After the unfortunate passing of Guru in 2010, I briefly found myself gravitating to his solo work, although not in any way that would allow a write-up: I just wanted to listen, to wrap my head around a concept that would never again occur. (I'm not saying that I won't write up Guru's solo material: it's just going to be a while, so please stop holding your breath.) This led to a run-through of all the Gang Starr albums (again, not in any way that would allow a write-up, especially not a re-review of certain projects that I still get shit about to this day: I stand by my opinions), and, thanks to the ringing endorsement from DJ Premier and the late Keith Elam, a cursory look at the various members of the loosely-knit Gang Starr Foundation. Listening to the first two Jeru The Damaja albums was easy, as was the first Group Home project, Livin' Proof: the lyrics may be weak as shit (even Primo admitted to this in a recent interview), but the beats were banging, and Lil' Dap and Melachi The Nutcracker sounded great over them, at least.
This natural course of events took me to Big Shug, Guru's hometown homeboy who sporadically appeared on the final few Gang Starr projects in a guest star capacity. As he also hailed from Boston, Shug shared a similar sensibility when it came to his lyrics: he specialized in blunt threats and crime tale recollections minus the bullshit. Word has it that he was originally supposed to be a part of Gang Starr, in that he and Guru would have shared mic time while Primo got busy behind the boards, but he caught a prison sentence shortly before No More Mr. Nice Guy was a twinkle in their respective eyes, so Guru was forced to go it alone. (This would help explain why Shug came out of nowhere on Hard To Earn.)
Although he recorded a few singles for various record labels, Big Shug was never given an opportunity to record a solo project until Sure Shot Recordings signed him in 2005. Sensing that the hip hop climate had changed since he first broke out onto the scene, he decided that the best way to advertise his debut, Who's Hard?, was to release a
mixtape pre-album, which is the topic of today's post. Never Say Die: The Pre-Album collected some of his older work and most memorable cameos and combined them with newer material, all mixed together and hosted by his homey DJ Premier, who also provided some color commentary on some of the tracks in an effort to get people to pay attention to songs they probably already have on their hard drive.
So it goes.
1. DJ PREMIER INTRO
After a goofy sound effect that would sound more natural coming from Bobby Digital, DJ Premier introduces the evening with a bunch of random gibberish that could have simply been replaced with the phrase, “Big Shug is my friend”. It doesn't run for very long, so I guess it's alright, but I will say that Primo's shout-out to Guru sounded eerie today.
2. THE WAY IT IZ
So Never Say Die: The Pre-Album begins with a plodding Primo instrumental and a bored Big Shug trying to stay awake? Probably not the smartest move, guys. The Shug that appears on here has no business performing on tracks alongside the likes of Guru and Bumpy Knuckles, but it isn't entirely his fault: Primo fails him royally with this fifth-tier bargain-basement beat. I hope this shit picks up from here.
3. THE JIG IS UP
Okay, now that's more like it. “The Jig Is Up” is an older Primo-produced one-verse wonder (I'm not sure exactly how old it is, but it appears on a twelve-inch single alongside the lost Gang Starr track “Doe In Advance”, so it's fairly elderly) that sounds both commanding and dramatic, allowing Shug's threats to actually resonate with the audience without him hanging out longer than necessary. Not only is this a fine example of a perfect marriage between an artist and the beat, it's also proof of DJ Premier's versatility: try as you might, you cannot imagine another one of Primo's protégées sounding as good as Shug over this track.
4. COUNTER PUNCH (FEAT. GURU)
This Primo-produced ditty contains the first collaboration between Big Shug and Guru, the two men responsible for creating the actual Gang Starr Foundation before Primo was even in the picture, on Never Say Die: The Pre-Album, so any lack of chemistry between them would be troublesome for the project as a whole. Thankfully that isn't the case, although Shug quickly claims the track as his own, leaving the late Keith Elam in the dust, delivery-wise. The chorus on here is appalling, though, so there's that.
