Since DJ Premier began the rollout of the highly anticipated new Gang Starr album on social media over the past month, dyed-in-the-wool rap traditionalists have been salivating for the legendary duo’s first album since The Ownerz in 2003.
The sacred stature of Gang Starr in rap history was solidified by the end of their 90s heyday. Plus, having a guest spot over Preemo’s sanitized boom-bap production and choppy scratches with the Guru’s smooth, nimble delivery with conscious content is highly coveted by your favorite lyricists. That’s the salient reason why J. Cole announced immediately after the release of his joint track “Family and Loyalty” that he’ll never record another guest verse because he can essentially go to his grave proud being on an unearthed Guru verse.
We ranked the greatest guest feature verses on Gang Starr’s most enduring tracks. The criteria for this review has exceptions such as K-Ci & JoJo, Chaka Khan and Total singing the respective hooks on “Royalty,” “Watch What You Say” and “Discipline” from the Moment Of Truth, Jazzmatazz Vol. 2 and Full Clip: A Decade Of Gang Starr albums but those are R&B hooks.
12. Gang Starr f. Big Shug – “F.A.L.A.”
Notable lyrics: “I’m a bad nigga, how do you figure to take me/You cannot break me, so don’t mistake me for your brother/I’m not a punk motherfucker see/I did my time, and now I’m FREE.” – Big Shug
At the end of the song “Mostly The Voice” on Hard To Earn released in 1994, one of the earliest members of the pre-Premier Gang Starr Posse in Guru’s native Boston, Big Shug, audibly begged his longtime friend to take him to a recording studio for a duet and that he wouldn’t be disappointed by the outcome.
The Beantown fabled desperado wanted to be more than just be a guest singer on “No Time To Play” from Guru’s first solo album Jazzmatazz the year prior, shortly after returning home from jail. The lyrics that Shug kicked on “F.A.L.A” weren’t deeply poetic. However, they raised the bar to inspire Guru’s agile wordplay in the song’s second and third verses to match the bruiser’s gruff vocals. High-octave piano stabs, 808 bass and duple drum-metered boom bap and power drill buzz-sounding samples dominated the track.
The chorus “Fuck around lay around, do or die” was chant that was an undeniable head-nodder that made listeners see Shug as a legit rhymer.
11. Gang Starr f. Lil Dap & Jeru The Damaja – “I’m The Man”
Notable lyrics: “MCs step up in mobs to defeat us when we rock knots and got props like Norm Peterson.” – Jeru The Damaja
Gang Starr’s feature spots were scant during their heyday until their 1998 album Moment Of Truth had 10 total and The Ownerz had them on almost half of its tracklist. In fact, there were only three featured verses on its third and fourth albums Daily Operation and Hard To Earn to introduce the Gang Starr Foundation brethren’s best MCs Jeru The Damaja, Group Home’s Lil Dap and Big Shug, respectively.
Guru brought Jeru and Dap onboard for “I’m The Man” on Daily Operation, which had three different beats for each verse. The late lyricist set it off over a jazzy uptempo guitar loop, then Dap got busy over the instrumental from Schoolly D’s 1985 classic “P.S.K. (What Does It Mean?)” with his menacing nasal snarl. Jeru ended the track with his first verse ever on record and stole the show over a groovy acoustic bass thump and gavel-banging drum snares and equated his crew’s street credibility to 1980s pop culture’s most beloved barfly Norm Peterson from the memorable sitcom Cheers.
It was lyrical kung fu in his cleanup at-bat, and coincidentally, his first solo track title “Come Clean” in 1994 remains his most enduring record to date.
10. Gang Starr f. Jadakiss – “Rite Where U Stand”
Notable lyrics:: Have the ambulance pass your Timberlands off right to your man/‘Cause he pussy, he ain’t gonna do nothin’ but look/When it come to beef, he don’t want do nothin’ but cook/As soon as the chrome scope him/Right there, two in the dome, smokin’/Kiss keeps funeral homes open
Jadakiss was one of the most marketable MCs in the world in 2003. The LOX’s most sought after member for guest features was doing commercials with Allen Iverson, had multiple hit collaborations with R&B goddess Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez under his belt and helped put the Ruff Ryders crew at the peak of its powers.
When Jada linked with Gang Starr on this track, Guru put down his battle rap prowess and Jadakiss elevated the simplistic wobbly guitar and dark three-chord piano loops with punchy drums as his raspy voice and bars smashed and cut through like the baseball pitched through a closed window.
