As a group, we last heard from Gang Starr in 1992 with their stellar third album, Daily Operation. From that point on, individually, the duo stayed busy, with Premo producing tracks for several artist (including Heavy D, Da Youngstas, several tracks on KRS-One’s solid solo debut, Return of the Boom Bap, and a third of the tracks on Nas’ soon to be released classic debut, Illmatic), while Guru would embark on his solo-career, releasing the first installment of his Jazzmatazz series in 1993. The duo would reconnect and in 1994 released their fourth album, Hard To Earn.
Hard To Earn‘s liner notes says “All songs produced by DJ Premier and GURU for GANG STARR PRODUCTIONS INC”, but like all the previous Gang Starr albums, we all know that Premier is the maestro who sculpted the soundscape for this project. Hard To Earn would go on to receive heaps of praise and critical acclaim, as well as a 4 mic rating from The Source upon its release. Random Factoid: Hard To Earn is the first Gang Starr album released with a “Parental Advisory” sticker.
Strangely, even with the flattering review and solid rating, The Source didn’t include Hard To Earn on its 100 Greatest Hip-Hop Albums of All-Time list in 1998. Even more surprising, Gang Starr’s second and third albums, Step in the Arena and Daily Operation, both made the list, even though they both received a lower rating than Hard To Earn (both received 3.5 mics). My memories of Hard To Earn tell me this was an egregious error on The Source‘s behalf, but let me revisit the album to see if The Source‘s decision was just.
Intro (The First Step) – Hard To Earn begins with a blunted loop and Guru discussing the do’s and don’ts for inspiring emcees, specifically when they come in contact with established emcees. I still chuckle every time I hear Guru describe these eager fellas, with their “breath stinkin’ like a muthafucka…spittin’ and shit.” Great intro.
ALONGWAYTOGO – The song opens with a dope mid-tempo drum pattern accompanied by a clever vocal loop from Phife Dawg (rip). Then Premo brings in a dark Quincy Jones loop for Guru to boast, talk his shit, advise emcees to do some self-evaluating and hits them with a few rhetorical questions: “Here’s the deal, like Shaquille O’Neal, if you don’t know what you’re doing how the hell can you be real?” and on his final verse: “All about the real necessities of life, all about the game, and all about the name, G to the A to the N to the G, STARR, we know who we are, but do you know who you are?” Premo also brings in a slickly chopped up vocal loop of Phife’s rhyming partner Q-Tip, which ends up being a nice added touch to the song and a little unintentional homage to my favorite rap group of all-time. This joint sounds as amazing today as it did 25 years ago.
Code Of The Streets – This was the second single released on Hard To Earn. Premier lays out probably the most sophisticated instrumental in his lengthy catalog, building a masterful instrumental around a loop taken from Monk Higgins version of “Little Green Apples”. Guru then discusses the ill shit that dudes do to survive and get respect on the streets, before pledging his allegiance and vowing to stay true to the street codes through his music on his final verse. Because of his monotone voice and deadpan delivery, many tend to sleep on Guru’s lyricism, but he proves to be a strong wordsmith as he cleverly spits: “Nine times out of ten I win with the skills I be yielding, with the tenth one kneeling, let me express my feelings, Guru has never been one to play a big shot, it’s just the styles I got that keep the mic hot”. This is arguably a top 10 Gang Starr songs of all time, which is scary considering it’s probably not the best song on Hard To Earn.
Brainstorm – Just as the title suggest, Guru lets his stream of consciousness flow, as he unleashes a slew of battle raps for any would be competitors over a stripped-down, but still potent Premo instrumental.
Tonz ‘O’ Gunz – Guru discusses the gun epidemic that was prevalent then and is still now a problem in the hood. He also briefly talks about white supremacist groups who train their own to kill blacks, which is why he packs and “stands in the face of hatred, lettin’ off mad shots watching devils run naked.” This is a solid song, but if someone put a gun to my head (pun intended) and forced me to take one song off of Hard To Earn, this would be the one.
The Planet – This may be the most disgusting instrumental that Premo ever created (hit me in the comments…I’m ready for the debate). Guru uses Preem’s ruggedly blunted masterpiece to share his real life story about leaving Boston for Brooklyn aka The Planet, in his quest to make it in this here rap game. Guru does a solid job articulating his journey, but words can’t describe how ridiculous Premo’s banger is on this one.
Aiiight Chill… – Everyone from Nas to MC Eiht show love to DJ Premier on this short interlude. Aiiight Chill…
Speak Ya Clout – Guru, Jeru Da Damaja, and Lil Dap (half of the Group Home, and possibly the first rapper to use “Lil” as a prefix in his rap moniker) pick up where they left of at on Daily Operation‘s “I’m The Man”, with Premo sliding each emcee a different beat to rock over. They change the order a bit this time, with Jeru going first, Lil Dap second, and Guru wrapping things up. Premo’s beats aren’t bad, but they don’t compare to the crop he used on “I’m The Man”. Jeru clearly won the first go round, but this one easily goes to Guru.
