“Gang Starr has gots to be the sure shot”
When talking influential golden age hip-hop acts, Gang Starr’s recognition levels are high, but still underrated. Tapped in hip-hop heads know what the deal is; the duo arguably introduced the basis of jazz rap with their debut, and only expanded upon the sounds of that and boom bap with every release. There isn’t a single successful east coast producer that wasn’t influenced by DJ Premier in some way.
Throughout their several-albums, there have been no instances of their talent diminishing. They had one of the most impressive runs of the 90’s – dropping four arguable classics that re-branded their style every time – and their few other releases are just as essential, as well.
With such high praise, it’s only right we find out which of the gems comes out on top, right? We’ll be looking at their six main studio albums, excluding the posthumous One of the Best Yet (which, by the way, is still a crucial listen in its own right). Let’s dive in.
6. No More Mr. Nice Guy (1989)
Despite this placement, understand that No More Mr. Nice Guy is actually incredibly ahead of its time.
Guru and Preem have never released a bad record, and this is simply them at their least developed. Even with that considered, they both respectively bring forth incredibly forward-thinking flows and production that prove to be more impressive than that of many of their peers.
This album can arguably be credited with popularizing jazz rap, as the standout cut “Jazz Music” was the most explicit fusion of the two genres at the time. Similar sounds linger throughout the remainder of the tracklist, which forms an overall nostalgic sound that defined the late 80’s.
While it may tend to be overshadowed by its successors, this album is an essential to understanding Gang Starr’s history. A golden age gem.
Best tracks: “Jazz Music”, “Conscience Be Free”
5. The Ownerz (2003)
The Ownerz is perhaps very reflective, over anything. After being gone for half a decade, Gang Starr returned to a completely different hip-hop scene; one that was perhaps inauthentic and half-baked, at least from their perspective.
This album is them solidifying themselves as veterans, proving their ability even long after their acclaimed run. Preemo’s beatmaking on here actually rivals a lot of those projects, if not completely outdoing them; and Guru, while dialed down on the consciousness, is still as engaging as ever.
This is perhaps the type of listen you’d have if you wanted to see classic 90’s hip-hop influenced by the shift in sound that came with the new century. This album didn’t take the approach of the Just Blaze or Heatmakerz-dominated scene at the time, but the advanced breakthroughs in production are clear sonically.
With that being described, this is an appreciated addition to their catalogue. Their least innovative, but did we really need them to be at this stage in career? They delivered nonetheless.
Best tracks: “Riot Akt”, “Deadly Habitz”
4. Step in the Arena (1991)
Step in the Arena was the earliest proof of Gang Starr being guaranteed a strong underground following. It is one of the most acclaimed hip-hop albums ever, even being named the best of all-time by IGN.
Realistically speaking, this was the start to a near-untouchable prime run of albums. A complete revamping of the duo’s style, this record featured far more flavorful samples and potent writing. Its slow-paced lyrical rhythm can be off-putting to some, but it is a laidback approach to hip-hop that later proved itself to be influential. This album is Guru at his most revolutionary, and Preemo at his most experimental. Both figuring out their true potential, but succeeding in the meantime.
All that really holds it back placement-wise is that the two somehow grew even more with further releases.
Best tracks: “Check the Technique”, “Just to Get a Rep”
3. Daily Operation (1992)
This and the second spot fought very hard for placement. Gang Starr’s third is a very captivating and intriguing album, providing minimalistic beats that tap into jazz influence more than anything prior. Its stripped-down sound can come off as inaccessible to non-Gang Starr fans, much like its predecessor; however, the beauty in this album comes through its simplicity.
This entire experience screams “New York”, from its chilling atmosphere to vintage essence. Tales of urban living and minority conspiracy lace the vivid verses, confirming Guru as a wise rapper with an everlasting confidence.
What can be appreciated above anything is that neither member outdoes the other here. This was where their chemistry truly broke through, with full dedication to the album’s themes on both ends.
The start to one of the best three-album runs ever? Sounds about right.
Best tracks: “No Shame in My Game”, “Ex-Girl to Next Girl”
2. Hard to Earn (1994)
If somebody asked me to give them a few underground hip-hop essentials, this classic is immediately being mentioned.
Gang Starr’s grimiest and most caved-in, this was a complete 180 from the polished Daily Operation. Hard to Earn is a full dedication to the Gang Starr foundation, featuring several affiliates and placing a strong emphasis on industry dominance.
Tracks such as “Speak Ya Clout” and “Dwyck” show a more collaborative side of the two, offering dynamic features that provide an appreciated energy to the album’s pacing.
Guru’s variety in delivery here is also a rarity for him, but it absolutely clicks. His bursts of aggression work in flawless tandem with the muddy instrumentals, crafting standout tracks that will forever be rooted in the duo’s legacy.
Best tracks: “Mass Appeal”, “F.A.L.A.”
1. Moment of Truth (1998)
Not much evidence is needed to explain why this is not only the peak of Gang Starr’s career, but also one of the best hip-hop albums of all-time.
After four years missing in action, the duo crafted a lethal twenty-track masterpiece that provided the most lyrically substantial and faithfully cultural tracks of its time.
The album sounds grandiose and full, with no drops in quality. Every instrumental, every verse, every moment is perfectly crafted to provide content that truly makes the listener think. This focus on conscious themes wasn’t unforeseen in hip-hop, or even their music before; however, it can be safely said that no hip-hop album strived to be as meaningful as this one.
This is the goal Gang Starr aimed for and achieved throughout their several years of activity, and it is mastered here. An all-time essential, and their greatest album.
Best tracks: “Moment of Truth”, “Above the Clouds”