Gang Starr ~ No More Mr. Nice Guy (1989)

Posted on January 6, 2013


Live wires connected to bring us this gem. Two talented men – one from the Texas metropolis of Houston, and the other from the Boston neighborhood of Roxbury – came together in New York City in the late 1980’s, and proceeded to spellbind the rap world with their back-alley beats and jazz-infused sound for the next decade-plus. Individually, they were called DJ Premier and The Guru; together, they were one of the greatest groups in rap music history: Gang Starr.

The name “Gang Starr” was more than fitting, as it took an alignment of the stars to forge this blissful union. The Guru (Keith Elam) was a poet laureate from a well-heeled Boston family, who co-founded a rap crew called the GangStarr Posse in the early 1980’s in Beantown, while at the same time obtaining a degree at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, and sharpening his sword through talent show competitions in ATL. After graduating from Morehouse, Guru, then known as MC Keithy E, moved to New York City, to seriously pursue a rap career, and over the next few years, Guru worked odd jobs and struggled to get his career off the ground. While Guru grinded in NYC, DJ Premier (Christopher Martin) operated in Houston under the name Waxmaster C; working the turntables for a Texas crew called the Inner Circle Posse, and simultaneously working in a local record store. Primo and Guru found one another through Wild Pitch Records, an EMI-affiliated New York label Guru submitted GangStarr Posse’s demo tape to, and subsequently scored a deal with. A co-worker of Premier’s in the Texas record store sent a copy of an Inner Circle Posse tape to Wild Pitch, and Guru, who’d served as an unofficial A&R for the label, heard Primo’s beats on the ICP tape, and suggested Wild Pitch CEO Stu Fine reach out to the demo’s producer. When Primo touched down in New York, he and Guru discovered they had great chemistry, and began to work together. When the Boston members of the GangStarr Posse continually flaked on Guru’s power moves, Guru turned the GangStarr Posse into Gang Starr, with himself and DJ Premier as its sole members. DJ Premier and The Guru signed with Wild Pitch as a duo in 1988, and in the summer of 1989, Gang Starr began their prolific run in the rap game, with their dope full-length debut No More Mr. Nice Guy.

As would become a staple of Gang Starr releases, No More Mr. Nice Guy is filled with sterling boom bap numbers from start to finish. The chemistry that led to Primo and Guru joining forces can be readily seen and heard, as evidenced on the album opener “Premier & The Guru”, a basic but well-executed joint where The Guru, who’d gain renown for his impassive monotone, does a 180 and coasts with energy and agility lyrically, as DJ Premier does the double duty that made him a revered artisan in the game; assembling the jittery soul-funk track Guru rocks to, and flexing the mixing and break-chopping talents that would influence legions of turntablists in the years to come. “Jazz Music”, an aural foreteller of things to come for both Gang Starr and Guru as a soloist, explores the evolution of jazz, from the shanties of Africa to the clubs of Harlem, and pieces piano, horns, vocal riffs, and soft drum rolls into a beautiful puzzle, which Guru uses to flow with a divinity and conciseness that only he could muster. “Gotch U” is true school fury defined, with Guru dipping, diving, and darting over a panic-inducing backdrop from Primo, which overdoses on James Brown through vocals, drums and melodic portions from multiple J.B. classics, and is topped off by the turntable work of Primo, who scratches like he’s got four hands. “Manifest”, the first single from the album, is as pure and exquisite as it was in 1989, and features Guru giving a masterly and multi-faceted performance: playing the philosopher, teacher, Casanova, and rhyme champion all in one fluid motion, while Premier nimbly dices a Big Daddy Kane vocal break, and merges the piano line from Charlie Parker’s “A Night In Tunisia” with the drum clicks and melody from James Brown’s “Bring It Up (Hipster’s Avenue)”. DJ Mark the 45 King, the beatsmith behind New Jersey’s iconic Flavor Unit, laces “Gusto”, a cut that rocks both the streets and the clubs, through the cipher razors Guru spits over Mark’s tingling track, that’s equal parts Curtis Mayfield (the bassline from “Freddie’s Dead”) and B.T. Express (the main groove from “Express”). DJ Premier flies solo on “DJ Premier in Deep Concentration”, the last of a dying breed: the instrumental DJ cut. Using Kool & the Gang’s “Summer Madness” for rhythmic support, DJ Premier speaks with his hands; using well-chosen word breaks to express his thoughts, and to lift this turntablist showcase into the clouds. And the “Positivity (Remix)” has an earnest elegance that typified rap’s Golden Era, due to DJ Premier’s euphoric soul clap, and the profound words of The Guru, so erudite with his theorems on living in peace.

