December 21, 2017

Soundtrack Soundcheck: Gang Starr

Bringing back a feature that I only tried out once over five years ago to mild response isn't how I thought I would be finishing off 2017, I'll tell you that much. But I saw an opening to write about Gang Starr, the duo made up of producer Chris "DJ Premier" Martin and the late rapper-slash-producer Keith "Guru" Elam, and figured I'd shoot my shot.

Since I most likely don't have the same two readers I did when I first tried this experiment with OutKast, here's a quick rundown. "Soundtrack Soundcheck" isn't a review of any hip hop soundtrack (of which there are plenty, and they're not off the table as of yet), but instead a focus on the songs a specific artist or group have exclusively contributed to oftentimes random films. I won't include any songs from compilations produced for films that star the artist in question (which is why there were no Idlewild tracks in the maiden post), and there's no need to talk about that time "Code Of The Streets" appeared in Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird, because I talked about "Code Of The Streets" back when it appeared on Hard To Earn. What I'm most interested in is the thought process behind the decision to donate the track versus hoarding it for their own projects.

Gang Starr were never the most prolific duo: although Preemo freely gave (and continues to give) his boom bap beats to anyone whose check would clear, Guru tended to save his vocals for his own vanity projects, with only a select circle of friends receiving guest verses for their pursuits. Still, Gang Starr made music, and not all of their output would fit into whatever overarching theme their many albums were born into, so inevitably they would utilize the power of the original motion picture soundtrack to help shamelessly promote themselves.

Oh, and the movie too, sure.

What follows is a list of all of the soundtrack-exclusive songs I was able to locate from Gang Starr. (Some of the following songs are available on the two-disc hits compilation Full Clip: A Decade of Gang Starr, which I believe is currently out of print.) I inevitably missed some, but that's what the comments section is for. And if this is a feature you'd like to see continue, maybe leave some goddamn comments this time?

FROM: 8 Mile
Even though this appears on the soundtrack for the Eminem rap battle-slash-ode to his mother’s Italian cooking 8 Mile, “Battle” isn’t a, um, battle rap as much as it is a vehicle for Guru to rapsplain to listeners how he would defeat you in said battle. And he isn’t convincing at all, rhyming “stories” with “stories” and his monotone, generally never an issue, giving way to general apathy that is prevalent throughout the man’s two verses. “Battle” is the epitome of a throwaway track that is perfect for a soundtrack contribution, with Guru and Premier putting in minimal effort for maximum exposure on a song that obviously wasn’t considered to be good enough for a Gang Starr album, and yet appeared on a project that sold like a billion copies. For his part, the instrumental is okay, and Preemo gets points from me for not resorting to the obvious LL Cool J “Rock the Bells” sound bite during his patented “chopped-up vocal samples combined into a chorus” chorus. “Battle” is otherwise inoffensive, but if this is the only Gang Starr song you’ve ever heard (which, given how popular the 8 Mile soundtrack was, is entirely possible), you won’t feel compelled to seek out their other, better work, so overall, this is a miss. Le sigh.

FROM: Trespass
While Guru’s flat delivery (not an insult) didn’t do anything for me on “Battle”, he comes across as cold and calculating on “Gotta Get Over (Taking Loot)”, his demeanor best described as “unnervingly matter-of-fact”. Maybe the fact that “Battle” was released in 2002, while this gem off of the Trespass soundtrack dropped a full decade prior, back when he was hungrier, plays into that? Regardless, Keith shines as his verses run down his obsession with having more of everything than you by any means necessary. DJ Premier’s instrumental takes on a jazzy, low-key flair, meshing well with Guru’s vocals. Not my favorite Preemo beat in the least bit, but it still suits the overall mood of the song, which Guru absolutely carrier on the strength of his voice alone.

