Jazz Fission


In 1992, Brooklyn’s Gang Starr paired with the Dream Warriors, a promising young rap duo from Toronto, to record “I’ve Lost My Ignorance (And Don’t Know Where To Find It).” Obscurely released on the U.K. compilation Re birth of Cool, the song was a sublime concoction confirming that hip-hop’s
affair with jazz had reached a climax. With Gang Starr already responsible for two albums raised on the bebop of their forefathers, and with the Dream Warriors’ 1991 debut album a critically acclaimed, whimsical marriage between ’60s kitsch jazz and Native Tongues irreverence, “I’ve Lost My Ignorance” was seen as more than just a casual meeting between like minded souls. It was the future of hip-hop, period.

Seven years later, we know sampled jazz never materialized into the musical tomorrow. (It’s savvy hustlers slangin’ street-corner fantasies who make the dollars now.) Gang Starr’s and Dream Warriors’ careers went in separate directions—paths vividly displayed on two recent retrospectives, Gang Starr’s Full Clip: A Decade of Gang Starr and Dream Warriors’
Anthology: Decade of Hits 1988–1998.

Hip-hop “careers” are usually so short-lived, it seems silly to even use the word. But Gang Starr’s DJ Premier and Guru have, for 10 years, proved a model of consistency and quality rivaled by no one (except, per haps, De La Soul). Just ask any group raised on their ethic—the Roots, Black Star, Organized Konfusion. Full Clip is an essential compendium of Gang Starr’s influential existence through five albums, but it also at tests that labeling Gang Starr as part of the jazz–hip-hop movement was a limiting misnomer. Sure, DJ Premier regularly culled bop-bitties from dusty crates; Guru essayed jazz’s history on “Jazz Thing” for Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, and his Jazzmatazz experiments linked generations of musicians; and the two even lived with Branford Marsalis for a spell. But every deft Premier scratch and smooth but street-savvy Guru lyric reinforces the fact that, really, this DJ and MC were the ultimate embodiment of hip-hop’s essence—the sonics and styles of jazz were just colors on their pallette

It’s Premier who has guided Gang Starr through hip-hop’s different eras, making everything sound both relevant and remarkably ground breaking. He could flip hard-bop sounds into something positively thuggish (Charles Mingus on “I’m the Man”), transform eastern horns into a DJ’s best friend (“Who’s Gonna Take the Weight”), and make an obscure sample from French synth pioneer Jean Jacques Perrey sound essential to hip-hop (“Just To Get a Rep”). As for Guru, he fits with Premier’s sonic wonderment so tenaciously that in any other scenario, he’s a fish floundering out of water. “Wild with my monotone style/because I don’t need gimmicks,” he boasts, addressing his powerfully understated rhyming presence in “Mass Appeal.” “Give me a fly beat and I’m all in it.”

As Full Clip shows, Gang Starr’s music occupies even the nooks and crannies of hip-hop
idealism: they understand the importance of the B-side (the drum-heavy “Credit Is Due” or the party-rockin’ “Dwyck”), and “Gotta Get Over,” from the forgettable film Trespass, is far from the typical rap-soundtrack throwaway. The duo even survived hardcore hip-hop’s greatest transgression—the r&b cameo—by making two hits with K-Ci & Jo-Jo (“Royalty”) and Total (“Discipline”), the latter a new song that shows Gang Starr
operation is in no danger of slowing down.

The legacy of King Lou and Capital Q of Dream Warriors, by contrast, never extended beyond the initial possibility of their coolly crafted debut, And Now the Legacy Begins, and their only legitimate hit single, “My Definition of a Boombastic Jazz Style” (which used the same Quincy Jones –composed “Soul Bossa
Nova” later employed in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery). Their claim of possessing a decade’s worth of “hits” rings resolutely hollow, even more so given that their first single was re leased only nine years ago. Compared to Gang Starr’s collection, Anthology isn’t a glorious remembrance; it’s a tombstone. It’s a symbolic gesture showing just how fleeting the jazz-rap future was (and why groups like Di gable Planets and US3 are just memories). Dream Warriors were jazz–hip-hop entities only insomuch as they sampled jazz.

Outside of the three tracks Dream Warriors include from their first album, you’d be hard-pressed to recognize anything on their best-of. A handful of songs from the group’s lackluster second effort, and new songs recorded n recent years (but not released in the U.S.), reveal
major identity problems in the wake of hip-hop’s changing styles—a group filling the subtext void with pseudo-spiritual imagery, hokey New Age concepts, and contrived beatnik rhyming pat terns. Interestingly, the Dream Warriors included their lone post-Legacy highlight, “I’ve Lost My Ignorance,” on their retrospective—the DJ Premier remix version, at that. But on their compilation, Gang Starr did not. They didn’t need to. Their clip was already loaded.

Gang Starr play Hammerstein Ballroom

August 11.

Archive Highlights