The Making of Gang Starr’s Hard to Earn with DJ Premier
Words by Daniel Isenberg (@StanIpcus)
For those of us who love music, there are certain albums that we will always hold near and dear to our hearts. For me, Gang Starr’s fourth LP Hard to Earn, which turns 20 tomorrow, is one of those albums. I was 15 when Guru and DJ Premier released Hard to Earn on March 8th, 1994, enjoying the early stages of what would become a life-long obsession with hip-hop. And this album absolutely blew me away. With every lyric, beat, scratch, and skit, I was mesmerized. And I’m sure I am not alone.
Hard to Earn is rap music in its purest, rawest form—the way the real hip-hop heads like it—from its classic singles like “Mass Appeal” and “DWYCK,” to incredible album cuts like “Brainstorm” and “The Planet.” And though Gang Starr fans should all agree that the group never dropped a wack LP, this particular album holds a special place in their discography, no question. As for the youngins out there who weren’t around for its release, or older rap fans that are still digging back discovering classics, well, to classify Hard to Earn as essential listening is an understatement.
That said, NahRight is proud to present to you all, alongside our brothers at UpNorthTrips, The Making of Hard to Earn with DJ Premier. Yes, I had the utmost privilege and honor of sitting with Primo at Headquarterz Studios (formerly D&D Studios) earlier this week to talk in-depth about the creation of Gang Starr’s classic fourth album, and break down each of its songs track-by-track. In addition, UpNorthTrips has provided us with an original mix by their in-house DJ The Vinylcologist titled Hard to Earnstrumentals—highlighting the beats and samples on Hard to Earn with both instrumentals from the album and original re-workings by Vinyl himself—as well as a collection of ill throwback pics and images from their vault to accompany the interview.
We proudly dedicate this feature to Guru, one of the greatest MCs of all-time, who we lost way too soon in 2010. Thank you for your priceless contributions to our beloved culture in general, and specifically for your exceptional work on this specific album. We miss you, and we hope this link somehow finds its way onto your eternal timeline in hip-hop heaven so you can reminisce along with us. RIP.
DJ Premier: “With Hard to Earn, one of the things that I was going through sonically was, it was right around the time that Guru started doing Jazzmatazz, and we kept getting categorized as ‘jazz rap.’ Which is why Guru did Jazzmatazz, because wanted to protect Gang Starr from being categorized like that, because we felt like we were a hip-hop group from day one.
“All I was doing was using jazz samples because no one was doing it. I was like, ‘We used every James Brown sample.’ So we were at that point, and I was like, ‘No one’s using jazz samples, and a lot of them are instrumental.’ And I’ll never forget when Rakim said, ‘I hook a beat up, convert it into hip-hop form.’ So I was taking sounds that no one was using, putting hard drums [with them] and making melodies. And it went with Guru’s vocal style. Guru called me a ‘beat tailor.’ So I was tailoring the beats to his voice.
“Being that Guru was getting aggravated with us being labeled that, I said, ‘I’m gonna strip this album down,’ just to show that I could use things other than jazz samples. We both wanted to show that anything I use is going to be a hip-hop beat. We said we were going to make it as raw as possible, and less musical, on purpose, just to show we’re good on any track, together.
“One thing I liked about EMI is they never interfered with any singles we chose [or the music we put on our albums]. They weren’t with ‘Just to Get a Rep’ [as the first single] when we got signed, because they thought we were gonna be a ‘jazz rap’ group, because of the ‘Jazz Thing’ record we did for Spike Lee for Mo’ Better Blues, which pretty much was the reason we got signed. So when we turned in ‘Just to Get a Rep’ as our first single, they were like, ‘This is not what we want.’ They wanted a Digable Planets ‘Cool Like Dat,’ or US3, because that was also poppin’ at the time. But we were like, ‘No, this is what we really are.’ So there was a misconception. But, they let us release all our singles—‘Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?’ and all that stuff—and never gave us a problem until The Ownerz album, because the staff changed. But prior to that, they never got in our way. And I loved that about Chrysalis and EMI, and Virgin. They let us choose our records.”
In The Lab/At The Crib
“D&D [Studios] was our hangout. It was home. And that’s the reason why I invested in it when they shut their doors. This is home to me. My room is still the same. Jay Z told me, ‘If you ever move outta here, take it down piece by piece, and keep all the pieces.’ Him and Nas said the same thing. [Like when they tore down Yankee Stadium], ‘Keep one of the chairs.’
