April 23, 2010

Gang Starr - The Ownerz (June 24, 2003)

On April 19, 2010, Keith Elam, best known to hip hop followers as the rapper Guru, passed away.  Now, I could get into a pointed diatribe against his so-called "best friend", Solar, and how that cocksucker manipulated one of the most expressive monotone voices our genre has ever heard, but I choose instead to revisit a period of time that will never exist again: the Gang Starr era.  I also feel that I can now actually pay attention to the final joint effort from Guru and DJ Premier, The Ownerz, within the proper context, without immediately falling all over myself with praise for one of the finest duos hip hop has ever seen.

Side note: anybody that truly thinks that Guru created the Gang Starr Foundation by himself can go fuck themselves. 

Anyway.  After the surprising success of their fifth album, Moment Of Truth (their highest-selling effort), Gang Starr found themselves in the unfortunate position of having to repeat themselves.  So it makes sense that The Ownerz miraculously appeared on store shelves five years after Moment Of Truth.  Not content with simply running over to Fed Ex and straight up copying their last album, Guru and Primo took their time, crafting what was supposed to be yet another chapter in their legacy.  Instead, The Ownerz turned into the final album these two would ever create together.

What the fuck went wrong?  Who knows?  Primo isn't talking, and Guru...well, even when he was still with us, that wakaflocka Solar refused to even let him speak on the matter, choosing to pretend that Guru was, apparently, an old-school rap artist that never actually released any music during the old-school timeframe.  (You know what?  Six Gang Starr albums are pretty fucking hard to ignore.)  The Ownerz doesn't provide any clues, either: it consists of nineteen tracks (well, sixteen songs, two interludes, and an intro) that tread well-worn Gang Starr territory: namely, hip hop is fucked up, everybody needs to open their eyes and pay attention to what's going on, why Guru's voice makes him a better rapper than your mother, and the like.


Oddly, The Ownerz ended up sounding like Moment Of Truth regardless, as many of the same formulas are revisited: there's even a sequel to the previous disc's masterful "The Militia" (well, technically, a sequel to a sequel, but I'll get to that in a moment).  A handful of famous names make their voices heard (did anybody truly believe in their heart that Snoop Dogg would score a cameo appearance on a fucking Gang Starr album?), while DJ Premier dug deep into his crates and molded instrumentals from scratch made up of hard boom-bap, sound bites from other rap songs, and the jazzy influences that have set Gang Starr apart since No More Mr. Nice Guy.

Two years after The Ownerz saw its release, Guru and Premier broke up; even though Primo kept teasing whoever would listen that another Gang Starr project was in the pipeline, Guru (read: Solar) went into immediate denial mode, choosing instead to promote his solo work that nobody (and I mean nobody) liked.  I may get to that material eventually, in the interest of finality, but I wouldn't wait around holding my breath, you two: as is the rest of the hip hop world, I'm pretty pissed at Solar right now.  All I can hope is that Keith Elam's family is getting the closure that they so rightly deserve.

It would also be kind of cool if Primo turned this tragic event into a way for hip hop to band together.  But that's a topic for another time, maybe.  But for now, we have The Ownerz, and I'll try my best to be objective, because I actually stopped listening to this album after spinning it for a month in 2003, and I want to find out if there was a valid reason why. 

(Full disclosure: The Ownerz was already on my short list for a full write-up, but recent events have given it priority, so this shouldn't be seen as a mere tie-in with the man's passing.  R.I.P. Guru.)

Wow, a rap album intro.  Great.  I don't even care that they're simply telling listeners that, even as you mature in life, it's important to continue learning and to pay attention: I'm already pissed off at The Ownerz.  Primo couldn't even find a throwaway beat to score this introductory skit to?  Really?

Kind of a low-key reintroduction to Guru and Premier: its sound actually reminds me of some of their older work circa Step In The Arena, albeit with a 2003 twist.  The hook is weak, since it comes across as a major label version of Kool Keith's "I Don't Believe You", but Guru's lyrics are otherwise unencumbered with the passage of time: he sounds as though this shit could have been recorded yesterday, it's that fresh.  Special guest star Krumbsnatcha doesn't quite manage the same feat, but this was an interesting way to kick things off, especially thanks to Primo's horror-movie stabs sprinkled infrequently throughout.

Guru cedes the mic to special guest Smiley the Ghetto Child, who kicks a single verse without to managing to impress listeners in any way.  All this short song proves is that DJ Premier will give a beat to damn near anybody who asks, but not everyone actually deserves one.  Skip.

