New American Songbook: Gang Starr Put In The Work
This commentary originally aired on July 20, 2015.
Our American identities are largely formed around the concept of work, both the noun and the verb, and as our national music, hip hop is no different.
We celebrate work that turns into astounding success—the self-made millionaires and their bootstraps—but we also respect that steady kind of work that simply does a job well.
Work is part of our play. When we say that a basketball player made a "workman-like effort," we mean that she got the job done with very little flair, but cleanly and efficiently. In hip hop, no other group practiced this kind of aesthetic more than Gang Starr and its emcee, GURU, who passed away in 2010.
There’s no mistaking a Gang Starr track. The soul-heavy cuts of DJ Premier buttress GURU’s distinct vocals, making a track that is better than the sum of its parts. Gang Starr is subtle, slightly soft-spoken for hip hop. You won’t hear stories of mansions and the rhymes won’t blow by in a flurry of rhythmic ornament. GURU tells street stories, sometimes dark, sometimes reflective, but he is consistently relatable in a way that not many popular emcees are, unless you happen to be a gazillionaire.
At its core, this is what hip hop is: stories that we tell to each other to be heard by one another. Gang Starr made steady work out of these stories, leaving behind a catalog that exemplifies the virtues of a job well done.