“Jeru [the Damaja] was always around. [Lil’] Dap was always around. Melachi the Nutcracker was always around. Our whole crew. Everybody that [Guru] mentioned in ‘Soliloquy of Chaos’ in ‘92 on Daily Operation, that’s the usual heads you would see. If you look at the posse pictures, it’s usually the same heads on every one, pretty much. And that’s why [you hear all of them on Hard to Earn]. Plus, I was working on Jeru’s [debut The Sun Rises in the East] at the same time.
“At that time, we were still living at Branford Marsalis’ house on Washington Avenue in Brooklyn. Me and Guru shared his brownstone because Branford had moved to L.A. to be the musical director for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. During that time, we would always make the demos in my bedroom upstairs. Guru had the downstairs, where the kitchen was.
“Our house was like a fraternity house. There was always somebody there. Even when we were on the road, there were 10 to 15 people in our house. Bottles everywhere, weed everywhere, women in and out. We had so much traffic, I’m surprised we never got raided for suspicion of something going on strange in our house. It was a party house.
“So we would do pre-production [at home], and then come here to lay it, because you had to pay for studio time. Bills cost, [so we’d work at home] to at least get the initial part up. And Jeru would come in and freestyle, and be like, ‘I want that.’ I would always make the beats on the spot. I never had a bunch of beats where it was like, ‘Pick one.’ There’s misconceptions of me giving certain beats Guru wanted to other people—that’s not the case. I’ve always made everything he rhymed to specifically to his voice and his style. I didn’t make [the] ‘Nas is Like’ [beat for him] and say, ‘I’m taking that and giving it to Nas.’ It was made with Nas while he sat there and waited. I always thought that’s how everybody did it, from studying Howie Tee, Mantronix, Larry Smith, and Rick Rubin. And that’s what I do know.”
Constructing the Album
“Guru would always give me a list of titles [before I made any beats for our albums]. He would have the whole album mapped out with the titles. Just the titles, [not the lyrics]. Every album [except for our first one], he’s always given be a list of titles [to start], not sequenced, with little notes. It’ll say, ‘’Mass Appeal,’ our first single.’ Then he writes the lyrics once he hears the track. That’s why [the music always] sounds like the title [of the song]. He’ll give me the list with little notes in parentheses, like ‘’Tonz ‘O’ Gunz,’ this is about all the guns in the streets.’ Sarah [Honda] and [Phat] Gary at our management office would print it out for us because Guru’s handwriting was kind of weird, I’d stick it on the wall in my bedroom, and he’d stick it on his wall. And I’d just kind of chalk it off, like, ‘Today I’m gonna work on ‘Mostly tha Voice.’’
“Then once I lay the beat and he likes it, he writes it right there. He’d be writing and scribbling, and we always said it was like he was driving a car. He’d be in the booth reading it, and then he’d start turning [the page] because he’d start writing all over the place, and he’d have all these scribbles in a circular motion. He kind of just winged it from what he wrote. But I’d record him with him not knowing that we were doing a real take, just to get as much as I could to start with. When he was practicing it, he was even more on, because once you know you’re being recorded, you’re fighting to get it exactly right. But he was very fast [in the booth].
“We’ve always done it that way, except for No More Mr. Nice Guy, because we were still getting to know each other. We call that our resume. Step in the Arena is when I really produced—well, made beats. And Daily Operation was, ‘Now I got it. Now you can’t fuck with me. I’m nice.’
“[Hard to Earn] was the first album I titled. Guru always titled our albums before. And he was like, ‘I want you to title this one.’ And that’s really what came to my head, because I felt like that’s what we were. We were comfortable with money, and I felt like our hard work is ‘Hard to Earn.’ So I was like, ‘What do you think?’ And boom, [he liked it].
“It only took us two months [to complete the whole album]. We did it at the end of ‘93, because we wanted to come out at the top of the year. Step in the Arena took about a month, Daily Operation took two months, and this one took two months.”
1. “Intro (The First Step)”
“That was actually the last thing we did on the album. We were still in that stage where everyone had skits and intros and stuff like that. De La Soul’s the [group]—shout to Prince Paul—that created the skits. Then everyone started having skits. Everyone wanted to have a sex skit, or drugs, or, ‘Hide the guns.’ But we wanted ours to be exactly like who we were.
