues, Trespass and 8 Mile. However, shortly after the release of their album The Ownerz in 2003, Guru and Premier would once again put Gang Starr on an indefinite hiatus.

 

From 2004 onward, DJ Premier and Guru would never collaborate or tour again in an official capacity and two seemed to go their separate ways. Sadly, hopes of a Gang Starr region were dashed in 2010 when Guru passed away after slipping into a coma following a heart attack as a result of treatment for multiple myeloma, a form of cancer that affects white blood plasma cells. For the past nine years that appeared to be the end for Gang Starr. While DJ Premier occasionally hinted at the possibility of a posthumous album comprised of vocals from Guru’s unreleased catalog, accompanied by all-new, original production supplied by Premier himself; it was easy for fans to dismiss the talk as yet another pipe dream soon to be discarded in the pile of other long-rumored DJ Premier projects never to come to fruition. Luckily, for Gang Starr fans and Hip-Hop heads across the world, all that has now changed. Nearly a decade after Guru’s death, after almost ten years of only seldom, vague, brief exchanges in interviews serving as the only updates; Gang Starr has been resurrected and returned to the airwaves to deliver one last final, long-awaited farewell album One Of The Best Yet. Coming nearly sixteen years after their last album The Ownerz in 2003, a lot has changed in both the world and Hip-Hop since the last time a new Gang Starr album hit the streets. While nearly a generation has passed since the group released any new music, One Of The Best Yet fills a long empty void left by the Guru’s unexpected passing and attempts to bring the Gang Starr full circle and deliver the proper ending that it deserves.

 

In typical Gang Starr fashion, the album opens with a skit featuring a recording of one of the group’s live shows with Guru and Premier on stage recounting some of the duo’s greatest and most memorable hits. The album begins with the bombastic opening track ’Lights Out’, featuring verses from longtime collaborators M.O.P. Like hearing from old friends, the track marks the first time Billy Danze and Lil’ Fame have made an appearance on a Gang Starr album since ‘Who Got Gunz’ featured on The Ownerz in back in 2003. With banging drums, stoic piano samples and plenty of familiar faces the track serves as the perfect template to set the tone for the rest of the album. ’Lights Out’ leads into ‘Bad Name’, notable for being the second single off the album. In true Gang Starr fashion, almost as if directly talking from the grace Guru lays into the industry and fraudulent emcees that abuse and misuse the culture, giving Hip-Hop a ‘bad name’. Never one to mince words or hold his tongue in regards to fake emcees, Guru speaks his piece on the dismal state of Hip-Hop, which is perhaps more relevant today than ever; a depressing thought considering the vocals for the song were recorded at the very least well over ten years ago. From here the album leads into the track ‘Hit Man’ featuring A Tribe Called Quest frontman Q-Tip, marking his first appearance on a DJ Premier production. Composition wise the song bears a striking resemblance to the production heard ’Nice Girl, Wrong Place’; although that’s where the similarities mostly end. Unfortunately, Tip’s appearance is really no so much a feature but rather a glorified chorus; with his painfully short verse sounding a bit out of place on the bombastic, brooding soundscape that Premier provides. Next up the album showcases the song ‘What’s Real’, featuring appearances by both Group Home and Royce Da 5’9”. Marking a rare appearance by the former Gang Starr foundation members, the track mark’s Lil’ Dap Melachi the Nutcracker’s first collaboration with Guru and DJ Premier since the group’s song ‘The Legacy’ from their album A Tear for the Ghetto more than twenty years ago. Royce Da 5’9″ also has a standout appearance, fresh off his collaborative album PRhyme II with DJ Premier in 2018 Royce effortlessly flows over Premier’s production and sounds more than at home here on One Of The Best Yet. Likewise, ‘What’s Real’ not only features an all-star roster; it is also probably the best example present on the album that comes closest to sounding like vintage DJ Premier Gang Starr era production. Following ‘What’s Real’ the album takes a brief rest and leads into its first interlude featuring Guru’s son, Keith Casim Elam. Again, not unusual seeing how skits were a common feature on Gang Starr albums; especially on the group’s final two records.

