Wednesday, August 1, 2007

[100] Hard To Earn

Album: Hard To Earn
Artist: Gang Starr
Release Date: March 1994
Label: Chrysalis
Producer: Gang Starr (DJ Premier, with Guru)

"Lemonade was a popular drink, and it still is;
I get more props & stunts than Bruce Willis."
-Guru, "DWYCK"

There were about a dozen albums that were in the running for this 100th spot. It was the hardest album to decide on. But I picked Gang Starr’s classic 4th album for one reason – as a tribute to the most consistent producer in Hip-Hop history, DJ Premier. Just by cutting up some old records, Primo helped take street corner Hip-Hop to a global audience, mainstreaming it as a business while never softening his approach. He made his name by choosing to sample Jazz while everyone else was sampling Funk and Soul, he blessed the debuts of Nas, Biggie, & Jay-Z with flawless beats, and now he watches his stock continue to rise, producing for Pop artists like Christina Aguilera (Last year’s “Ain’t No Other Man” – that was Primo). I know you’re wondering how I could cite working with a poptart like Aguilera as a measuring stick for Premier’s goodness, but for a producer that is synonymous with The Street, who won’t pander to commercial outlets like Puffy or Jay-Z will, chart success is quite an achievement. Additionally, like The Neptunes, his production style is so unique and immediately recognizable that any Hip-Hop head should be able to pick out a Primo track with ease; if an artist wants street credibility, not to mention a hard beat for their album, DJ Premier is who they call.

That’s brings us to Hard To Earn, and why I chose it for this list. The answer is an intangible that might not seem obvious to casual listeners. Guru, DJ Premier’s partner and the voice of Gang Starr, is as consistent as the one-man band behind him; through the years, his low rumble of a voice has never faltered, always on the offensive with a sharp battle rap or knowledge to uplift his people. I could say that Hard To Earn contains some of his most inventive and intelligent rhymes, but I could say that about all of Gang Starr’s albums. Why is Hard To Earn 'the One'? Some would say that the duo’s previous album, 1992’s Daily Operation, is their true masterpiece, and I would argue that it’s merely their first one; on the other hand, 1998’s Moment Of Truth features their best songs: “You Know My Steez”, “Above The Clouds”, “Work”, “The Militia” – all are perfect examples of the Gang Starr sound, but the album as a whole isn’t as good as the two before it. Sandwiched between those albums, Hard To Earn just has “it” – I know what I hear when I listen – that moment in an artist’s career when they click onto what they were meant to sound like. And remember, during the making of the album, Primo was also contributing tracks to Nas’ Illmatic, both albums that would be part of the reemergence of NY Hip-Hop in 1994. The effect this work had on Gang Starr was so massive that all their songs after Hard To Earn sound like Hard To Earn. DJ Premier just nails every looped sample and dusty snare, and Guru discovers all new and eloquent ways to say he’s better than you. The shorting-out synth of “ALONGWAYTOGO” collides with the humming strings buoying “Code Of The Streets”; the screaming “Tonz O Gunz” gives way to the bluesy stomp of “The Planet”; the electric piano of “Mass Appeal” sounds like it’s tumbling down the stairs, bowling over the 70’s funk of “Blowin’ Up The Spot” and the dark alley soundtrack of “Suckas Need Bodyguards”, finally landing on the jazzy streetball anthem “Now You’re Mine”. And at the end of the album, Primo just lets the beat ride out as he climbs into his throne.

01. "Intro (The First Step)"
03. "Code Of The Streets"
04. "Brainstorm"
05. "Tonz O Gunz"
06. "The Planet"
07. "Aiiight Chill..." [interlude]
08. "Speak Ya Clout" [feat. Lil' Dap & Jeru The Damaja]
09. "DWYCK" [feat. Nice-N-Smooth]
10. "Words From The Nutcracker" [feat. Melachi]
11. "Mass Appeal"
12. "Blowin' Up The Spot"
13. "Suckas Need Bodyguards"
14. "Now You're Mine"
15. "Mostly Tha Voice"
16. "F.A.L.A." [feat. Big Shug]
17. "Comin' For Datazz"

"Mass Appeal" [video]

- BONUS: "DWYCK" [video]
(originally released as a b-side in 1992)

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