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Group Home Reminisce Over Guru

Lil’ Dap whiled away the late ’80s cruising around on his Honda motorcycle. Flashing his jewelry as a status symbol and posturing like “one of them lil’ fly niggas,” he’d ride from his East New York base to the Bronx blocks between 183rd Street and East Fordham Road, where he’d hustle with his partner, a young boxer who’d crowned himself Melachi the Nutcracker.

On one such day, their friends, Tommy Hill and Gus, introduced them to Keith Elam, a/k/a Guru, a Boston-bred rapper who’d just moved to New York City to spark the career of Gang Starr, his fledgling rap duo with DJ Premier. The tentative friendship that resulted changed Dap and Melachi’s lives; as Gang Starr swiftly became NYC-rap royalty, the duo formed their own crew, Group Home, whose gritty Livin’ Proof is a cornerstone of 1995 hip-hop. Now, with their friend and mentor having died of cancer in April, they’ve recorded a new album, G.U.R.U. (Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal), in his honor. Fittingly, the project also reunites them with Guru’s fellow long-term underground-hip-hop associates Jeru the Damaja, Brainsick Mob, and Smiley the Ghetto Child.

Looking back, Dap remembers being initially disappointed by Guru: “He wasn’t dressing like the rappers on the radio, like Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, Special Ed. I looked at Tommy and said, ‘He ain’t no rapper I look up to.’ ” Still, the crew trailed Guru into Manhattan that night, hitting up a Midtown club where the influential DJ Red Alert was spinning before a Queen Latifah performance. Guru’s mission was to get the Gang Starr song “Bust a Move Boy” played. He failed. “Red Alert just cracked that record,” recalls Dap. “At that time, if you brought your shit to a DJ, they either liked it and played it, or cracked the vinyl on the spot.” Feeling humiliated in public, Dap warned Tommy, “Don’t be bringing me out of the ‘hood to this Manhattan shit when this nigga ain’t got no respect.”

In the days that followed, Guru called Dap repeatedly. “He said he knew I was mad, he knew the type of nigga I was, he apologized, and we became cool. After that, me and Guru got real tight.”

The bond they formed led to Dap and Melachi’s music career: First came guest verses on Gang Starr albums Daily Operation (1992) and Hard to Earn (1994), then came Livin’ Proof. A blend of DJ Premier’s (almost) exclusive production and the two rappers’ starkly economical expressions of street-life frustrations, the album is just as stupendous as hip-hop’s 1995 standard-bearer, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx . . . . But even that was only the surface of a deep-rooted organization called the Gang Starr Foundation, a well-populated movement long before rappers started using the term to describe any group of guys who drop a couple of free mixtapes. Dap remembers the posse taking over clubs like the Tunnel and the Apollo en masse; listeners experienced those invasions vicariously through Gang Starr songs like “Soliloquy of Chaos,” where Guru’s roll-call for the night runs “five carloads deep” as he shouts out Dap, Melachi, Tommy, Gus, and many others.

Guru’s gift was describing street life in a more philosophical way: “Soliloquy of Chaos” turns into an anti-club-violence sermon. “You had a lot of street dudes and killers back then,” Dap testifies. “Some of those guys was out of their minds, but they’d listen when Guru dropped a jewel. I’d think, ‘Wow, Guru probably just saved this dude’s life.’ ” Dap and Melachi vie for that same sort of insight. So when Guru passed, and his most recent partner and producer, Solar, emerged as hip-hop’s pantomime villain (accused of pillaging Guru’s pockets and legacy), Group Home took a step back from “all the nonsense on the Web.” Dap explains the decision: “I don’t really like this nigga, and I want to knock him out, but if Guru vouched for him then, I’ll accept that—just like in the streets.”

It’s a mentality crystallized on the mournful G.U.R.U. title track—Dap laments the loss of “my big brother” and recalls when they “used to tear the Tunnel down/Going to foreign countries and give ’em the sound.” Then, as if taking a cue from one of Guru’s lessons, he eulogizes, “Your mission is done, so you gotta go now/So let’s pray that you go to a better place now.”

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Hit It, Now Hold It

Bearing down on hip hop, with plenty left undone, some of it fairly terrific, I believe or hope. FYI, I’m holding the Tribe Called Quest best-of over till Christmas, which is pretty much what it feels like to me.

