Issue #2: Moment Of Truth by Gang Starr
February 8, 2016
Released On March 31, 1998
Released By Noo Trybe Records
You know what sucks? Being thirty-three. You know what’s awesome? Being fifteen. My fifteenth year was a monumental one for the music industry. It was 1998. Boy bands were peaking, this weird rock/punk/emo thing happened, and hardcore east coast rap made a gigantic comeback. Anchored by a new generation of icons–DMX, Big Pun, and a fully-formed Jay-Z, record sales were at an all-time high. Seemingly every Def Jam album either went platinum, or at least felt like it. Shit, DMX had two platinum albums in the same calendar year! That’s never happening again. Ever.
A kid in 2016 can’t possibly comprehend that type of across-the-board prosperity in the music industry. Even more alarming is that a kid born in 1998 is now turning eighteen, which, not coincidentally, is the perfect age to introduce him to Moment Of Truth, Gang Starr’s masterpiece from the same year. There’s an expression in hip hop: “grown-man rap.” Moment Of Truth is the ultimate “grown-man rap” album. It’s an extremely mature record about mature themes (yes, at one point, rap albums/songs had themes). It’s a record about taking responsibility (“Robbin Hood Theory,” “JFK 2 LAX,” “My Advice To You“), loyalty (“B.I. Vs. Friendship,” “Betrayal“), self esteem (“Royalty,” “What I’m Here 4“) and success (“Work,” “Moment Of Truth,” “The Rep Growz Bigga“).
I’m just gonna say it–in Gang Starr’s exceptional catalog, featuring four undeniable classics, it’s their best work. Yes, I know, everything is “the best” from when you’re fifteen, but here is why (and some key aspects to pay attention to as you listen to the album):
1. Sales-wise, it’s their most successful album. Certified gold.
2. It’s DJ Premier at his “technical” best. While there’s no argument that Premier was at the peak of his powers from ’94-’96, by ’98 he’d fully mastered his signature production style. The “chops” (manipulation of samples from pre-existing records) on this record are seamless. The drum selection and programming are perfect. Premo fully transitioned from jazz to soul, which was jarring at the time, considering the group built their entire sound and image on their proclivity for jazz.
3. Guru is also at his best, and most vulnerable. The album title, cover art and subject matter are directly inspired by Guru’s real-life weapons charge after being caught with a revolver at La Guardia Airport (“JFK 2 LAX”). The soul searching is evident. His father was a judge, for goodness sake!
4. This album made careers, and enhanced others. Wu-Tang Clan member Inspectah Deck’s guest verse on “Above The Clouds” is on the short list for best guest-verse of all time. In ’98, anticipation for Deck’s solo album was palpable, especially after this verse. Krumbsnatcha’s guest verse on “Make ‘Em Pay” landed him a coveted “Hip Hop Quotable” in The Source magazine, and a subsequent record deal on Interscope. Fun fact, my first legitimate check and production credit came from a record I produced for Krumbsnatcha in 2004.
Most will refer to previous albums Daily Operation and Hard To Earn as superior, but the truth is (see what I did there?) everything that the group produced and stood for coalesced on Moment Of Truth. While I’m sure the group will be remembered more prominently for earlier albums, this will always be the definitive Gang Starr album to me. It’s desert island material. It warms the soul. It’s one of the handful of albums that made me want to be a producer, and continues to inspire me eighteen years later, as a grown man.
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
Next time somebody tells you they miss “old-school” rap, you better point them here…
I was apprehensive to review Moment Of Truth, a feeling that was only heightened when, thanks to a sequel series of tweets a few days ago, I was reminded of Solange Knowles’ thoughts on how music criticism approaches genres of music that are intrinsically and historically linked to African-American identity. Three years ago, Solange criticized some of the writing on Brandy’s just-released album Two Eleven, asking publications to hire writers who understood the culture of hip-hop and R&B rather than writers with Ivy League credentials or ones “who [got] hip to R&B & Hip-Hop via the crossover artist of their childhood.” This is an incredibly abbreviated version of her thoughts and you should absolutely read her own words. I brought this up because, as I listened to Gang Starr, I felt very much like the writers Knowles challenged. I thought, “How can I, a 22-year-old half-white half-Hispanic kid from the suburbs, have anything knowledgeable to say about this music?” I was in unfamiliar, alien territory listening to Guru’s lyrics and Premier’s production. It’s a dense, long album, and on first listen I was overwhelmed. But I was captivated by how Guru weaves rhymes in, out, and around the lines, boasting and calling for change in the same breath (“Robbin Hood Theory“), crafting an ode to a black widow-esque figure over smooth R&B/hip-hop (“She Knowz What She Wantz“), and relating his and Premier’s struggle as artists over a truly strange beat that includes repeating oompa strings and a few seconds of dissonant, jazzy piano (“The Rep Growz Bigga“). It’s a thoughtful, expertly crafted, incredibly varied record, and I think I must leave it at that.
