Monday, May 28, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #206 - Gang Starr – Hard to Earn

If I explain what I love about rap it would be captured in “Mostly Tha Voice.” Take some great drums, add a James Brown bass line from “Give it up or Turnit A Loose,” insert a great voice and some masterful rhymes, and let the DJ scratch and add some flavor - it’s a magic combination. “It’s mostly tha voice, That gets you up/ It’s mostly tha voice, That makes you buck/ A lot of rappers got flavor, and some got skillz/ But if your voice ain’t dope, You need to chill.” Guru had one of the most incredible and instantly identifiable voices in rap. His raspy style never felt rushed or uncertain, and he always delivered great lyrics. DJ Premier would often use a spoken word phrase from another rap song and scratch it up as a chorus or an intro, as he does at several points on this record. Hard to Earn was the fourth Gang Starr record and it was released in 1994.
The first full length song, “Alongwaytogo,” is set up in an interesting tension/release cycle by DJ Premier. He starts out by using a springy sample taken from the Quincy Jones song “Snow Creatures” along with a vocal sample from A Tribe Called Quest’s “Check The Rhime.” When Guru is rhyming in the verse DJ Premier sustains a long, tense tone over the beat. This suspended tone provides pressure which can be released at the chorus. Once the chorus arrives he releases the sustained tone and slices up one of his trademark vocal samples (“How far must you go to gain respect?”). These clearly marked sections are not only a hallmark of Gang Starr’s style but also a sign of how well designed the songs are.
“Code Of The Streets” starts out with a sample of Monk Higgins’ “Little Green
Apples.” It is a descending chord progression that loops throughout the song. DJ Premier has reprogrammed the drums underneath the sample to have a more bouncy and lilting feel than the original Blue Note record. The lyrics explore stealing cars. “Take this for example young brothers want rep/ Cause in the life they’re living, you can’t half step/ It starts with the young ones doing crime for fun/ And if you ain’t down you’ll get played out son.” “Brainstorm” is a pure exhibition of rhyme and DJ skill. The beat is very stripped down and Guru is throwing out rhymes as DJ Premier scratches records and fades them in and out. It is another example of Gang Starr’s strength and cohesiveness as a duo stripped down to the bare boned essentials.
Currently “This Is America,” Childish Gambino’s hit single/video, has millions of views on YouTube addressing many of the same issues that “Tonz O Gunz” presented in 1994. This song contains a sample of the Isaac Hayes song “Breakthrough” and starts off with an excerpt from a Malcolm X speech. “Tonz O Gunz” is about guns flooding into poor neighborhoods and the black on black violence that happens as a result. “The Planet” uses Steve Davis’ “It’s All Because She’s Gone” as a rhythmic and melodic bed for Guru’s story of moving to New York. Once you hear the original sample it’s amazing to hear what it is transformed into. It is sped up slightly and the drums are reprogrammed underneath it giving it a springy and bouncy feel. Guru tells the tale of his moving to Brooklyn and the challenges that it presented in a cohesive narrative that is wrapped around a catchy chorus. “Boom bash dash, I had to break, I had to getaway/ Packed my bags, to leave for good, it was a Monday/ Kissed my mother, gave my Pops a pound/ Then he hugged me, then he turned around.”
Another high point for the record is “DWYCK.” It features the duo Nice & Smooth and the sample of the drums is a simple bed of bass, snare and high-hat from the first few seconds of Melvin Bliss’ “Synthetic Substitution.” Mass Appeal” loops a guitar lick from the Vic Juris record “Horizon Drive” to be the recurring motive for its melodic content. Once again DJ Premier breaks up the verse by scratching a spoken word version of the chorus. This time he is scratching a vocal sample from Da Youngsta’s song “Pass Da Mic.” One of the impressive things about DJ Premier’s sample selections is the variety. Jazz records, blues records, and R&B all make appearances, but in addition how about the Malcolm X sample, Gong, or even sampling a line from one of their own records? This record is dense with samples and lengthy at 17 tracks. I wish I could go into detail about each song but that would make this brief essay too long. Instead I’ll try and impress upon you that the basis of each song is a choice sample or three, and that the rhyming is top notch. Guru has a voice that is one of the best in rap, and the chemistry and cohesiveness of this duo should not be missed. The song topics may fall solidly within a predictable genre and variety of topics, but it should be taken into consideration that this is prototypical New York rap in the 1990’s. The listener must contemplate the execution and the atmosphere. DJ Premier takes classic samples, often combines them with then contemporary influences of peers, and tailors beats for Guru to inhabit and show his skills within.

-         Doug Anderson

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