“At that time, when we were living on Washington Avenue, everyone used to be coming to our house unannounced with demos, like, ‘My man spits.’ We’d be coming home late at night, and people would be posted up in front of our gate. We’d come out of the car on guard, wondering if someone was there to try to rob us or whatever. And that’s when we carried guns heavy. I got my gun on my hip, hoping I ain’t gotta pull it. But it was just someone like, ‘Yo, I know y’all live here. I just want you to check my shit.’
“We didn’t do it that way. We walked to every label, wrote on the envelopes, packed them, did it professionally, and really grinded. Now everybody thinks you just get on, just like that. And people would just come up to you, like, ‘Yo! My rhymes are…’ And it’s like, ‘Yo, I gotta go, man.’ I’d be on the train just going to Yankee Stadium to catch a baseball game, and people would be like, ‘Yo, there go Premier,’ then be like, ‘Yo, my man rhyme. Yo, spit for him.’ And I’m like, ‘Not right now, brother.’ And he’d still do it. It’s not that I’m being an asshole, you’re just approaching me wrong.
“So it was a message to all the people who thought it was that easy. It’s not that easy. Like Guru said, ‘This shit ain’t easy. If you ain’t got it, you ain’t got it, muhfucker.’ And the way he said it was perfect. I love the attitude. That’s how it was, and that’s how it is to this day. We never did that shit. We’d just be like, ‘Yo, man. My name is Premier, I’m in a group called Gang Starr. Just wanted to tell you I love your shit.’ And then I’d leave you alone, even though I want to say more.”
“‘ALONGWAYTOGO’ was really for Poetic Justice, but they didn’t take the song. That’s why he says, ‘It’s poetic justice, ‘cause I’m mad with the pad.’ We made it for that, and that’s also why we called it ‘ALONGWAYTOGO,’ because [the movie] was about a road trip. We got to see the movie before it had any music in it. [2Pac] was a good friend of ours. We use to hang with Pac and Money B and them way back in the days, all the time. And I knew Janet [Jackson] already. So that song was made for that movie. Once they passed on it, we said, ‘It still fits with our album, so let’s put it on there.’ And with the ‘funky introduction’ [Phife Dog vocal sample], it made it a good song to start the album.
“Guru was super-fucking-drunk [when we recorded his vocals]. But I like the way he sounded. If you listen to it, it’s not the regular Guru attitude. But it sounded so dope, I was like, ‘I actually like it.’ When you listen to it again now that I tell you he was super-wasted, you can tell.
“I’ve always been good at finding lines that work with hooks, even if it’s just a one-liner. I wasn’t really doing a lot of connecting words, that [start happening more] when people would be like, ‘Yo Premier, do a scratch hook for me.’ That was new. I was doing what other DJs were doing, which was taking one line, and dicing up different types of scratch patterns. I do all that for the DJs, not for the MCs. It’s so DJs will be like, ‘Yo, you took [Phife and Q-Tip and cut their shit up crazy].’ That’s what I tripped off when I heard Public Enemy records. Like, ‘Oh, he cut Chubb Rock’s ‘Rock ‘N Roll Dude’ to ‘Rebel Without a Pause’ and did [a] Transformer [scratch].’ Then I practiced it until I could do it and master it. Big shout to Johnny Juice Rosado. When dudes like him or Howie Tee or Jam Master Jay did things, I would bug off the way they broke down a line. I was doing the same thing. And I still do it.
“Some of them just come to me, because as a DJ, I’m just a walking music library. Sometimes I search for them. And then if I use Phife here, I’m not gonna use him for the next seven songs, or ever again. I always made sure I was cautious of who I used, voice-wise. I hear it in my head already, sometimes just from a line [Guru] says, or the title.”
3. “Code of the Streets”
“‘Code of the Streets’ was produced originally for a TV documentary about stealing cars. This was before New Jersey Drive came out. Guru did the original version, but it was a little stiff. He’s not the best producer—he’s an ill writer, and an ill MC. It had the same sample—the Monk Higgins record [‘Little Green Apples’], and I can say that because the sample got cleared—but the drums were a little stiff. They did a video to it too, but I wasn’t in it because Guru produced it himself. Then when we went to do Hard to Earn, I was like, ‘I like it enough to put it on the album, but let me flip it.’ He told me what the Monk Higgins sample was, I took the record, and took the same drums but just reprogrammed it to give it my bounce. And it has the same lyrics [as the original]. So I give him credit on all of that.
