Gang Starr’s Origin Story

On the hip-hop duo’s foundational debut, ‘No More Mr. Nice Guy’

On June 16, 2022

It begins with MC Keithy E, a name so typical of old-school rap monikers that it could have come from a Derrick Comedy sketch. Mercifully, the whip-smart emcee, born Keith Edward Elam to esteemed parents, would later upgrade his alias to Guru. The name was a backronym for “Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal,” a collection of words that captured a mastery of language to rival many fireside poets of New England.

There is Christopher Martin, emerging from the Houston black soil of Fifth Ward, a rap pilgrimage site that has produced such regional royals as Willie D, Bushwick Bill and the 5th Ward Boyz. The Martin household exposed Christopher to profound amounts of soul and jazz music, and he frequently journeyed to Brooklyn to visit his maternal grandfather, a professional jazz musician. The first time Christopher was in New York, a guy jumped in front of a subway train he was riding on. Away from these more grisly exposures, Christopher bore witness to the birth of hip-hop. Before any 12-inch rap record existed, the future DJ Premier watched the Rock Steady Crew and other B-boys toprock in slimy grimy Times Square. By age 13, he recognized the city as his spiritual home.

Of course, you know the pair as a single entity: Guru and Preemo, the baldhead slick and boom-bap conductor, the ebb and the flow, the poet and the professor, the wood and the fire. Together, they were Gang Starr, a duo that epitomized the incorporeal connection that can exist between one rapper and one producer, two complimentary geniuses of their own distinct craft. You’re never a Preemo guy or a Guru guy. You’re simply a Gang Starr guy. (And you’ve also got extremely good taste.)

Released in the spring of 1989, Gang Starr’s debut album, No More Mr. Nice Guy, arrived right at the crucial intersection of the old school and golden age of New York rap. The previous two years had seen the emergence of Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, Eric B. & Rakim and other mavericks set on corkscrewing hip-hop into daring new realms. A couple of years after the record’s release, Irish singer-songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan sued clown prince Biz Markie for sampling his music without permission. The judge went as far as to insinuate that Biz should serve jail time. This brought the curtain down on the carefree use of samples, shackling producers, but also forcing them to think more fourth-dimensionally.

Gang Starr were at the forefront of cadences becoming more complex, soundscapes becoming denser and more intense. There are times on No More Mr. Nice Guy when you can hear it happening in real time. Guru will shift from a fundamental rhyme pattern into something outlandish. Preemo will take samples from common sources and transform them into beats that are roaring and unconventional. No More Mr. Nice Guy was somewhat eclipsed by the clutch of classic Gang Starr albums that followed it — even Guru would later say that he considered the album a “demo,” and Preemo has called it his “résumé album”— but it’s still a hard-knockin’ document of their burgeoning excellence. The sound of everything changing and a new order taking form.

If nothing else, it offers the earliest evidence of Guru and Preemo as the archetypal hip-hop duo. It’s tempting to consider perfect creative unions acts of the divine. Whether their origins are spiritual or incidental perhaps depends on the storyteller. Whatever the case, the group Gang Starr actually existed before DJ Premier ever crossed paths with Guru.

Back when he was a kid in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, Keith Elam was rebellious. He hung out with his good friend Tracy, who used the street name Gang Star Tee. Keith would collect the 5-foot-4-inch Tracy in his father’s car and the pair would go cruising for girls. After one trip, Harry Elam, Keith’s dad and the first Black judge and first Black chief justice appointed to the Boston Municipal Court bench, found a pistol in the car.

In the early 1980s, hip-hop escaped New York and found its way to Boston. Keith particularly loved the hard-hitting electric boom and memorable raps of Run-D.M.C. He found musical kin in friend Cary Guy, who went by the name Big Shug, a self-described local hood who was surprised the first time he visited the Elam household to be accosted by the judge’s security team and see a grand piano in the living room. Those close to him during his youth have since revealed that Guru’s comfortable upbringing led to an identity struggle in an artform that values street credibility. 

Keith delighted his parents by attending the historic Morehouse College in Atlanta. By chance, Shug was also living in the city, and so the pair’s bond grew stronger. When they returned to Boston, Keith and Shug got more serious about making music their vocation. With fellow rapper Damo D-Ski, the trio would go to the home of a DJ who went by 12B Down (“Wanna be down,” if you say it quickly) and hone their craft. Correctly deducing that his old friend Tracy’s alias would make a good name for a group, Keith hijacked the name Gang Star and added another “r.” But Shug was eventually locked up, bringing an end to the first iteration of the group. The Gang Starr story could have ended right there. But fiercely ambitious and graduated from college, Guru packed his bags on the day after Christmas 1982 and left for New York.