Guru gives listeners two verses and what could double as an extended chorus on the subject of trust and how fragile it actually is.  This track isn't about actual sabotage as much as it is about backstabbing, which is too bad: I would have liked to have heard Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal (you have to love rappers and their acronyms) plot revenge against an opponent's entire way of life, but one can only cram so much into two verses and what could double as an extended chorus.  Primo's beat is rather weak, so there isn't much to recommend on this track.

Well, if Jadakiss (of The Lox) doesn't do anything else with his career, he can at least tell his grandchildren that (a) he was featured on a Gang Starr song, and (b) he sounded really fucking good.  The hook is meh, but his line about "apparently [being] a slave to Interscope" gives listeners an idea of how most rappers treat their major label situation, all within the span of a single bar.  Primo's instrumental, with its slow-paced drums and distortion, isn't the most aggressive he's ever done, and the video clip was kind of iffy (I always thought the "rap battle" concept present in the video wasn't done to its fullest extent), but after listening to this track again, for the first time in seven years, I found it to be fairly entertaining.

Unless I'm mistaken, this was the first single from The Ownerz, and its perkier sound proves that Primo and Guru were at least subconsciously trying to cater to the new fans who discovered Gang Starr via Moment Of Truth.  I'm not saying that Guru dumbs himself down, though: his three verses consist of rants that could have easily been lifted from Hard To Earn.  Ultimately, though, "Skills" rings hollow: it comes across as a generic example of what a Gang Starr song by committee would sound like, and it doesn't embed itself into your mind like the duo's older, better work.  If this was your only exposure to Gang Starr, it would make perfect sense that you wouldn't care much for them.

This song was boring as shit.  That's all I got.

Ditto for this track, although I'll expand for the readers.  Guru sounds unnatural talking about the opposite sex on here, which is strange, as it isn't as though this is his first rodeo: Guru talks about chicks a whole fucking lot.  The beat sounds incomplete: throw in a few more flourishes and "Nice Girl, Wrong Place" would merely be a bad song, as opposed to one that absolutely fucking sucks.  Also, Boy Big?  ReallyThat's the name you choose to go with?  I can think of at least one person who may have a problem with that.  I mean, nobody has had the balls to nickname themselves 3000 Andre in this rap game.  Moving on...

Primo's angry diatribes against the current state of our chosen genre have never sounded more vile than on the intro to "Peace Of Mine": somehow, referring to the songs on the radio as "faggot bitch shit" actually detracts from his argument a bit, since it's not as if the home audience is only made up of gay dudes and chicks, nor are all of the songs exclusively handled by that highly specific demographic.  Primo simply comes across as a pissed-off guy that failed to collect his thoughts in a coherent manner before entering the booth, which leaves Guru with the unenviable task of picking up the pieces.  It's to the man's credit that Guru actually sounds really fucking good over Primo's simple beat.  It's just too bad that you have to weave your way through Primo's unfocused, damn near appalling rant before Keith Elam can step in to provide a sense of order in this soliloquy of chaos.  (Side note: hearing a Royce da 5'9" sound bite scratched into this track only makes me sad that Royce and Guru will never have an opportunity to share a mic over one of Primo's creations.)

This is one of DJ Premier's most dramatic and forceful instrumentals...and he gives it to fucking Joey Crack?  Even if you were signed to his Terror Squad record label (with absolutely nothing to show for it, mind you), there is no fucking excuse for this, Chris Martin!  However, once Fizzy Womack takes over, the audience is won over.  Primo even lets a long Method Man sound bite run throughout the "chorus", which actually works, so we're just fine, thanks.  Fame and Danze are happy to be working alongside Gifted Unlimited once again, and Guru more than holds his own trying to talk sense into the listeners.  (The answer to the titular question?  They have guns.  Duh.)  Delete Large Joseph from the song, and this would have been fucking amazing.  As it is, though, it's merely really really good.

Whatever happened to "The Militia II", you may ask?  Well, it featured WC and Rakim Allah, and it popped up on the scattershot soundtrack to Belly under the title "The Militia Remix", which only lends itself to confusion with the actual "The Militia (Remix)", which was an overhaul of the original masterpiece handled by Pete Rock.  (EDIT: I'm an idiot: "The Militia II" also appears on Full Clip: A Decade of Gang Starr.)  Anyway, the original cast reunites for this follow-up, which is nowhere near as memorable as the originator, but it still sounds hardcore enough, I suppose.  This time around, Guru and (surprise!) Bumpy Knuckles are outclassed by a hungry-as-fuck Big Shug, even though Foxxx, in an effort to replicate the success of the original, is given at least nine hundred bars to run rampant over.  This was fun, but instantly forgettable.

