Gang Starr's Gastronomical Delights

Imagine that you're one of the best chefs in the world, and that you're

planning the grand opening of your restaurant. Sure, you might sell a few

of your recipes to cookbook publishers and other restaurant owners desperate to

capitalize on your cooking talents, but you're gonna save the best

goodies for yourself, right? I mean, you're not stupid.

DJ Premier, the production half of Gang Starr, isn't stupid either.

Since he finally came into his own on 1990's Step into the Arena (Gang

Starr's second album), Premier has been the most consistently brilliant

hip-hop producer of the '90s. Dr. Dre and other shining lights of

hip-hop can't make that claim, because it seems that Premier is the only

dude who hasn't fallen off, even for a second. The Wu's RZA doesn't

count, because when you compare his production in the early 1990s when he

was Prince Rakeem, a solo artist, to the sound he developed for the Wu's

debut album, it's obvious that RZA was most definitely influenced by

Premier. (Anyway, it seems that RZA seems to be taking this whole

production thing in another direction, because -- to continue the restaurant

metaphor -- he's growing content with franchising his trademark sound to

an army of cooks who know how to tweak that treble the right way.)

So, after a four year hiatus, and with a couple hundred

production credits for other artists under his belt, Premier and his

partner in rhyme, Guru, are back in business after having cooked up the

best batch of cookies and cakes you've tasted since, well, they

served their last platter. Even with 20 songs crammed onto the plate,

there isn't much in the way of filler. Opening with the ace-in-the-hole

single, "You Know My Steez," Premier subtly scratches up a little storm

before he lets a jazz-guitar line and a thumping bass take over. Atop the

expertly crafted beats, Guru -- the self-described "king of

monotone" -- invokes the spirit of hip-hop, alludes to the fact that he's

the Wizard of Oz and disses "all the rappers who lack over Premier

tracks." Just another day in the life of one Gifted Universal Rhymes

Unlimited.

Gang Starr aren't breaking any new ground, but so what? Their

recipes still taste great. Some tracks, such as "Above the Clouds"

and "Robbin Hood Theory," feature Premier's well-known blip-bleep

sonar-inflected electronic underwater sound effects. Others contain the

quasi-jazz leanings of "You Know My Steez," "What I'm Here 4" and "She

Knows What She Wants." And still others -- "Royalty" and "Moment of Truth,"

for instance -- feature another Premier production standby, a looped string

arrangement that gives the song a dark, foreboding vibe. Still,

what makes Premier a better producer than, say, RZA is that he's capable

of greater variety and, more importantly, occasionally surprising the

listener (though I wish he'd try to surprise me a little more, but that's

another issue).

Despite the fact that Gang Starr are following a formula -- which they

acknowledge during a spoken-word moment in the intro -- Moment of

Truth is different from their previous efforts in that it contains

numerous cameos from beyond the extended Gang Starr family. The most

shocking cameo for hardcore hip-hop heads is the appearance on "Royalty"

of K-Ci and JoJo, the duo of brothers that make up half the R&B group,

Jodeci. "Sacrilege!" some uptight "keepin' it real" folks may scream.

Don't fear. Because, as Guru and Premier have defensively claimed, this

isn't an R&B/hip-hop fusion sellout. It simply sounds like another murky

Gang Starr track with the voices of soulful brothers woven into the

strings, tinkling pianos, rolling bassline and galloping percussion

backbeat.

Guru and Premier have chosen their guest stars well, because some of the

most memorable songs are the ones that contain cameos. For instance,

"Above the Clouds," featuring the Wu's Inspectah Deck, is one of the best

Gang Starr songs I've heard in a while. A typically busy Premier

production, "Above the Clouds" kind of makes me feel like I'm actually

floating through space, though it's no "Night Flight to Venus" by Boney M.

"Itz a Set Up," featuring Hannibal, and "B.I. vs Friendship," featuring

M.O.P., bounce a little more than usual, and Scarface's appearance on

"Betrayal" pushes Guru to produce some of the most introspective and

poetic rhymes of his career.

But the real key to Moment of Truth's success is the

remarkable chemistry between Premier and Guru, the little DJ and MC team

that could.