Reviewed on this page:
Daily Operation - Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1 - Hard To Earn - Jazzmatazz, Vol. 2: The New Reality - Moment Of Truth -
Guru's Jazzmatazz, Vol. 3: Streetsoul - The Ownerz - Guru 8.0: Lost & Found
Guru died on April 19, 2010, after a year-long struggle with cancer.
Comprised of one rapper (Guru) and one DJ (DJ Premier), Gang Starr started from the blueprint of Eric B. & Rakim, serving up the laid-back delivery and thoughtful subject matter that results in more respect than record sales. They were early adopters of jazz samples in addition to the standard James Brown and P-Funk, and Guru's star-studded Jazzmatazz side project soon threatened to overshadow his main gig. But Guru and Premier continued to do quality work, putting out their last album in 2003. Since then Premier has gone mainstream, working with artists like Christina Aguilera and Alicia Keys, while Guru released solo albums and a fourth Jazzmatazz disc with underwhelming helmer Solar.
No More Mr. Nice Guy (1989)
Judging from the album art, it seems they were initially pursuing a DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince angle.
The following year, "Jazz Thing," from the Mo' Better Blues soundtrack, got the act noticed: as you'd guess from the title it's one of the early jazz/hip hop blends.
Step In The Arena (1991)
Daily Operation (1992)
Following up on "Jazz Thing," most of the samples here are from jazz records: Ahmad Jamal on "Soliloquy Of Chaos"; a Cannonball Adderly beat on "The Place Where We Dwell."
It's not far from what Tribe Called Quest was doing at the same time ("No Shame In My Game"), but without the Tribe's forways into abstract philosophy, the low-key vibe can get dull. Guru's observations on race ("Conspiracy"), relationships ("Ex Girl To Next Girl") and the rap game ("Flip The Script"; "Take It Personal") are composed and clear-eyed but only occasionally biting ("2 Deep," where he puts it all together). The energy level changes markedly when Jeru The Damaja and Lil' Dap pop up on "I'm The Man" (sampling Charles Mingus's "Haitian Fight Song") - otherwise, there are so many sluggish, undistinguished cuts like "Hardcore Composer" the album becomes wearying.
Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1 (Various Artists: 1993)
Working without Premier, Guru got together a bunch of jazz and R&B artists for a set of acid jazz - mellow jazz-oriented grooves, often supporting lengthy horn solos (Donald Byrd on "Loungin'"). Generally Guru raps over this backdrop ("Take A Look (At Yourself)" featuring Roy Ayers; trading lines with MC Solaar on "La Bien, Le Mal") though some tracks are primarily instrumental ("Down The Backstreets" featuring Lonnie Liston Smith). So it's a perfect recipe for critical overestimation: kids love it for combining hip hop's currency with dancefloor timelessness, while parents love the vitamins and minerals of jazz edification and elevation of overshadowed talents like Ayers and saxophonist Courtney Pine. I was afraid the results would be mushy, but no one's going through the motions: the jazz is real jazz (Ronny Jordan's guitar on "No Time To Play"), the MCs really rap ("Slicker Than Most"), and the singers really sing (Brand New Heavies vocalist N'dea Davenport stands out on "When You're Near").
Hard To Earn (1994)
Guru's in good form ("Tonz O' Gunz"; "Suckas Need Bodyguards") and some of the backing tracks are simply effective ("Blowin' Up The Spot," based on a George Clinton clip; "Now You're Mine" revisits Jamal).
Often, though, Premier's "one sample, one drum loop" approach produces tepid results ("Code Of The Streets," with a soporific descending string line; "The Planet," with a Taj Mahal blues lick).
And a few more guests would have added welcome variety - Jeru and Lil' Dap do liven up "Speak Ya Clout"; Nice & Smooth guest on "DWYCK"; Big Shug doesn't do much on "F.A.L.A."
Jazzmatazz, Vol. 2: The New Reality (Various Artists: 1995)
On the second Jazzmatazz release, Guru makes heavier use of R&B names, some known for jazz leanings -
Me'Shell N'degeocello on "For You" - and others not: reggae queen Patra on "Living In This World"; Jamiroquai; Mica Paris ("Looking Through Darkness"). Some of the jazz heavies are repeated from the first disc (Byrd, Marsalis), though Freddie Hubbard ("Something In The Past") and Ramsey Lewis ("Respect The Architect," a standout) swing by.