There's a bit of misdirection present during the intro, but when the tracks finally starts, you immediately notice that Primo's beat sounds like one of Afu-Ra's castoffs.  However, Guru's boasts take you back to a simpler time in our chosen genre, as they are delivered effortlessly and convincingly, so this was entertaining enough.

Primo's musical backdrop sounds straight out of an old-school gangster flick like The Untouchables, with newspaper headlines spinning toward the audience and everything.  Guru hones his lyrical couplets down to a fucking science, trying his best to get the listeners to, as per usual, open their eyes, causing this to be one of the highlights of The Ownerz.  I also appreciated the seemingly sporadic way that backing vocals would occasionally join Guru whenever the title was repeated.

This bizarre interlude features Panch (from the NYG'z) refashioning the lyrics to the Clipse's "Grindin'" into an ode to his cock.  The first time I heard this shit, I was actually floored by the fact that Primo and Guru actually left this on the final cut of The Ownerz.  Today, it just sounds extraneous, but I will say that hearing Panch imitate Pharrell's vocal clicks and pops was still kind of funny.

This collaboration between H. Stax, the NYG'z, and Gang Starr sounds like a twenty-first century "DWYCK", as Primo's simple beat knows well enough to stay the fuck out of the way of all of the rappers involved.  (And yes, I'm sticking with the "DWYCK" comparison even though the track "The Militia" is more obviously mentioned.)  This track has an energy that is mostly lacking from The Ownerz: Primo and Guru always seem to sound more excited whenever they're sharing the spotlight with their friends, whether they're established artists in their own right or the folks that happen to carry their weed for them.  This whole song was pretty fucking nice.

Although it is weird to hear Snoop Dogg shout out the late Headqcuarterz (he was merely an ancillary member of the Gang Starr Foundation, so I sincerely doubt that those two ever found the time to hang out), this combination of Boston and Long Beach mostly works, thanks to Primo successfully evoking a soulful, mournful feel from the looped samples while Guru and Calvin Broadus wax eloquently on the subject of mortality.  (Once again, R.I.P. Guru.)  It doesn't make for the best transition after "Same Team, No Games", but it was still really good.

I'm not the only one who thinks this title track sounds a little too much like Dr. Dre's "What's The Difference?", am I?  Guru attacks this beat as though he will never have the luxury of a DJ Premier beat again (too soon?), and although it would have made more sense to place this near the beginning of the album's sequencing, this was okay.

18.  ZONIN'
Kicks off in an awkward fashion, as nobody purchases Gang Starr albums to hear someone coughing after taking a huge bong hit.  However, we are led into an outright gorgeous Primo instrumental which is instantly moving, while Guru mainly misses the point lyrically.  Maybe he really was stoned when he recorded his verses.  Too bad: this could have been a hidden gem, but instead, it's more of an anomaly.

It's an unfortunate fact of life that, the longer you live, the more people you will see pass away.  Guru and Premier understand this very well, as they craft this pseudo-sequel to Moment Of Truth's "In Memory Of..." that treads much of the same territory, but Guru is careful to not simply repeat himself.  It's a shame that there are now more hip hop luminaries that are included in Primo's rundown, only five years removed from the original track.  Unfortunately, there is now one more name to add to the track.  This was the only way that The Ownerz could have possibly ended.

FINAL THOUGHTS:  It's unfortunate that this album has turned into an inadvertent swan song, as with the recent passing of Keith Elam, there will never again be another "true" Gang Starr album.  However, we must not let that cloud the fact that The Ownerz is little more than a Moment Of Truth retread, and I'm not just saying that because the disc itself apes the design of their previous effort (and that of Full Clip: A Decade of Gang Starr, but that's neither here nor there).  DJ Premier and Guru work their last album together in the same fashion as the rest of their catalog, with Primo still perfecting free-form jazz within the constructs of hip hop loops (that description sounds contradictory, but it still fits), while Guru delivers the news of the day in his authoritative monotone that is as clear and concise as ever.  The Ownerz isn't a bad album by normal standards, but it is most certainly the weakest in the Gang Starr canon.  While some songs do knock with the best of them, the majority of this project fails to capture the spark that caused listeners to take notice of th duo in the first place.  Most of The Ownerz sounds like it was crafted by a Gang Starr fan doing a poor impression of his heroes.  Sadly, Primo and Guru failed to end their partnership at the top of their game, but then again, The Ownerz wasn't supposed to be their last album together: it just happened that way.

BUY OR BURN?  Although there are a decent number of songs listed below, I'm still going to recommend a burn.  Why is that?  While I liked the tracks below enough, none of them hold a fucking candle to Gang Starr's best work: all they do is leave you hungry for their earlier albums.  Their final album isn't worth your money.  There, I said it.  It is what it is.