Cape Verde

(Putumayo World Music)

Trust the escape merchants at the world’s softest world label to put a happy face on saudade-the tempos a little quicker, the melodies a little brighter. Still, it’s not like these musicians are trying to get the party started, increase efficiency in the workplace, or reduce sales resistance to clothing bought cheap and sold dear-not that they know of, anyway. They’re just confronting the sense of loneliness and loss built into “the romance of these remote and exotic islands.” And maybe because they’re beginning to feel it’s too easy to hold their cultural heritage at bay by correctly pronouncing one of its many names, they’re beating it, honestly if temporarily. Good for them. A Minus

Marshall Crenshaw

Number 447
(Razor & Tie)

Although Crenshaw likes to call his g-b-d trio rockabilly, he’s not above keybs, gives a fiddler one, and weaves in three instrumentals that are anything but filler-mood-setting rock and roll lounge music, melodic and contemplative. On an album that negotiates the awkward transition from superannuated teen to balding homebody, the two well-crafted infidelity songs don’t altogether mesh with the two well-crafted should-have-loved-you-better songs. The masterstroke is “Glad Goodbye,” which passes for the world’s millionth breakup song while addressing a much rarer theme: a couple, both of ’em, dumping a home and a physical history they no longer love. A Minus

Dream Warriors

Anthology: A Decade of Hits 1988–1998
(Priority)

Eight years ago, these black Canadians put out a well-liked album that missed the tail end of Daisy Age.Then they vanished. Gang Starr and DigablePlanets connections got their next CD a token U.S. release, but the one after was strictly commonwealth-as far as the south-of-the-border rap community was concerned, King Lu and Capital Q no longer existed. So maybe nobody told them that you claim street no matter how middle-class you are, that jazz samples were a doomed fad, that Digable Planets blinked out faster than the evening star. And maybe that was good. Probably it didn’t feel like that to them; one of their best songs is called “I’ve Lost My Ignorance,” and I’m sure the disillusion hurt. But though their inspiration wanes slightly, they never surrender their thoughtful intricacy or race-man lyricism. Certainly they belong in the same sentence as De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. And “Test of Purity” is the best song about nasty sex a nasty music has ever produced-in part because it’s so explicit, in part because it’s so imaginative, in part because it’s so kind. A Minus

Cesaria Evora

Café Atlantico
(Lusafrica/RCA Victor/BMG Classics)

I’m happy to report that Shoeless Cesaria reports herself happy. She likes being a star, and is proud to have spread the fame of her native land-now officially redesignated, in the soupiest thing here, an “Atlantic Paradise.” To celebrate, she sells out big time, and does it ever suit her-her Brazilian concertmaster’s swirling strings ruin only one of five tracks, and the kora, bolero, and danzon are all to the good. Meanwhile, over on the arty side, two previously unrecordeds from her twenties are bright standouts, and the lyric booklet is full of surprises. Never got her and wondered if you were worse for it? Why not start here? A Minus

Genaside II

Ad Finite
(Durban Poison)

Filtering Gil Scott-Heron through Linton Kwesi Johnson and Bernard Herrmann through Richard Wagner, guesting an imprisoned dancehall boomer on one track and a certified operatic contralto on the next, this Prodigy/Chems/Tricky–beloved brand name has more scope and punch than most trip hop, or whatever it is. And it holds together like-well, not Wagner probably, but at least Shadow. Unaccustomed as I am to thrilling to fake strings, I thrill to these. And not just because I’ve been boomed into submission, I don’t think. A Minus

Arto Lindsay

Pride
(Righteous Babe)

Although he’ll never make as much money at it as the samba masters he takes after, Lindsay’s jeud’esprit has turned modus operandi. He seems fully capable of an album like this every year or two: a dozen or so songpoems in English or Portuguese, floating by on the sinuous current and spring-fed babble of a Brazilian groove bent, folded, spindled, and mutilated by the latest avant-dance fads and electronic developments. The weak link is the poetry, which wouldn’t be as fun as the music even if it was as well-realized. The selling point is the fads and developments, and the faux-modest singing that renders them so organic. A Minus

Paul McCartney

Run Devil Run
(Capitol)

