Sharps & flats

Gang Starr introduced the hip-hop nation to jazz, but a new retrospective proves that you don't have to blame them for letting vital music devolve into bourgeois R&B.

By D. Strauss
July 1, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Art forms tend to kill with quality, last year's movement reified into a thousand soul-murderous objects. Dr. Dre drops his masterpiece, "The Chronic," and next thing you know a
million baby gangsters start popping off their toy guns. It's like Mickey Mouse and those brooms in "Fantasia." The Brooklyn hip-hop act Gang Starr will go down in the year 2005's "Source Record Guide" as the group that ushered in the jazz pretenders.

Guru and DJ Premier knew, of course, what they were doing, and Gang Starr injected jazz into hip-hop with inventiveness and style before anyone else. But there were a couple of years in the early to mid-'90s when mediocre poets and finger-snapping freshmen took Gang Starr's lead and redefined jazz as bourgeois R&B. The "jazz thing" at its best (Gang Starr, some Digable Planets) was a necessary response to both the acid jazz movement in the U.K. and, more importantly, the increasing idiocy of sampling laws that forced creative DJs to search out obscure sources.

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But I don't hold Alfred Nobel responsible for Kosovo and Gang Starr shouldn't be blamed for US3. Gang Starr was all-star from day one, 10 years ago. "Full Clip," a lengthy two-CD compendium of new tracks, remixes and solo work, is the sort of overview a band usually gets when it's put out to pasture and its label plans to delete all its CDs.

This might make a cruel commercial sense, I suppose, as shelf-lives in hip hop are traditionally short, with the genre's biggest stars often forced into such suspect careers as real estate and film stardom. But, despite their influence, Gang Starr never really hit it big. So, Guru and Premier never had an audience to lose besides hardcore heads; last year's "Moment of Truth" was their first release to go gold. Anyone unfortunate enough to own sophomore records by Snoop Dogg or Das EFX knows that solid gold Cadillacs for the most part have screwed up hip hop, and the reasons are too numerous to go into here. But Gang Starr's back catalog, with the exception of Guru's "Jazzmatazz" project, has aged quite well. The last three records sound as if they could have come out this year.

The compilation slights Gang Starr's earliest material, which I assume isn't under Virgin copyright. There's only one track, the "Manifest" remix, from the debut, "No More Mr. Nice Guy," and "Lovesick" from "Step Into the Arena" -- one of the first hip-hop tracks to detail male vulnerability -- is bizarrely omitted. Instead, the collection plays up guest appearances by Inspectah Deck and Jeru the Damaga (a Premier discovery). The new title track, built around some old-school scratching and one of Guru's deadpan attempts at macho, is slight but not unpleasant. And, of course, there's that Branford Marsalis "Jazz Thing" from Spike Lee's "Mo' Better Blues," a song that has always bugged me because its narrative time line declines to admit advancements in jazz after Ornette Coleman. Think of all the cool words Guru could have rhymed with "Ayler."

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So where does the jazz thing lay now? Well, like Miles Davis, Guru never felt a need to impress with speed. He's one of the most laconic rappers around. Premier, for his part, really does know the genre well, taking Art Blakey's gut-bucket drums over Bob James' Muzak keyboard noodling. But compared with the Dizzybird bebop of turntablists like the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, Gang Starr is Artie Shaw. But you know what? Artie Shaw's band records sound better every year, and Ava Gardner did marry the guy.


D. Strauss

D. Strauss is a freelance writer in New York.

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