Either way, the cuts combine icy cool and intense emotional and lyrical content: chill-out grooves that are disturbing if you listen to them closely (Chaka Khan's feature "Watch What You Say"). Meanwhile, Guru stretches himself as a writer, expressing more pathos ("Lost Souls") and vulnerability ("For You") than usual. At times, the record works on so many levels at the same time it's mindblowing ("Young Ladies"; "Choice Of Weapons").
Moment Of Truth (1998)
Premier had moved away from jazz licks by now, and here he relies on keyboards and strings ("Work"), occasionally displaying a RZA influence ("Above The Clouds," with Inspectah Deck; "Royalty," with K-Ci & JoJo). Guru puts together compelling screeds on a panoply of subjects ("My Advice 2 You"; "Robbin Hood Theory"), sometimes working an extended metaphor a la Ghostface Killah ("The Mall"). Perhaps more importantly, numerous guests complement Guru's subdued style - M.O.P. rage on "B.I. Vs. Friendship"; sometime Geto Boy Scarface on "Betrayal" - , bringing the album the vitality some previous releases lacked.
The single "The Militia" is a standout, based on a Dark Shadows sample and a disco bass line, and building to a ferocious guest verse from Freddie Foxxx.
Guru's Jazzmatazz, Vol. 3: Streetsoul (Various Artists: 2000)
Bigger names than ever: Herbie Hancock, Erykah Badu, Isaac Hayes ("Night Vision"), The Roots ("Lift Your Fist"). But musically it's much less ambitious, drifting away from acid jazz and toward the rapped verse/sung chorus structure that was commonplace by the late 90s ("All I Said" with Macy Gray).
Many of the themes are similarly unimaginative ("Keep Your Worries" featuring Angie Stone; "Guidance" is one of a million hip hop tunes sampling "Keep Your Head To The Sky"), and the focus on relationships doesn't shed much light or heat ("Where's My Ladies?").
Even when the record's at its best - "Plenty," a fun, offhand duet with Badu; "Supa Love" featuring Kelis - it's still far short of the first two Jazzmatazz volumes.
Baldhead Slick & da Click (Baldhead Slick & da Click: 2001)
Basically a Guru project, though Premier did some production work.
The Ownerz (2003)
Premier settled into a straightforward one soul sample per song groove ("Sabotage") - no jazz loops or anything out of the ordinary.
Guru revisits his standard topics ("Werdz From The Ghetto Child") but without bringing anything fresh to them...
"Nice Girl, Wrong Place" is another in hip hop's long line of "stripper with a heart of gold" numbers, horrifically name-checking Maya Angelou.
A lot of guests: Snoop Dog ("In This Life..."), Jadakiss ("Rite Where U Stand"), Krumbsnatcha ("Put Up Or Shut Up") among others.
Big Shug and Freddie Foxxx return for "Capture (Militia Pt. 3)" while M.O.P. is back on "Who Got Gunz" - also featuring Fat Joe - and though their enthusiasm is welcome, it points out the drabness of the surrounding tracks.
Version 7.0: The Street Scriptures (Guru: 2005)
For Guru's true solo debut, he started working with producer Solar.
Jazzmatazz, Vol. 4: The Hip-Hop Jazz Messenger: Back To The Future (Various Artists: 2007)
Not a lot of jazz here, apart from David Sanborn... Guests include several refugees from 90s bands, like Dionne Farris (from Arrested Development) and Caron Wheeler (Soul II Soul).
8.0: Lost & Found (Guru: 2009)
Guru's second proper solo album is a low-key affair, produced by Solar in a basic, one-loop-per-song style (title track, based on The Animals' "House Of The Rising Sun").
There are a few nods to passing fads like Auto-Tune ("Fastlane"; "Ride," based on Christopher Cross's "Ride Like The Wind") and Timbaland-style sitar ("No Gimmick Shit" featuring Doo Wop), but the sample sources are remarkably shelf-worn: "Divine Rule" is based on Cerrone's "Supernature" - and few make any substantial modification or subversion of the original (the clever use of "Break Up To Make Up" in "Love-Hate Thang" is an exception).
Guru's rhymes are focused as before ("It's A Shock"), often commenting on industry shenanigans ("Stop Frontin'") - a clear step up from Ownerz, at least.
What you want this time?