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Happy Birthday Guru: 10 Great Gang Starr Songs

Johnny Nunez, Getty Images

July 17 marks the birthday of Keith “Guru” Elam, the rapper who formed one-half of the legendary group Gang Starr. Guru would have been 52 years old. The Boston born emcee repped for Brooklyn for most of his career, and his polished monotone delivery over the Jazz-influenced boom-bap beats from DJ Premier set a standard for East Coast hip-hop acts to follow. Gang Starr released six albums, and while never received a platinum plaque, their discography is critically acclaimed and esteemed amongst true heads.

To honor Guru’s legacy, we decided to present our top ten Gang Starr songs. Read the selection below. Do you agree with our selections?


1

'Mass Appeal'

 
 

Year of Release: 1994
Album: 'Hard To Earn'

Arguably the most famous song in the Gang Starr catalog, the song finds Guru talking down to the competition, and rightly so. After all, "A lot of rappers be like one time wonders, couldn't say a fly rhyme if there was one right under their noses." Premier's sampling of Vic Juris' 'Horizon Drive' is the perfect counterpoint to Guru's aggressive bars.

 
2

'DWYCK'

 
 

Year of Release: 1994
Album: 'Hard To Earn'
Featured Artists: Greg Nice & Smooth B

The meaning of 'DWYCK' has been disputed. While some claim it means "Do What You Can Kid," Guru reportedly said that it was an old slang phrase that stands for the word "d--k." Regardless of the meaning, Guru and the song's featured guests, Greg Nice and Smooth B trade verses over a simple drum and bassline loop that knocks regardless. One of the most memorable lines from this song comes from the late Guru: "Lemonade was a popular drink and it still is."  The meaning of this line might be more enigmatic than the song title itself.

 
3

'Above The Clouds'

 
 

Year of Release: 1998
Album: 'Moment Of Truth'
Featured Artist: Inspectah Deck

The harp loop on the beat give the song an ethereal feeling that coincides with the title of the song. It also allows Guru to drop science in his verse. He starts it off by invoking his faith with a creative acronym: "I Self Lord and Master shall bring disaster to evil factors." It is clear that Guru is operating on a higher, spiritual plane, using hip-hop as his medium of communication. Wu-Tang's Inspectah Deck is a worthy rhyme partner on this song, his delivery more aggressive as he speaks of war on a metaphysical level.

 
4

'The Militia'

 
 

Year of Release: 1998
Album: 'Moment Of Truth'
Featured Artist: Big Shug & Freddie Foxx

Guru teams up with two hard-nosed rhymers in Freddie Foxx (also known as Bumpy Knuckles) and Big Shug to deliver an aggressive banger. Despite the violence all three men present on the track, they keep it clever with the wordplay, with lines such as "Born with a heart of gold, now mostly cold and scarred/ En guard, choose your weapon, or get to steppin." Needless to say, nobody was trying the Militia, either in the streets or on the microphone.

 
5

'Words I Manifest'

 
 

Year of Release: 1989
Album: 'No More Mr. Nice Guy'

From the duo's debut album, 'Words I Manifest' was one of the standout tracks. The underlying keys and bouncy bassline gave it a jazzy feel. Guru's intricate rhyme patterns and staccato flow showcase the dense content within his bars.

 
6

'Just To Get A Rep'

 
 

Year of Release: 1989
Album: 'No More Mr. Nice Guy'

Guru's storytelling is on full-display on this song, as he narrates the tale of a young man whose desire for money and need to fit in from causes him to turn to a life of crime. Ultimately, the story is a tragic one, used as a cautionary tale.

 
7

'Jazz Thing'

 
 

Year of Release: 1989
Album: 'No More Mr. Nice Guy'

Originally appearing on Gang Starr's debut album, the song attracted the attention of director Spike Lee, who asked them to remix the song for the soundtrack for 'Mo Better Blues.' The remix utilized live instrumentation from Branford Marsalis, and had lyrics that were inspired by a poem about jazz written by a college professor that Guru flipped into rap form.

 
8

'Full Clip'

 
 

Year of Release: 1999
Album: 'Full Clip: A Decade of Gang Starr'

This song, which dropped on a compilation album, was  in part a tribute to Big L, who had been shot and killed months previously. The beat had been created the day Premier found out that L had passed away. While Guru does not actually reference Big L outside of the famous intro ("Big L rest in peace), the verses feature a lot of references to death, showing what was on the emcee's mind when writing his verse.

 
9

'Rite Where U Stand'

 
 

Year of Release: 2003
Album: Full Clip: 'The Ownerz'

Guru's lyrical tough talk on this song comes from a place of introspection. After more than a decade in the rap game, Guru recognizes that he has reached "OG" status, comparable to the greats who defined the culture. And while Guru does not phone in either of his two verses, it's featured guest Jadakiss who stands out with his brutally honest opening bars: "You wanna know why I invest all my money into haze and into dope?/ 'Cause right now, I'm currently a slave for Interscope."

 
10

'Suckaz Need Bodyguards'

 
 

Year of Release: 1994
Album: Full Clip: 'Hard To Earn'

Guru would have spit in the face of anybody who tried to box him into the "conscious rapper" label. Despite his intelligent content and his esoteric metaphors, there was always a rugged street edge to Guru. So yes, it was perfectly understandable for Guru to talk "knowledge of self" while calling out contemporaries for pretending to act hard on the same song. Songs like this remind us that fake thugs have a part of hip-hop for a lot longer than commonly assumed; Guru was calling them out nearly 20 years ago.

 

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