DWYCK – This was originally released as the B-side to Daily Operation‘s title track, but would arguably become the biggest hit in Gang Starr’s catalog (the chick in the yellow bikini in the video was gorgeous!). Nice and Smooth join Guru on the mic as they all take turns riding Premo’s addictive high energy instrumental (this song may have the greatest bass line of any hip-hop song ever recorded (shoutout to Clarence Wheeler & The Enforcers)…yeah, I said it!) and match it step for step. It would be an understatement to call this classic record a banger. This might be in my top ten hip-hop songs off all time.
Words From The Nutcracker – The other half of the Group Home, Melachi the Nutcracker gets his chance to spit a quick verse over an ill Premo production. Melachi, who has a simple flows and slight vocabulary, does a good job of using his limited skill to make this short interlude interesting: “So what the fuck, ya’ll I’m movin’ on up, gonna swim in big bucks, like Scrooge McDuck, and if ya don’t like it and you wanna step up, then open your mouth and suck my nuts”.
Mass Appeal – This was the lead single and in my opinion, the best song on Hard To Earn. Premo hooks up the illest and most blunted backdrop in his catalog, and Guru spits his strongest bars on the album and arguably in his career: “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 muthafuckin’ posers”….”I represent, set up shit, like a tent boy, you’re paranoid, cause you’re a son like Elroy”…”Your head’ll bop, when I drop my crop of pure bomb, 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.” Classic Gang Starr, and easily one of the top 5 songs in their hefty catalog.
Blowin’ Up The Spot – Guru continues to talk his shit and rep for Gang Starr over an understated funky backdrop.
Suckas Need Bodyguards – This was the third and final single released from Hard To Earn. Guru uses the epic backdrop to talk his shit and call out all the sucka emcees who like to front like their hard. This was dope, and I absolutely love the energy on the hook(specifically Malachi the Nutcracker’s).
Now You’re Mine – Premo chops up a nasty horn loop and when combined with an ill bass line and drums, it turns into a menacing instrumental, which works as the perfect canvas for Guru to paint his analogy between rhyming and basketball. It’s kind of amusing to hear the 5’8 Guru talk about doing 360 degree dunks, catching and slamming down alley oops and swatin’ his opponents shots; but the rhymes are clever and very well executed.
Mostly Tha Voice – Preem slows the tempo down and lays a sick thick bass line for Guru to talk about the importance of an emcee’s voice. “A lot of rappers use hooks to their shit, but if you took that shit out, and you took all the music out, what would remain? The voice, no doubt.” The song ends with Big Shug begging Guru for a chance to rhyme, to which Guru reluctantly agrees as the song fades out.
F.A.L.A. – In case you’re curious and didn’t quite catch it during the hook, “FALA” is an acronym for “Fuck Around Lay Around”. As promised at the end of the previous song, Guru gives his fellow Boston bredrin Big Shug a shot on the mic. Shug, who I like but is far from a great emcee (and may be a better singer than rapper…listen to “No Time To Play” from Guru’s Jazzmatazz Vol. 1), does a decent job on his first verse, but then Guru has to jump on the track and show him up for the remainder of the song. Premo puts more of his genius on display as he takes a simple piano loop and turns it into a ridiculously ill instrumental. And I love the Das EFX vocal sample he brings in on the hook, proof that Premo is the king of turning a hot line into a hot song.
Comin’ For Datazz – The last song of the evening finds Guru aggressive and sending threats to all would be competitors over a rough up-tempo backdrop. Short, nothing sweet and a great way to end this superb album.
The Japanese release of Hard To Earn had an additional track that the rest of the world didn’t get, titled “Doe In Advance”, which is easily accessible on the web. It’s a cool song, but I didn’t feel robbed for not getting it on the North American version, and “Comin’ For Datazz” makes for a much better close out song.
Hard To Earn finds Premo peaking, dishes up his best batch of Gang Starr beats yet, and throughout the album Guru backs up his opening line on “Now You’re Mine”: “I write the ill type rhymes, now I’m reaching my prime”. With only a few guest appearances, the duo seamlessly hem together a hefty seventeen track album, sprinkling in four or five of the greatest hip-songs of all time. Sorry, Source, but ya’ll got this one completely wrong. I love Step in the Arena as well as Daily Operation (I even thought No More Mr. Nice Guy was a decent album), but Hard To Earn is far more superior than any of Gang Starr’s previous albums to this point. Hard To Earn is an underrated hip-hop classic and an unsung cornerstone of arguably the greatest year in recorded hip-hop.