New York combo Gangstarr were among the most influential hip-hop acts in the late 80s. The group have since inspired true-school MCs, beatmakers and DJs across the globe. But now, out of the blue, Gangstarr have called it quits.
Guru (aka Keith Elam) is embarking on a solo career, while DJ Premier (Christopher Martin) is (presumably) focussing on studio production. Guru, who took time out from Gangstarr for his critically adored Jazzmatazz in the early 90s, is re-establishing his identity with Version 7.0: The Street Scriptures out later this month via his own indie label, Seven Grand Records.
Guru is currently previewing Version 7.0 on his first Australian solo tour. Ask him how the album compares to his previous endeavours and the MC pulls no punches.
“First of all, I would say it’s the most important because it represents Guru’s emancipation from the major label influences,” he asserts, speaking (for some reason) in third person. “This is my own label, so it’s not only a solo project, but it is Guru as a CEO of his solo project. So it’s a different look.
“Basically, this is more important than any other solo project I’ve done. Also, Jazzmatazz, which was my first solo project, will be coming out through Seven Grand Records as well, so everything that Guru does in the future will be coming through this label.”
Guru is accompanied on Version 7.0 by such disparate identities as Styles P, Jaguar Wright, Jean Grae, Talib Kweli and B-Real. However, the MC stresses that Version 7.0, which he co-produced with the relatively unknown Solar, is distinct from his collaborative Jazzmatazz volumes.
“Jazzmatazz is jazz – it’s not pure hip-hop. It’s hip hop and jazz. This is a pure hip-hop album. This album is for the streets.”
The response in the US to lead single ‘Cave In’ has been “ridiculous”, according to Guru. It seems like he’s well and truly back with a bang.
But what of Gangstarr? The group may be revered by underground hip-hop devotees, but they never matched the commercial success of their peers (like De La Soul) and so, after the disappointment of sixth album The Ownerz, they apparently decided to let it go.
Above all, Gangstarr were unhappy with their label, Virgin. Their promotion was mishandled and they were forced to liaise with a succession of A&R reps. No sooner had they built a relationship with a rep, he or she would be fired in yet another downsizing purge.
“Not only that, but you’ve got A&R and executives making decisions who are not from the culture, not from the streets,” Guru says.
It was around the time Gangstarr released The Ownerz that Guru befriended Solar, his current collaborator.
“I was telling him about a lot of this frustration and he said to me, ‘Well, if it’s that bad, why don’t you start your own label?’. He’s like, ‘Jay-Z did it. Puff did it… all these guys. They ain’t got nuttin’ on you. You’re talented, you’ve got experience, why don’t you do it?’.
“I was like, ‘Hmm’… and here we are.”
Guru conceived Gangstarr in his home city of Boston. Determined to enter the music industry, this son of the city’s first black judge studied business management. He formed Gangstarr with a fellow Bostonian, DJ Mike Dee, but, after aligning themselves with Wild Pitch, they fell out. Guru discovered Christopher Martin (then DJing under the Waxmaster C moniker and involved with Insane Clown Posse) by way of a demo in the label’s office. Martin had been studying computer science until Guru convinced him to join Gangstarr in New York. When he relocated, Martin changed his DJ name to Premier.
Gangstarr debuted on Wild Pitch with No More Mr Nice Guy, switching to Chrysalis (EMI) for 1991’s Step In The Arena and consolidating their fan base with Daily Operation. They connected with a progressive jazz community early, vibing with Branford Marsalis on a track for Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues.
Shortly after, Guru formulated his groundbreaking Jazzmatazz, Vol 1 and showed the world the affinity between jazz and hip-hop. Meanwhile, he sustained his allegiance to straight-up hip hop with Gangstarr.
Despite recent events, there have been no reports of Gangstarr’s demise. The two toured Australia in 2004 with Good Vibrations and all seemed well. So what exactly is their status?
“Gangstarr is a legacy, so I’m putting that legacy to rest. I don’t wanna milk it,” Guru says. He offers another analogy: the boxing champion who refuses to retire, only to enter the ring and be swiftly knocked out. Guru didn’t want to walk down that road.
“That’s what happens to a lot of artists from my era, or old-school artists, when they’ve gone past a certain point. I never wanted to go out like that. So what I did was reinvent and recreate.”
Similarly, Guru admires how Snoop Dogg severed ties with Dr Dre rather than strived to relive Doggystyle. The Gs remain on friendly terms, yet Snoop is recasting himself with The Neptunes’ assistance.
“That is very similar to Guru and Premier and now Guru and Solar,” Guru offers
Still, Guru shies away from using the ‘S’ word (that’s “split”) to describe Gangstarr, explaining it has negative connotations. After all, all is good between the Gangstarr boys. They’ve just moved on.
“I’ve moved on ’cause ‘splitting up’ would imply a whole bunch of other things and I don’t even have time for all that. But, if you wanna say ‘split up’, you could say ‘split up’. What I’m saying is it is what it is.”