“When he said ‘code,’ I was thinking morse code. I could’ve cut a line, but I wanted to be creative. So I took ‘Word From Our Sponsor’ by Boogie Down Productions, and at the beginning it goes, ‘Errrrrrrrrrrr, this is a test of the Boogie Down Production prevention against sucker MCs.’ And I just took that [noise] at the beginning [and scratched it up].
was the first time we got really cool with M.O.P. We had just met them, and ‘How About Some Hardcore’ was really big. We were like, ‘Come to our video shoot!’ They’re in the video, in the part where they’re chopping up the cars. But they have the masks on, to cover you from getting dirt and dust in your face, so you can’t tell it’s them. But we became really, really close friends from that day. That was the first time we hung out.”
“That’s one of my favorite songs ever. Ever, ever, ever, ever. I love that record. Guru always would say, ‘This song is gonna be about this, this is gonna be our single.’ Then he’d be like, ‘This is gonna be our rhyming record.’ It would just be to show how dope he could rhyme, not about a concept, or a girl, or society. It’s just rhyming. And I wanted to take it back to kind of Public Enemy-esque aggressiveness, with weird noises, and me wilin’ on the scratch. And that’s what it is.
“You can not say I didn’t go off on the cuts. And that’s not even me bragging. That’s just dope skill on both of our parts. Even the way we take the beat out and bring it back. Guru sounds so ill with his lyrics. His wordplay, his flow. He also was like, ‘Let’s do certain records where you fade out and I’m still rapping.’ So I was like, ‘Cool.’ That’s why you hear it fade out like that.
“I remember we were on the Rage Against the Machine tour, and we used to perform that, and we did a thing called ‘wil’ out,’ where once it came on, we’d go, ‘Wil’ out, wil’ out, wil’ out, wil’ out!’ And the crowd would start slam-dancing to that beat. And we’d go, ‘Gang Starr motherfucker, Gang Starr motherfucker!’
“I love that record. The beat is stripped, and it’s just straight skill with the rhyming and the scratches.”
5. “Tonz ‘O’ Gunz”
“Guru gave me the subject matter. A lot of people were getting killed by the hands of another young black male from gunplay. It was real heavy during that time period of the ‘90s, so we just wanted to address how bad it was, and how it was getting worse. And even though it [has a musical sample], it still is really stripped down. I wanted it to sound almost like somebody was crying for help, with a basic melody, but nothing really major so it gave him room. And I already had ‘the thing they know best is where the gun is kept’ line [from 'Just to Get a Rep'] in my head. Even that came from studying other rap records, where they’d take a line from something they already did and scratch it, like, ‘Ooooh, they took that from a song they did on the last record and used it as a line!’”
6. “The Planet”
“His note to me was, ‘My reason for me moving from Boston to Brooklyn.’ So that was easy. I had the beat already as far as the sample, but I never had drums to it. I really didn’t know if he was gonna like that track to be the background music to that particular subject, even though I knew what it was about. But he loved the track right off rip. Sometimes, if I make a track, it doesn’t mean Guru’s gonna nail it. But I was like, ‘Let me just wait and see if lyrically it fits what he needs to express.’ And it just worked.
“He always said in interviews, ‘All I had was a duffle bag and a dream.’ That was always his line. I talked to his father, God rest his soul, and he told me, ‘He packed up his duffle bag, and took off in his car. The car died on him on the way, and then he had to hitch a ride.’ And he was on his own, no one rode with him. It was him on his trek to make it to New York.
“I was on the same trek, with me living in Texas. I knew that if I made it in New York, I could do this and be serious about it. I could do it there, but the outlets and the connections weren’t there. So I was like, ‘Let me go to New York. If I make it there, I’m poppin’.’ I took the challenge, and I came with no fear. And he did the same thing, and that’s why he deserved every accolade he received.
“He loved that song. Everything he said was really what happened. Living with his aunt, she said, ‘Hey, you gotta get a job.’ I remember our boy Haas had just got locked up, we used to hang with him all the time. Has used to just wil’ out, but he was also fun. And we were like, ‘Damn man, we gotta shout Haas out, because we don’t know when he’s coming home.’ That’s why he’s like, ‘East New York is no joke kid, and peace to my man Haas doing his bid.’ And I remember Haas was like, ‘Everybody in jail is open!’”
