Mass Appeal is an interesting choice of title for a Gang Starr “best of” collection. It’s the name of one of their more recognizable singles, from their 1994 album Hard to Earn. But in that song “mass appeal” isn’t something to strive for. It’s the shadowy prize that fools seek: a superficial, fleeting sort of success. As Guru surmises, “maybe your soul you’d sell to have mass appeal.” Easily lost, surface-level success is the antithesis of Gang Starr’s place in the music industry, which is better described by words like longevity, integrity, respect. Six albums in 14 years, each marked by consistency above all else. They’ve had no major hits but plenty of minor ones; “minor” in terms of commercial success alone. So many of their songs are rightly considered classics by hip-hop fans, especially by those who value a raw, bare-bones approach focused on the essentials: a voice and some beats. Street corner raps and the boom-bap.
It’s been over three decades since hip-hop was invented, and since then the balance of power has continually shifted back and forth between DJs and MCs. But Gang Starr has always represented an equilibrium, a seamless balance of the two. Primo has a grasp on sound, music history and composition that’s nearly unmatchable, and an overall style that’s unmistakable. In and outside of Gang Starr, he’s made an indelible mark on hip-hop, and in turn on popular culture in general. Guru’s voice and rhyming style—what he calls his “monotone style” on “Mass Appeal”—are equally recognizable. Both individuals are the stars of Gang Starr. The bond between them, the partnership, is Gang Starr.
This foundation is strong enough for guest MCs to enter the stage especially comfortably, Guru never sounding afraid that others will upstage him. No matter the guests—and many top-notch MCs have entered the scene of a Gang Starr track—Guru doesn’t change his style to match theirs, yet he gains dimension from their presence. In “The Militia”, Freddie Foxxx and Big Shug sound hard as nails, fierce and aggressive; Foxxx ends the track punching us in the face and taunting us about it. Guru doesn’t notch up his style at all, yet he fits right in. His deadpan face becomes a cold, hard stare. On “Above the Clouds”, Inspectah Deck gets metaphysical, and Guru stays right with him: the blank stare now signifying philosophy, mysticism. On “Put Up or Shut Up,” up-and-comer Krumbsnatcha sounds hungry…and so does Guru. This is true of tracks with Nice & Smooth, M.O.P. Snoop Dogg. Guru’s a chameleon, without ever changing. And Primo matches him ever step of the way, shading his style towards the situation at hand.
So many Gang Starr tracks are battle rhymes, yet Guru’s warriorship is efficient, never ostentatious. It’s about the ancient art of war, so to speak, about crafting and delivering rhymes. And still there’s a level of awareness that slips in, like this line between jabs in “The Militia”: “born with a heart of gold / now mostly cold and scarred.” Likewise, within Gang Starr’s discography is a mini-genre of street violence tales that bear a broader understanding of the mechanics at work, both systems of power and the way people play into that, out of greed or selfishness. Listen to Guru in “Soliloquy of Chaos”, which starts with violence at a hip-hop show at broadens to cover cycles of retribution: “whether you die or kill them / it’s another brother dead / but I know you’ll never get that through your head.” That’s a song it’s impossible to talk about without observing the role of Premier’s claustrophobic soundscape, the repeated series of notes that is perpetually rising, like it’s trapped, reminding of a streamlined, street version of a Bernard Hermann score for a Hitchcock film. “Code of the Streets”—perhaps the duo’s finest achievement—is less dramatic but just as effective in the synchronicity of voice and music to tell a street story. A dark but funky stroll is made darker by encircling strings and funkier by Premier’s scratching (omnipresent in Gang Starr—he’s a producer and beatmaker but a DJ too). Meanwhile there’s Guru breaking down the way crime and violence come from poverty. Chuck D. may have called rap music “the black CNN”, but tracks like this are hip-hop’s version of The Wire.
Guru and Premier take that same nuanced approach towards urban life in general. Even the loverman boast “Ex Girl to Next Girl” has a level of tenderness to it; our narrator’s bragging but admitting defeat too, in conveying his perpetual motion from girl to girl. The tenderness is accentuated by the cyclical feeling of the music, and its playfulness. It sounds almost like a sitcom theme, calling out “here’s another episode, and everything’s the same.”
Gang Starr will likely go down in music-history books as a jazz-rap fusion, but that’s a misconception. Premier does heavily use jazz samples, and that is important. Their outspoken endorsement of jazz (older black music) to the next generation, through samples and the emblematic track “Jazz Thing”, may be even more so. But their music (or even Guru’s R&B-centered Jazzmatazz collaborative albums) doesn’t mimic jazz in style, try to fuse jazz and rap in any holistic way, or aspire to the spontaneity of jazz. If anything it’s the “coolness” of jazz that they might be aspiring to. Jazz horns and basslines are ever present in Gang Starr’s music, but Premier’s always molding them into something that’s much more hip-hop than jazz, and much more theirs than the original jazz musicians’. Clean beats and perfectly placed samples—including truly odd sounds like whistles and echoes—are blended together in a smooth, natural way.
Premier says he keeps an ear to the streets at all times, and it sounds like it, even though current hip-hop trends don’t make much of a mark on Gang Starr’s style. Just like Guru has a keen eye for what’s going on in neighborhoods and on street corners today, Primo sounds like he’s listening to the sounds of the city itself, to the rhythms of the city. His loops evoke circling subways trains, his track construction the architecture of a city.
Through Guru’s everyday-man qualities and Primo’s ear for life’s rhythms, Gang Starr gains something that could be called “mass appeal.” They’ve attained a different kind of mass appeal than the fools in the song: a no-frills, no-gimmicks populism that fuels a timeless quality in their music. Each Gang Starr album makes only slight tweaks to one basic sound, and that sound itself is Gang Starr’s and no one else’s. Place every Gang Starr song in order, and shuffle them up; it’d be nearly impossible for new listeners to tell which is from what album, which is from what year.
This makes their music perfect for compilations. Their previous best-of, 1999’s two-disc Full Clip—filled with not just hits but leftovers too, soundtrack cuts and B-sides—is especially seamless and rewarding for a random-source compilation. I usually have nothing but suspicion and hesitation about cut-and-paste compilations of music by album-oriented artists, but Gang Starr is the exception. Full Clip‘s epic view of their music shows that the sum betters the parts; in this context each track makes you more aware of the overall achievement of the duo.
Mass Appeal is smaller in scope, so it doesn’t reach the same heights. It won’t convince anyone that it’s more worthwhile to listen to the compilation than any particular album, like Full Clip does. Mass Appeal is more like a sampler CD, a taste. Its focus is on singles, plus a few of the more striking album tracks from each album. It doesn’t hit all the important songs—most evidently, no “Jazz Thing,” no “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight”, no “You Know My Steez”—but it does give listeners over an hour of impressive Gang Starr music, plus two much lesser tracks from the Japanese version of The Ownerz, tacked on at the end as “bonus tracks.” And there’s also a DVD, the true bonus in this package. It contains 10 Gang Starr music videos, filmed between 1991 and 2003. These videos match their music in character. Each is nearly exactly the same: images of city life, with Guru rapping on a street corner, surrounded by friends. There’s no grand concepts, no special effects. Instead it’s just Gang Starr, Guru and Premier, standing on concrete sidewalks as subway trains circle, taxis speed past, birds fly above, and city dwellers go about their business. It’s a daily operation, life moves on.