Guru speaks from the grave.
That’s what DJ Premier says about his late partner-in-rhyme and one-half of the legendary and revered hip-hop duo, Gang Starr. The man born Keith Edward Elam lost his life to a rare form of cancer at the age of 48, but a sense of divine omniscience gives Premier permission to believe Guru’s ever-present nine years since his passing.
“He was there to make sure that out of the 30 tracks I had to choose from, I chose the right ones to fit a Gang Starr album,” Premier explains, recounting what felt like Guru’s existentialism via never-before-released lyrics that evidently stand the test of time.
“I’ve proven time and time again that I’m built to last, so watch me shine again,” the production maestro raps, zeroing in on Guru’s foreshadowing on the new album’s 11th track, “So Many Rappers."
Embarking on respective solo careers after The Ownerz (2003), Premier went on to earn himself a number of Grammys for his work with the likes of Nas and Jay-Z, while Guru released his own set of influential projects, a quartet of Jazzmatazz, a brainchild genre that married live jazz and hip-hop’s core elements.
Yet, the two remain infinitely tied to one another well into the modern landscape of rap music.
With One of the Best Yet, the first Gang Starr album in 16 years, Premier at once bridges an old era with a new generation and reestablishes Gang Starr’s seminal work of the past in contemporary popular culture.
Below, BET and DJ Premier discuss the new Gang Starr album, Guru’s legacy, the Wu-Tang series and Five Percenters’ influence, all while Premier offers anecdotal quips about the duo’s hip-hop yesteryears.
One of the Best Yet is out now and features MOP, Talib Kweli, J. Cole, the original Gang Starr Foundation with Big Suge, Group Home and Jeru The Damaga, Nitty Scott and Q-Tip, among others.
BET: The title feels very specific, how did you come up with what to call this album?
DJ Premier: It’s a very, very famous slogan that comes from our song “You Know My Steez” that we did in 1998. It was our first single. On the third verse Guru says, “On the microphone you know that I’m one of the best yet.” In our shows back then, all of us would do it with him. We would [join in], “One of the best yet!”
Then in ‘99, when we released “Full Clip”, after Big L passed, our single was dedicated to him because he passed the day before we were actually going to record the song anyway. So when he passed, he was a close friend of ours, we were like, “Yo, if I say Big L rest in peace in the beginning of this record, every DJ is going to cut this up ‘cause the record dropped a week after we did the album. It took off just like that.
We always performed it live as our closing song in our shows, and we would say, “Do you want to mess with this Gang Starr?” We’d stop the music and everybody went, “One of the best yet!” To this very day, they chanted that loud every time I do it. With this album being so special, we never thought we’d have another album of material to release, it was the most fitting title.
BET: Does the album offer any untold stories about Guru?
Premier: The craziest thing for me is, it seems like Guru is speaking from the grave because these lyrics already existed before I put them into an album, obviously since he had passed almost nine years ago. But a lot of the things he’s saying are so current.
On “Militia, Pt. 4” where it’s called “Take Flight” he says, “Let’s see if you can step and rep with this production, I never left, plus I kept me some.” And that’s even like whoa, in a good way. It just seems like in a weird way, even though it’s all positive, he literally was there to make sure that out of the 30 tracks I had to choose from I chose the right ones to fit a Gang Starr album.
BET: The visual treatment for the lead single “Family and Loyalty” was largely set in Harlem. One of the more striking scenes was set outside the Allah School in Mecca. What is Gang Starr’s association with Five Percenters?
Premier: We both studied Five Percenter culture, and [I] still do. We studied our 120, our mathematics. At the time of our era, you had to know it if you claimed Five Percenters, because if you didn’t you would literally get beat down.
BET: Have you caught up with ‘An American Saga’?
Premier: I was just watching the Wu-Tang Hulu series and they have Just Ice step to RZA about not knowing his mathematics and I had Just Ice on my radio show last week, because we do a legends week and he was legend of the week, and we talked about that particular scene after it aired.
[Five Percenters] are a more street oriented version of being a Muslim. Like AZ said on Nas’ Illmatic on “Life’s a Bitch”, he said: “We started in the hood as Five Percenters, but something must’a got in us, ‘cause all of us turned to sinners.” And it’s true. [Laughs] We were still smoking weed, still getting into fights, still fornicating, and you’re supposed to be disciplined and all. But we still held on to a level a discipline even within all of the chaos.
BET: Five Percenters culture is so deeply embedded in hip-hop’s earlier years. What’s something you can share about that time?
Premier: It was an era, it was a scene and we really got to witness it all. I remember way back in the day, the first time I ever met Busta Rhymes they were beating up this dude because he didn’t know his mathematics. We at a club and they have him surrounded. What’s today’s mathematics, God? He didn’t know it and they just started giving him a mudhole beatdown. Again, that was normal. No one asked why. You just had to know your lessons.
BET: The same video introduced us to Guru’s son. Why was it so important to involve Keith with this project?
Premier: For more reasons than one. Guru died tragically and there were so many rumors about how he went out. I got to see him in the hospital right before he passed, and one of the last things I said to him before I walked out of the room was that I was going to make sure that his family was straight. “I got you if you don’t make it.” It didn’t look good at the time I was there, so when I saw what I saw, I just told him I love you and I hope you pull through, but regardless, we got you. And I’ve kept my word.
BET: Did he have a say in the music video concept?
Premier: With “Family and Loyalty,” I didn’t already have an idea for that video. So I called Fab Five Freddy. I wanted to get a director that I didn’t have to explain Gang Starr to and he was with it.
He goes, “Hey man, you know all that controversy that was going around him about the will and this and that, I think we really need to put some clarity on that. Like the will, let’s give all the riches to his son and show his son going out in the hood giving all the riches to the people to show positivity. That was his idea and I was with it.
I called [Keith], he was nine when his dad passed. He’s 19 now. I showed him the treatment and he immediately loved it. I called his mom and Guru’s sister who I’m very close with and who is part of our family and all of our business for Gang Starr, and she absolutely loved it and said do it. If they had said no, I wouldn’t have done it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.