I don’t want to call McCartney the most complacent rock and roller in history. The competition’s way too stiff, especially up around his age, and anyway, I’m not judging his inner life, only his musical surface. From womp-bom-a-loo-mom to monkberry moon delight, his rockin’ soul and pop lyricism always evinced facility, not feeling, and his love songs were, as he so eloquently put it, silly. This piece of starting-over escapism isn’t like that at all, as, robbed of the wife he loved with all his heart, McCartney returns to the great joy of his adolescence in a literally death-defying formal inversion. So light it’s almost airborne, Gene Vincent’s “Blue Jean Baby” opens; so wild it’s almost feral, Elvis Presley’s “Party” closes. Some familiar titles are merely redone or recast, which beyond some Chuck Berry zydeco gets him nowhere. But arcana like Fats Domino’s “Coquette” and Carl Perkins’s “Movie Magg” could have been born yesterday, three originals dole out tastes of strange, and on two successive slow sad ones, the Vipers’ hung-up obscurity “No Other Baby’ and Ricky Nelson’s lachrymose hit “Lonesome Town,” the impossibility of the project becomes the point. Teenagers know in some recess of their self-involvement that their angst will have a next chapter, but McCartney’s loneliness is permanent. Not incurable-the music is a kind of new life. But its fun is a spiritual achievement McCartney’s never before approached. A Minus

[

Mos Def

Black on Both Sides
(Rawkus)

“Building it now for the promise of the infinite,” Black Star’s star overreaches; delete the right tracks, which is always the catch, and his solo CD would pack more power at 55 minutes than it does at 71. I hope someday he learns that what made Chuck Berry better than Elvis Presley wasn’t soul, even if that rhymes with rock and roll the way Rolling Stones rhymes with (guess who he prefers) Nina Simone. But the wealth of good-hearted reflection and well-calibrated production overwhelms one’s petty objections. “New World Water” isn’t just the political song of the year, it’s catchy like a motherfucker. “Brooklyn” and “Habitat” are no less geohistorical because they act locally. B Plus

The Spirit Of Cape Verde

(Tinder)

Heard in the background, as quiet world-music comps usually are, the saudade here can be vaguely annoying, like somebody unburdening her troubles out of earshot across the room. Listen close, however, and the melancholy seems so deeply imbued it’s as if 300,000 islanders had been lulled to sleep by Billie Holiday before they learned to speak. Though it lapses into the genteel sentimentality that mushes up too much samba, there’s a little more muscle to the music’s technical intricacy and sensual pulse. And if your attention flags, be sure to come back for the farewell instrumental, cut 30 years before sadness became the nation’s cash crop. At two minutes and 12 seconds, it’s primal. B Plus

Tricky with DJ Muggs and Grease

Juxtapose
(Island)

As always with Tricky, the right idea for pop isn’t necessarily just right for him. Beats, of course; songs, sure; a band, who could say no? And right, individual tracks connect pretty good-hot lesbian porn, you devil you. Yet though his soundscapes be obscure and forbidding, they’re what he’s great at; his rap affinities and rock dreams are off the point, especially in the studio. So the best thing about these shapely selections is that they remain obscure and forbidding as they stand up and announce themselves. Second-best is their scorn for criminal pretensions, always a boon from a borderline nihilist. A Minus


Pick Hit

Gang Starr
Full Clip: A Decade of Gang Starr
(Virgin)


A longtime agnostic in re Guru and Premier except as regards the former’s ill-advised Roy Ayers? Donald Byrd trip, I’m grateful for this exemplary compilation.


For anybody wondering what “flow” can mean, Guru’s smooth, unshowy delivery, cool in its confident warmth and swift without ever burying words or betraying rush, is one ideal, and Premier’s steady drums ‘n’ bass, just barely touched by anything that would pass for a hook, undergird his groove with discretion and power. My problem has always been the music’s formalism-the way it encouraged adepts to bask in skillful sounds and rhymes that abjure commerce and tough-guyism. But reducing five albums to two CDs not only ups the pop density, as you’d expect, but achieves variety by jumbling chronology and mixing in B sides and soundtrack one-offs that weren’t cut to any album’s flow. It’s a credit to the duo’s constancy that the result plays like a single release. And despite his occasional bad-girl tales and images of sexual submission, Guru’s quiet rectitude and disdain for a street rhetoric whose reality he’s seen make him a chronicler everybody can learn from. A Minus


[

Dud of the Month

Puff Daddy
Forever
(Bad Boy)


Nobody who didn’t want money from him ever said he could rap, but he did have a spirit and a community, both now gone-one because it’s harder to stay human on top than to act human getting there, the other because anointing Biggie your coproducer doesn’t make him any less gone. Wallowing in otiose thug fantasies and bathetic hater-hating, hiring big names who collect their checks and go, he is indeed hateful if not altogether devoid of musical ideas. And for inducing a cute-sounding little-sounding girl to pronounce the words “hit-makin’, money-havin’, motherfuckin’ pimp” he should be taken to Family Court. C Plus


Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:Chuck D Presents Louder Than a Bomb(Rhino): exhortations and commonplaces, old school style (Common Sense, “I Used To Love H.E.R. [Radio Edit]”;Ice Cube, “A Bird in the Hand”);No More Prisons(Raptivism): convicts not gangstas, agitrap not CNN (Hurricane G, “No More Prisons”; dead prez & Hedrush, “Murda Box”; Daddy-O, “Voices”);Luna,The Days of Our Nights(Sire): still a casualty of capitalism-not downsized, but privatized (“Sweet Child o’ Mine,” “U.S. Out of My Pants!”); ZZ Top,XXX(RCA): meaning of title: very, very dirty (sounding) (“Fearless Boogie,” “Beatbox”); Eve, Ruff Ryder’s First Lady (Ruff Ryders/Interscope): dogs can’t leave that woman alone (“Heaven Only Knows,” “My B******,” “Love Is Blind”); The Roots, Come Alive(MCA): world-class DJ and beatbox, excellent drummer and bassist, pretty darn good rapper(s), bourgie jazzmatazz (“Proceed,” “Love of My Life”); Wilson Pickett, It’s Harder Now (Bullseye Blues & Jazz): so wicked it’s hard to believe he consented to, ugh, “Soul Survivor”-which opens his show (“What’s Under That Dress,” “Taxi Love”); New Groove 3:
Déconstruire le groove esoterique
(REV): at long last acid jazz (Swoon, “Pomegranate garrote”; Henri Lim, (“Aria [Ether Edit]”); Harold Budd & Hector Zazou, Glyph (Made to Measure/Freezone import): downtown minimalism meets ambient techno meets the Algerian half of (how could you forget?) Zazou Bikaye (“The Aperture,” “As Fast as I Could Look Away She Was Still There”); Public Enemy, There’s a Poison Goin On…(Atomic Pop): hating playas is fine, hating play amn’t (“41:19,” “What What”); Rahzel, Make the Music 2000 (MCA): having fun with the human beatbox (and friends) in the studio (and on stage) (“Southern Girl,” “Night Riders”); The High & Mighty, Home Field Advantage(Rawkus): plenty to boast about, less to be proud of (“The Weed,” “The B-Document”); Ronnie Spector, She Talks to Rainbows (Kill Rock Stars): pop queen or punk symbol, she comes direct from the land of dreams (“You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” “She Talks to Rainbows”).


Choice Cuts:Art Blakey & Thelonious Monk, “Blue Monk (Alternate Take),” “Evidence (Alternate Take)” (Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers With Thelonious Monk, Rhino/Atlantic); Ice T, “Always Wanted to Be a Hoe” (The 7th Deadly Sin, Coroner/Atomic Pop); DMX, “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem,” “Stop Being Greedy” (It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, Def Jam); Type O Negative, “Day Tripper (Medley)” (World Coming Down, RoadRunner); Ruff Ryders, “What Ya Need” (Ryde or Die Volume 1, Ruff Ryders/Interscope).


Duds:Company Flow, Little Johnny From the Hospital (Rawkus); DMX, Flesh of My Flesh Blood of My Blood (Def Jam);The Evil Tambourines, Library Nation(Sub Pop); Paris Combo(Tinder).


Addresses: Atomic Pop, PO Box 7639, Santa Monica CA 90401; Bullseye Blues & Jazz, 29 Camp Street, Cambridge MA 02140; Kill Rock Stars, 120 State Avenue NE #418, Olympia WA 98501; Putumayo World Music, 324 Lafayette Street, NYC 10012; Raptivism, 61 East 8th Street #251, NYC 10003; Rawkus, 676 Broadway, NYC 10012; Razor & Tie, Box 585, Cooper Station, NYC 10276; REV, 2409 Penmar Avenue, Venice CA 02901; Righteous Babe, Box 95, Ellicott Station, Buffalo NY 14205; Tinder, 619 Martin Avenue, Unit 1, Rohnert Park CA 94928.

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Jazz Fission

In 1992, Brooklyn’s Gang Starr paired with the Dream Warriors, a promising young rap duo from Toronto, to record “I’ve Lost My Ignorance (And Don’t Know Where To Find It).” Obscurely released on the U.K. compilation Re birth of Cool, the song was a sublime concoction confirming that hip-hop’s
affair with jazz had reached a climax. With Gang Starr already responsible for two albums raised on the bebop of their forefathers, and with the Dream Warriors’ 1991 debut album a critically acclaimed, whimsical marriage between ’60s kitsch jazz and Native Tongues irreverence, “I’ve Lost My Ignorance” was seen as more than just a casual meeting between like minded souls. It was the future of hip-hop, period.