1/2 & 1/2 (FEAT. M.O.P.)
FROM: Blade
Placing “1/2 & 1/2” on the Blade soundtrack is a decision that still puzzles to this day, but the song itself is entertaining as shit. Bookended by the very excitable Lil’ Fame and Billy Danze respectively, both of whom turn in volatile performances (especially Fizzy Womack, who sounds like he’s six seconds away from spontaneous combustion) and held in place by an aggressive Guru verse, DJ Premier’s instrumental manipulates a string sample, converting it into some fine boom bap. The Mash Out Posse dominates “1/2 & 1/2”, which could have easily slid onto an M.O.P. project, and yet it still sounds absolutely like a Gang Starr track, which shouldn’t make any sense, but fuck you, that’s why. This shit bangs, is what I’m trying to say.

FROM: Belly
Moment of Truth’s “The Militia”, with Big Shug and an absolutely blistering Bumpy Knuckles guest verse, set a pretty high bar for this re-do (which is also confusingly known as “The Militia II (Remix)”) to clear, so to DJ Premier and Guru’s credit, they don’t even bother to try, instead choosing to invite different guests and record an entirely new song only tangentially connected to the original. Preemo’s beat hits the same marks as “The Militia”, and, as such, evokes similar feelings of nostalgic satisfaction. Count me among the ranks that never thought we’d ever hear West Coast stalwart WC and Rakim Allah on the same track: The R delivers a fine closing verse, while WC’s energy and general excitement to have been invited to the studio enlightens his contribution. (I’d like to see more WC/Preemo collaborations, please.) Guru opens up the track with an all-new verse that matches his boasts-n-bullshit from the original, as well. I had forgotten that the soundtrack to the Hype Williams long-ass-music-video flick Belly had some truly good songs.

FROM: Training Day
Sadly, “The Squeeze” is just as relevant today as it was back when everybody forgot about the soundtrack to Ethan Hawke Getting His Ass Handed To Him Every Twelve Minutes, released in the United States as Training Day. (There were far more important events occurring on its release date, September 11, 2001, after all.) Guru’s two verses, which are all over the place to be quite honest, display the mindset of a man who is sick of police brutality and corruption and is trying to form a plan to fight back, not necessarily by going after the cops, but by gaining so much power that he would be above the law, thereby becoming their god. Or something. In reality, his bars sounds more like a disconnected series of (valid) rants with passion, but no through line. Still, he isn’t bad. Preemo’s instrumental is far better than I had remembered, though, sounding as though it could have been included on The Ownerz without anyone missing a step. Overall, I liked this one.

FROM: Mo' Betta Blues
Odds are, if you’re preferred Gang Starr era is Hard To Earn forward, you’re not going to care much for “Jazz Thing”, released as a part of Spike Lee's Mo’ Betta Blues soundtrack in 1990 as a natural extension of what the duo did on their debut, No More Mr. Nice Guy, and as the genesis of Guru’s own Jazzmatazz series. His monotone does sound effortless over the music, handled by Preemo and Branford Marsalis and consisting of a shit-ton of samples smushed together into a groove. The fact that Keith could vacillate between stuff like “Jazz Thing” and “The Squeeze” proves the man’s versatility, while DJ Premier is respectful with his dedication to jazz. Not my favorite song, but nice nevertheless. (Note: Gang Starr released an altered mix of “Jazz Thing” for its accompanying video, along with an “instrumental” version, which is in reality just Preemo, Buckshot LeFonque, and Le Doctone jamming out with entirely different samples for nearly eight minutes (!) while Guru sits out. Both alternate takes are available on the “Jazz Thing” twelve-inch single and are well worth tracking down if you like the original song.)

I'm including the following tracks in today's post even though they technically aren't Gang Starr tracks.

FROM: Addams Family Values
The hell? I don’t know the motivations behind submitting a track for the soundtrack to Addams Family Values, but whatever they were, it wasn’t worth it: this overlong lapse of judgment set to music is overwhelmingly positive (which isn’t my critique) and corny as shit (which is). Guru’s fully capable of giving the world more optimistic lyrics, but on “Do It Any Way You Wanna”, he sounds like a generic no-name rapper performing on syndicated children’s programming that wasn’t even good enough to be sold to Disney, PBS, or Nickelodeon. I’m not entirely sure what it is I just listened to: it’s just that strange.