The second half of No More Mr. Nice Guy doesn’t hold any surprises; just more stellar tracks by the stock pile. “Conscience Be Free” has a slow and easy twilight thump that’s soothing to the eardrums, along with verbs of power from The Guru, who takes listeners to utopia through faith and good vibes, as DJ Premier cuts an Erick Sermon vocal on the chorus. “Cause and Effect” borrows a jumpy gumbo funk loop from The Meters; and has Guru lambasting an underachieving youngster, hoping he’ll change his life for the better, and making his words echo by rhyming in different chambers in each ear. “2 Steps Ahead” has break-neck drums and air horn sound effects that are bound to induce panic, which Guru flies over like a cruise missile with a hyperkinetic flow, and which Primo supplements by cross fading a James Brown break. “No More Mr. Nice Guy” is pedestrian compared to the rest of the album, but it works through its use of an eternally dependable sample (Myrna Barnes’ “Message From The Soul Sisters”), and an agitated yet controlled performance from Guru, who brings judgment day to leeches and parasites. DJ Mark the 45 King checks in once more to produce “Knowledge”, and lays down a silky, pimp-strutting instrumental for Guru and guest Damo D-Ski, a member of the original GangStarr Posse, to shoot the gift to. The reissue edition of No More Mr. Nice Guy offers bonus songs for your enjoyment, including “Here’s The Proof”, a true school boogie cut with a crisply cropped drum kit, and a disco funk backdrop that Guru uses to address life stressors and music industry politics. Another of these bonus cuts, “The Lesson”, is pivotal, as it was the first collabo between DJ Premier & The Guru. Given their sonic transformation over the years, “The Lesson” may sound a bit bizarre to some, with Guru sporting a simple old school flow, and Primo dropping a slow, go-go beat with car screeches on top. Though not the best Gang Starr cut by any means, “The Lesson” is a historical piece, for gauging how much Gang Starr grew from their infant years.

At first listen, you can understand why DJ Premier and The Guru developed such instant simpatico with one another. With his liquid monotone, dexterous rhyme styles and cruise control flow, Guru was nicely suited for DJ Premier’s tracks. And Primo, the quiet genius behind the curtain, had a razor-sharp mind, a scholarly knowledge of music, and a high level of turntable acumen; that made him the only man that could match The Guru’s poetic value. Is it any wonder they became all-time greats?

Gang Starr was a part of an esteemed class when they entered the game, coming in alongside 3rd Bass, De La Soul, Queen Latifah, Special Ed, Nice & Smooth, and The DOC in the freshman class of 1989. The field of elite contenders at the time could have devoured them, due to them also competing with a horde of established vets dropping albums that year like Big Daddy Kane, EPMD, and several others. But through talent and craftsmanship, DJ Premier and The Guru carved out a spot on the landscape for themselves. No More Mr. Nice Guy was the first of a quintet of stunningly consistent albums Gang Starr would make between 1989 and 1998. It wasn’t a huge seller when it dropped; and Wild Pitch Records certainly didn’t help matters with their scant promotional support, but Primo and Guru could not be denied their place in the game. This would be the first and last album they’d record for Wild Pitch, as they’d move to another EMI affiliate (Chrysalis Records) in 1990. Gang Starr would continue to make timeless material for the next 13 years, before disbanding in 2003. Sadly, the Gang Starr saga would end permanently in April of 2010, when Keith “Guru” Elam passed away from multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer. There’s no chance of a reunion, but for the 15 years they were together, the Chairman of the Mix Board (DJ Premier) and the Master of the Mic Device (The Guru) left enough timeless material behind to last a lifetime. Gang Starr rivals any rap act in history with their productivity and output; and for a complete understanding of their work, one should start at the genesis: No More Mr. Nice Guy.

To listen to No More Mr. Nice Guy, click here.