Best Of '99: Gang Starr Play 10 Years Of Hip-Hop Hits

Old-school show celebrates new career retrospective, Full Clip.

[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at 1999's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Tuesday, July 13.]

SAN FRANCISCO — Guru was in a mood to celebrate.

When the Gang Starr MC strutted onto the stage of the Maritime Hall on Sunday night, he joined a huge posse already gathered there, their arms waving to the deep bass throbs of DJ Premier's turntables. With the near-capacity crowd in a fever pitch, Guru called out, "Let's take it back to motherf---ing 1989."

Premier dropped a huge, old-school beat, scratching horn-heavy riffs of the sort that have all but disappeared from modern hip-hop. It was "Step in the Arena" (RealAudio excerpt), the title track from Gang Starr's 1991 major-label debut. The crowd exploded into a sea of pumping fists and bobbing heads.

This was how the long-standing, innovative rap duo went about celebrating Full Clip: A Decade of Gang Starr, a two-CD retrospective that hit stores Tuesday (July 13).

"This new album is sort of commemorating those 10 years of dues, actually proving that a rap group can do more than two or three albums," Guru said before the show, as he relaxed on the theater's sofa. " 'Cause [this is] like our sixth album ... so you know, definitely we're a phenomenon" (RealAudio excerpt of interview).

In an industry that churns out new artists seemingly every month, Gang Starr have maintained an unusual career. Guru (born Keith Elam), 32, and DJ Premier (born Christopher Martin), 30, formed Gang Starr in 1988. They soon developed a reputation for groundbreaking music with their 1989 hit "Manifest" (RealAudio excerpt), which sampled a bassline from a song by jazz pianist Thelonious Monk.

Ten years later, Gang Starr's style of hip-hop can still draw big crowds. "Yo, they was dropping mad beats," said Mark Phillips, 17, summing up the vibe of the show.

In contrast to his relaxed preshow demeanor, Guru kept the attention of Sunday's crowd by firing rhymes into his cordless mic and strutting around the stage, occasionally slapping hands with enthusiastic fans.

The fans who packed the cavernous theater embodied various aspects of youth culture. There were teenage girls in revealing spandex outfits, skateboarders in baggy pants and young gangster types in sports-team jackets and baseball caps, the latter set at various angles on their heads.

The theater was filled with the pungent smell of marijuana. A 30-something man in a business suit stood at the edge of the balcony cupping a joint in one hand while tapping his cell phone on the ledge of the balcony to the beat of Premier's turntables.

Gang Starr ran through 10 years of hits, playing such songs as "Manifest," "Mass Appeal" and "Full Clip" (RealAudio excerpt) — one of the three new songs to appear on the retrospective. "Full Clip" featured a bass-heavy beat, over which Guru dropped characteristically laid-back rhymes.

Gang Starr brought out several guests to help rock the mic. Big Shug and Hannibal Stacks traded rhymes and sprayed bottled water on the overheated crowd as Guru stood by the side of the stage in his black baseball jersey.

When the show was over, perspiring fans poured out of the venue and into the chilly San Francisco night, many standing outside and discussing the show.

"I grew up on [Gang Starr] albums and it was dope to see them go back to the old school," fan David Ramirez, 19, said.