Gang Starr is arguably the defining hip-hop group of the underground. Consisting of complex lyricist MC Guru and eclectic producer DJ Premier, the two introduced a jazz-infused sound that really hasn’t been paralleled in the same manner since. In essence, there are two different stages to the arch of Gang Starr, both of which influenced hip-hop indefinitely. The first was the bridging between jazz and hip-hop, capturing the complex sound of New York in a way that hadn’t been done before. The second was an uncompromising, street-built sound of pure grit built around menacing beats. However, it all got started with Gang Starr’s debut album, No More Mr. Nice Guy.
The Genesis Of Gang Starr
Gang Starr had been in the works for a while before the release of No More Mr. Nice Guy. Back in the mid-1980s, MC Guru was rapping in his hometown Boston. However, Guru and his three friends disbanded after a few recordings. He pivoted to the streets of New York, acutely aware that hip-hop’s epicenter existed a few hours south of him.
Discovering DJ Premier through a demo tape, he invited the Houston native out to Brooklyn. Their first recording was ‘Words That I Manifest.” From the jump, their sound infused jazz in a way that hadn’t been done. The track sampled Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia,” who was an iconic jazz trumpeter. In the years leading to the golden era, hip-hop had primarily existed in the world of disco or funk, with the likes of James Brown being a go-to sample artist.
Gang Starr’s Debut Album Brought A Unique Sound
In addition, Gang Starr was delivering a fresh form of social commentary off of No More Mr. Nice Guy. Blatantly influenced by contemporary MC hip-hop outfits such as Public Enemy, they were one of the pioneering groups to utilize their influence to deliver commentary in a sociopolitical manner. The project would receive extended attention with the appearance of “Jazz Thing” in Spike Lee’s 1990 film, Mo’ Better Blues. The placement made the burgeoning wave of jazz-rap even more popular while solidifying Gang Starr as a leader in the genre.
No More Mr. Nice Guy is certainly not the greatest album Gang Starr has put out. While it may read as a damning statement, the two would probably be happy to know that they would further refine their sound with time. Their debut studio album, in essence, was their playground to hone their sound.
The two had grown up with jazz, it was just a matter of implementing it into an album setting. DJ Premiere’s grandfather used to be in a jazz band. On the other hand, Guru’s godfather was a jazz buff. As he put it with The Commentator, “If I was with my friends and I needed some money or something, I’d pass by his house. He’d grab the whole posse and say, ‘Sit down and listen.’ He’d sit us in between two big-ass speakers, as tall as the next man. It would sound like you could hear every instrument.”
No More Mr. Nice Guy Set Gang Starr Up For Future Success
MC Guru and DJ Premier were a musical match made in even. Each connecting with the same vision for where they’d steer hip-hop, the two drew comparisons to De Niro and Scorsese in the film world. Guru makes this sentiment known throughout No More Mr. Nice Guy, stating, “So I frown at the scene where you be takin’ it / And like the winds of change, I’ll be breakin’ it up” on “2 Steps Ahead.” While Gang Starr wasn’t going to take any s**t from rivals, their philosophical approach set them apart from the pack. As Guru puts it on the album opener, “Premiere and The Guru,” “Knowledge, wisdom, peace are what I’m true to / In the rear is Premiere, and I’m the Guru.”
No More Mr. Nice Guy was a launching pad for Gang Starr’s more commercially successful future releases. 1991’s Step in the Arena saw Premier and Guru take significant strides. Eventually, their commercial success would take off through 1994’s Hard to Earn. However, the two had always made it clear that they weren’t in the game for financial benefit. They didn’t care about the lavish Cadillacs or mansions that large-scale record labels may have offered. They were in the business of pioneering a new sound in hip-hop, one that all got started with No More Mr. Nice Guy.