Classics Critiqued

This is a monthly feature where classic and cult albums are revisited and reassessed for the modern listener. The only rule is that the album must be critically acclaimed or a cult classic released before 2000.

April 2010:  ‘Step in the Arena’ by Gang Starr (Chrysalis Records, 1991)


I had intended to review Public Image Limited’s ‘Metal Box’ for this Classics Critiqued but on hearing about the death of Guru (of Gang Starr and Jazzmatazz) I decided to cover ‘Step in the Arena’ by Gang Starr. An album that is viewed as a hip-hop classic and one of the original jazz rap releases.

The duo of DJ Premier and Guru combined ragged hip-hop beats and smooth jazz samples with fluidly delivered flows describing life’s harsh realities. Gang Starr never achieved commercial success like their peers A Tribe Called Quest but their sound has endured. In 1998 the album was selected as one of The Source’s Top 100 Best Rap Albums and as recently as 2007 IGN.com named it the Greatest Hip-Hop Album of All Time. DJ Premier has been named About.com’s No. 1 Hip-Hop producer and made The Source’s Top 5. Classics such as ‘Illmatic’ by Nas and ‘Ready to Die’ by Notorious B.I.G. were also produced by DJ Premier, spreading his influence further. The accreditation by many modern underground hip-hop producers that DJ Premier’s style was an influence is so great that some critics have disapproved of their widespread adoption of his and his contemporaries’ style and given criticism for not creating an individual mark.

After the brief functional intro track ‘Name Tag (Premier and The Guru)’, ‘Step in the Arena’ begins as it suggests. The title track is prefaced with applause and the phrase ‘Ladies and gentlemen will you please take your seats. Clear the aisles’ followed by three taps of conductor’s stick, perfectly setting the tone. After a record scratch and a pitched brass prologue from DJ Premier the track reveals a slow burning beat matched to Guru’s battle raps. Guru confidently swaggers through lyrics such as “cause battles and war and much fights I been through. One mac got beheaded and you can too forget it, cause you’d rather be a spectator, an onlooker, afraid you might get slayed, or struck by a blow from a mic gladiator.”

The album maintains a similar feel yet is never laboured or repetitive throughout its 18 tracks. Tracks two to seven are a brilliant run of classic hip-hop including the kinetic scratch attack of ‘Who’s Gonna Take the Weight’, another scathing battle track “Execution of a Chump (No More Mr.  Nice Guy Part 2) and the ‘beat psychedelia’ of ‘Beyond Comprehension’. Beyond these Guru stretches out and displays his diversity with ‘Love Sick’. In the hands of others this would be  a poorly delivered saccharine song of unrequited love yet Guru uses his narrative and poetic skills to create a compellingly realistic story.  The tempo rises again further on ‘Take A Rest’ , which merges rhymes and skittering beats with an ethereal sample of ‘UFO’ by NYC punk-funkers ESG. Another unexpected sample turns up on ‘Just To Get A Rep’ from Moog funk classic ‘EVA’ by Jean Jacques Perrey. Gang Starr were the first hip-hop act to sample this song, which has also being used by Erick Sermon, DJ Spooky, Dr. Octagon, DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist. ‘Step in the Arena’ ends on a high as it rapidly moves through a critique of Guru’s lyrics with the up-tempo jazz piano and beats of ‘As I Read my S-A’ to ‘Precisely The Right Rhymes’, which gives a lesson in hip-hop minimalism and then into a lyrical explanation of the group’s name in closer ‘The Meaning Of The Name’, a cousin of the intro.

Drinking in the quality of ‘Step in the Arena’, the detail in DJ Premier’s production, the hooks and familiar samples it is hard to understand why they were not more successful and are not regularly name dropped or written about. What prevented them from gaining greater notoriety? It may be because Gang Starr was not as smoothly jazz as A Tribe Called Quest, not as bombastic as Public Enemy or Eric B and Rakim, not as quirky as De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers. They were pure hip-hop and though Guru is an excellent lyricist with a unique flow he lacks the charisma and uniqueness of Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest or the attention grabbing visceral impact of Chuck D and Rakim. Gang Starr’s sound was about the details and the relationship between the producer and the MC, drawing listeners in to microscopically examine the musical and lyrical content and as such they deserve recognition as a creative force.  Throughout and after their career it is DJ Premier who receives attention and esteem, not their catalogue. He knows an AKAI sampler inside out and can make beats swing like the best of his peers but he is not the sole reason they should be respected, re-evaluated and regularly examined alongside other classic hip-hop artists. With Guru’s untimely death and ‘Step in the Arena’s 20th anniversary months away there will, hopefully, be some genuine reappraisals and reissues of their records (and a much needed re-master of pre-1996 material), which from this album onwards are worth investigating.

I would like to add that my thoughts are with the families of Guru, Malcolm McLaren and Steven Reid who all succumbed to cancer recently and Alex Chilton’s who also passed away. They are a great loss to music for different reasons.

Spotify playlist (HTTP link then Spotify link) :

Gang Starr – Step In The Arena

Gang Starr – Step In The Arena

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