No More Mr. Nice Guy (1989)
What comes to mind during that time was my amateur production skills [laughs]. I didn’t fully produce this album. Three of the songs The 45 King produced before even I joined the group. Then the ones I did produce, [including the single “Manifest”], I didn’t really have an understanding of how to make a record. So Guru and Slomo Sonnenfeld, who was the engineer at Such-A-Sound studios in Brooklyn, would help me put the SP-12 together. Guru and I would hit some snare sounds and Slomo would say, “Put the high hats like this.” And then I would throw in something and make it turn a certain way. Like Guru used to say, that was our early regiment because I wasn’t fully aware of the recording and production process. But those were some great times. Guru and I would catch the bus to the studio together.
I remember the day I walked into the studio to cut the first record with Gang Starr I tried to fist fight the engineer. I flew from Dallas to New York with my turntable coffin and I’m like, “Yeah, so where can I set up?” And Slomo said, “Oh, you’re not setting that up today.” And I’m like, “Motherfucker, this is how I make my beats!” They had to chill me out like, “Yo, this is not how we make records. You can lay it down on tape.” To this day, I only do my scratches on the last day of recording.
Step In The Arena (1991)
On the first album, I brought in a demo with just me repeating the drums over-and-over on one record and then I would start cutting up the records. I didn’t know the process of using a drum machine and trimming it straight to tape. But Step In The Arena is where I started to do the production all by myself.
The music started sounding the way Guru and I really wanted it to sound. There was more sampling and more musical concepts. Once I learned the process vs. by way of doing demos on a four-track, I knew the concept of how to lay a beat and make songs. With arrangements, I always had that down, but Step In The Arena is really my first all-production…just straight beats. You could hear our confidence growing.
Daily Operation (1992)
By now I was establishing the Gang Starr sound. My confidence level was 100 percent to where I was like, bring on anybody. I’ll take them all on! Before this album, I was getting a few calls from other artists to work with me. KRS-One reached out, but I was like, “Nah, I’m not ready yet.” I thought Kris was too large of an icon for me to even think that I could pull off an album with him. I was too nervous. But when he reached out after Daily Operation I said, “Ok, I’ll do it.” I did so many songs with other artists after that album.
We blew up big after Daily Operation. But we wanted to please the audience that already loved us as we were. That was always a conscious effort on both of our parts. And that’s the reason why Guru started doing the Jazzmatazz albums to protect Gang Starr from being pigeonholed as jazz rap. Guru used to hate being called that so much [laughs].
Hard To Earn (1994)
By this time, people were saying that I only used jazz samples. And that was cool early on because I used a lot of the jazz records to be different. Everyone else was sampling James Brown and Parliament, including myself at times, so much so that we started running out of the ill funky beats. But people started to over-emphasize the jazz samples and not listen to how dope Gang Starr’s sound was and how we converted it to hard beats. So I said, “You know what? On Hard To Earn I’m going to completely strip it down and use space sounds, helicopters or whatever, just to show it doesn’t matter what I use. And it’s going to be hard.” That’s what I did purposely to prove a point on songs like “Tonz O’ Gonz” and “Mass Appeal.”
Moment Of Truth (1998)
As I said before, this was the most emotional album for both of us. I had actually left the group before Moment Of Truth came out. We were not getting along over stupid shit. I just pretty much said, “Yo, I’m out of here,” so we put the album on hold. But it never got out to the press that I had bounced. At that time Guru was going through his gun trial and he was facing a five-year bid, so we thought he was going away for a long time. That’s when I called Guru and said, “I want to do this.” After we made up, people were telling me that we weren’t going to be able to tour. They just wanted to get the album out there while he did his bid. I remember when they read all the [not-guilty] verdicts and everything…it was just crazy.
I also remember the day we recorded the [title track] for Moment of Truth. Just looking at the emotions in Guru’s eyes doing the vocals to “Moment of Truth”…he was really nervous that he would be found guilty. “JFK 2 LAX” was a true story. And with “The Next Time,” I made that record the day my accountant passed away. She was someone who was a major part of my life. When she died, that fucked me up. The sample almost makes you want to cry because that was the mood I was in. It’s still an emotional song for me to this day. And it’s one of my favorite recordings, period. Moment of Truth ended up becoming our biggest album. Guru would say, “All I want is a gold album.” We finally got it with this one.
The Ownerz (2003)
We had one of the dopest staffs at our label Virgin, but they all got fired when Mariah Carey’s Glitter failed. That made them get rid of a lot of people. Before that, Virgin would always let us do whatever we wanted. We always picked our own singles and the sequence of the album. We always did the gutter street song first, followed by the radio record, a follow-up single and then the tour. That was our routine every year. But when it came down to The Ownerz, we had to switch over to an all-new staff. And the crazy thing is our new urban music president was the same guy who produced Rob Thomas and Matchbox 20. Dude was two years younger than me! He didn’t put his foot down and let Gang Starr do what we usually did.
We disagreed on the choice of singles and I started purposely being an asshole and not answering the phone. I would call up to the Virgin offices talking shit like, “Yo man, you better call me! [laughs].” Part of that was that I always held down Guru. His spirit knows that I’ve always been there to hold him down whatever we were dealing with. I didn’t mind being the spokesperson. We had to get out of that situation. But the legacy of Gang Starr was too big to destroy. We matter to the fans. We matter too much to hip hop.