5. WHO? (GOT MY BACK)
This is just fucking weak. Big Shug not only raps, he also sings on here, providing his own chorus and hitting notes that most of you two wouldn't have expected, but the Alchemist instrumental just kind of loops around itself, spinning off into redundancy. Shug sounds like the kind of rapper who is in dire need of someone, anyone, to have his back by sharing the microphone, which is a complete one-eighty from his better performances. This is just a terrible song.
6. PREMIER SKIT
The best thing about this interlude is that our helpful host, DJ Premier, actually informs the listeners of what songs played before, but not only that, he also tells us who produced each effort. You just do not get that with most mixtapes, so for that, I tip my hat to you, Primo.
7. WE GOTTA GET UP FREESTYLE
Shug hijacks the Kanye West-laced beat from Cam'Ron's “Down & Out” with pretty decent results. Unfortunately, he gives up after the minute-and-a-half mark, and the track resorts to verbal shout-outs to pad the time artificially. He also breaks out his singing voice again, showing that he has a bit of range, at least.
8. PREMIER SKIT
Primo provides listeners with the history of the next track. He fails to mention why Big Shug's previously released single “Treat U Better” failed to make the cut of Never Say Die: The Pre-Album, though.
Another older DJ Premier-produced single, and like “The Jig Is Up”, this shit fucking rocks. Easily one of my favorite Primo beats, and the Inspectah Deck vocal sample is the icing on this musical cake that tastes of vinyl and fondant. The swooping sounds on the underlying beat help you picture Shug performing this shit with the backing of a full fucking orchestra, and it sounds completely natural. As “Crush” was released on Payday Records (which was once the home of Jeru The Damaja) back in 1996 as a twelve-inch single, I'm just glad it made a comeback of sorts on Never Say Die: The Pre-Album.
10. PREMIER SKIT
Primo dives into a brief history of Gang Starr's “The Militia”, which is still best known as the second coming of Bumpy Knuckles, also known as Freddie Foxxx, and even tells listeners what happened to “The Militia 2” (and, in turn, why that track doesn't appear on this project). I have to say, I'm enjoying Primo's candor and his outright hip hop nerdiness on this mixtape thus far.
11. THE MILITIA (FEAT. GURU & FREDDIE FOXXX)
This classic track, lifted directly from Gang Starr's Moment Of Truth, may be best known for Bumpy's nine hundred and sixty bars of fury, but both Guru and Big Shug acquit themselves very well. But this is the Bumpy Knuckles show all the way, so it's best to simply turn this shit up and get back to reading this write-up when it's over.
12. THE MILITIA PT. 3 (CAPTURE) (FEAT. GURU & FREDDIE FOXXX)
I wrote about this track from Gang Starr's The Ownerz shortly after Guru's passing, and I still feel the same way: Big Shug outclasses his peers, not because his verse is better, but because he restrains himself and actively tries to recapture the feel from the trio's original song, unlike Guru's confused effort and the rambling Foxxx running amok.
13. PREMIER SKIT
Primo quickly drops the names of “Team Shug”, Big Shug's very own weed carriers T. West and Singapore Cane, both of whom appear later on during Never Say Die: The Pre-Album, before introducing the next track. Hey, I never said that all of these Primo interludes were worthwhile.
14. SERIOUS RAP SHIT (FEAT. GROUP HOME & GURU)
Guru's production effort from Group Home's Livin' Proof is, well, living proof that DJ Premier did not produce the whole fucking thing, which is what most people (and bloggers) appear to believe. It's kind of a shame that Lil' Dap is stuck with hook duties only while Melachi the Horrible Rapper gets his own verse, but oh well. Guru and Big Shug rule this roost anyway, so this was an interesting choice for a throwback.
