There's a sense of urgency for hip-hop artists. Because the industry favors flavors of the month, time moves quickly and relentlessly for artists who usually only have one chance at stardom. Both the quick-to-dis rap audience and star-hungry record labels want instant success.
That's what makes Gang Starr's steady rise to stardom all the more remarkable. The singles from its five albums have never enjoyed regular radio play, although its songs receive spins on late-night hip-hop shows and raves from hard-core hip-hop followers.
Yet Gang Starr's latest album, "Moment of Truth," has become its commercial breakthrough, selling more than 340,000 units, according to SoundScan, since its March release.
Because of its expanding popularity, Gang Starr will be a featured act on the Smokin' Grooves Tour, which stops at the Universal Amphitheatre tonight and Friday. The concerts will also feature performances from Public Enemy; Cypress Hill; Wyclef Jean, Canibus & the Refugee All-Stars; Busta Rhymes; and others.
"It's time to really get it together," says the duo's DJ Premier, who, like his partner, Guru, is in his early 30s. "We've lost a lot of good people along the way, including Biggie and Pac [the slain Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur]. With all of that, it's time to really keep it real. I felt like this was our most important album."
"Moment of Truth" is also Gang Starr's best album. Rapper Guru is a lyricist who tackles a wide range of topics, including the alarming deaths in the hip-hop community. However, DJ Premier's mind-boggling beats are the group's strongest selling point.
On "Moment of Truth," he surpasses the quality of his already impressive catalog. His production relies on gritty, hypnotic patterns that draw on everything from obscure jazz samples to water drops to video games. In fact, Premier is one of the few hip-hop orchestrators who still successfully incorporates turntable scratching into his sound beds.
"I use whatever it takes to make the tracks identify what me and Guru are all about," says Premier, whose real name is Christopher Martin. "I started using weird sounds and other types of samples just to stay away from [being categorized]."
Although Gang Starr may not be known by the casual hip-hop fan, it certainly has the respect of a number of rap stars. The Wu-Tang Clan's Inspectah Deck and Geto Boy Scarface are among the guests who join DJ Premier and Guru on "Moment of Truth."
Premier's outside production work is even more impressive. Hip-hop legends such as Rakim, KRS-One and the Notorious B.I.G.--all of whom have easily outsold Gang Starr--have solicited his work.
Gang Starr's first two albums, 1989's "No More Mr. Nice Guy" and 1991's "Step in the Arena," became landmark hip-hop releases. Those two projects were among the earliest rap records to include jazz samples. Shortly thereafter, a throng of groups followed suit. Determined to stay ahead of the field, Premier rethought his sound. Gang Starr's next two albums, 1992's "Daily Operation" and 1994's "Hard to Earn," displayed Premier's evolving, innovative production style. After years of toiling on the underground circuit, Gang Starr is on the verge of becoming an over-the-top success.
"We are dedicated to the sport," Premier says. "There's no way that we can't eventually be in the position that we know that we deserve as long as we keep putting in the proper work to make us earn that position. We knew it was going to come eventually."
Smokin' Grooves Tour with Public Enemy; Cypress Hill; Wyclef Jean, Canibus & the Refugee All-Stars; Busta Rhymes; Gang Starr; Black Eyed Peas; and others, tonight and Friday at the Universal Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City. 7:15 p.m. Thursday, 7:45 p.m. Friday; $28.50-$42.50. (818) 622-4440.