7. “Aiiight Chill…”
“I remember reading a review of the album where they were like, ‘Premier wasted space with a very unnecessary record called ‘Aiiight Chill…’ I was like, ‘You don’t get it!’ Shout to my homie Rob Santos, I just hung out with him when I did Dilla Day. He came out to Detroit to hang with me, I hadn’t seen him in years. He’s a retired organized crime detective. And he used to say that shit all the time. He’d be on the answering machine like, ‘Yo it’s Rob yo, yo beep me. [Pause]. Aiiight, chill.’ And he did it so much, I was like, ‘Yo, I’m gonna do a track [called ‘Aiiight Chill...’]
“I called everybody. I called Nas. That’s when MC Eiht and Compton’s Most Wanted was coming up. Mister Cee is on there. Masta Ace. Dave [Lotwin] from D&D. I just called people that would really make it worthwhile. Nas was just starting to hang with us, and he was calling from a session he was doing with Large Professor. You can hear the beginning of ‘Ijuswannachill’ when he’s like, ‘Yo, yo, yo Preem, what up baby pa.’ I explained it to everyone, and I just had them call my house number [and leave a message]. And I’d just take the audio and fly it in to tape. We arranged it first acapella, then I just hit play on the beat and let it roll. And it came together dope.
“I read that review and I was like, ‘Damn, ‘Waste of space?’’ It’s clever, and it’s different. Plus, our albums were made for boomboxes and loud sound systems. And I still have that attitude when I make records now.”
8. “Speak Ya Clout” ft. Jeru the Damaja and Lil’ Dap
“We decided when we did ‘I’m the Man’ on Daily Operation, we were gonna start Gang Starr Productions, but not just as a production company for me and Guru, but we were gonna sign artists. He was like, ‘You sign three artists, I’ll sign three artists.’ I didn’t have any artists to sign at the time because I was too busy making beats. So he was like, ‘I want Group Home because those are my homies.’ And he said, ‘I want Jeru, and I want Shug.’ Shug had just got out of prison, and we wanted to help Shug out so he could stay out of the streets.
“I made those three beats [specifically for each of them], to duplicate ‘I’m the Man.’ And I put the sound from the SMPTE timecode, which is what makes your drum machine sync up with the two-inch tape. That’s what it would sound like if you pushed the volume up when it was reading whatever you were syncing up. So I pushed that volume up to get that sound and used it to transition to another beat. And being that we used it on ‘I’m the Man,’ we brought it back so people would be like, ‘Oh, he brought that sound back.’ Just from me being a consumer and a fan of music, those were the type of little cool things that made me like albums that other people did. Like [Dr.] Dre with the, ‘Like we always do about this time.’ Or the sound of the crack pipe. He used those two or three times. Some familiar shit. Like [Funkmaster] Flex dropping a bomb.
“‘I’m the Man’ is better because it was the first time we did it. And I loved everybody’s parts more. Guru’s like, ‘I said people, people, come on and check it now, you see the mic in my hand now watch me wreck it now/What is a party if the crew ain’t there, ‘What’s your name?’ Call me Guru that’s my man Premier.’ It just knocked.”
9. “DWYCK” ft. Nice & Smooth
“Nice & Smooth did a record called ‘Down the Line,’ and they wanted to use the ‘Manifest’ sample. So we did it, and hung out with them at Power Play Studios. That’s how we met Bas Blasta, and everybody that was there that day that was on that record. So we said, ‘Let’s do one in return.’ And we needed a B-side for ‘Take it Personal,’ because doing records that weren’t on the album was a big deal back then. Public Enemy was doing it, Ultramagnetic [MCs] was doing it.
“But when we did it, we didn’t know it was gonna be such a big hit. That summer, it was running things! Daily Operation was already out, so the label was like, ‘Let’s add it onto the album and re-release it.’ We remastered it, added it onto the album, then they reneged and said, ‘We’re gonna pass on it and leave it as a B-side.’ So we were pissed because mad people were buying Daily Operation looking for ‘DWYCK.’ And it was only on 12”. People were like, ‘Fuck, I bought the album for that song.’ I was like, ‘Damn, you don’t like anything else?’ But that’s what they wanted.
“So to fix that, when this album came out, we were like, ‘Let’s make it available this time so if anyone’s ever looking for ‘DWYCK’ on any of our albums, there’s an album that has it.’ It wasn’t like, ‘Let’s capitalize and get rich off it now.’ And where you put it is always important. I sequence everything. That’s my DJ mind.
“We made it in 1992. WC was here from L.A. And Don Barron from the Masters of Ceremony was here, because he was cool with Greg [Nice]. I remember everybody laid their verse. Guru was wasted, and at first, we were like, ‘He’s gotta say his verse over.’ Because he was just saying anything. ‘Eenie meenie miney mo.’ ‘Lemonade was a popular drink…’ ‘What the?’ He was just all over the place. We were like, ‘His verse is the weakest.’ And now when you hear it, everybody loves it!