15. WE GANGSTA (FEAT. SINGAPORE CANE & T-WEST)
Starts off boring and never recovers. Bless One's beat isn't gangsta at all: it couldn't even make for convincing incidental music for somebody stealing your lunch money. And the rhymes were all less than credible, although I will admit that the lyrics are hampered by the beat (that happens a lot more often than you would think), which appears to have been created for another artist entirely.
16. LOVE OR HATE (FEAT. SINGAPORE CANE)
The hook on here is more than a little bit embarrassing: I wish rappers would learn that mashing together random thoughts with phrases that you may have used during prior appearances rarely makes for a good chorus. I was more interested in Cane's verse than Shug's, but the song fails as a whole due to producer Crux's ineffective instrumental.
17. OFFICIAL (FEAT. ED O.G. & SCIENTIFIK)
Boston rap veteran Ed O.G. Teams up with Big Shug and the late Scientifik to provide us with a lo-fi, passive version of “The Militia”. Not for all tastes, as you can almost reach out and pluck the dirt particles off of this underground track, but I found this pretty fucking entertaining, especially as all three rappers ride Bless One's beat smoothly. The only thing that grated on my nerves was the Craig Mack vocal sample (taken from his “Flava In Ya Ear”). If you've already read the two Scientifik write-ups on HHID, you may be familiar with this track, as I recall posting a “video” for it.
18. PREMIER SKIT
It's too bad that Scientifik never got to rock a Primo instrumental. That is all.
19. STAY OUT OF MY FACE (FEAT. GURU)
Shug decides to pronounce “valet” as “va-let” in order to fit the needs of his rhyme scheme, and then proceeds to mispronounce the word “wallet” anyway. I'm not against artists toying with the English language to fit the needs of their creation, but they already misspell words at random: they shouldn't also mispronounce words just because they can. Anyway, Guru sounded pretty good with his opening verse, at least.
20. F.A.L.A. (FEAT. GANG STARR)
On this Gang Starr album cut taken from Hard To Earn, Shug and Guru take a leisurely stroll over DJ Premier's rolling piano keys. This won't ever be considered one of the greatest Gang Starr tracks, but it's good enough for what it is: a back-and-forth between two longtime friends.
21. DO WHAT PAYS YA
This was taken from Guru's Baldhead Slick & The Click compilation. Although Shug fails to convince anybody that he's a good rapper, it's obvious that he spent a lot of time crafting these lyrics, which touch on his past life as a non-rapper who did whatever it took to make money. It's like listening to one of the older Jay-Z songs pre-fame, if Jay-Z was terrible behind the mic.
22. GANGSTA LUV (FEAT. GURU)
Big Shug puts on his crooning hat over some pretty tight drums, but Keith Elam steps in to deliver an unorthodox (for him, anyway) and violent verse that doesn't fit the proceedings. Groan.
23. PREMIER OUTRO
Wait, did Primo just imply that M.O.P. is a part of the Gang Starr Foundation? Man, would that be something. He also lists a ton of other rappers that most of you two won't give a fuck about anyway, but such is life.
Big Shug ends his own “pre-album” with a smoky interlude that would make the perfect argument for marijuana use even if it wasn't about getting high as fuck. There is almost zero substance to this track, but look at it as the outro it's pretending to be, and all will be right with the world.
SHOULD YOU TRACK IT DOWN? Only if you're a Gang Starr enthusiast. Never Say Die: The Pre-Album contains more than a few heat rocks, especially for those of you two who have been patiently waiting for the likes of “Crush” to appear on an album-type project, but the newer material, which is what the mixtape is supposed to be promoting, merely prove Big Shug to be mortal and, worse yet, not that good of a rapper. Dude has his moments, but he shines when his collaborators (typically Guru and the tape's host, DJ Premier), step their own respective games up. Small doses of Shug go a long way, apparently. Never Say Die: The Pre-Album is an entertaining enough listen, especially whenever Primo steps in to provide the history of certain tracks, but for the most part, it fails to drum up excitement for any future album release. Once again, this mixtape is for Gang Starr Foundation historians only.