Sometimes it's absolutely ridiculous to look back at a year in time and popular music and observe history being born. I was alive in 1994, but I was only four, so east and west coast rivalries were not on the agenda. 1994 was the year that Hip-Hop exploded: Illmatic, Ready To Die, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, The Sun Rises in the East, Do You Want More"!!!""!, Ill Communication and The Diary; but a few records all released within the same twelve months.
Another classic was unleashed early on in the year, and as would be expected it was buried amidst a mass of timeless classics; hip hop albums that literally defined the genre and cast an extremely long shadow for all other years to sit in. The band was Gang Starr, and the release was the now classic Hard to Earn. Gang Starr had been around since 1989, and were by no means unheard of, Step Into The Arena and Daily Operation were rightly known as classics in their canon, but on their next album, DJ Prem ripped up his own manual, compiling deep, swamp thick jazz and skittering drum grooves for Guru to spit his laconic and relaxed style over.
The group themselves are extremely undeserving of their self-assigned moniker: less gangstas, and more outspoken critics of street life and the fascination of guns from young inner city males. Guru got out of his rut selling drugs and hustling with his uncanny ability to sound as relaxed as possible; whilst tearing suckas in two with his fast flow, hilarious rhymes, and poignant tales of the disturbing street life in New York.
Hard To Earn finds Gang Starr in a more aggressive mood though, seemingly rabid in it's own attempt to constantly reinvent itself, Premier frequently samples other rapper's one-liners (on A Long Way To Go, Phife-Dawg's 'Now here's a funky introduction', is repeatedly scratched over), and their catchy choruses (the superb standout Suckas Need Bodyguards features Rob Base' spit 'I'm not a sucka so I don't need a bodyguard'). It is in this recycling that Gang Starr's sound really thrives - acknowledging the sounds that have went before but reusing them to a devastatingly catchy effect, providing the tracks with hooks that could never possibly be gained from Guru's repetition alone, a technique which has been copied very heavily to this day.
However, it is on tracks like the Planet that G-Starr unleash their true potential, a bizarrely inspirational track about dropping comfortable surroundings to do something truly worthwhile, while completely acknowledging the tough life this would truly be ('That shit was rough cause my pockets was bare, and like the sayin' goes, sometimes life ain't fair').
The truth is though, whether Gang Starr spit rhymes about gangsta exploits past, reinventing themselves, or rap battles turning sour into real
-battles, the voice sounds true, authentic, and believable. Best of all, Guru's flow, technique and lyrics leave you absolutely astounded; his understated and often slow style may grate occasionally, sounding more like a very dry speech at times, quickly flitting back into genius territory. Much more than that, it is on Hard to Earn that Gang Starr come of age, a wannabe rap group they have ceased to be just that; Guru and Prem are older and they seem wiser for the five years they'd been on the scene. Call it wizened, or call it experienced, regardless, Hard to Earn is Gang Starr at both their creative peaks, with Premier sampling delicious jazz beats and basslines, Guru is free to let loose and spew his intelligent vitriol everywhere.