“I’ll never forget, Smooth B kept going, ‘‘Yo Keithy E, I left my Phillie at home.’ ‘Hold on, stop it. Okay, I’m ready.’ ‘Yo Keithy E, I left my Phillie at home.’ ‘Hold up, run it again.’ ‘Yo Keithy E, I left my Phillie at home, do you have another?’ He didn’t even have the ‘I wanna get blunted my brother.’ We did probably like twenty takes of that same line, then we were like, ‘Yo, why don’t you just come back tomorrow?’ And he came back, and laid it in one take. And we were like, ‘Yo, we got a jam.’
“We didn’t even have a title at first. But ‘DWYCK’ was a thing everybody used to do, Biz Markie was very big on it. It’s like catching you with your pants down. You would mumble to somebody to get them to go, ‘What?’ So you’d go, ‘Hey, did you see that dadadada?’ And they’d go, ‘What?’ And you’d go, ‘My dwyck!’ [while you grabbed your dick]. So we just called it ‘DWYCK’ because we had no title. Back then, everyone had t-shirts that said, ‘My Diiiiiiiiiiick.’ That was the thing, so that’s how it came about. Flat out.”
10. “Words From the Nutcracker”
“We wanted to give him a little shine. I used to play that beat all the time, and keep looping it. And he started going, ‘Sick thoughts on my mind with no self control, uplift ya soul and make the brothers wanna roll/16 years old with a heart that’s gold, yo check it check it out like this, here we go.’ And I was like, ‘Yo! Do that!’ It was perfect.
“[Him and Dap’s appearances on the album] helped [them get the Group Home deal]. When our manager Patrick Moxey started the Payday label, he was like, ‘I’ll give all y’all deals, but Premier has to produce [the albums].’ So I was like, ‘Aiight, I’ll do it.’ We got a budget, we gave everybody money. Jeru, everybody. They were able to buy homes, cars. Everybody made good money. And we were already together every day [so putting the albums together was no problem].
“Lyrically, [the Group Home album Livin' Proof] wasn’t that great. That’s why I made sure it had those top-notch tracks to compensate their lyrical ability, to balance it out. Dap had a look to him, and Melachi had a look to him, but Melachi didn’t want to rap. He wanted to be a boxer. That was his dream. But he had two gun charges under the age of 18. I was going to two years of court with him almost every month, begging the judge to let him box. But she was like, ‘No, it’s a violent sport. He’s already got two gun charges, and I don’t want to have to put him back in jail.’ But I’m like, ‘It’s something that he loves to do, and he can get paid for it. Instead of fighting people in the street, he’ll be able to do it professionally.’ She goes, ‘Do you want me to put him back in jail now? You’re in the music business, have him make a record.’ So that’s why we put together Group Home.
“Dap don’t care about [when people critique the Group Home album and say it has hot beats but the lyrics aren’t great]. He’s like, ‘Yeah yeah, fuck that son. Yeah yeah, fuck that.’ [They had dope voices and flows], and I knew what to give them trackwise. Even Dap gave me a lot of records to sample [for the album], like, ‘Yeah yeah, hook that shit up, hook that shit up.’ And I would hook it up. He had a good ear.”
11. “Mass Appeal”
“We were making fun of the radio. It was starting to get a little watered down, and everything was starting to sound like elevator music. And then, when I found the sample that had that type of melody to it, I looped it, and Guru was like, ‘That’s it.’ Then just the programming of it, and the way it started where it’s not on the one [was dope].
“[That sample is a few minutes into the record, it’s not from the intro.] When I’m in a rush [and I want to look through a record for sounds], I call it ‘quick-sampling.’ I drop the needle [and bounce around with it through different parts of the record to find something]. But just the fact that I was working on a single, I already knew how much I had to make it unique, [so I was really hunting for the perfect sound to sample]. All our singles have always done well for us. We always have made good, tight singles for our albums.
“We never make the [first] single until the album is done. When we’re down to our last two records to create, then we do the single. Then it’s super-brand-fucking-spanking new. It has to be just done. Every time.
