Happy 25th Anniversary to Gang Starr’s sophomore album Step in the Arena, originally released January 15, 1991.
If I flash back 25 years ago to midway through my eighth grade year, one of the memories that immediately comes to mind is my dogged determination to upgrade my very modest stereo system, during that very formative period of musical discovery. Much to my chagrin at the time, my outdated bedroom setup had consisted quite simply of your run-of-the-mill Panasonic dual-cassette boombox, absent a CD player, akin to the now-vintage model shown here.
I recognized that a proper amplifier was the key to a richer sound, but my heart was initially set on making the formal transition from cassette to compact disc. So I explored the range of CD players in the market, and was ultimately seduced by the most magical of CD players: the 5-CD carousel changer. In retrospect, and considering that we now have access to millions of songs with the mere swipe of a fingertip, my amazement with the prospect of being able to load and listen to not just one, but five (five!) CDs in sequence, without lifting a finger, seems utterly ridiculous. But back then, my 13-year old mind believed that the 5-CD changer was the truth, and all the proof I needed to know that modern technology had indeed come a long way, baby.
So I saved my dollars and pennies over the course of about six months and dragged my mother to the nearest Circuit City, where I plopped down a few hundred bones on a sleek and shiny Sony 5-disc changer. As an acknowledgment of my dedication and financial discipline, my mother magnanimously offered to spring for five CDs of my choice, in order to christen my first rotation in the new machine. Little did she know that this generous offer would fuel a music collecting obsession that would see her son gradually develop a CD collection that numbered in the thousands by my early twenties.
My increasingly feeble memory can recall only four of the five albums I purchased that spring afternoon from the long-shuttered Tower Records on Durant Avenue in Berkeley. The New Jack City soundtrack, EPMD’s Business as Usual, Ed O.G. & Da Bulldogs’ Life of a Kid in the Ghetto, and Gang Starr’s Step in the Arena all came home with me that day. And though I still enjoy all of these records, the latter is the one that I find myself revisiting most often, some twenty-five years later.
Admittedly, I was an album late to the game in discovering the brilliance of Gang Starr. But one listen to their sophomore album inspired my curiosity and prompted me to dig a bit deeper into their story up to that point. The group was originally formed in the mid 1980s by the late-great Roxbury, MA bred emcee Keith “Guru” Elam and DJ 1, 2 B-Down, but the pair parted ways after releasing a handful of singles through the independent Wild Pitch Records that remained under the radar. Vowing to continue the group under the Gang Starr moniker, Guru was introduced by Wild Pitch President Stu Fine to aspiring Houston DJ/producer Waxmaster C, who changed his stage name to DJ Premier shortly thereafter, and the pair connected immediately. As Fine told Vibe Magazine in 1998, “The chemistry was instantaneous. I put them in the studio [on a trial basis] for four days, and it felt like the start of a fabulous relationship. These two guys belonged together. They had a very similar commitment and vision and passion.”
It was indeed a fortuitous meeting, as the partnership they developed during the two decades that followed would prove to be one of the most fruitful creative collaborations hip-hop has ever witnessed. Though Premier would go on to become one of the most in-demand soundsmiths ever, producing for countless artists, his early soundscapes seem to have been custom crafted specifically for Guru’s measured baritone rhymes.
In 1989, the duo released their first output together in the form of the now-classic single “Words I Manifest,” followed by their debut full-length, the underappreciated No More Mr. Nice Guy. A few months after the LP’s release, Spike Lee appropriated a remixed version of the album cut “Jazz Thing” for the soundtrack of his film Mo’ Better Blues, which stars Denzel Washington as the fictional jazz musician Bleek Gilliam. Galvanized by its inclusion within the film, the single reinforced Gang Starr’s dedication to hip-hop jazz fusion, a stylistic pairing that they would champion throughout their entire careers together, and most notably through Guru’s masterful Jazzmatazz initiative.