Seven years later, we know sampled jazz never materialized into the musical tomorrow. (It’s savvy hustlers slangin’ street-corner fantasies who make the dollars now.) Gang Starr’s and Dream Warriors’ careers went in separate directions—paths vividly displayed on two recent retrospectives, Gang Starr’s Full Clip: A Decade of Gang Starr and Dream Warriors’
Anthology: Decade of Hits 1988–1998.

Hip-hop “careers” are usually so short-lived, it seems silly to even use the word. But Gang Starr’s DJ Premier and Guru have, for 10 years, proved a model of consistency and quality rivaled by no one (except, per haps, De La Soul). Just ask any group raised on their ethic—the Roots, Black Star, Organized Konfusion. Full Clip is an essential compendium of Gang Starr’s influential existence through five albums, but it also at tests that labeling Gang Starr as part of the jazz–hip-hop movement was a limiting misnomer. Sure, DJ Premier regularly culled bop-bitties from dusty crates; Guru essayed jazz’s history on “Jazz Thing” for Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, and his Jazzmatazz experiments linked generations of musicians; and the two even lived with Branford Marsalis for a spell. But every deft Premier scratch and smooth but street-savvy Guru lyric reinforces the fact that, really, this DJ and MC were the ultimate embodiment of hip-hop’s essence—the sonics and styles of jazz were just colors on their pallette

It’s Premier who has guided Gang Starr through hip-hop’s different eras, making everything sound both relevant and remarkably ground breaking. He could flip hard-bop sounds into something positively thuggish (Charles Mingus on “I’m the Man”), transform eastern horns into a DJ’s best friend (“Who’s Gonna Take the Weight”), and make an obscure sample from French synth pioneer Jean Jacques Perrey sound essential to hip-hop (“Just To Get a Rep”). As for Guru, he fits with Premier’s sonic wonderment so tenaciously that in any other scenario, he’s a fish floundering out of water. “Wild with my monotone style/because I don’t need gimmicks,” he boasts, addressing his powerfully understated rhyming presence in “Mass Appeal.” “Give me a fly beat and I’m all in it.”

As Full Clip shows, Gang Starr’s music occupies even the nooks and crannies of hip-hop
idealism: they understand the importance of the B-side (the drum-heavy “Credit Is Due” or the party-rockin’ “Dwyck”), and “Gotta Get Over,” from the forgettable film Trespass, is far from the typical rap-soundtrack throwaway. The duo even survived hardcore hip-hop’s greatest transgression—the r&b cameo—by making two hits with K-Ci & Jo-Jo (“Royalty”) and Total (“Discipline”), the latter a new song that shows Gang Starr
operation is in no danger of slowing down.

The legacy of King Lou and Capital Q of Dream Warriors, by contrast, never extended beyond the initial possibility of their coolly crafted debut, And Now the Legacy Begins, and their only legitimate hit single, “My Definition of a Boombastic Jazz Style” (which used the same Quincy Jones –composed “Soul Bossa
Nova” later employed in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery). Their claim of possessing a decade’s worth of “hits” rings resolutely hollow, even more so given that their first single was re leased only nine years ago. Compared to Gang Starr’s collection, Anthology isn’t a glorious remembrance; it’s a tombstone. It’s a symbolic gesture showing just how fleeting the jazz-rap future was (and why groups like Di gable Planets and US3 are just memories). Dream Warriors were jazz–hip-hop entities only insomuch as they sampled jazz.

Outside of the three tracks Dream Warriors include from their first album, you’d be hard-pressed to recognize anything on their best-of. A handful of songs from the group’s lackluster second effort, and new songs recorded n recent years (but not released in the U.S.), reveal
major identity problems in the wake of hip-hop’s changing styles—a group filling the subtext void with pseudo-spiritual imagery, hokey New Age concepts, and contrived beatnik rhyming pat terns. Interestingly, the Dream Warriors included their lone post-Legacy highlight, “I’ve Lost My Ignorance,” on their retrospective—the DJ Premier remix version, at that. But on their compilation, Gang Starr did not. They didn’t need to. Their clip was already loaded.

Gang Starr play Hammerstein Ballroom
August 11.