Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Mostly tha Voice: On Guru, "Hard to Earn" and the Passion of my Little Brother

Being a hip-hop fan was no easy task in the mid-1990s Brooker household. Like a lot of parents of the era, my folks were extremely wary of this profane and relatively new genre. Relentless media scaremongering about rappers’ glorification of drugs, violence and misogyny led them to institute a fairly strict censorship policy: Christian rappers like Michael Peace were embraced, all-audiences acts like Arrested Development and MC Hammer were grudgingly tolerated, and anything meriting the infamous Parental Advisory sticker was outright banned. In hindsight, I’ll admit that they were partially right to worry – Too $hort and Eazy-E probably weren’t appropriate listening material for middle school kids – but that didn’t dissuade my younger brother in his quest to become the biggest hip-hop head in Sparta, Wisconsin.

Gang Starr’s Hard to Earn was the first hardcore rap album to slip under the radar. My then 13-year-old brother used some of his birthday money to buy it on cassette at Musicland during a family outing to Valley View Mall in La Crosse. Thus began an extended exercise in musical obfuscation. The album sleeve and its telltale advisory sticker quickly became kindling for our potbelly wood stove. In their place, my brother fashioned a homemade sleeve with a blank sheet of yellow legal paper and a Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers playing card. Realizing that the very name “Gang Starr” would be a red flag, he scraped the ink off of the cassette itself, obliterating the track listings and artist information. He then stashed the album in the back of his tape box and only listened to it on his headphones or while riding in my car.

Yet somehow our parents sussed out the offending tape and promptly confiscated it. Undaunted, my brother snatched it back one day when they were out. By now he’d started building a fairly sizable hip-hop collection on the sly. He kept it under wraps O.G. style, stashing any CDs or tapes that might be deemed questionable in a beaten-up guitar case he’d inherited from our grandpa. My folks made several more attempts at shutting him down, but his dedication to hip-hop culture eventually won out. By the time he graduated high school, my brother’s bedroom walls were plastered with magazine clippings of Redman, Canibus, Brotha Lynch Hung and other hip-hop heroes, with his own hand-painted portrait of Ol’ Dirty Bastard as a centerpiece. That old copy of Hard to Earn still maintained a prominent place in his music collection, though by now it had been played so many times that the cassette had to be held together with masking tape.

I relate this story to demonstrate the kind of passion Gang Starr and the late, great Guru could inspire in a pubescent white kid growing up in backwoods Wisconsin. Hard to Earn was a perfect musical gateway drug for my little brother and, to a somewhat lesser extent, for me. There was something about the combination of Guru’s literate, monotone flow and DJ Premier’s jazz-soaked production that made Gang Starr slightly less intimidating than a lot of other rap groups. I can see how my parents would have been put off by the profanity and references to drugs and violence (though all were quite mild by general hip-hop standards), but under that gritty surface I found a thoughtful, soulful work of art that resonated on a surprisingly universal level.

I was especially fascinated by “The Planet,” a song recounting Guru’s youthful move from Boston to Brooklyn and his early struggles breaking into the rap game. Guru eschews the angst and melodrama common to so many “back in the day” tracks (i.e., Coolio’s “I Remember,” Ghostface’s “All That I Got Is You”), instead painting a picture of that odd blend of exhilaration, desperation and boredom that comes with being young and on your own for the first time. I consider the song a masterpiece of subtlety, filled with evocative, identifiable images (“Kissed my mother / Gave my pops a pound / Then he hugged me / Then he turned around”). That’s pretty much how I regard the whole of Hard to Earn and the Gang Starr canon in general. Guru and Premier simmered while other hip-hoppers boiled, creating a sound that struck a delicate balance between intensity and detachment. It was a style without precedent at the time, and one that’s never been equaled since.

That’s why Guru's untimely passing earlier this week hit me harder than celebrity deaths usually do. I celebrate the entire Gang Starr catalog, as well as Guru’s rather daring Jazzmatazz side project, but it’s Hard to Earn that earned him a place in my heart, both for the brilliance of the music and for my memories of the passion it inspired in my little brother.

R.I.P. and F.A.L.A. to a real MC.