“Hip-hop, like life, is like an onion. Peel back the layers and you might weep.” -DJ Premier
So it goes with legendary hip-hop duo Gang Starr. On the surface, Gang Starr was an East Coast duo that pushed musical boundaries in the ’90s by beautifully bringing together jazz and hip-hop.
Peel back a layer and you find the two men, who essentially helped pioneer New York’s hip-hop sound, weren’t from New York after all. In fact, one-half of the group credited with playing an important role in the early development of Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z and Nas once drove forklifts at a Texas Kroger.
This young man lived in Fifth Ward and played for a little league team called the Astros. He smashed football helmets for Waller High School. He went to college not at some serene East Coast academic institution, but a Historically Black university on the outskirts of Houston on 290 West.
You might know it. It’s called Prairie View A&M, and Christopher Martin, now 44, sometimes tailgates when he visits home and DJs Prairie View’s homecoming parties.
If you don a Houston fitted cap, the scent of the onion’s layers might have you teary-eyed with pride, knowing that a figure whose upbringing screams H-Town also played a historic role in the evolution of quite possibly your favorite sound born in the Bronx.
In an age when hip-hop has been hijacked by silly dance moves, sometimes too much bling and pastel Polos — no offense if you do the “Dougie” with a piece chain over your pink garb, though — the music’s history, roots and authenticity still remain important to Martin.
You may know Martin better as DJ Premier. If you haven’t guessed, he’s originally from Houston. His deceased partner, MC Guru, hailed from Boston.
Gang Starr, however, will forever represent New York.
Guru passed of complications due to cancer this past April. His death was surrounded by controversy in hip-hop rags and blogs, with claims he wrote an unfavorable letter about DJ Premier in his dying days stating he did “not wish my ex-DJ to have anything to do with my name, likeness, events, tributes, etc.”
Guru’s family and Premier believe the letter was “false and bogus,” he says, because after more than 20 years of knowing each other, he knew Guru’s penmanship.
Peel back another layer and you reveal something vital to Premier’s argument: He really does know his partner’s handwriting.
“I have his rhyme book,” he says. “I know his handwriting. Why didn’t he write my name? Why would he write ‘ex DJ’? It doesn’t make sense. If you take this to a court of law, I’d win.”
“To be invited to speak at his private funeral,” he punctuates, “You know I’m official.”
Official is right.
Rolling Stone named DJ Premier as hot lesbian porn hip-hop’s greatest producer of all-time; The Source ranked him one of the five greatest producers in hip-hop history, and About.com ranked him No. 1 on its “Top-50 Hip-Hop Producers” list, according to Wikipedia.
Guru’s production fingerprints are pressed on some of the most important albums ever to come out of the East Coast, including KRS-One’s Return of the Boom Bap, Nas’s Ilmatic, B.I.G.’s Ready to Die and Jay-Z’s first four albums.
And when he DJs, his notoriety overseas can pack a Paris nightclub. He’ll probably do the same when he brings his brilliance behind the turntables to Numbers Sunday night.
“It’s like a reset button,” Premier says about coming home. “It resets you back. All my friends tell me, ‘You haven’t changed. How do you not do that?’
“My head is in the right place,” he adds.
His head is always in hip-hop. He spits the names of behind-the-scenes hip-hop figures from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s with a dismissing ease, as if you’re supposed to know who they are.
As if you, too, were backstage with the Geto Boyz, Kool G Rap and Ice Cube at Harlem’s Apollo Theater when Houston hip-hop’s trailblazing trio blew the lid off the New York shrine.
As if you knew Big Mello replaced Willie D that evening at the Apollo because Willie and Scarface had an argument and D refused to take the stage. The crowd, Premier recalls, couldn’t tell the difference.
As if Eric B & Rakim, Run-DMC, Big Daddy Kane and Public Enemy were also your professional competition.
Not surprisingly, in DJ Premier’s mind, knowledge of hip-hop history equals longevity in the industry.
In the middle of our hour-long conversation, after rapidly scratching at our musical knowledge, like the ones and twos, with several dozen names of music pioneers in hip-hop, country and blues, he suddenly asks us our age.
We tell him we’re 31…hoping that’s old enough to garner his respect.
“Most people your age and younger, they fall off,” Premier says, assuming we haven’t fallen off. “Most people can’t have a conversation with me and I could care less. I live the culture through and through. Not everybody is hip-hop 24/7. I am.”
“The only way you will ever last in hip-hop is if you respect where it comes from,” he continues. “You can’t make [hip-hop] different until you know enough to make it different. Today a lot of the artists don’t know the history. How far do you think you can go? You have to know enough history to prolong it. You treat it with respect and you are always going to be able to do it no matter how old you are.”
DJ Premier is a proof point of his philosophy and rappers like Bun B are examples of it. Premier is known to talk with his hands behind the turntables, and he channeled Pimp C’s spirit on “Let ‘Em Know” featured on Bun’s latest album, Trill O.G.
In hip-hop years, Premier is practically 100. When he speaks of “back in my day,” it’s reminiscent of grandfathers recalling walking uphill to and from school, but it’s endearing. Eventually you realize you aren’t talking to grandpa, you’re talking to a chapter in hip-hop history.
After studying at Prairie View, Premier recalls leaving Houston in a raggedy Nissan with plenty of nicknames and heading to New York. When he got there, there were eviction notices and padlocks on his front door when he and then-roommate Guru couldn’t make the rent.
A call from Spike Lee changed that. Gang Starr was invited to create a track, called “Jazz Thing,” for Lee’s 1990 flick Mo Better Blues. The rest, as they say, is hip-hop history.
Over the next 12 years, Gang Starr would drop a discography that would cement their place as one of the most important hip-hop duos in East Coast rap, and arguably in hip-hop history: Step in the Arena (1991), Daily Operation (1992), Hard to Earn (1994), Moment of Truth (1998) and The Ownerz (2003).
In 2006, Guru publicly declared the end to Gang Starr, but Premier talked of a reunion in the months prior to Guru’s death.
“I still cry every now and then,” Premier says. “I’m angry that he’s gone.”
Peel back the layers and you might weep.
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