BEST TRACKS:  "Riot Akt"; "Same Team, No Games"; "Eulogy"; "Who Got Gunz"


Catch up on the rest of the Gang Starr catalog by clicking here.


  1. i agree with you, this album is nowhere near their classic work, Moment of Truth is their best work, no doubt about that, but as a tribute to Guru (RIP), this album is still going to be on heavy rotation, Thanks for this effort Guru!!! we love you and your works will live on!!

  2. Rest in eternal peace, GURU. You were truly a legend in this game and an undoubted pioneer in my book. Unlike many so called GOAT's, you have left a legacy that's reflective of your art and not your celebrity/wealth status. With a sad heart, I have to agree with this review. It just has too much filler to sort through but a buy would not be a total waste of money. You could do a lot worst. Peace.

  3. max you have really shitted on gangsters music 4 burns and half of moment of truth. fuck that! they did four classics , step ,daily , hard , moment and two solid albums in no more and he owners.

  4. I agree with this review a lot. Probably my least listened to Gang Starr album. Moment of Truth is miles ahead of this.

    R.I.P. The king of monotone!

  5. First off: R.I.P. Guru

    Second: "The ownerz" isn't Gangstarr's best album. But the most memorable thing on that album is, that after 15 years o Gangstarr, the creativity is still there and the fans bought what they expected.

    Of course the fillers are more than the good songs, but a "buy" isn't a tragic suggestion. Not because of Guru's passing, but most because of Gangstarr's true devotion to rap music.

  6. i've always admired your honesty and ability to remove yourself from hype/bias.

  7. What a good review, truthful even in this unfortunate event, R.I.P. Guru...

  8. I personally like Skillz the most off this record, but that's just me.

    RIP Guru. You were lightyears ahead of every cat in the game, and even while you were alive you still were. Truly an inspiration for all, your work will never be forgotten.

    Now as for the review...yeah I agree. I don't really like this album. It was still better then any album released that year, but for a Gang Starr album it does not hold up. It's too bad they didn't record again, fucking Solar. Somebody fuck that kid up please.

  9. I have to disagree with this one. Besides Nice Girl, Wrong Place and that fucking dumbass Hiney skit I really enjoyed this album. While Guru's lyrics are less on point, they're still pretty damn good, and I think the production is just as good as Moment of Truth.

  10. R.i.p. G.!

    As the others here i fully have to agree, i didnt buy this one actually cause i was too disappointed when it came out.

    But in no way that takes anything away from the respect i have for the legend that was Guru!

  11. ProPoGandaApril 24, 2010

    The kid had some great work outside of gangstarr, the first two volumes of jazzamztaz were that entertainig and you're liable to find a few other gems besides...pity shit ended with beef and drama...but the music will always be there to take us back to better times

    RepresentInPerpetuity MC Keithy E

  12. I remember this album being very weak, so I listened it again while i was reading the review, and I was fucking wrong. This is much entertaining as you finally say as only a few couple of tracks doesnt really work. Of course it isnt near to be their best work but stills very good

    (Dont know how you could burn all their catallog with the exception of "Moment of Truth", what the hell was you thinking?)

    R.I.P. Guru

  13. I feel the same about this album. Definitely the weakest album (though I liked Put Up Or Shut Up).

    Though I'd say it is a buy.

    I was born late and this was actually the first Gang Starr album I bought. I have since educated myself on hip hop history and have heard and own a many classic album now, though I still feel this is worthy of a buy... though maybe that's my bias speaking as compared to what I was listening to at the time this album was like Illmatic.

    Anyways good review though.

    Also Guru's new work is not fantastic however from the few tracks I heard his lyrical ability hasn't really wavered much. DJ Premier should just remix his newer work and it'll sound much better... i think

    R.I.P. Guru

  14. oli - I actually recommended that readers buy up Moment of Truth, Hard To Earn, and No More Mr. Nice Guy. Although I would now be wary about buying any of the albums, unless you find them secondhand: my understanding is that Guru was the sole owner of the Gang Starr logo and name, and since his passing, that has since passed on to Solar, so any Gang Starr purchase actually puts more money in that asshole's pockets, instead of any of it going to the Elam family and/or Primo.

  15. oh you're right

  16. djbosscrewwreckaApril 25, 2010

    Yeah, it's good you don't let Guru's passing affect the accurate review of this as a fairly weak Gang Starr album. You made a lot of good comments - it doesn't have the stand out tracks their other records have. As some other commenters said, the fact that this album is poor for Gang Starr, but still better than most of the competition, should be recognised as testament to Guru's legacy.
    That warning about not buying any of their records because the money is gonna go to Solar is scary - is that for real?

