Happy 30th Anniversary to Gang Starr’s debut album No More Mr. Nice Guy, originally released June 6, 1989.
Gang Starr was the quintessential New York hip-hop group. With Chris “DJ Premier” Martin behinds the boards and Keith “Guru” Elam on the mic, the group shaped the classic boom bap sound that defined ‘90s rap music from the five boroughs. The kicker is that neither member of the group was from New York. Guru, with his monotone voice and smooth rhyme style, was from Boston. DJ Premier, today considered one of the greatest music producers of all time, hails from Houston.
Guru started the group back home in Boston in the mid ‘80s as a wider crew that disbanded after the release of a few singles on the renowned label Wild Pitch Records. Undeterred, Guru refocused, hooked up with DJ Premier, moved to New York and the rest is history. Wild Pitch released the duo’s debut album No More Mr. Nice Guy in 1989 at the tail end of a decade that had witnessed rap’s first golden era.
There are three particular standout tracks on No More Mr. Nice Guy that show what Gang Starr would come to exemplify in the ensuing years, the first being “Jazz Music.” At a time when most hip-hop producers were lifting from soul and funk for source material, DJ Premier and others began to sample jazz records. Preemo’s use of Ramsey Lewis’ “Les Fleur” on “Jazz Music” helped to shape Gang Starr’s sound to the point where they later became labelled, rather unnecessarily, as a “jazz rap” group, alongside contemporaries like A Tribe Called Quest and Digable Planets.
The next milestone moment is “DJ Premier in Deep Concentration.” Here the producer sets up what would become his signature style; using multiple different vocal and musical samples (over ten alone on this track), chopped up and scratched with precision. Sampling lines and verses from Eric B. & Rakim or EPMD later become standard, but what’s interesting is that these records were only one or two years old at the time DJ Premier was using them. Hip-hop has, after all, always been very self-referential, never feeling obliged to wait too long before repurposing something that has come before. DJ Premier even samples one of Gang Starr’s other No More Mr. Nice Guy tracks on “DJ Premier in Deep Concentration.” This itself has become a common trait of the producer’s work; scratching samples of previous tracks he created as a way to circumvent sample clearance drama.
The third most influential track on No More Mr. Nice Guy is the classic “Words I Manifest.” It’s an effortless lyrical workout from Guru and the development of a unique rhyme style that allowed him to say an awful lot with sometimes very few words. It’s simplistic and deep at the same time, using basic rhyme schemes to convey complex messages and meaning, or simply to talk shit. For instance: “I'm your professor, I got the touch to do more than the rest / who fess and can't compete / I'm elite, I'll defeat, delete and mistreat.”
The idea of a Gang Starr song being produced by anyone other than DJ Premier or Guru seems alien today, but it should be noted that a couple of tracks on No More Mr. Nice Guy were produced by the iconic DJ Mark the 45 King. Still hot in 1989 thanks to the hit “The 900 Number,” 45 King made the beats for some of Gang Starr’s earliest, pre-DJ Premier singles, one of which ended up on No More Mr. Nice Guy: “Gusto.” Despite producing several important rap records and remixes, 45 King’s career later took a backseat thanks to drug addiction before he scored a mega-hit in 2000 with Eminem’s “Stan.” Two years before that, he and DJ Premier both appeared in the production credits of Jay-Z’s Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life (1998), on which 45 King produced the hugely successful title track.
No More Mr. Nice Guy is nowhere near the best Gang Starr album but should not be overlooked. This is where you’ll find the beginnings of the hardcore, jazz-infused sonic direction that DJ Premier’s production followed in subsequent years, and how Guru began to grow into a skillful lyricist, using his deep vocal tones to devastating effect.
Gang Starr followed No More Mr. Nice Guy with one of the most consistently great runs in all of music: Step In The Arena (1991), Daily Operation (1992), Hard to Earn (1994), and Moment of Truth (1998). Their final album, The Ownerz, came in 2003 and Guru died from cancer in 2010, concluding a prolific musical partnership, the legacy of which endures to this day.