There are some albums that seem so perfect and untouchable that finally the words don’t come when you want to talk about them. Daily Operation is definitely in that category. This album perfected the Gang Starr recipe and propelled the duo to the top of the New York hardcore rap scene. But still it can be hard to explain why, even if the reasons can be many, you have to put words to it. That’s what we’ll try to do here.
We do no longer present Gang Starr, the duo composed of DJ Premier, a producer from Texas and one of the pioneers of jazz-rap, and Guru, a rapper with sharp lyrics from Massachusetts, has become a legend many times over since they met in the late 80s. Even though the group members are not from New York, it is in Brooklyn that they settle themselves to offer a slamming boom bap with a style that only they have the recipe for.
The second album exercise suddenly becomes more complicated when some bands start off on the right foot with a highly acclaimed first album. Gang Starr, on the other hand, had to wait for their third album to become a legend. The Brooklyn duo had already made a name for themselves with No More Mr. Nice Guy and Step In The Arena, two already excellent albums, but it’s with Daily Operation that they’ll reach that status. Gang Starr seems to improve and get better with time.
If they are part of the artists that invented jazz-rap with A Tribe Called Quest and some others, they will be the first to make it so raw and primitive. In fact, Primo’s loops are gritty and hardcore, the drums slam the back of our necks to shatter our spines, and the jazz loops are grungy. The little scratches in the choruses replace the melodic hooks for a pure boom bap. The beats are as abrasive and rough as rock, mainly thanks to the drums and scratches. The minimalist piano and saxophone loops bring a kind of false melody that smoothens the whole to make us feel both the sinister atmosphere of New York and the dirty ambiance of the jazz-café of the prohibition.
I’m The Man is probably one of the most skilful and complex compositions of the producer. Primo offers a unique beat to each rapper on the track, Guru, Jeru The Damaja and Lil Drap from Group Home, with a different breakbeat between each verse, making him one of the precursors of the switch beat. Each of the rappers has their own playground to express themselves in a battle royal. Ex To The Next Girl and its three-note piano loop accompanied by the devilish bass line leaves all the room for Guru to express his talent as an MC.
Gang Starr is the perfect symbiosis between the producer and the emcee, a harmony that few duo of rapper/producer have managed to obtain, if it is rather obvious with Rakim & Eric B. or Pete Rock & CL Smooth, it is less with Kool G Rap & DJ Polo for example. While the beats are both jazzy and irritating, they are perfect for Guru’s baritone, monotone voice. His flow is smooth and calm enough to compensate for the roughness of the beats. But even when Guru is angry, he’s always calm, so calm and serene that it’s unsettling and disturbingly vengeful. His anger becomes even more threatening, as on Take It Personal.
Take it Personal, GuruI never thought that you would crab me
Undermine me, and backstab me
But I can see clearly now the rain is gone
The pain is gone but what you did was still wrong
There was a few times I needed your support
But you tried to play me like an indoor sport
Like racquetball, tennis, fool, whatever
All I know is you attempted to be clever
Nevertheless, cleverness can’t impress
Cause now you’ve been expose like a person undressed
Cause I see through you, I’m the Guru
Now what you gonna do when I step to you
And when I pay you back I’ll be hurting you
This ain’t no threat so take it personal
Guru is an intelligent and profound lyricist. The Place We Dwell is an anthem to the streets of New York where he stands as a perfect tour guide on a simplistic and rough drum sample. More melodic, No Shame In My Game features a lush jazzy loop for a boastful ego trip from Guru.
His storytelling skills are reflected on Soliloquy of Chaos with a narrative about the death of a person at one of their concerts. More autobiographical and personal on 2 Deep, Guru confesses his religious and ethical beliefs that have led him to a more enlightened and profound knowledge of himself. On Conspiracy, he delivers arguably his best verse with a denunciation of a conspiracy around Hip Hop leading to its corruption. Guru gives food for thought.
The most disconcerting thing about listening to Guru and DJ Premier is that everything sounds easy. Guru’s rhymes flow smoothly like water in a stream over Primo’s beats. And his flow is so natural that it seems easy to replicate, just as the beats are so basic that you’d think you’d just have to tweak the few jazz notes to make it work as well. Yet, those jazz notes are perfectly glued to the beat and magically interrupted by the scratches for a fearsome and shuddering boom bap.
This rough and hardcore boom bap will be taken up a little later by a generation of rappers like Wu-Tang Clan, Fat Joe or Mobb Deep, who will tend to make the atmosphere even more gloomy and sinister in a gangsta atmosphere while taking up Guru’s calm and composed flow. From a musical point of view, DJ Premier made the boom bap more jazz and harder with Daily Operation.
Daily Operation marked the first peak of Gang Starr’s recognition in the rap scene. A recipe that they perfected together and that only makes sense when they apply it themselves. Each beat finds its place without ever missing its target, and Guru accompanies them with magic with his limpid flow and his subtle pen. Daily Operation is the quintessence of raw jazz-rap with scratchy choruses over a few jazz notes. It is the first masterpiece of Gang Starr’s career.