David Munro (@david_c_munro)
Idiosyncratic Avant-Garde Wanderer
I’ve been reading Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop History comics a lot lately, and this Gang Starr record, which I first purchased on cassette in 2000, feels like it’s re-introducing itself to my life at an apropos time. DJ Premier’s rant between “Royalty” and “Above The Clouds,” in which he references “break record cats” who are “snitchin'” by releasing bootlegs containing songs Premier and other hip hop DJs have sampled, hits on a notion that’s covered extensively in Piskor’s comic–how much work the early hip hop DJs had to do to keep ahead of the other crate-diggers and find new and intriguing samples. DJ Premier is one of the best who ever took up the art, and he proves it all over Moment Of Truth by continuing his tendency to pull breaks from styles of music no one had thought to cut up before–not just funk and jazz but classical symphonies and indigenous music from around the world. Premier’s tracks are my favorite element of this album, but Guru’s contributions can’t be discounted by any means–his smooth vocal style and intelligent, introspective rhymes stood out at a time when gangster toughness was the norm, and paved the way for a new approach to lyrical skills. By 1998 when Moment Of Truth was released, plenty of other rappers with similar approaches (Common comes immediately to mind) were on the scene, but Guru was still the best of the bunch. In some ways, Gang Starr reminds me of Public Enemy–a strong, serious approach to hip hop, resulting in top quality rhymes and production. Only, where Public Enemy hit hard with militant rhymes and noisy wall-of-sound production, Gang Starr took a smoother approach for equally high-quality results with a less abrasive edge. Moment Of Truth is the duo at the top of their game. You know their steez.
Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground
Gang Starr’s Moment Of Truth‘s opening words are: “That makes me know that, we we we we’re doin[.] We had the right idea in the beginning…” A spoken word that sounds as though it was recorded in a Brooklyn park, the borough the duo is originally from, where all of the old school, upbeat, ‘real-talk’ MC’s congregate. Set to loose beats, punctuated horn tracks, and flowing, cool electric piano, Moment Of Truth is the old school gem that not everyone knows about but should. If the jazzy “Royalty” is a cold Pepsi for the ears, then “She Knows What She Wants” is a late night champagne in a smoked out uptown night club and “Betrayal” is a day old bottle of whiskey in your hand as you walk through the Brooklyn alleys in yesterday’s clothes. “Militia” is a cut throat ride with cunning wordplay that’s raucous enough to send even the most courageous of men running with their dresses pulled up to not trip. Moment Of Truth is quite the journey: a boastful amount of tracks to send your head spinning, an overabundance of fuzzy phone calls that are fitting in their own right, and real words coming from real people.
Tyler Sirovy (@tswarovy)
Budding Appraiser Of Sonic Complexities
I’d like to preface my words concerning Gang Starr’s Moment Of Truth that when it comes to hip hop, my knowledge of what constitutes good or bad within the genre is limited. What I am confident in though is my opinion of what good music is because regardless of genre, good music is good music. Prior to working on this project I had never listened to Moment Of Truth and in the wake of having listened to it five times in the past week I am disappointed that it is the case. What jumps out most at me as a new listener to the album is the ease at which Guru threads his vocals through the music which is easy to get lost in, giving the rhymes a chance to breathe through the excellent production. Delving a little deeper into musical side of the album, it’s not hard to see why it’s easily digestible when it comes to DJ Premier sampling of a who’s who of legendary acts from James Brown and The Supremes to Fleetwood Mac and Jeff Beck, not to mention a shed load of Gang Starr’s contemporaries within hip hop. The almost 79 minute run time flashes past and once the laid back closing track “In Memory Of…” fades out, I didn’t have to will myself to give it repeat listens. It pains me that I can’t give a more in depth review of what this album means within its genre. As a music fan though, I can’t recommend it enough to like-minded people.