9. Gang Starr f. Lady Of Rage & Kurupt – “You Know My Steez (3 Men and a Lady Remix)”
Notable lyrics:: The young Gang Starr posse front in full/Kick off like a gauge, then seek the stage/In a seek-and-destroy mission to burn and blaze/Vanish a few, K-U-R-U-P-T, R-A-G-E and Guru.” – Kurupt
The West Coast gangsta rap movement was at the tail end of its reign following the deaths of The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur in 1997. After the gunsmoke cleared, Hip Hop was the midst of the Jiggy Era in which Puff Daddy and Bad Boy brought shiny suits to hyper-colored Hype Williams’ big-budget videos on then-music industry kingmaker MTV.
Gang Starr stood pat in its palatable b-boy underground sound and disclaimed at the beginning of the Moment of Truth album’s dope lead single “You Know My Steez” that they stood for “the real hip hop, emceeing and deejaying.”
For that track’s B-side, the song’s “3 Men and a Lady Remix,” Death Row’s Afro puff-rockin Lady of Rage slammed on the track hard and the Dogg Pound’s Kurupt was the anchor that connected the representation of his Philly roots and California’s best spitters.
Kurupt brought a slick on-and-offbeat flow that was like a charmed cobra with a venomous bite over Premier’s flipped beat.
8. Gang Starr f. Krumbsnatcha – “Make Em Pay”
Notable lyrics: “Something ain’t right, to be an MC, you gotta thug/Or to thug you gotta be an MC, this shit is bugged.” – Krumbsnatcha
When keepin’ it real goes wrong, you would be called for “faking jax” as Hip Hop’s gatekeepers would preach on records in the 90s. This record “Make Em Pay” on Gang Starr’s Moment of Truth had the sole purpose of bringing MC’s pseudo-gangsta persona bullshit to the pulpit.
After Guru represented a judge in Hip Hop’s highest court to clown these types of offenders, his fellow Massachusetts rhymer Krumbsnatcha barreled through the violin string-laden track with a vivid portrayal of how the rap game needs to raise its barrier to entry for true lyricism to compete rather than just rely on mere street credibility.
7. Gang Starr f. W.C. & Rakim – “The Militia II (Remix)”
Notable lyrics: “Makin a move, makin a move, who’s that nigga thats makin a move?/It’s the Shadiest rhymin’-back, actin’ a motherfucking fool/Four-four packers, my jackets/hittin the tag, saggin, baggin/Foot on my rag, mess up a bag, leavin’ my enemies in bodybags” – W.C.
This track conceptually mirrored the premise for the “You Know My Steez (Remix).” Add Left Coast stalwart W.C. of the Maad Circle and Westside Connection game plus east coast rap messiah Rakim with Guru and Premier and you can’t go wrong for the remix of Gang Starr’s Moment Of Truth second single’s remix. The Shadiest One exhibited his friendship and synergy with Gang Starr that dated back to the early 90s.
Plus, W.C. showed how he can rock just as hard on an East Coast style track as he could over wormy Moog keyboard melodies and G-funk.
6. Gang Starr f. M.O.P. – “½ & ½”
Notable lyrics: “Here comes the revolutionist, executionist/Flip a triple six into three nines, cause a crucifix” – Lil Fame
This fiery track is one of the best collaborations that the Mash Out Posse has ever recorded. It was also one of the best songs on the rap-heavy soundtrack to Wesley Snipes’ 1998 vampire-hunting superhero cult classic film Blade.
These Brooklyn-based duos and Gang Starr Foundation cohorts shoved their rugged and raw Hip Hop with belligerent intensity down the listener’s ears and throats without cordially inviting them as they did when M.O.P. emerged four years prior on their breakout single “How About Some Hardcore?” Lil Fame’s lyrical dexterity and double-timed bars over Premier’s scintillating bells sounded like a 70s samurai flick sample which Wu-Tang Clan championed.
Guru sped up his flow to mirror Fame’s maniacal 16 to bridge the track before Billy Danze closed it with his WWE-style body slam of a verse.
5. Gang Starr f. Scarface – “Betrayal”
Notable lyrics: “Can’t wait to face Shaquille in the paint and school Kobe/Kept his grades and stayed up under neighborhood functions/And then a group of knuckleheads came through dumping/So now he’s sittin’ on the sidewalk bleeding/Fell into a puddle of his own blood and stopped breathin'” – Scarface
Scarface is one of the best in rap history to eulogize fictitious corpses mixed with chilling introspection detailing their lives and tragic deaths. The dark-horse lyricist has made his career as a solo artist and top pick for guest spots on classics such as his suicidal thought portrayal on the Geto Boys 1991 classic “My Minds Playing Tricks on Me,” his 1994 solo hit “I Seen a Man Die” and “Smile” with Tupac.