“I loved it from the gate. I loved what he said. And I was spinning on WBLS at the time, doing the Thunderstorm with Geronimo. I was getting so many records then, and I remember Da Youngstas said [on the 'Pass da Mic (Remix)'], ‘Once again I reveal the skill, money’s growing like grass with the mass appeal,’ [which went with the title Guru had given me for the single]. And I was like, ‘I gotta see if that’ll work.’ So I took the bass out, and it just fit. I was like, ‘Yo, that’s it.’
“I remember we shot the video in Bushwick, then we went over to Riis Beach, and it was so cold, I didn’t even to do the video. We’re on the water. That’s the ice. It was so frozen that it was not gonna break. But if you notice, I’m walking very carefully on that ice. Watch it, I’m not moving fast. I was mad because it was so cold. Guru’s got his jacket open, and I’m like, ‘What are you doing? I wanna get outta here!’”
12. “Blowin’ Up the Spot”
“I had that beat for a minute. It was from a record called Sample Some of Disc, Sample Some of D.A.T. It had all these Parliament drums. I cleared it. And I used to always play [that one particular track]. And Guru was like, ‘When we get around to doing the album, I’m gonna rap on that.’ So that was one of the ones that didn’t have a title until he wrote to it. And I had the breakdown already programmed, where it sounds like an explosion, and he said that’s what made him come up with the title. And then I took the line, ‘I’m ‘bout to blow the fuck up’ from ‘I’m the Man.’”
13. “Suckas Need Bodyguards”
“Guru produced that. He already had the record done. And it was the same thing, where the drums were a little stiff. So I was like, ‘Just give me the reel, and re-record your vocals with me. And I’ll just tighten up the way it bounces.’ But he did the whole thing. All the samples, and keyboards, and everything.
“We were just buggin’ off how so many rappers were so tough-talking and they had bodyguards. It was like, ‘Wow, none of us do.’ We’d walk around everywhere, and people would stop us. A lot of people would see [Guru] and think his name is Gang Starr. ‘Yo Premier what up, where Gang Starr at?’ I’d be like, ‘We’re Gang Starr. I’m Premier, he’s Guru.’ So we were just doing it to address how a lot of [so-called] tough guys had security. We never had bodyguards.”
14. “Now You’re Mine”
“That was for White Men Can’t Jump. Me and Guru had a big fist fight. A big one. You see these two marks right here? [Points to his knuckles]. That’s his teeth marks from biting into my fist. And they never went away. It was a very bloody fight, but we had already gotten money from the label [to do the song for White Men Can’t Jump]. He was like, ‘I’m not speaking to you, I don’t want to ever work with you again.’ It was over something very serious, which I won’t get into.
“I remember he came [to the studio], and he had bandages on his head. He had cuts from us going back and forth fighting. White Men Can’t Jump is about basketball, so all the lyrics are about basketball. ‘Down the lane,’ ‘in your eye,’ ‘360 dunk in your face.’ All that was about me. He looked me in the eye the whole time in the booth, and I looked at him, and he did that verse in one take. Then he said, ‘Is it good?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ And he goes, ‘Fuck you!’ And he walked out the room. It was the first fight we ever had in our lives. But a dope record came out of it.
15. “Mostly tha Voice”
“I didn’t have the bassline yet, I just had [the drums that we used as the skit at the end of the record with Big Shug]. So it was a skit first, with Shug talking about wanting to get on ‘F.A.L.A.’ But for the song, I was like, ‘Let’s keep it stripped down, but we haven’t used any jazz samples at all. Let’s use one jazz sample.’ And I [got the bass sample], and it just happened to go, and it was dirty. Guru loved it when he heard it, so we moved the skit to the end to lead into ‘F.A.L.A.’
“[Guru’s voice] is what made me like him even before we met. I’m into voices. I’m attracted to the voice before I even know what you look like, or anything about you. I’m always hoping you look like the way you sound. Guru looks like the way he sounds. Rakim looks how he sounds. Run-D.M.C. look like how they sound. EPMD look like the way the record sounds. They match. Some people, you see them, and go, ‘Damn, you don’t look nothing like the way the record is.’ We looked like Gang Starr. Our records matched us.
“I miss that dude so much, man. But good things have happened. The estate belongs to his son, and his older sister. We’re doing the right thing. We have Gang Starr Enterprises that we started together. We’re putting our site back up, and we’re gonna open the Gang Starr store [online] in another month. We just had to clear up some things with some people, but now, there will be no more interference from anyone. Now everything’s gonna be great.”