Matt Green (@happymad1986)
Fiery Orator Of Nostalgia
Gang Starr should be required listening for just about any music fan. And Moment Of Truth is a perfect starting point. The avant garde approach that this hip-hop duo took in 1998 seems like a triumph for the underground scene and still relevant to this day. Moment Of Truth succeeds in cementing the reputation of Gang Starr by putting together a near flawless release with little to no filler. It also feels at times like their attempt at acknowledging those that have been inspired by their approach and displaying their status as innovators throughout the release. In researching this record, there is a lot to uncover. The diversity of artists sampled throughout is an even further testament to their craft. Whether it’s spoken word bits from John F. Kennedy or Orson Welles, music from their peers like A Tribe Called Quest or Wu-Tang Clan, pioneers of the genre like Public Enemy or even Jeff Beck, there is a musical tapestry at play that is Gang Starr through and through. One of the greater samples featured might be Notorious B.I.G.’s “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You),” as featured on “In Memory Of…” It had been just a year since Christopher Wallace’s passing and its impact was easily still resonating. As almost a reaction to this tragedy, Gang Starr resurfaced with this phenomenal record that seems to identify with what it means to be an artist in the world of hip-hop when the shifts and changes in the world could and will always catch you off-guard. How do you stay relevant and engage your audiences in a way that very few are capable of? In many ways, Moment Of Truth was Gang Starr’s confidant answer to those queries.
Shannon Cleary (@thatssocleary)
Musical Explorer Of All Angles
A perfect visual representation of what Moment Of Truth is all about.
I often think about something Meredith Graves (Perfect Pussy) said in an interview about modern music criticism: “I want to hear, ‘I listened to this record and it made me go out into my garage and eat half a box of ho-hos and smash stuff.’… I just want to hear about how the record made you feel.” I want to take this approach to what I write for Off Your Radar, especially with Gang Starr’s Moment Of Truth. While I listen to a fair amount of hip hop, I rarely write about it on my blog because I don’t feel like I have the vocabulary to discuss it. Like baseball, I am worried someone will realize I don’t have deep historical knowledge and ask me a bunch of questions I don’t know the answers to. But now that I am forced to do it for this project, I decided to ask: “How did Moment Of Truth make me feel?” The answer: pretty fucking good. I don’t want to eat ho-ho’s and smash stuff; I want to smile widely while listening to Guru tell extremely personal, powerful stories over DJ Premier’s fantastic beats. The record is also so hopeful. For instance, here’s the chorus of “Robbin Hood Theory:” “Now that we’re getting somewhere, you know we got to give back / For the youth is the future no doubt that’s right and exact / Squeeze the juice out, all of the suckers with power / And pour some back out, so as to water the flowers / The world is ours, that’s why the demons are leery / It’s out inheritance, this is my Robbin Hood Theory.” Moment Of Truth makes remember a time when social revolution seemed within reach, before 9/11, Iraq, Snowden, Ferguson, the rise of Donald Trump; before we realized how much everyone benefits from the system and how they’re not letting go.
Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ
It would probably surprise those who know me to hear that the background music for my teenage years was hip-hop. The rise of Eminem made it seemingly ok for white, middle-class Englishmen to enjoy this burgeoning genre. So although now I’ve found myself comfortable and at home with indie and folk, hip-hop occasionally comes to visit like the cool uncle. Gang Starr was not an artist I grew up listening to, so putting on Moment Of Truth for the first time was a whole new experience. But one I greatly enjoyed. Whilst most hip-hop albums at the time were trying to smack you in the face with their raw intensity, Moment Of Truth prefers to sit you down and slowly unravel itself. It’s as close to chilled as you can get in this genre, with the jazz and orchestral sounds providing a relaxing ambience. The production is top notch throughout the album and Guru’s verses, whilst provided in his monotone tone, purvey a series of emotions I’ve not seen in a lot of hip-hop albums. The title track was the star for me, excellent verses mixed with top production producing an absolute stand-out. The beauty of writing for Off Your Radar is the ability to listen to albums I myself may never have experienced. I’ve now experienced Moment Of Truth, widely regarded as one of the best hip-hop albums of all time, and if you have any passing interest in the genre, it comes highly recommended.
