Gang Starr – Hard to Earn (Chrysalis) 2LP
Gang Starr’s fourth album, Hard to Earn was released in 1993. While Daily Operation, the album that preceded it, is generally considered to be Guru and DJ Premier‘s master-work, Hard to Earn is surely the duo’s most ambitious set.
Guru is not exactly what you might call a “whack emcee” but – as he basically admits on one of Hard to Earn‘s lesser cuts – his appeal is “Mostly tha Voice”. That richly textured monotone delivery is certainly appealing enough but his writing has always been fairly pedestrian. The fact is, you don’t really listen to Gang Starr for the lyrics.
What you do really listen to Gang Starr for is Premier’s production. And Hard to Earn sees the man at the peak of his powers – a level of prowess he managed to maintain into ’94, when he co-produced Jeru the Damaja’s classic The Sun Rises in the East.
It’s easy to see why people like Daily Operation so much. That album represents a quantum leap in the sophistication of Primo’s beat science – ditching straight soul and funk loops in favour of micro-edited snippets of moody modern jazz and soundtrack recordings. (This development was somewhat akin to My Bloody Valentine’s transition from Ecstasy & Wine to You Made Me Realise). But it was on Hard to Earn that he took this sound to its logical extreme. Here, the drum tracks are militarily clipped and and terse and the sample loops are boiled down to hermetic cells of sound.
The type of “true school” ’90s hip-hop that Hard to Earn seemingly epitomizes is often derided by critics for being too self-consciously “musical”. But tracks like “Tons’o’Guns” and “Brainstorm” pretty much jettison harmony and melody in favour of dizzying barrages of abstract sound. Essentially, what Primo does on Hard to Earn is take The Bomb Squad’s rhythm-and-noise approach and shoot it full of holes – creating plenty of dub space in which the whirring, whining noises can breath (DJ Muggs of Cypress Hill was doing something similar around the same time).
It should be noted however, that this album certainly does not skimp on the funk. “Code of the Streets” lays an irresistible up-tempo beat under lush descending strings, while “Blowin’ Up the Spot” reanimates a truly fabulous Clavinet-fuelled groove to righteous effect.
Hard to Earn is over-long – it starts to tail off about three-quarters of the way through – but the bulk of the album is truly astonishing and quite removed from anything Gang Starr has done before or since. Daily Operation may be the fan favourite but Hard to Earn is a record everyone needs to pay respect to.