One of the most influential MC and DJ duos, Gang Starr set new standards for streetwise, socially conscious East Coast rap with a pair of early-'90s touchstones, Step in the Arena (1991) and Daily Operation (1992), whose appeal has only grown over the decades. Beginning with these classic releases, listeners and critics heaped mounds of praise upon Guru and DJ Premier — the former because of his socially conscious lyrics and no-nonsense stance, the latter because of his DJ-style beatmaking and jazzy sound. Following Step in the Arena and Daily Operation, Premier became one of New York's most in-demand producers, crafting hits for the city's finest MCs, including the Notorious B.I.G., Nas, Jay-Z, and KRS-One. Guru likewise collaborated with plenty of well-known artists — Roy Ayers, Donald Byrd, N'Dea Davenport — on his solo debut, Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1 (1993), and its series of follow-ups. Following Hard to Earn (1994), the duo's fourth Gang Starr collaboration overall, Guru and Premier began focusing primarily on their solo projects, reuniting infrequently for Moment of Truth (1998) and The Ownerz (2003). Guru's death in 2010 left an unfillable void in hip-hop, but Premier eventually issued new Gang Starr material in the form of "Family and Loyalty" (2019) with previously unreleased verses from Guru and an appearance from J. Cole, one of the innumerable artists profoundly inspired by the Brooklyn duo's recordings.
Guru (born Keith Edward Elam in Boston) and Premier (born Christopher Edward Martin in Houston) began working together in 1989. Guru founded Gang Starr a couple years earlier and had already established a working relationship with Wild Pitch Records. The partnership of Guru and Premier as Gang Starr led to a formative debut album, No More Mr. Nice Guy (1989), including the featured single "Words I Manifest" and the DJ-spotlight track "DJ Premier in Deep Concentration." Between albums, in 1990, Guru and Premier contributed "Jazz Thing" to the Mo' Better Blues soundtrack. Gang Starr subsequently moved to Chrysalis Records for their second album, Step in the Arena (1991), on which they perfected the approach of their debut — a stark, hard-hitting jazz-rap production style, complete with Premier's masterful DJ cutting, over which Guru's battle-rap-hardened yet smoothly delivered lyrics, often thoughtful, sly, and streetsmart, take flight. Gang Starr's third album, Daily Operation (1992), furthered the duo's approach stylistically; widely considered an East Coast rap classic, it's arguably Guru and Premier's finest work, along with its predecessor.
In 1998, after four years between albums, Gang Starr returned with Moment of Truth, their first album to chart at number one (on the R&B/Hip-Hop album chart, that is; it peaked at number six on the Billboard 200 overall, their best showing). Moment of Truth was a significant departure from past Gang Starr efforts, very much contemporary in style; for example, the album features numerous guests (Inspectah Deck, Scarface, G. Dep, K-Ci & JoJo, M.O.P.) and bore little trace of the duo's jazz-rap beginnings. The lead single, "You Know My Steez," became the second Gang Starr hit to break into the Hot 100 (peaking at number 76). A double-disc retrospective, Full Clip: A Decade of Gang Starr (1999), subsequently marked the duo's ten-year anniversary. In the years that followed, Guru and Premier continued to focus on their own work. Guru continued his Jazzmatazz series, beginning with a third volume, Streetsoul (2000); he also released solo rap albums, beginning with Baldhead Slick & da Click (2001). The next Guru release, Version 7.0: The Street Scriptures (2005), arrived on his new label, 7 Grand Records; the album featured beats by Solar, who would prove to be an important contributor on additional 7 Grand releases. The fourth volume of Jazzmatazz (2007) included the typical array of guest vocalists and instrumentalists and was issued along with the "raw" companion disc Guru's Jazzmatazz - The Timebomb: Back to the Future Mixtape. Guru 8.0: Lost and Found (2009), the rapper's next 7 Grand full-length, followed shortly thereafter. Premier continued his production activity, working with superstars such as Jay-Z, Nas, and Common, as well as underground rappers such as Royce da 5'9", Termanology, and NYG'z; he even dabbled in mainstream pop, most notably working extensively with Christina Aguilera on her double-disc album Back to Basics (2006), including the Top Ten hit "Ain't No Other Man."
As for Gang Starr, Guru and Premier did reunite during the early 2000s for The Ownerz (2003), a celebrated return to form, but the reunion proved short-lived, leaving back-catalog collections such as Mass Appeal: The Best of Gang Starr (2006) to fill the void. Guru died at age 43 on April 19, 2010 after battling cancer, suffering a heart attack, and for a time falling into a coma. Throughout the 2010s, Premier-steered projects such as Get Used to Us (2010), the Bumpy Knuckles collaboration Kolexxxion, and two albums with Royce da 5'9" as PRhyme (issued in 2014 and 2018). He continued to work with veterans and up-and-comers alike, from Big Shug, Dr. Dre, and MC Eiht, to Rapsody, Westide Gunn, Conway, and Benny the Butcher. Near the end of the decade, Premier released the first Gang Starr track in 16 years, "Family and Loyalty," utilizing previously unreleased verses from Guru and a featured appearance from J. Cole. ~ Jason Birchmeier