1994 was a ground-breaking year for hip hop music. 1994 is to hip hop what 1969 is to psychedelic rock or what 1977 is to disco. 1994 was the year in which hip hop exploded from the underground onto the mainstream. Looking back, Illmatic and Ready To Die dominate the historical landscape, and obscure lesser-known but still-classic albums from artists like O.C., Warren G and Gang Starr.
Released 22 years ago today, Hard to Earn was Gang Starr’s fourth studio album. The Brooklynites slowly graduated from the 1989’s alternative hip hop that their debut No More Mr. Nice Guy brought to a sound that was a little bit harder, a little bit more in touch with the nitty, gritty New York City in which they dwelled.
Guru and DJ Premier’s 1994 LP was the first to receive a parental advisory label, and that is certainly the first step to describing the albums hardness. However, it doesn’t stop there. DJ Premier's frequent use of jazz samples on the group’s earlier work pinned them as jazz-rap to critics and fans alike. Not that the jazz-rap tag is a bad thing; the group even used it to their advantage in getting signed. “Jazz Thing” was a huge record for them, and the jazz samples were a distinguishing factor in Gang Starr’s early steez. But with Hard To Earn, they sought to outgrow or at least prove they could do more than jazz-rap.
In a 2014 interview with Nah Right, Premier said, “being that Guru was getting aggravated with us being labeled [jazz-rap], I said, ‘I’m gonna strip this album down,’ just to show that I could use things other than jazz samples. We both wanted to show that anything I use is going to be a hip-hop beat. We said we were going to make it as raw as possible, and less musical, on purpose, just to show we’re good on any track, together.”
So the duo consciously were making the decision to separate themselves from what had gained them popularity up until that point. Today, that might be a little more commonplace, especially as we find ourselves in an age of ‘alternative-everything,’ or so it seems. Back then, however, if you had a thing going on that record labels dug, you usually stuck to that, especially as a rapper. The mere fact that Gang Starr was willing, and even eager, to take stylistic steps forward is a testament to their artistry, work ethic and ultimately their legacy.
“Last year record companies were chumpin me
But now like chicks they all be up on me
and me so horny, I hit em like a groupie
Snatch off my hat wash my dick and keep it movin
Showing and proving on a day to day basis
I rip New York and a million different places”
-Jeru the Damaja on the well-varied “Speak Ya Clout”
Hard to Earn didn’t do numbers like Illmatic or Ready to Die. It didn’t have quite the same cultural impact either. But that isn’t to say it didn’t have its share of influence. “Mass Appeal,” a beat that cleverly flipped a keyboard chop from the prog-jazz guitarist Vic Juris, is about as recognizable as the piano intro of “The World is Yours” or Biggie’s spoken-word intro on “Juicy," and it is every bit as ingrained in today's hip hop culture.
The song “Mass Appeal” has quite the story behind it. Premier explains: “We were making fun of the radio. It was starting to get a little watered down, and everything was starting to sound like elevator music. And then, when I found the sample that had that type of melody to it, I looped it, and Guru was like, ‘That’s it.’ Then just the programming of it, and the way it started where it’s not on the one [was dope].”
Point blank, Guru and DJ Premier are one of the most elite duos in hip hop history. There may not be a more dynamic duo in terms of MC / producer combination. Check out the credits for this album, and you’ll mostly only find two names. None of that 13 songwriters on one track that you get these days. This was two dudes who had a cosmic connection, changing the world one boom-bap beat at a time, but it wasn’t always so easy. DJ Premier, in the same interview as quoted before, describes a scuffle between himself and Guru:
“Me and Guru had a big fist fight," Premo said of the fight. "A big one. You see these two marks right here? [Points to his knuckles]. That’s his teeth marks from biting into my fist. And they never went away. It was a very bloody fight…It was over something very serious, which I won’t get into,”
When two people spend that much time together, there are bound to be disagreements, and sometimes that even leads to some fisticuffs. The story came from a quote referring to “Now You’re Mine,” a song from the White Men Can’t Jump soundtrack. Guru raps about basketball in his classic monotone style.
“I'll fake you left and go right, straight down the lane
Here's one in your eye; you'll feel pain
You strain - to put together some strategy
But you're raggedy, and i'll be glad to see
The frown on your grill when I drill and thrill
Set up my offense, commence to kill
I'll be leadin' from beginnin' to end
And after I pound ya, you're gonna wanna make friends
And make amends for the silly, trash you were talking
Take a walk and your shots I'm swattin'
with ease, and the ladies are swoonin'
Clockin' my swiftness, while you're droolin'
You oughta practice up and get your game refined
I've been waitin' to dog you, and now you're mine”
Guru sadly passed in 2010, but his legacy lives on through vivid verses like the one above. His voice was almost always a positive one, and when integrated within a DJ Premier beat, it was absolutely unstoppable. A true proprietor of hip hop, he was.
Hard to Earn will go down as one of the greatest albums in hip hop history. From the eerie gangster joint “ALONGWAYTOGO,” to the funky ode to Brooklyn “The Planet,” to the Gang Starr Foundation posse cut in “Speak Ya Clout,” to the rich, stand-up bass and DJ scratch led “Mostly the Voice,” it is an album with nearly infinite replay value. Give it a listen today, remember Guru, and respect some of the OGs for keeping rap real and progressing the art form we hold so dearly.