On “Betrayal” with Gang Starr, DJ Premier lays down one of his most somber beats of his 30-year catalog for his fellow Houston native Scarface to trade poignant stories about greed, distrust and street violence that rip families apart. Face starts the track reminiscent of a Southern Baptist preacher. The listeners get a church pew seat as they envision the macabre of NBA dreams suddenly snatched from reality at the expense of street life.
4. Gang Starr f. Big Shug & Freddie Foxx – “The Militia”
Notable lyrics: “In ’89, I spit a ‘buck’ in the face of every MC that came in the place, a scar you’ll never erase” – Freddie Foxx
Many Gang Starr fans would contend that this song is the best from the duo’s last great album Moment Of Truth. It’s in the category of their most incendiary that bridges an old school breakdance feel with Brooklyn hardcore of the 90s era. Big Shug started the track with a laconic delivery, and Guru paved the road that Freddie Foxx came down like an 18-wheeler driving 100 miles per hour.
Bumpy’s verse chronicling a career as an underground legend was fully realized as this manifesto has maintained its replay value for two decades since.
3. Gang Starr f. Jeru The Damaja & Lil Dap – “Speak Ya Clout”
Notable lyrics: “So when we bang bang boogie out jumps my boot knocks/Chicks comes in flocks when D.R.S. rocks, Glocks are not needed it’s all done with the mind I neutralize suckers because I’m alkaline” – Jeru The Damaja
This track from Hard To Earn was essentially “I’m The Man Pt. 2” by Jeru, Dap and Guru and the beat changed three times for each verse. The only difference was the order in which they shelled out their verses. Lil Dap was the middle placeholder, giving Gang Starr fans a precursor of what was on the horizon for 1995 with the Group Home’s classic debut album Livin’ Proof in his verse.
The instrumentals harked visions of a rhyme cypher on the subway platform at the Van Sicklen Ave train stop in their East New York, Brooklyn stomping grounds — hence Jeru talking about riding the A train. Guru killed his third verse, but Jeru showed his improved talent to rise as one of underground rap’s leading godbody MCs.
2. Gang Starr f. Nice & Smooth – “DWYCK”
Notable lyrics: “Now my employer or my employee is makin Greg N-I-C-E very M-A-D/Don’t ever ever think of jerkin me/I work to hard for my royalty/Put lead in ya ass and drink a cup of tea.” -Greg Nice
Back in its heyday, put this record on at any party and not one neck, back or ass remained idle or against the wall. The collaboration of Gang Starr, Greg Nice and Smooth B is one of Hip Hop’s greatest songs in the genre’s history. Nice & Smooth were at the apex of their career as the lovable “Hip Hop Junkies” who made it funky for you when “DWYCK” dropped in the spring of 1992.
Instead of bringing their 1970s park jam-style harmonized choruses to the table, The Bronx twosome had no delaying in rapping with Greg Nice swung his high-register, cartoonish raps such as comparing Muhammed Ali’s birth name Cassius Clay to “Parkay versus butter” 1980s television ads.
After Guru’s monotone yet spirited freestyle raised the question for who had the hottest verse on the track, Smooth B embodied his name by bringing a jazz musician’s uber-cool vocals by upholding Hip Hop’s No. 1 rule of being original and never biting another rapper’s style.
Do what you can, kid.
1. Gang Starr f. Inspectah Deck – “Above The Clouds”
Notable lyrics: “Invade your zone, ruin like ancient Rome, I span the universe and return to Earth to claim my throne/The maker, owner, plus soul controller/Ayatollah rest in the sky, the cloud’s my sofa” – Inspectah Deck
DJ Premier once stated in an interview that when Inspectah Deck was done recording his verse on “Above The Clouds,” he and Guru stared at each other in complete shock. Over Preemo’s ethereal beat that sounded like a tour through the cosmos, “Above The Clouds” exhibited Guru’s 5 Percent Islamic spirituality on a higher level than “Who’s Gonna Take The Weight?” on Gang Starr’s second album Step In The Arena in 1991.
The Rebel INS comes in like a piped piper and griot offering history lessons from holy books to strengthen and take the bounty of the slaveholders representing the 10 percent that keeps the remaining 85 on the population in mental bondage. Deck was a minister atoning the listener in a way that he had never done on a Wu-Tang record, putting down his most memorable verses since “C.R.E.A.M” and “Triumph.”
As one of the few tracks between the Wu-Tang and Gang Starr camps, this one is hard to top in any instance.