  17. That's what I understand. Guru was Gang Starr before DJ Premier even entered the picture, so he was the sole owner of the name. So, yeah, I'm against anything that puts money in Solar's pocket, but at the same time, I want to support Primo and Guru's families, so I'm torn. Maybe everybody should pick up the catalog secondhand and mail a check to Primo and the Elam family directly.

  18. I never thought I'd hear myself defending Fat Joe, but I think his verse on Who Got Gunz is fantastic. Guru's, to me, sounds a little forced.

  19. As always Max good review. Not their best work, Moment of Truth SIIIIIICK

  20. Fat Joe's verse on Who Got Gunz is actually good.

  21. So, it seems everybody likes Who Got Gunz a lot. Listen to Tonz of Gunz if you don't remember it, and then give the "sequel" another spin. I don't care if the beat is great, it's a fucking disgusting total double-down

  22. Max.

    Fuck you.


    Minus the non-Smiley skits.

    Smiley ripped that beat to shreds, you blinded bastard

  23. Could I ask for a review on Full Clip: A Decade of Gang Starr? Thanks Dear

  24. AnonymousJune 10, 2014

    So Max, knowing that Solaar is getting the money from the gang starr albums do you no longer recommend buying their discography?

    1. Primo still gets paid, so I'm alright with it, but I would prefer it if everyone downloaded all of the Gang Starr stuff illegally and then handed DJ Premier cash for each download. That Solar stuff still pisses me off to this day.

  25. For the record, Solar is a different person from French MC Solaar.

    The first is a piece of shit who deserves to be fucking crucified.

    The second is an important contributor to French hip hop & the only guest on Guru's Jazzmatazz V1.

  26. Max, for all your dedication and effort to review albums, you sound like a suburban white kid without much context for the past. It is obvious you came late to the game, as you usually compare recent albums to 25 year old classics, preferring more contemporary sounds. This displays your true lack of context for hip hop. Maybe you should buy a turntable someday, lol. All your credibility went out the window when I read you first heard Brand Nubian on GTA! The lads at Unkut were in stitches. I feel sorry for hungry kids reading your lightweight review dribble years later after release, from a kid who wasn't there. You are seriously missing much context to everything. You will never comprehend though, as your CD head is up your ass...

    1. I've never written about Brand Nubian. You're entitled to your own wrong opinion, but at least get the facts right.

      Thanks for reading!

  27. Reader review or not, the Editor takes the heat of a publication. Is Standos really that different from yourself? ie. Was the first time you heard Brand Nubian the video of 'Slow Down' in 1990? If your answer is negatron, my point about lack of context for the times remains valid...

    1. If you truly believe that I've been preferring more contemporary sounds to that of the 1990s, then you haven't been reading very closely. Context is everything, sure, but not YOUR context. You don't get to decide what the proper "experience" is for enjoying and embracing hip hop, and making fun of Standos for first hearing Brand Nubian in a video game is disingenuous. (And as the editor, there is no heat to take for that comment: that guy was telling his truth, and all I ask of contributors is that they try to tell their story.)

      People come across things in many different ways, and what's more important for the sake of that review, and the culture as a whole, is that he liked it enough to seek out more. Because hip hop isn't exclusively listened to and supported by by old people in their 30s-40s: if the kids these days aren't exposed to Brand Nubian's work (I'll stick with this example since this seems to be your obsession at the moment) and never try to hunt down anything else from the group or the solo albums, then Brand Nubian's memory and legacy DIES, and none of this shit even matters.

      And because you won't let this go for some reason: Yes. I first heard "Slow Down" when I saw its video way back in the day. I used to spend a lot of time watching MTV and then BET, and also the Video Jukebox network (or The Box or whatever it rebranded itself as) waiting for rap videos. I grew up with The Source and Vibe, and later XXL when it didn't suck, and trried to inhale any other publications that came my way. I grew up with Wu-Tang and Tribe and the like, but I don't believe that today's fans wouldn't or shouldn't like Tribe just because they may not have been alive in 1989-1990: the point of this blog is to help expose those readers to stuff they may not have noticed otherwise.

      You don't get to choose which experience is more "authentic". Neither do I. What's more important is that they take the time to embrace it, instead of dismissing it, right? Any true hip hop head would want the culture to thrive, not die off because only certain people are allowed to "get" it. Fuck off with that nonsense.

      And again, thanks for reading!

    2. Hey Arkitek,

      I guess the fact that I was introduced to hip hop via the Space Jam OST makes my reliance on it, among other factors, to overcome my recurring bouts of depression “inauthentic due to lack of context”, right?