I remember hearing Gang Starr for the first time. I was in my friend’s garage, the one at his mom’s house in South Central L.A. that he’d converted into a hangout spot, which was the fashion at the time. The neighborhood dogs were barking pointlessly in all the yards and the LAPD helicopters chop-chop-chopped the sky, ever present. It was a warm day, as I recall, and the sound coming out of the garage was damn smooth. I liked the raspy voice of the MC. He was rapping about the streets, which was also the fashion. He wasn’t just bragging, rhyming about how hard he and his crew were. But he wasn’t wagging a finger in condemnation, either. There was a balance to the song, something real from the standpoint of someone who knows. Like something Johnny Cash would have understood.
The song was “Just to Get a Rep” and the MC went by the name of Guru. Guru dropped into a coma two weeks ago after a heart attack related to his fight with cancer. On April 19, he died.
“Just to Get a Rep” might not be the best Gang Starr song, but it is the one I’ll always listen to with a special fondness. One of the difficult things about doing hip-hop in the late ’80s/early ’90s was navigating the whole gangster rap thing. Did you try to out-gangsta the other guys? Did you go off in a completely different direction like the post-hippie sound of De La Soul? The gangsta rap persona was a bit overwhelming for any young MC trying to create a sound and an identity. Guru understood all that. “Just to Get a Rep” had a streety edge to it; Guru was down. Still, it was clear that he saw the tragedy and ugliness of the gangster life. Plus he wore that Black Muslim cap and he’d throw out fancy words, complicated diction. Guru once rhymed “mic” with “teletype.” I heard someone refer to him once as the “wise uncle.” I like to think of Guru that way. Just like your wise uncle, Guru was dangerously close to being full of shit, getting a little too self-righteous. But he always reined it back in the nick of time. “Jazz Thing,” the song made famous by Mo’ Better Blues, is preachy and didactic but redeemed, nevertheless, by the delightful phrase, “Theolonious Monk, a melodious thunk.”
Guru (and his amazing DJ, Premier) had a real ear for jazz and they pushed it into hip-hop vocabulary more successfully, arguably, than anyone else at the time. Often, Gang Starr songs would dig pretty deep into the musical tradition. What, for instance, are all those crazy space noises dancing around the baseline in the background of “Just To Get A Rep?” That’s the sample from Jean-Jacques Perrey’s “E.V.A.” Perrey was a Frenchman who moved to New York in the ’50s and started experimenting with loops and electronic noises with his new friend Robert Moog (of Moog synthesizer fame). Perrey also cut a few albums for Vanguard with Gershon Kingsley, sometimes credited with having written the first ever electropop song (“Popcorn”) and a friend to John Cage.
That’s the sort of stuff Gang Starr was comfortable referencing. Musically, they were always tying hip-hop back to its roots just as Guru was doing his best to address the coherence and narrative unity of the black experience. Guru and Premier wanted young DJs to appreciate experimental electronica music and stick-up kids to think about Marcus Garvey. Probably they failed in both. Thing is, “Just to Get a Rep” still sounds great whether or not anyone ever got the message. Whenever Guru’s voice pops up over a jazzy baseline, I feel like I’m hearing something that will last even though Guru himself has left the building. • 4 May 2010