FROM: Rhyme & Reason
I always thought it was kind of weird how Guru appears on “The Way It Iz” alongside Group Home’s Lil’ Dap, another member of the Gang Starr Foundation, and yet this track wasn’t produced by DJ Premier. You can tell that this song, from the Rhyme & Reason soundtrack, comes from another era (1997, specifically) in the way Guru casually drops the word “retarded” in his second bar of his opening verse. But that verse is so brief that you’ll most likely grow concerned that the rest of his production will be tackled by Dap and whoever Kai:Bee happens to be (a brand of K-Cup, perhaps?). Well, fret not: Keith jumps back in to kinda-sorta interrupt Kai:Bee, and then contributes a third verse well after Dap proves that he absolutely sounds awkward over non-Preemo beats. Unsurprisingly, Guru is the most comfortable on “The Way It Iz”, with the other two participants not leaving much of a mark. The monotone is less noticeable than usual, possibly because of hos excited he seems to be spitting alongside relative unknowns.

FROM: Menace II Society
Not actually a Guru song, but I don’t know of any other opportunity I’ll ever have to talk about The Cutthroats. Well, I suppose if I ever got to whichever Game mixtape had that “Mr. Potato Head” song. But anyway. I don’t know a ton about Jive Records’ answer to the Onyx question nobody ever posited, aside from the fact that their debut album was immediately shelved by the label and the group never managed to have any music released ever again, which is really fucking depressing. But I do know “Stop Lookin’ At Me”, which features Guru’s attempt to shout-rap aggressively, and is memorable (to me) mostly because of the Mr. Potato Head thing. An interesting curiosity if nothing else, although it did leave me wondering what Onyx would have sounded like over a DJ Premier instrumental. Ah well.



  1. To answer your Onyx question, they would’ve sounded great, as Sticky spits over a fan-made remix of Full Clip that was once credited to the RZA (!!) And I truly believe in my heart of hearts that Preemo was down to do some memorable shit with Sonsee, as he remains the lone sampled Onyx member in Preemo’s beat discography.

    1. I'm aware of that "remix", which I never really liked because it sounded forced (as most fan edits do). But i still want to know what a proper collaboration would sound like. If Preemo can give a beat to A$AP Ferg, then he should have something at the ready for Sticky and Fredro should they choose to ask.

    2. But what about Sonsee? ‘insert whiny face here’

  2. Are you going to review Eminem's new album Revival?

    1. Listened to it the day it leaked: None of the beat selections are quite as "the fuck is this shit" like "Lighters," "No Love," or "Stronger Than I Was"…but there are a lot more the dad-rock beats, and Eminem's flow has noticeably deteriorated since MMPL2. This is probably his weakest album since Relapse, and yet more evidence for my opinion that "Ras Kass syndrome" should really be named "Marshall Mathers syndrome."

      In descending order, my shortlist for "producers Eminem should work with" would be this:
      1. Muggs
      2. Buckwild
      3. Large Professor
      4. Mr. Porter
      5. Diamond D

    2. @Anonymous

      I REALLY don't want to.

      But never say never.

    3. @Brandon

      Interesting list... I wouldn’t really mention Mr. Porter though, and as much as it breaks my heart to say it, Diamond and Buckwild have been known to disappoint. Only Large Professor and Muggs have consistently brought the biz on their hip hop ventures. No, my list would be:
      1. Will Sessions
      2. Apollo Brown
      3. Adrian Younge
      4. Muggs
      5. Large Professor

  3. I mostly read this to see if I had all the songs (I did!), but it's always a pleasure to see new Max musings.

  4. Hey Max,

    You don't have to post this, but following up on your post:

    some years ago (when I had a thriving Soundcloud following, which inevitably got terminated due to copyright infringements), I posted many of those "virtual/fictive albums" by artists I like listening too, which in general was me gettin my geek on by curating all the stuff by one artist in album form.

    Which means that I sequenced all the songs with no mixing involved, just song after song, sometimes accompanied with an interlude (as i did with a fictive Pete & CL album) or Kung Fu/Movie snippets (with Wu-related stuff) or segueing the one track in the other (like Tribe)

    However, here's my take on a Gang Starr album:

    When I had my Soundcloud, them (and Tribe's) were the most listened, but alas, that's gone.

    If you have time and want to listen, enjoy.