James Peart (@choccyr)
Fascinated Binger Of Musical Zeitgeist
This is another first-time introduction. I’m always amazed and impressed by compositions that create such impact with an economy of parts. This record does that in spades. There is a commanding simplicity and personality in the loop production. We find DJ Premier’s razor-sharp refinement of cut-and-paste sampling resulting in mini-melodies rife with funk and vibes. The breaks are dry and crisp, keeping the tracks flowing smooth and laid back and organic. There are no heavy-handed 808’s here. It’s the perfect foundation for Guru’s fluid and articulate rhymes. The tracks never feel frantic or cluttered. The jazziness and groove draw the listener into the earnestness of the lyrics that makes the whole piece feel like a conversation. The strongest Premier moments are on tracks where his loops ride the line between clearly intelligible instrumentation and pastiche sounds, like the jazzy staccato on “You Know My Steez” and the alternating bass on “Robbin Hood Theory.” “Betrayal” is underpinned by a true sonic painting, one of the longer, more complex phrases on the album. Moment Of Truth closes out with the hypnotic swirl of “In Memory Of…” — a sea of chimey harps and analog hiccups that has me sold on Premier and interested in discovering more.
Matt Klimas (@nearcticfauna)
Surveyor Of All Things Fuzz
There’s something about movies–as soon as I start watching, I want to know the year it was made. Hip hop is the same way. Both art forms are so compelling from a standpoint of progression. Special effects and beats follow similar arcs, as do dialogue and lyrics. That said, Moment Of Truth makes me want to think about what’s timeless. Gang Starr professes to be as interested in innovation as any rap combo (the intro track states this explicitly), but Guru and Premier are iconic in part because they exemplify what’s permanent. Guru, as the best lyricists do, contains multitudes; he’s not just the advisor, or the documentarian, or the autobiographer, or the entertainer–he’s all those things. The staggering amount of lyrical content on Moment Of Truth shows how crucial creativity was and is in writing rap lyrics, and how naked rappers are when they work. So many incremental thoughts, confessions, risks and achievements, like playing top-level tennis in front of the whole world. But like a Federer or Sampras, Guru benefits from a preternaturally even hand, both in his delivery and his judgement. He sees, comments, and recommends, but he stays grounded in his voice. The same is true of Premier, who chops without sacrificing flow. That’s one reason Gang Starr’s status as an underground success story resonates across the decades. Both Guru and Premier show how doing your thing and doing it well will always be the fastest route from wherever you are to creative truth.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
RIP Keith “Guru” Elam 1961-2010
I have to say what really hit home with me on this album was how central Gang Starr appear to be in the galaxy of hip hop. I had heard of them before, of course, but I had never checked out one of their albums. Nevertheless, it felt like I was listening to the Rosetta Stone of rap. The missing link. I felt immediately comfortable with this album because you can immediately hear all of the artists they were listening to, and also all the artists that came up listening to them. You can hear Jay Z, A Tribe Called Quest, Wu Tang Clan, Madvillain, Eric B & Rakim, Public Enemy, KRS One, Blackalicious, Mos Def, and The Roots. And that’s just who I came up with during a couple of plays of the album with my fairly limited background in the genre. Maybe it’s the fact that DJ Premiere is as big a name in Hip Hop as most MC’s and has therefore with most of those people. Maybe it’s the fact that most of them are from the New York City scene (although neither Guru nor Premiere were actually from NYC, they were associated with that scene and it’s easy to hear why). It’s an album that wears its influences on its sleeve, but never feels derivative. The length might intimidate a prospective listener, but for me, it was like finding a great show on Netflix and realizing that there are multiple seasons to devour. It never felt like too much of a good thing.
