(Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV)
Editors Note: I started writing this blog a week ago. It just so happens that the last blog I wrote before I finally finished and ended up publishing this was a blog DJ Premier. Music, man. Mahalo.
Last week we talked about a conscious rap record that hit the streets in 1998, and we won’t veer too far away from that description as we get into my number 5 pick. This album was also released in 1998, and also featured a duo. Except this duo was the classic rapper/DJ combination. One man on the mic and the other on the 1s and 2s. As hip hop as it gets.
By the time they released this album, they had quite the lengthy discography. They’d been on the grind for over a decade, consistently producing quality hip hop without ever achieving mainstream success. But their music helped shape the sound of New York hip hop for an entire generation.Which is kind of funny considering neither of them are from New York (Rapper from Boston / DJ from Houston).
This album is revered as a late career classic for the group. Everything is on point. Everything was elevated. But as the intro says….it’s still Guru and Premier. Gang Starr.
Number 6: Gang Starr – Moment of Truth (1998)
I got high before school ONE time in my life. I was a junior in high school (prime pothead year if you haven’t noticed), and my neighbor who used to drive us to school told me we were gonna take a detour before going in. We picked up two girls I knew and rolled a blunt. As the blunt was burnin’, one of the girls put on a cd. It had this raw street beat with these jazzy, chopped samples. Then this unique, raspy voice came in and started rapping. It was so freakin cool. That’s the best way I’d describe it. “Cool.” I’d never heard anything like it, and I had to know who it was. She said, “Dude you’ve never heard Gang Starr? Holy shit I’m burning you this CD after school.” Well, she did. And I had in my possession an album that put me on to my favorite hip hop producer of all time.
You know what, I’m gonna do something totally different with this review. Something I have’t done/won’t do with any others on this list. Moment of Truth doesn’t really have a concept to it. It doesn’t have a special ebb and flow to the tracks. It’s simply the best collection of tracks the greatest hip hop producer of all time put together in his long, illustrious career. It’s just track after track of Tom Hanks stuck on an island by himself screaming Fire flames beats. So I’m gonna do a Top 10 within the Top 10. I’ll rank my favorite tracks on this album from 10-1. Leggo…
10. “My Advice to You”
Smooth. Heartfelt. Guru spitting knowledge per usual. Telling the youngins about what’s really important in life. His plea to the kid to strive for better than what the streets offer. The last line in the chorus, “You need to stop, before you get caught again / before you get shot and I lose another friend.” Damn.
This is a smokers beat. Premo samples some beautiful, trippy keys that sound like bells. And anytime you can get a Scarface feature, it’s usually top notch. This is no exception. Scarface’s old, wise-man style matches Guru’s, but his delivery is much more in your face and bassy. They both trade tales of street friendships that went sour. Also, the same samples were used on one of my favorite Mac Miller tracks, which is always dope to hear them flipped differently.
Definitely one of the more braggadocios tracks on the album. Guru steps away from his normal street knowledge rhymes and talks about the glamorous life. My buddy and I used to laugh at the line, “Your bitch don’t really got no ass, she just poked it out.” That line couldn’t be more true than in today’s social media world where girls find the perfect pose to maximize their “curves.” Also one of the most energetic beats on the album. Fun track.
8. “New York Straight Talk”
This is Guru and Premier’s ode to the city the Big Apple. The city that gave them the opportunity to become the legends they are. There’s really nothing special about this track and whenever I tell people it’s one of my favorite Gang Starr songs, I get crooked looks. I just like the simple bass line. It’s so fun and playful. Premier’s beats are sometimes so gritty and dark, it’s funny to hear one that’s the total opposite.
6. “What I’m Here 4”
Ugh…the piano samples in this track are so freaking beautiful. I had one of those special high experiences the first time I heard this song and it’s always held a place in my heart. Beautiful. That’s the only word to describe it. ‘Nuff said.
5. “JFK 2 LAX”
A story of Guru getting arrested and incarcerated, sprinkled with knowledge that was so uniquely Guru. The ending rhyme perfectly sums up what Guru was as a man and rapper. “Read, study lessons and build your inner power ’cause the next level doesn’t tolerate cowards.” He was a spiritual man and a teacher. Someone who always tried to better others lives. Sad that we lost him so early.
Premier is so, so good at sampling keys. Similar to “Betrayal,” this song samples keys that sound like bells and really put you in a trance. You rarely hear sung choruses on any Gang Starr tracks because Premo is usually scratching samples. But 90s legends KC & JoJo provide the perfect R&B vocals here. They don’t overdo it by any means and fit seamlessly with Guru. Also, the drum breakdown at the end is so hip hop it hurts.
3. “Above the Clouds”
Man, these last three could all be number one. This track features the criminally underrated Inspektah Deck. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sub-par verse from him. He just brings it every time. Obviously the asian-sounding sample is what makes this track stand out as unique, but the intro manages to sample JFK and Jerry Seinfeld back to back. Pretty unreal stuff from Premier on this one. One of the more universally loved tracks all time by HHH’s.
2. “Moment of Truth”
To me, this sounds like the track you’d hear walking through the gates of hip hop heaven. It’s very angelic. The strings, the bells, the piano. Everything just gives me the feeling of peacefulness. Like I’m…ABOVE THE CLOUDS! Lol suh. But on the real, this song has always been one of those tracks that I just close my eyes, nod, and say “yes” to myself when it comes on. The fact that Premier can make beats as dark and gritty as “NY State of Mind” and “D. Original” then make a song that sounds as heavenly as this one does, really speaks to his versatility within his little niche.
1.“You Know My Steez”
Y’all should know by now how much I love a good intro track. This is one of the best ever. The second the beat comes in and you hear “The reallllllll / Hip Hop / MC’in / and DJ’in.”
Ugh. It gets me hyped just thinking about it. This was the first Gang Starr track I heard on that fateful morning blunt ride, and it’s stuck with me as the best on the album. I’ve never met anyone who isn’t totally blown away by how jazzy it is. It’s one of those tracks that I’d put on a mix CD to introduce non-hip hop fans to real hip hop. It’s the art in its purest form. Premo scratching, Guru spitting, and a beat that’s infectious. Impossible not to love this track. I dare you to tell me different.
That was fun! A little different than I’ve been doing, but nice to change it up a bit. Amazingly, we’re halfway through the countdown. Next week we enter the top five. As if the first five albums on this list weren’t great enough, the next five are even better, and they cover a wide range of years. Pumped to get into it.