The group’s time recording for Wild Pitch was short-lived, however, as the critical acclaim they garnered from No More Mr. Nice Guy helped them land a new deal in 1990 with the UK-based Chrysalis, a major label owned by EMI. In an effort to capitalize on Gang Starr’s momentum and burgeoning reputation within hip-hop circles, Chrysalis wasted precious little time in releasing their sophomore album in the early days of 1991.
If No More Mr. Nice Guy signified the promise of great things to come from the duo, Step in the Arena expanded upon this promise, establishing Gang Starr as a force to be reckoned with. A more polished and musically expansive song suite than its precursor, Step in the Arena is nevertheless firmly rooted in the seamless pairing of Premier’s signature sample/scratch-based sonics and Guru’s street-smart soliloquies.
Universally recognized as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time, the filler-free Step in the Arena contains a handful of unforgettable singles, plus several tracks that very well could have been formally released as singles. Inspired by Guru’s own victimization at the hands of robbers shortly before the album’s release, first single “Just to Get a Rep” serves as a cautionary tale about the karmic consequences of too much bravado in the world of the street hustle. It was upon first hearing this track that I was mesmerized by Gang Starr, and immediately decided that the album from which it came was a must-add for my growing collection.
Released as the second single, the braggadocious title track encapsulates a recurring thematic thread throughout the album, as the steady-headed Guru outlines the futility of battling his superior microphone prowess. Guru’s punishing rhymes at the expense of wack emcees surface again on the slinky groove of “Form of Intellect,” the bass-heavy “Take a Rest,” the buoyant “As I Read My S-A,” and the penetrating percussion of “Check the Technique,” which lifts Marlena Shaw’s “California Soul” to glorious effect.
“Say Your Prayers” and “Street Ministry” are two of the album’s finest moments despite their abbreviated run times in the 1:30 range. In a 2011 interview with HipHopDX, Premier discussed how the inclusion of shorter tracks was informed in part by his remarkably broad musical palette, explaining that:
Well, I’m a fan of more than hip-hop. I also listened to rock music real hardcore. I’m very in to new wave, punk music. I was a rebel in my family; I was into the punk scene. I used to listen to a lot of new Wave stuff, like The Smiths, Psychedelic Furs, and The Cure, Siouxsie and The Banshees, Dial House, Joy Division. I was into all that stuff. The Thompson Twins, just all this crazy stuff. And sometimes they would have a song that just had one verse. And then it’d fade out. So I took a lot of [inspiration] from that. Prince, he’d do a record called “Gotta Broken Heart Again” on the Dirty Mind album, and then as soon as the verse is over, he’d make the guitar collapse like he’s killing stuff. And that’d be the end of the song. I was like, “Yo, I wanna do stuff like that!” I took a lot of pointers from Prince, Michael Jackson, The Commodores, Earth, Wind & Fire, with their interludes.
Indeed, the shorter tunes prove that Gang Starr was more than capable of packing a powerful punch and crafting a memorable tune, without needing to conform to the standard multi-verse song structure.
Other highlights include the funky “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight,” an empowering anthem that implores listeners to consider “Can we be the sole controllers of our fate? Now who’s gonna take the weight?” The introspective, Delfonics indebted “Lovesick” reveals Guru’s more emotionally vulnerable side, as he humbly laments the loss of his paramour. Mind you, Guru soon changed his tune from lovelorn sentimentality to unabashed pragmatism with the following year’s unforgettable “Ex Girl to the Next Girl” from the group’s third LP, Daily Operation.
Look up “artistic integrity” in the hip-hop dictionary, and you’re guaranteed to see an accompanying image of Guru and DJ Premier. Across their twenty-year career and six stellar studio albums, the duo sustained their unparalleled ambition, high creative ideals and flawless execution. Few groups across hip-hop’s rich history have commanded such widespread reverence and loyalty as this duo, and for good reason. They consistently crafted music for the mind, heart and soul, and remained true to the underground spirit of hip-hop, even when they reaped a modest helping of critical and commercial success. And Step in the Arena was one of their crowning achievements, without question.