The most influential MC-and-DJ tandem of the 1990s, Gang Starr set new standards for 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, both 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 beat-making and jazzy sound. Following Step in the Arena and Daily Operation, Premier became one of New York's most demanded 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 — too infrequently, many fans felt — for albums such as Moment of Truth (1998) and The Ownerz (2003). During this period of solo activity, Gang Starr became increasingly recognized as a touchstone, one that critics and hip-hop purists frequently cited as a standard-bearer for streetwise, socially conscious East Coast rap.
Guru (born Keith Edward Elam on July 17, 1966, in Boston, MA; died following a battle with cancer on April 19, 2010) and Premier (born Christopher Edward Martin on March 21, 1966, in Houston, TX) began working together in 1989. Guru had founded Gang Starr a couple years earlier, in 1987, 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), and its featured single, "Words I Manifest." The DJ-spotlight track "DJ Premier in Deep Concentration" is another highlight of the album, which spent years out of print. Between albums, in 1990, Guru and Premier contributed a song, "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, that is, 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 number one (on the R&B/Hip-Hop album chart, that is; it peaked at number six overall, still their best showing commercially to date). 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 Billboard Hot 100 chart (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, in 2000; he also released solo rap albums, beginning with Baldhead Slick & da Click (2001). The next Guru release, Version 7.0: The Street Scriptures, arrived in 2005 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, including the typical array of guest vocalists and instrumentalists, was issued in the summer of 2007, along with the "raw" companion disc Guru's Jazzmatazz - The Timebomb: Back to the Future Mixtape. Guru 8.0: Lost and Found, the rapper's next 7 Grand full-length, followed in 2009. 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).
As for Gang Starr, Guru and Premier did reunite 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. Sadly, Guru died at age 43 on April 19, 2010 after battling cancer, suffering a heart attack, and for a time falling into a coma. ~ Jason Birchmeier