 

Without missing a beat the album keeps the guest appearances coming with ‘From A Distance’, featuring yet another Gang Starr Foundation alumnus Jeru The Damaja. The collaboration marks D. original dirty, rotten scoundrel’s first appearance on a Gang Starr song since ‘Speak Ya Clout’ on the group’s 1994 album Hard To Earn and his first time rhyming on a DJ Premier production since his 1996 album Wrath Of The Math produced entirely by DJ Premier. Needless to say, it sounds great to hear Jeru once more over DJ Premier’s production, nonetheless on a Gang Starr track alongside Guru and without a doubt stands out as another highlight on One Of The Best Yet. Making sure not to get stuck on a nostalgic kick for too long, the next offering is ‘Family and Loyalty’, the album’s first single that Premier used to announce the album’s release. With its talk of family, friendship, love, and loyalty the track embodies the best of what Gang Starr stood for and the best that Guru had to offer as an artist while he was alive. Featuring arguably the album’s biggest contemporary name (J.Cole) the track is easily the most fully fleshed out song and emotionally touching found on One Of The Best Yet and the perfect segue bridging the gap for new, younger listeners who were too young or in some cases weren’t even born during Gang Starr’s heyday. Following ‘Family and Loyalty’ is ‘Get Together’ featuring Ne-Yo and Nitty Scott, a smoother more seductive, downtempo joint that is reminiscent of past offerings that became more prominent in Gang Starr’s catalog from Moment of Truth onward. The track invokes memories of past songs such as ‘Royalty’, ‘She Knows What She Wants’ and ‘Discipline’; although Ne-Yo’s crooning doesn’t mesh with Gang Starr’s street aesthetic nearly as smoothly as K-Ci & Jojo. While a decent track, the production is one of the more forgettable tracks to be found on One Of the Best Yet and likely to have little replay for hardcore Gang Starr fans. This is followed another interlude, this time featuring NYGz member and long-time collaborator Panchi recalling a Guru in a clip taken from DJ Premier’s XM satellite radio show ‘Live From HeadQCourterz’.

 

Next is ‘So Many Rappers’, a jazzy offering that recalls the groups’ early jazz-inspired origins on tracks such as ‘Jazz Thing’. Continuing on with commentary on the general state of Rap and Hip-Hop, Guru laments the here today, gone today nature of Hip-Hop and the music industry as flavor of the month rappers and generic emcees struggle for relevancy in a business that continually becomes more and more disposable. Following this is ‘Business Or Art’ featuring New York legend and Black Star member Talib Kweli. Continuing on with the social commentary, Guru talks about the fine lines that artists walk, and the battle between genuine artistry and authenticity with money and profit. Longevity, consistency, and authenticity being long-time staples for discussion on Gang Starr albums it’s hard not to be reminded of past songs such as ‘B.I. Vs. Friendship’ which also deals with similar themes and other conflicts. Continuing on in the battle rap vein Guru and Premier dive into ‘Bring It Back’, easily the most lively and uptempo song is also unfortunately by far the shortest on the album clocking in at a measly fifty-second. Next is ‘One Of The Best Yet’ the album’s final interlude featuring long-time collaborator and Gang Starr co-founder Big Shug; this, of course, segues into ‘Take Flight (Militia Pt. 4)’ featuring Gang Starr Foundation members Big Shug and Freddie Foxxx, bringing the forth and final installment in the series effectively bringing it to an end. The album concludes with ‘Bless The Mic’, a spooky and melancholy closer that borrows lyrics from Gang Starr’s ‘What I’m Here 4’. While the song does utilize old lyrics, sonically its testament to the fact that the album shines brightest when Premier provides moody, atmospheric production for the late Guru’s vocals to ride over and ultimately brings the album to a solemn and almost eerie end.