Traversing Gotham, Guru survived by working jobs in construction and mailrooms, his lifeline taking the form of a Walkman he’d use to play Queen Latifah tapes. Damo D-Ski and 12B Down remained in his orbit, and between 1982 and 1986, this wet iteration of Gang Starr shopped demos. Their hustle led to a deal with Wild Pitch Records. Early labors are recalled on a batch of 12-inch singles, including debut “The Lesson,” produced by Donald D and notable for its stripped-down aggression and emphasis on the downbeat and record scratches. The singles featured more fundamental rhyme patterns from Guru than we’d later become accustomed to.

But just as momentum was generating, Damo D and 12B Down decided to split. Some accounts say that the two Bay Staters opted to pursue more geographically convenient projects. Preemo, in a 1999 interview with Wire, maintained the pair “didn’t want to go through the payin’ dues and hard times to maintain a career so they went back to Boston.” Whatever the case, Guru took heed of Frank Sinatra’s words about making it in New York and decided to stay. His prodigal comrades would become known as Gangstarr Posse and, later, Posse NFX.

This is when destiny did its dance. Christopher Martin had spent his teenage years living in Brooklyn, but relocated back to Texas to attend Prairie View A&M University. By the mid-1980s he was a DJ going by the name Waxmaster C in the group MCs In Control, who later changed their name to Inner Circle Posse (or ICP). But it was Carlos Garza, a co-worker at local Houston record store Soundwaves that Martin was employed by for a time, who helped facilitate a deal with Wild Pitch. By chance, Garza knew label head Stu Fine. Such was his belief in the young music buff who served as the Dante to his Randal during retail hours, he kept plugging Premier to him. A demo tape that Garza sent to Wild Pitch wound up in the hands of Guru, who was suitably impressed by the sample choices. Martin was offered a deal on the condition he ditched his regular rapper, who went by the name Top-Ski. Loyal to his friend, Preemo was reluctant. But Top opted to join the military, clearing his path to Guru. They flew him in during the Thanksgiving holiday and, together, Guru and Preemo cut their first classic, “Manifest.”

Has there been a more impressive song to announce your arrival? Guru’s genius is summarized by the words at the end of each verse: “These are the words that I manifest, I manifest.” Not speak, spit, shout or whisper. Manifest, like they’re filtered through him by some supreme being, or only possible when you achieve true serenity, teased out by Guru’s liquid gold voice. The writing is appropriately sage-like: “Knowledge is wisdom, understanding / Truth's the proof, so won't you throw a hand / In the air, put up a peace sign and be fine.” Preemo’s beat, meanwhile, is built around a Charlie Parker and Miles Davis recording of  Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia,” summoning congas, guitar licks and tight scratches, invoking a jazz club vibe distinct from Hank Shocklee’s bettering sounds or Marley Marl’s drum-centered boom-bap.

Gang Starr were a group reborn. The fruits of the union congealed when they got together to record No More Mr. Nice Guy at Such-A-Sound Studios. A novice when it came to professional recording, Preemo rocked up on the first day with two members of his crew in tow and looking to hook up his turntables.

“I came in there all hardcore looking like I was ill, and had my hat on all broke down and I was like, ‘Yo, set my turntables up so that we can start recording.’ And I remember my man, the engineer, Shlomo Sonnenfeld at Such-A-Sound Studios … he was like, ‘You’re not setting those turntables up for like another week, you don’t need that.’ And I was like, ‘What? You better set my shit up,’ and Guru’s trying to explain,” Premier recounted to Red Bull Music Academy in 2007. “I didn’t understand all that because I’d never made a record … and I’m all like just Mr. Arrogant and, you know, that humbled me, because now I had to learn that the process of recording is totally different.”

Still finding his way as a producer, Premier relied on Sonnenfeld’s wisdom. As he told Wire, the album’s music is “me and a little bit of Shlomo.” You can add in beatmaker The 45 King, too. The producer had previously helmed some pre-Premier Gang Starr cuts. On No More Mr. Nice Guy, he provides the beats for “Gusto” and “Knowledge,” giving him the unique distinction of being an outsider who produced cuts on a Gang Starr album.

Make no mistake, though: No More Mr. Nice Guy is a showcase of a hip-hop double act. No disrespect to DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince, but it’s hard to deny that “Premier & the Guru” is the quintessential “he’s the DJ, I’m the rapper” cut. Preemo makes heavy use of the bassline from The O’Jays’ “Give the People What They Want” as Guru makes the formal introductions, even invoking his old rap name as a nod to the past they were accelerating away from: “It’s ’89, mine, I'm Keithy E the Guru / Premier is here with the flair, we're running to you.” The scratched-in hooks are there too — a Gang Starr staple. Guru ensures everyone knows this is a story set in New York: “I chill in New York City, I’m witty, so get me.” It’s the first song on their first album! As an intro, it sure set the table. Any idea that Gang Starr’s line-up would ever mutate again probably ended here.

At this point, we must acknowledge that there are some flaws in the album-making. Primarily, No More Mr. Nice Guy is oddly sequenced. Remixes placed in the middle of the running order, with the original versions tacked onto the record’s back end.

