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Morehouse 360: Gang Starr still Shines as One of the Best Yet

Tooling around Arlington, Texas in my Hyundai Excel, I felt top-of-the-world cranking Gang Starr in the tape deck. In 1991, as a high school senior, I tagged “Check the Technique” from the duo’s second LP, Step In the Arena, as my theme song.  The super bass-ed out cut eventually split my cheap-o woofers, but no matter. The DJ Premier production and GURU’s thoughtful intro floored me: "You puny protozoa, you're so minute you didn't know the / Gang has been watchin' but instead of just squashin' you / I'm scoopin' you up out of the muck you wallow in." My man put the word ‘protozoa' in a rhyme!

Keith Elam [MC GURU] graduated from Morehouse College in Business Management in 1983, and I was set to attend school there in the fall of ‘91. With Christopher Martin [DJ Premier] having attended Prairie View A&M the group demonstrated as cool role models while thinking on life after the 12th-grade and what I might do to impact the world. 

Gang Starr proved conscious, but not preachy. Their outside-of-group projects [Jazzmatazz for GURU and Preemo’s production for the likes of NaS, the Notorious B.I.G. and Jay Z] showed even fuller dimensions of their complicated whole, extending individual life stories and those of others they deftly framed and cosigned. Their impact as Golden-era hip-hop architects was blue-collar solid if not shiny-suit obvious. 

Gang Starr dropped their final album together, a sixth studio effort, in 2003, and Guru passed of complications from cancer in 2010 amid high-drama, fraying a hard-earned Gang Starr legacy with the incompleteness of it all. Then, on November 1, 2019, DJ Premier delivered One of the Best Yet, a love letter to his brother GURU and for The Culture.

On “From a Distance,” GURU rhymes, "It's King Equality with lines cocked back to add on / Word to everything, that's what I put that on / Yo, I sat on the sidelines, watched you foolish men / Fake hooligans, now it's time for us to duel again." The couplets seem prescient considering the current state of things and the years-old lyrics.

Premier — playing Q-Tip production to GURU’s Phife Dog lyricism — arrives at the posthumous LP with a heartfelt patch-working of the GURU’s unearthed recordings. The design of the collected records is not a stuffy or sentimental set, but a statement of how thoroughly representative the two are of foundational hip-hop through MC-ing and DJ-ing. Even more, the significance and relentlessness of real brotherhood sits heavy in an important way. 

Family and Loyalty, the lead single off One of the Best Yet, with guest bars from J. Cole, aptly summarizes the project and the bond between Keith and Christopher. Decades from their start, with wild mess between them, and death even, what remains are good works and love.  A non-preachy, productive love that seems just right these many years later.

Now tooling around Atlanta in my family ride with the boys [my sons] in the back, better woofers and [the edited version of] the new Gang Starr joint cranked to ten through the iPhone, GURU and Premier resonate. Even as a Morehouse College graduate, the two remain cool role models while thinking on life and what I might do to impact the world.

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David Wall Rice, PhD is Professor of Psychology, Associate Provost and Director of the Institute for Social Justice Inquiry and Praxis, one of four interrelated institutes that comprise the Andrew Young Center for Global Leadership at Morehouse College