I knew it was coming. We all did. Couple months back when Guru, the MC half of legendary hip-hop duo Gang Starr, slipped into a coma, we all held our breath. And despite the lack of news in recent weeks, I don’t know if it surprised anyone to learn that he passed last night, finally succumbing to the cancer that had left him hospitalized for a month. Still didn’t make it any easier to read when I woke up this morning.
Gang Starr was there early for me, a chubby 12-year-old in a Raiders cap and jogging pants. This is like, ’88 or ’89, when it really felt like hip-hop had crossed the tipping point. Even that young, I could tell: the videos started showing up more and more on Muchmusic. The network started running Rap City five days a week, 5.30 I think it was, after school, hosted by Michael Williams. And they played everything . So Gang Starr got sandwiched in between groups like Brand Nubian, Poor Righteous Teacher, Pete Rock and CL Smooth and other Five Percenter types, who had banging music even if I had no clue about the iconography featured in the videos. I remember not feeling them all that much as a pre-teen. I remember falling into an amazing sleep while ‘Ex Girl to Next Girl‘ played on the TV in the background, but that shrill horn in ‘Who’s Gonna Take the Weight‘ wasn’t made for a child’s ear, so I tossed them aside and went back to listening to De La and Digital Underground. Until ‘Mass Appeal‘.
‘Mass Appeal’ was the first Gang Starr record I loved, adored, obsessed over, even if it was just eight little keyboard blips looped for three and a half minutes. That was around the point I understood there was a ‘Primo sound’, and further exploration of his production work shot him to the top of my favourite producers.
None of this is to diminish Guru’s contribution. His voice, the melodic monotone, was the soothing comfort to Premier’s hard boom-bap. No one makes drums slap harder than Preem, and Guru’s baritone delivery soften the abrasiveness of the drums, making the pair another example of a perfect hip-hop duo the likes of which we never see anymore [to hip-hop’s detriment, I think]. By the time ‘Moment of Truth’ hit in ’97, on the strength of singles like ‘You Know My Steez’ and ‘Royalty‘, I was hooked, and scooped up the greatest hits compilation a couple of years later, which has been a staple of my iPod ever since.
So it’s with a heavy heart to know that Guru and Primo won’t be working together again, a heavier one knowing Premier lost his brother and favourite collaborator, and heaviest to think of all the suspect dealings surrounding Guru’s current DJ, both before and after his death. But we don’t need to talk about that.
All we need to talk about is the contributions the man made to the music we love, and how sick and tired I am of writing tributes for musicians I respect.
I think I owe it to the man to go look at some of the Jazzmatazz work.