These are minor grumbles in a greater scheme. There is “Jazz Music,” dedicated to America’s greatest cultural achievement (tied with hip-hop). When young Christopher Martin was first getting into rap, his jazz-performing grandfather would tell him, “Yo, it’s the same thing. It’s just another expression of the street.” The pair would spend their careers taking that statement extremely literally by blending the two. Here, Premier flips Ramsey Lewis’ version of Minnie Riperton “Les Fleur.” Eschewing the normal convention of hip-hop beats looping, Preemo sprinkles in some tinkling piano keys, a little horn solo that comes in and out. Guru is inspired to give a four-minute history of jazz music.

Spike Lee was so impressed that he hired Gang Starr to remake the song into “Jazz Thing” for the Mo’ Better Blues soundtrack, a version that name-drops far more legendary jazz musicians. In interviews over the years, Preemo has been inconsistent when it comes to either embracing the idea that he’s the father of jazz-rap and criticizing the term “jazz-rap” itself. What is important is that he liked to serve Guru jazz samples not just because they both appreciated the music, but because the producer found the mellow grooves jived with Guru’s monotone rhymes. The result was a union that felt conceived in a Blue Note heaven. Some things are simply of the same energy.

If Preemo saw No More Mr. Nice Guy as his curriculum vitae, it was to put forth his ethos of no boundary going untested. “Conscience Be Free” kicks off with the kind of elementary drum machine beats that provided a building block for old-school hip-hop. From there, he introduces organs and slippery guitar leads, forming a hazy suite for Guru to chat about girls and stuff. And, of course, there’s “DJ Premier in Deep Concentration.” If “Manifest” was, at its heart, about Guru’s appreciation of language, then “Deep Concentration” gave Preemo the ultimate showcase of vintage turntablism, of DJ virtuosity, now so unfashionable. The premise of the track is a gripping one: Premier, to achieve scratch patterns as intricate as a Miles Davis horn line or Carlos Santana solo, must enter a state of deep consciousness, to escape into another dimension. Where better to achieve nirvana than in front of the ones and twos?

“Deep Concentration” is the only point of No More Mr. Nice Guy where Guru steps out of the spotlight. There’s the relentless forward movement of “Gotch U,” which sees Guru ratchet up his energy levels. He layers his rhymes with internal patterns while keeping his verses short, as though he was determined to adhere to a hit-it-and-quit ideal that James Brown — whose voice is present via a sample of “I Got You” — would appreciate. The title track casts Guru as the William Wordsworth of musing on ways of inflicting physical pain on an enemy.

Yet Guru is one of the most significant figures in an era known for a rush of rappers unashamed about their intelligence. Rapping about one’s own rap supremacy is classic fare, but Guru brings the zen-like quality of a Buddhist monk or Athena, goddess of wisdom, to his bombast. On “Knowledge,” which brings back Damo D-Ski, Guru dubs his rhymes “peaceful like yoga,” before promising to bring the masses together: “And I will take the mic from you and make the / Brothers and sisters unite, while we relate the knowledge.” On closer “Positivity,” he goes so far as to claim that books could never get across the messages that his flow can channel.

And that’s the end of the beginning. No More Mr. Nice Guy proved to be their only album on Wild Pitch. Its sequel, Step in the Arena, arrived soon after, an even purer alchemy of Guru and Preemo’s chemistry. The leather pants and B-boy stance of their debut album’s cover was replaced by more streetwise baseball caps and thick coats, heralding a rush of classic output.

You cannot begin to discuss New York rap lineage without drawing a line through the first decade of Gang Starr. Their victories filtered into Mobb Deep, Nas and The Notorious B.I.G (who all tapped Premier for beats), right through to modern day and Griselda Gang, cascading out beyond New York’s state borders. Premier’s client list went on to include Janet Jackson, D’Angelo and Kanye West. Once he bumped into Prince in a midtown Manhattan club. To Preemo’s eternal ecstasy, the purple deity blessed him: “Yo, I just want to let you know that I’m a big Gang Starr fan.”

Gang Starr now occupy a similar space as the jazz heroes they idolized: indicative of a classic era of a great American art form. Yet when Guru died in 2010, the Grammys left him out of their memorial video. The pair currently remain out of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Should history be corrected to appropriately acknowledge Gang Starr’s influence and brilliance, it will need an origin story. No More Mr. Nice Guy is that saga. It’s a hard ridge in a changing landscape, the sound of everything shifting, the kernel of greatness germinating. It is Guru and Preemo. Preemo and Guru. An essential title not just for what it would lead to, but because of what it is.

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Dean Van Nguyen

Dean Van Nguyen is a music journalist and cultural critic for Pitchfork, The Guardian, Bandcamp Daily and Jacobin, among others. His first book, Iron Age: The Art of Ghostface Killah, was released in 2019.

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