Happy 15th Anniversary to Gang Starr’s final studio album The Ownerz, originally released June 24, 2003.
“Why they calling us the most consistent, most significant / (Once again) some old slick shit”
- Guru from Gang Starr’s “Skills”
Debuting near the musical apex of hip-hop’s golden age, the super duo of Guru and DJ Premier always had a rich sound to complement their substantive observations on life inside the empire state. Not one fan or album sale came easy for the blue-collar duo who honed a style all their own organically, achieving auditory precision with every outing.
In the years between their 1998 critically acclaimed masterpiece Moment of Truth, which many argue is the hallmark of Gang Starr’s prestigious catalog, Guru arranged the third and most soulful installment of his Jazzmatazz series. Meanwhile, DJ Premier blessed tracks remained an ever-coveted prize, particularly for New York based lyricists.
For their first album of the new millennium, which would sadly be the final Gang Starr LP, the men of respect returned with what appeared to be a heightened confidence. Proclaiming themselves The Ownerz, in a subtle reference to the teachings of Elijah Muhammed from his book Message to the Black Man in America which appeared on the group’s 1992 Daily Operation album cover and has been a longtime benchmark for Guru’s brand of lyrical journalism.
The group who had proven themselves kings of their own corner of underground hip-hop kicked off their sixth album with the lead single “Skills.” Up-tempo enough to gain moderate radio play, Premo proved that his reign atop hip-hop’s A-list of beat specialists was far from over, as he expertly leveraged the major baseline from Edwin Birdsong’s “Rapper Dapper Snapper” and extracted inflections from The Mysterious Flying Orchestra’s “Shadows.” Premo’s signature scratches of legendary voices such as Rakim and Chuck D, among others, transports you to a late ‘70s NYC park jam where a seasoned dee jay spun the hottest disco records to warm the crowd as a true master of ceremony.
Guru’s well-placed chorus on “Skills” served as the musical thesis Gang Starr fans had spent years trying to explain to the masses of moderate rap listeners, namely that Gang Starr possessed hip-hop’s most impeccable hardcore formula. “Top rank, point blank, we vital / spit flows, rip shows, peep the recital / (Skills) Now you feel it when we drop those / hot beats, stop foes, killing shit, we got those / (Skills) It's the music that the street loves / each thug is now reppin' this with deep love / (Skills) Gang Starr dueling again / ruling again, watch as we do it again.”
Sticking to their short but highly effective playbook, the group relied on their blistering ground game and called an old-fashioned halfback option out of the gate for the song “Put Up or Shut Up.” Guru softened the defense as one of Gang Starr’s most skilled protégés Krumb Snatcha came in on third down to prove he was one of the best at delivering hard rhymes over Premo’s rugged drum patterns, rapping, “A ghetto doctrine to watch every pistol pop / and then while you watchin’ examine all options / young bodies in the coffin more often / it stay the same from Brooklyn to Boston / every interstate, more youth with the inner hate / deep in the struggle, puttin’ food on they dinner plate.”
Fully confident that their formula was as good as any high-powered plug and play offense, the duo reached out to The LOX’s Jadakiss, who arguably resided at the top of his class with respect to dropping clever punchlines and metaphors. The album’s sophomore single “Rite Where U Stand” saw the first reunion of Jada and Premier since Kiss’ boast “Now I know y'all couldn't wait to hear 'Kiss over Premier / kill you on tape then watch it over a beer” on the song “Recognize” from The LOX’s 2000 album We Are the Streets. Jada picked up right where he left off with the murderous bars “Keep playing, y'all niggas will burn / and you know they say it takes something to happen for niggas to learn / let the .40 Cal give 'em a perm / this industry is like bacteria, and my flow is a germ.”
The heart and soul of the LP is vintage Gang Starr: Premo’s hard-thumping drum patterns over jazz and funk samples, complemented by Guru’s vivid street narrations. “PLAYTAWIN,” “Deadly Habitz” and “Riot Akt” are all testaments to the groups proven resume. While “Nice Girl, Wrong Place” and “Who Got Gunz” anchor the ship at both ends, balancing it out for a wider range of listeners.
“Nice Girl” follows the tradition of “Ex Girl to Next Girl” and slows the pace for a mellow groove the ladies can vibe to. “Who Got Gunz,” on the other hand, revisits “Tons of Guns” from 1994’s Hard to Earn for the high energy dose of violent aggression brought to you by subject matter experts Lil Fame and Billy Danze of M.O.P. along with Terror Squad General Fat Joe. A brief intermission from Gang Starr’s trademark nationalist ideology, Fame and Danze in particular offer some of the most vicious gun bars to date, with Fame first warning, “Brownsville deep in my genes / I show you Bad Boy for real / keep thinking shit is Peaches and Cream,” and Danze closing out with “Who got a problem / it's already been established / I'll come through your town with a pound like a savage / still throwing down on the grounds that I'm average / can I hear it for a gangster.”
Eerily, the album closes on a solemn note, as Guru and Premier offer their condolences to loved ones who were lost during their musical and life journey. Very unfortunately this would be the last time we would get to cherish the jewels imparted from Keith “Guru” Elam over his partner’s brilliant production before his untimely passing in 2010. Over “Eulogy,” Guru offers one of his most heartfelt lyrics of his illustrious career: “The emotions that one goes through, over a loss of a loved one / or friend then, knowing the cost of rebuilding and carrying on / it gets so damn hard in this modern day Babylon / and disease runs rampant, so many men carry arm / so many have a lonely painful road to travel on.”
The Ownerz was definitely what Gang Starr loyalists had grown to expect, as the album emerged as one of the top five albums of the year, with Premier cutting every sample with precision, and Guru showing how the teachings of luminaries like Malcolm X were still applicable to modern day urban America. Meanwhile, guest emcees brought their personal best from their rhyme journals, to pay homage to rap’s most credible and consistent tag team.
“Some new product from a known team/ niggas know me, and you can bet they know Preem / so here we go for your stereo / and you could tell that it's real when you hear me go.”
- Guru from Gang Starr’s “Skills”
Rest In Power to Keith “Guru” Elam (7/17/66-4/19/10) and DJ Premier’s father Dr. Edward W. Martin (11/29/28- 6/8/18)