To say the return of Gang Starr was unexpected would be an understatement. The legendary duo of DJ Premier and Guru delivered more than 15 years of classic East Coast hip-hop, a remarkably consistent run that yielded acclaimed albums like Step in the Arena and Moment of Truth; but when Guru died in 2010 from cancer after falling into a coma, it felt like the end of the journey for one of the rap game’s most beloved acts. Considering Gang Starr hadn’t worked together as a tandem since 2004, and with Premier’s production career thriving, there wasn’t much reason to believe we’d ever hear anything from the pair again.
That all changed this fall, when a new Gang Starr track called “Family and Loyalty” hit the web; a song evoking the classic spirit of Guru and PREEMO, featuring a guest verse from J. Cole. The song ignited speculation about new music from the duo, and that anticipation was confirmed with the announcement of One of the Best Yet, the seventh album from Gang Starr, featuring unheard rhymes from Guru and a who’s-who of the duo’s former collaborators and their disciples.
“In the beginning [of this project], I was very nervous,” PREEMO admits. “Because me and Guru hadn’t worked together in so long, and to now have vocals that I'm not familiar with — I was always around for those [side projects], helping him mix and him playing them for me to see what I thought, so me not knowing any of these rhymes… that’s when I knew, ‘OK, let me see if i can even apply the right music to certain songs, and if they click I’ll make a decision on what to do next.’”
Working on Guru’s unreleased vocals inspired PREEMO and after crafting three songs, he knew this was going to happen. “I reached out to Guru’s sister who he was extremely close to, Trish,” he recalls. “And I [reached] out to his son’s mom and let her know. We all share a company called Gangster, Inc. together, so anything that’s Gang Starr-oriented from the point of his passing, we share all the business. We account for everything, we do the taxes, and we make sure everything is split evenly and fairly with no backdoor bulls–t. When I told them, ‘I think I can do a whole Gang Starr album,’ they were like, ‘Do it.’"
One of the Best Yet features longtime Gang Starr cohorts and affiliates like Jeru the Damaja, Group Home and Bumpy Knuckles, frequent PREEMO collaborator Royce Da 5’9, as well as peers like Q-Tip and Talib Kweli. J. Cole’s guest spot on lead single “Family and Loyalty” took a year to materialize, but once the North Carolina rapper heard the track, he was all in. That is, after declining to appear on an earlier version of “So Many Rappers.”
“[Cole] immediately was like ‘I don’t wanna mess with this one. I’ve already spoken on this topic,’” Primo shares. “That was in the early stages of the album. Once it got towards the end, I sent him a text like ‘Yo, here’s is another one — think you got something for this?’ He was like ‘Yo, I got the chills! This is it. I’m on this.’”
Crafting a new Gang Starr album was an understandably emotional experience for DJ Premier, and it’s given him the opportunity to sort through his history with his late partner and the legacy they forged together. PREEMO and Guru had well-documented differences, and he’s frank when discussing how their partnership was always solid even through tough times and periods of estrangement.
“Anybody that knows us — and we have so many past and present friends — [was] around to see us fight and get along. And we’re not the first artists to ever do that, you know what I'm sayin’? I use The Police — Sting, Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers — as huge and multi-platinum and rich as they are, I would watch interviews where they would get off stage, right after their set and start throwing punches at each other and tearing up the room because they’re pissed at each other! The Beatles… you name it.”
“I don’t even wanna say we ‘broke up,’” he continues. “Because we really did not officially say we were broken up. You can look at all his interviews without me after he moved on, six years after, you never see him say, ‘Gang Starr is broken up.’ He danced around it because he never wanted to say something that wasn’t true — especially when it came to that. We fought like any other group, during that time. You can’t do seven successful albums and just hate each other. Our yin and yang, and night and day, is what made us great when we went into the studio. On top of that, we’re creating these concepts and songs together. That’s why leading up to this album, we’ve been posting all this footage that we’ve been sitting on. These are different years, and you see me and him, smiling and laughing and enjoying [each other’s] company.”
DJ Premier is honest about their differing personalities (“He loved the spotlight — I don’t.“) and how difficult it could be navigating Guru’s temperament. If there’s anything that was an ongoing sticking point between he and his former partner, it was Guru’s drinking.
“I gotta blame some of it on his alcoholism,” the producer admits. “Because Guru’s alcoholism was heavy. It wasn’t some lightweight shit. It was very heavy. That was the thing that used to irk me, his alcoholism. Whenever it was really intense, he would just yell at me for, just, nonsense and it’s like ‘Dude just shut up.’ And I would ignore it because I don’t wanna lose my temper and come to throwing blows. But he would keep pushing you — he just didn’t give a f–k. And then if you fight him — you can knock him out and literally have him on the ground and looking around like he doesn’t know where it’s at — he would get right back up and come back at you again! Like Vera in Harlem Nights right before Eddie Murphy shoots in her in the pinky toe! That’s how Guru [was]. He’d get right back up.”
He says that dynamic lasted "our whole career, on and on" — but that their relationship was always able to recover. "We’d squash it, [and then] it was always ‘I love you,’" PREEMO explains. "And his next line was always ‘Lets go out and get some chicks.’ Like, that’s his thing. Anybody that knows him will tell you the same thing; Guru was always on the prowl to get his chicks. That’s what I’m used to: arguing over nonsense because he’s drunk. But he had to be a mad drunk; [when he was] a good drunk, he’s fun. There’s a clip i posted a few weeks ago where you see me and him between our bunks on the tour bus, and he’s like, ‘Yo man, I love this dude’ and I say, ‘Yo, I love this n—a, we been through some s–t.’ He’s twisted right there, but he’s happy.”
The complexities of that bond was always a driving force in Gang Starr. Guru founded the group in Boston before he met PREEMO in New York City, and the legacy of Gang Starr is tremendously important to Preem — even in recognizing original cohort Big Shug. “I always give Shug his role in it, as well. Whoever created something before you should always get their props. Because that was their concept, the chain and the star, changing [the name] to ‘Gang Starr’ as two words.”
While working on One of the Best Yet, Premier developed a sage-burning ritual before recording to honor his fallen partner’s spirit, and he kept Guru’s ashes in the studio during recordings. “Guru’s family gave me a piece of his ashes,” he explains. “I saw the gold box of ashes that his father had when we had the memorial service. He had a nice giant gold box that had his name on it. It was really nice. I know all the family members had ashes that they all spread and took on their own. So I said lemme ask is it cool if I have some. And they were like, ‘Absolutely.’”
One of the Best Yet is a stirring testament to what they built together. But don’t assume it's a benediction. “I don’t wanna call it a ‘finale’ and all that ‘our final chapter’ and all that s–t,” PREEMO says adamantly. “More things could happen. If it's meant to be, it’ll happen and it’ll appear.”
Whatever DJ Premier does under the banner of Gang Starr, it’s always for the upliftment of he and Guru’s legacy and for Guru’s family. Their differences and their chemistry is what made Gang Starr so uniquely potent and through it all — the Gang Starr family is still family. One of the Best Yet is a testament to that, and his relationship with Guru’s family has remained as strong as the discography they crafted together.
“When I got my knee replacement and I opened my eyes straight outta surgery, the first person standing there was Guru’s son,” PREEMO remembers fondly. “And his son’s mother and their friend Gloria. I always salute them because it’s like, ‘D–n, y’all came to see me on the day of my surgery?’ I didn’t ask them to do that. But they’ve seen how true I am. That’s love right there.”