Gang Starr keeps literate street poetry in hip-hop

Gang Starr's DJ Premier and Guru
To those of you who have been selling "bling-bling" pop and have the nerve to call it true hip-hop, DJ Premier and Guru - collectively known as Gang Starr - are back to even the score. The duo's new and seventh album is The Ownerz. Throughout the record, Guru verbally pimp-slaps hip-hop imposters over Premier's jazz-inspired beats. It's time for something real, something with heart, the rapper says. It's time for the OGs (that's "original gangstas") to snatch back what they started.

Calling from a Manhattan studio, Guru, 38, says, "There's this whole misconception that hip-hop culture was started by a bunch of young cats. The culture was started by grown men - cats 35, 45 and older. These young cats should be bowing down and be glad that there are some older cats out here to give the game more flavor."

For more than a decade, Guru and 35-year-old Premier (his real name is Christopher Martin and he's stuck in production mode and can't chat) have been melding literate street poetry with measured, head-nodding beats. In his unmistakable creamy monotone, Guru (born Keith Elam) delivers clever lines that explore relationships, twists in American politics, the need for artistic integrity in hip-hop.

"The concept of The Ownerz involves how people are renting and leasing hip-hop," Guru explains. "At this point in the game, there's a lot of people exploiting it and calling the [stuff] they're doing hip-hop even though their music is watered down. Premier and I call it 'tinkerbell' rap. It's not the real stuff."

Like Betty Carter was in the jazz field, Guru is a purist. His flow and Premier's tailor-made beats stick to the hard, sharp flavor of original hip-hop - the spare beats and insistent bass lines interspersed with scratches and smartly sampled sound bites. It's raw and sonically rich, rippling with jazzy horns or a spliced funk-guitar line. Since hip-hop has become so mainstream in the past five years or so, the music (what makes the charts and goes platinum, anyway) has largely become cartoonish, its edge nonexistent.

But Gang Starr has garnered some commercial success with its tunnel vision. The duo's last album, 1998's Moment of Truth, went gold. And The Ownerz debuted in the Top 20 earlier this month.

"Yo, how many times can you hear about folks bling-blingin' and all that crazy [stuff]?" Guru says. "These rappers today - and I'm not gon' say no names - are selling a lifestyle these kids out here can't afford. I was at Wendy's the other day and here this brotha was baggin' burgers and fries with this big fake diamond in his ear and this big chunky fake medallion on his neck. Yo, I wanted to snatch that [stuff] off him. These kids out here need food for thought, not some fiction lifestyle."

Gang Starr's mission to elevate and educate through hip-hop started in the mid-'80s. After Boston native Guru graduated from Atlanta's Morehouse College, he relocated to Manhattan, hoping to make it in the music business. Under the name Gang Starr, the artist released a few singles on the independent Wild Pitch Records. One day in the label's office, he came across a demo tape featuring the ear-snatching beats of Premier, who was then calling himself Waxmaster C. After Premier's group failed to land a deal with Wild Pitch, Guru hooked up with the shy DJ. The two even lived together for a time.

In 1989, the duo put out No More Mr. Nice Guy, an ambitious debut that heavily sprinkled jazz into Gang Starr's potent hip-hop mix. (As a solo artist, Guru would successfully explore jazz-rap fusion on his Jazzmatazz series.) Other influential GS albums - Step in the Arena (1990), Daily Operation (1992) and Hard To Earn (1994) - are considered masterpieces. Despite the commercial boom in rap, Gang Starr refuses to alter its style to snag heavy rotation on BET, MTV or the radio. The group's following generally consists of suburban white kids with a deep appreciation for straight-up hip-hop. (Which is no surprise, given that demographic buys nearly 80 percent of all hip-hop CDs.)

Guru's personal evolution has peaked since the last album. The rapper has stopped drinking, and since the birth of his son, now 3 years old, he has "grown up, man. I mean, it's deeper now - everything. I've changed my diet. I'm in shape now. I want to be able to compete. I gotta stay relevant. I gotta come harder."

So to all the "tinkerbell" rappers out there: Watch ya back.