James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts
1998. This record came out in 1998. I don’t know why, but that year just kept flashing in my head as I made my way through repeated listens. You ask most people what they remember from rap in 1998 and they’ll probably point to established rappers Will Smith and Busta Rhymes unleashing their most popular hits or maybe they’ll remember the emergence of Puff Daddy and Jay-Z. It was a pivotal time in rap music. The type of jazz beats DJ Premier was making and the relaxed lyrical sermons Guru was crafting were being slowly phased out of the public consciousness in favor of bold club bangers with pop choruses that everyone memorized after the first listen. Tribe Called Quest put out their last record and while lesser known rappers like Del The Funky Homosapien continued on down that path, there were less and less rappers coming up interested in continuing this style. It’s hard for me to think about it because that style is just so perennial and Moment Of Truth blatantly proves it. DJ Premier’s backdrop is just incredible with spacious rhythms and a long list of samples that he’s able to blend together masterfully. Diana Ross is flying by next to Fleetwood Mac and all the while, Guru stands constant with his relaxed flow cementing himself as someone who belongs in the conversation for best MC. Both work so flawlessly together here that it not only makes you want to go out and tear through their entire discography, but also any other record that even remotely comes close to this musical brilliance.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
First, let me admit that hip hop is not my go to. The genre as a whole never really appealed to me and I was not as versed in hip hop as I was with other styles. My only exposure to this type of music was whatever was coming out of the mainstream — and a lot of it was not that great. Thankfully, this week’s pick for album allowed me to be exposed to authentic hip hop. From the moment I started this album, I found myself becoming very entrenched in the beats, words, and the heart. I couldn’t focus on doing anything else once “You Know My Steez” started and not going to lie, there was some seriously head-bobbing during “Work” and “She Knowz What She Wantz.” Moment Of Truth did what every artist’s album should do — expose new listeners to your music and intrigue those listeners to look up your other stuff. Because that’s exactly what Gang Starr did.
Andrew Cothern (@rvaplaylist)
Beloved & Influential Richmond Chronicler
During the heyday of Gang Starr, I was too busy following the breadcrumb trail of alternative rock. Lines were drawn back then and I was into loud guitars. Now we live in a time where everything is available and teenagers are seemingly, or at least should be, more well rounded. In the late 90s, I got a job at the local record store and started soaking up all the music I overlooked while opening up my world view. It wasn’t until I heard Jurassic 5’s Quality Control that I really got into hip-hop. I quickly went back and re-listened to stuff like Public Enemy and Run DMC while getting turned onto newer stuff by Dead Prez, Talib Kweli, and Mike Ladd. Admittedly, I still don’t listen to enough hip-hop so I’m glad OYR forced me to spend some time with Moment Of Truth. I’ve been spinning it for weeks and it doesn’t yet feel old. It’s a deep record and I’m still digesting the layers and references. I won’t sample snitch, but I’ve been following along online and there are lots of call backs to older Gang Starr songs as well as Wu-Tang, EPMD, and Public Enemy. I think this record is a great starting point, or for me a re-entry point, if you want to get into hip-hop and venture down a rabbit hole.
PJ Sykes (@pjsykes)
Gutsy Punk Renaissance Man
Before this week, I only had an abstract knowledge of Gang Starr. In retrospect, this was a pretty big hole in my hip-hop knowledge. I am an enormous fan of DJ Premier’s follow up project, Prhyme, the duo he formed with rapper Royce da 5’9, but I had no idea he was involved here. Since I assume my fellow writers are gonna rightfully give plenty of attention to Guru’s stunning lyrics, I’m gonna dial in on Premier’s work. Musically, Moment Of Truth is like an eighty minute red light stop: your head never stops nodding, as you look around to see if anyone is close to the damn level that you’re on. The tracks here are specifically sequence to keep that level of euphoria flowing. Notice how, early on, “Robbin Hood Theory,” “Work,” and “Royalty” click together on the strength of playful piano loops. Everything is meticulously thought out; the scratches are thrilling and the samples and interludes are always in lock step. Speaking of samples, the moment when Premier blasts sample snitches is an all-time great. “Stop doing that. Y’all are violating, straight up and down.” Shady sampling is hip-hop. And after listening to Moment Of Truth, it should be very evident that few people understand hip-hop like Preemo.
Josh Buck (@altq42)
Devout Pop Music Purist
Golden Rules For Golden People by Pretty & Nice
Chosen By Davy Jones