Gang Starr, the legendary Brooklyn hip-hop-duo by way of Texas and Boston, has just released an instant true-school hip-hop classic amidst the greatest of odds. One of the Best Yet finds DJ Premier and monotone rapper deluxe, Guru, backed by immediate Gang Starr Foundation affiliates Freddie Foxxx, Jeru the Damaja, Group Home, M.O.P., and original founding member Big Shugg over some of the very best Premier-produced sonic gems to date. Under the worst of all circumstances, Premier has meticulously crafted an indelible collection of buttery, East Coast, New York-style, hip-hop biscuits 16 years since their last effort Ownerz dropped and filled in the graffiti on the proverbial wall that the run of impeccable, gritty underground full-length albums was over. That is until now.
Ironically enough, during the tracking of Ownerz, a new contributor entered the Gang Starr fold with a nod of approval from the duo’s wordsmith and lyrical fire-starter and varied speculation from the man behind the turntables and MPC 3000. Little did anyone know that the new “producer” would be a deep scratch on Preemo’s favorite record for many, many years to come. Fast forward to a nearly decade-long legal battle over several tapes of unreleased bars, hooks, and choruses that Guru made during the time in which communications between the emcee and deejay subsided.
Guru sadly passed from cancer in 2009 with an odd and still relatively unsolved story of lies, mystery letters, and social web posts about Guru’s alleged disdain for Premier and how he no longer considers him a friend, much less a partner in one of the best hip hop duos of all-time. Preemo admittedly hadn’t spoken to Guru since 30 March 2004. Wiser, definitely cooler, heads prevailed with Premier purchasing the tapes from his new mortal nemesis, knowing that it will be the only way to preserve Gang Starr’s legacy properly.
After 18 laborious months of carving out lyrical nuggets from the tapes and building beats, bridges, and choruses around what he could salvage. A stand-alone verse here, a killer chorus vocal sample there…it took the time to bake a baby in utero twice over for One of the Best Yet to grace our brainwaves. And not a damn thing has changed. Consider it a hefty fourth bystander to their already immortal trilogy of New York Underground Hip-Hop—Daily Operation, Hard to Earn, and Moment of Truth. Often imitated but never appropriated, these were perfect records from dropping the needle to picking it back up. Now a new collection of hard-knock, boom-bap graces our speakers in the vein of rap magic past.
One of the Best Yet is just that. From the onset, even the album opener, a live show snippet intro showcasing some jewels of Gang Starr past with a little audience participated call and response, “The Sure Shot” sets the precedence. Wasting not a moment, home team rabble-rousers’ M.O.P. join forces with the mighty Guru, and it’s pretty much “Lights Out” from there. A perpetual master class is in session. Tediously sculpted beats to nest Guru’s golden-egged rhymes, a bygone era is immediately refurbished with gritty samples and head-crushing drums.
Premier is one of, if not the best producer in the game, and has been since the early ’90s. He holds Grammys and street credibility, has worked with Janet Jackson and made a terrible Limp Bizkit song semi-listenable. Not to mention timeless production on records from Nas, Biggie, Digable Planets, two full-length long players for Jeru the Damaja, and Group Home’s debut record Livin’ Proof, which may be the best collection of hip-hop beats on a single record ever. Have we even scratched the surface here yet?
For good measure, Q-Tip ( A Tribe Called Quest) lays out a deliciously obscure chorus on this record as Talib Kweli drops actual science in a cantankerous Gang Starr/Black Star collaboration, “Business or Art”. Conversely, Royce da 5’9”, who filled Guru’s position as token emcee to Preemo beats fits in well on the record while he describes Guru’s ashes being on the console for the creative process, it’s as hard-hitting as described.
An emotional interlude from Guru’s son keeps things in check while moving into one of the strongest offerings on the record, the return of Guru and Jeru together on wax, “From a Distance”. A string sample is writhing into feint keyboard notes and a token of Preemo’s genius incorporating random noises as rhythmic touchstones. The entire record is a weed smoke-filled breath of golden age hip-hop — this is the one that breaks the promise of the ’90s indie hip-hopper with a backpack and a fat cap marker. The one that said we’d never rock anything made past 1999 when shiny suits and mainstream floating commercial bullshit was our mortal enemy. Everything except “Get Together”, that one could’ve stayed on the cutting room floor. I do, however, still understand the album concept, just like “Royalty” on Moment of Truth, Gang Starr always has one for the ladies.