 

So after all of this time, after a near decade long wait, how does Gang Starr’s swing song hold up? Clocking in at a mere thirty-four minutes (that’s including the four tracks that are interludes) by the time the sixteen-track album reaches its conclusion it’s painfully apparent that the project is running fumes. For example, along with tracks such as ‘Bless The Mic’ featuring partially used lyrics from another song recorded more than twenty years the superfluous overabundance of features (regardless of how well-intentioned) sadly indicate that it appears DJ Premier just simply did not have that much quality unused Gurus vocals to utilize for the album. Sadly, fans hoping to hear actual vintage DJ Premier beats on One Of The Best will be slightly let down as well. Unfortunately, there is no unused Gang Starr production leftover from past recording sessions used for the album (according to Premier the last holdover was used by Freddie Foxxx for the song ‘Gang Starr Bus’ from their collaboration album The Kolexxxion nearly ten years ago). That being said, DJ Premier does his very best to re-create production that one would expect to hear on a new Gang Starr album, a balancing act that is pulled with varying degrees of success throughout the album. The biggest thing most long-time listeners will notice is song quality, and again it just seems that unlike other artists who have passed away like Tupac Shakur or J-Dilla, Guru simply just did not have a large body of unused recordings stashed away. Gang Starr was a rare act in Hip-Hop, where without fail they consistently got better with every release. With every new album, the rhymes were constantly elevated, the production was continually pushed further and the concepts became more and more intricate. In the words of Guru himself on the opening skit to their 98’ endeavor Moment Of Truth, “We what we do we update our formulas, we have certain formulas but we update em’ with the times, and everything y’know…the rhyme style is elevated, the style of beats is elevated, but, it’s still Guru and Premier. And it’s always a message involved.

 

Sadly, while One Of The Best Yet is a well-intentioned project, this streak of constant elevation just simply isn’t continued for obvious reasons outside of anyone’s control. Not that Premier didn’t try his best on the project, but the fact of the matter is there are simply limitations of what can be done with left-over material. For one, Guru’s absence is an obvious dead give away that the project faced an uphill battle. Premier has stated on numerous occasions in the past that during the recording of all prior Gang Starr albums, Guru came up with all of the album’s song titles prior to recording. And from there had Premier crafted production based on how he felt they should sound by the name of their given titles. Obviously, this and other nuances that made Gang Starr albums unique and memorable simply could never be replicated without Guru’s involvement and unfortunately, that reality is sorely felt on One Of The Best Yet. Unlike other posthumous albums like A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, which was produced with the input and participation of group member Phife Dawg prior to his passing in 2016; One Of The Best Yet has zero input from Guru himself. The end result is ultimately a well-intentioned but vain attempt to re-create a genuine Gang Starr album and is essentially an album of second-string, unreleased Guru vocals remixed by DJ Premier. That being said, it’s hard to be mad about an album that arguably most people thought would never actually see the light of day; and to its credit, the album does get a lot right. DJ Premier managed to get both Jeru The Damaja and Group Home to appear on a Gang Starr album; again another feat few fans probably every thought would ever happen again. And while the album does lack appearances from other longtime collaborators such as the NYGz and even DJ Premier oddly enough is silent throughout the project; the parties involved did the best they could with the materials available to them and ultimately turn out a decent send off to the late Guru and the Gang Starr legacy as a whole. Is One Of The Best Yet the greatest Gang Starr of all time? No, of course not; it’s far cry from any of its predecessors. But again, nobody thought though we’d ever get a Gang Starr album in 2019, let alone at all. Endings aren’t always perfect, they seldom come wrapped up in nice packages with pretty bows. In fact, sometimes they never come at all. While One Of The Best Yet may not be the perfect book-end some fans were eating for, it does serve as a reminder as just how special Gang Starr was; and how lucky we are to see it get a final proper conclusion.

One Of The Best Yet is currently available on digital platforms as well to stream on Tidal, Spotify, Apple Music, Prime Music. Physical copies on vinyl and CD are available for pre-order.

  1. The Sure Shot (Intro)
  2. Lights Out Feat. M.O.P.
  3. Bad Name
  4. Hit Man Feat. Q-Tip
  5. What’s Real Feat. Group Home & Royce Da 5’9
  6. Keith Casim Elam (Interlude)
  7. From A Distance Feat. Jeru The Damaja
  8. Family and Loyalty Feat. J. Cole
  9. Get Together Feat. Ne-Yo & Nitty Scott
  10. NYGz/GS 183rd (Interlude)
  11. So Many Rappers
  12. Business Or Art Feat. Talib Kweli
  13. Bring It Back Here
  14. One Of The Best Yet (Big Shug Interlude)
  15. Take Flight (Militia Pt. 4) Feat. Big Shug & Freddie Foxxx
  16. Bless The Mic

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