16. “F.A.L.A.” ft. Big Shug
“They did that one without me, and brought it to me. Guru [has a distinct production style]. The way the drums roll, they don’t sound like my patterns. [He didn’t really love making beats], just sometimes. He just liked to rap all the time. Every time you would come to our place, they’re in there rhyming, every day. Guru would just freestyle and freestyle and freestyle. And Shug can freestyle, better than his writing. He’s good off the head. He could go right now, to this very day, and not miss a beat.
“Guru played me the record, and I was like, ‘Yo!!’ I liked it enough for it to go on the album. I’m the ‘yay’ or ‘nay,’ and not because I’m the boss, just because we gotta make solid albums. If it’s not solid, it’s not going on there. I care about our reputation, and the trust of the fans, enough that we were never gonna give you a fucked up album. I’m a consumer. So if I’m buying someone’s album, then you gotta like the way I put mine together. I can’t have you like, ‘Ehhh, he didn’t put the effort in.’”
17. “Comin’ for Datazz”
“That was supposed to be ‘DWYCK Pt. 2.’ That’s why [if you listen close to the sounds in the beat], it almost sounds like a ‘DWYCK.’ But we never could get Greg and Smooth in the room at the same time to do it. So it just got to the point where we couldn’t wait any longer. They were on tour then, and really busy. So Guru was like, ‘Fuck it. Let’s change it, and I’ll rap on it, and call it ‘Comin’ for Datazz.’ That was the other one that didn’t have a title.”
*B-Side Bonus* “The ? Remainz”
“We were going on tour. We shot the ‘Suckas Need Bodyguards’ video, and after we shot the video all day, we went right in the studio and cut that record. I went to mastering, then I hopped right on the plane to go on tour.
“That’s a favorite. I had two copies of the record [I used for the sample]. I had a sealed copy, and a copy that had mad dirt on it. When I was taking that one half a bar [for the sample], for some reason all the dirt [gave it an ill sound]. Then I used the clean one, which was exactly the same, but it didn’t have that feeling. I kept wiping [the other one] so it wasn’t so dirty, but it just sounded so dope with the dirt on it. I asked Guru, ‘Which one do you like?’ And he was like, ‘I like the dirty one.’ So we just left it like that. And we used it as the B-side of ‘Suckas Need Bodyguards’ [since we couldn't clear the sample for its original B-side 'Doe in Advance']. We always wanted to have a new record that wasn’t on the album.”
“That was the first time we worked with Daniel Hastings on an album cover, and then after that, he did all our albums. He did The Sun Rises in the East, Wrath of the Math, Livin’ Proof, Moment of Truth, and The Ownerz. He became a really good friend of ours.
“That [was shot] in a church right around the corner from our Empire Management office. We were inside an old church, and they had a stage, almost like a pulpit, where the Reverend does his sermon. It was all run down and old. It was a church that [wasn’t in use anymore]. But we were able to get in there and take pictures. Then they painted it with an orange background, and I was like, ‘It looks dope!’ It’s simple, but it looks dope. I had the bucket hat on. I was like, ‘Yo, that’s it.’
“And I remember we did the crew picture. Since we had the Gang Starr Foundation thing, we wanted to promote it. Juice Crew had theirs, Wu-Tang was coming out, so we were like, ‘Let’s do one with our crew.’ That’s why instead of having all of our homies, we just had Jeru, Group Home, and Shug. The whole crew was there to watch us do the photo, but we wanted to promote the artists on this one, like, ‘This is what you’re gonna get next.’ And it went just like that. Jeru dropped, then Group Home right behind that. All the singles were strong, from ‘Come Clean’ to ‘D. Original’ to ‘Supa Star’ to ‘Livin’ Proof’ to Shug with ‘Crush.’”
20 Years Later
“It’s hard to believe. Besides Moment of Truth, Hard to Earn is my most favorite album, because I wanted to show that I could use weird sounds. It was very non-musical compared to all our other albums. So because of that, I’m proud of this because it still carried enough weight for it to be a heavy album [without having to lean on jazz or funk samples]. It was just really stripped down.
“[To Showbiz of Showbiz and A.G. and D.I.T.C., who walks by as the interview is wrapping up.] Yo Show, out of all of our Gang Starr albums, what’s your favorite?”
Showbiz: “Oh, man.”
DJ Premier: “Out of Step in the Arena, Daily Operation, Hard to Earn, Moment of Truth…”
Showbiz: “Hard to Earn.”
DJ Premier: “And he didn’t even know that’s what we were talking about. There you go.”