This week marks twenty years since Gang Starr released their iconic LP Hard to Earn. While decades have flown by, and it’s been nearly four years since Guru succumbed to cancer, the album’s themes play right into the present day ethos of Hip Hop; an era where debate rages on whether rhymes about stacks and status are as pure to the form as street style and messages of the daily struggles imposed by social inequities.
Perhaps the most fitting and overall genius track on Hard to Earn is “Mass Appeal,” a no-nonsense jam taking aim at the fakers creeping into the world of Hip Hop. Guru fires off bar after bar about how dumbing down the message and dribbling weak lyrics may win over the mass market and get radio play, but cats who stick to the raw truth and spit it hardcore will always reign supreme in the eyes and ears of the “real” fans and fellow emcees — the only appeal that really matters.
In a time when Hip Hop was just starting to bubble into mainstream, it was a razor-tongued jab only someone like Guru could deliver. Consider this run from the opening verse:
“A lot of rappers be like one time wonders / Couldn’t say a fly rhyme if there was one right under their noses / I hate those motherfucking posers … and you’d be happy as hell to get a record deal / maybe your soul you’d sell to have mass appeal.”
The song could have been released yesterday and the message would still ring true. Chart-topping rappers rhyming about a coke empire they never had, Twitter apologies from Grammy-winning artists, and chest-thumping contests on who can throw the most money behind the production value of a world tour are topics that dominate today’s Hip Hop narrative, and it’s safe to say Guru saw it coming.
Guru prophesied the current state of mainstream Hip Hop in “Mass Appeal,” and in true Guru form, he couldn’t care less about theatrics. Unapologetically owning his personal technique in the final verse, he boasts:
“Just like the seashore I’m calm / but wild / with my monotone style / Because I don’t need gimmicks / Give me a fly beat and I’m all in it.”
And then there’s the hook: “Money’s growing like grass with the mass appeal.” A sample taken from a line in Da Youngsta’s song “Pass Da Mic,” this was a revolutionary move for the time period. Sampling another Rap song wasn’t common in ’94, but it seems fitting for Guru and DJ Premier to rip this particular lyric for the Gang Starr track. Obviously a nod to Da Youngsta’s own brand of unabashed hardcore, the hook is also an epic choice in artistic irony. Sampling another crew’s track in a song about being as original as they come takes balls and brains, two things few would claim Guru and DJ Premier were lacking in.
Twenty years later, Hard to Earn reigns as one of the classics in Hip Hop history, and the message laid out in “Mass Appeal” likely rings more loudly now than ever before.