The jazz-influenced rap duo Gang Starr have made a career of melding the two genres into innovative, eclectic music with realistic lyrics about city life. MC Guru Keith E. and DJ Premier have been together for more than 10 years now, and after a four-year hiatus, returned in 1998 with a new album and, now, a greatest-hits package.
MC Guru was born Keith Elam 33 years ago today in Boston. His father was the city's first black judge, but Guru was interested in hip-hop and jazz. After he studied business at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Guru moved to New York to test his musical talents (which he had begun honing in Boston in an early version of Gang Starr).
In Manhattan in the mid-'80s, Guru heard a demo tape by Brooklyn DJ Christopher Martin, who was attending college in Texas. When Martin, a.k.a. DJ Premier, returned to New York, the two men moved in together in Brooklyn to perfect a rap act.
The duo released Gang Starr's first LP, No More Mr. Nice Guy, in 1989, on Wild Pitch Records. It included such tracks as "Positivity" and "Jazz Music," the latter based on a poem by jazz and soul-pop publicist Elliot Horne.
Film director Spike Lee gave the duo breakthrough exposure when he included "Jazz Music" on the soundtrack to his 1990 jazz movie "Mo' Better Blues," starring Denzel Washington. The critically hailed Step in the Arena (1991), Gang Starr's major-label debut on Chrysalis Records, hit the top 20 of Billboard's R&B chart. It featured titles such as "Who's Gonna Take the Weight?"
A Daily Operation (1992), with tracks such as "The Place Where We Dwell," was also well received, though it didn't become a commercial smash. Guru then released two side-project LPs, Jazzmatazz (1993) and Volume 2 JazzmatazzNew Reality (1995), featuring such jazz artists as Courtney Pine and Branford Marsalis.
In 1994, Gang Starr issued Hard to Earn, another rave-reviewed album featuring cuts such as "Code of the Streets" and "The Planet." It debuted on Billboard's R&B album chart at #2.
The duo then took a hiatus, during which Premier produced a number of hip-hop artists, including Jeru the Damaja. Gang Starr returned in 1998 with Moment of Truth, featuring "You Know My Steez" and "Above the Clouds"
(RealAudio excerpt). The latter featured Inspectah Deck of the Wu-Tang Clan.
As they had done in the past, Gang Starr conspicuously avoided gangsta-rap lyrics. "What I bring to the game is message-related rap," Guru said. "Rap that's thoughtful and makes you say, 'yo, I went through that.' So after you catch the beat and you know the beat's going to be tremendous because Premier did it you say, 'yo, did you hear what he said?' That's our style."
Last week, Gang Starr released the retrospective Full Clip: A Decade of Gang Starr. It includes three new songs: "Full Clip," "Discipline" and "All 4 Tha Ca$h."
Other birthdays: Dion DiMucci, 60; Martha Reeves, 58; Danny McCulloch (Animals), 54; Phil Harris (Ace), 51; Wally Bryson (Raspberries), 50; Glenn Hughes (Village People), 49; Cesar Zuiderwijk (Golden Earring), 49; Terry Chambers (XTC), 44; Nigel Twist (Alarm), 41; Jack Irons (exRed Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam), 37.