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The album on which DJ Premier and Guru perfected the template that would launch them into underground stardom and a modicum of mainstream success. Guru’s deadpan monotone delivery was shockingly different from other early-’90s MCs, many of who were either substituting charisma for substance or engaging in hardcore “realism” without really commenting on black inner-city life or offering ways to alter the situation for the better. But it is Guru who sounded like the real clarion call of and to the street on Step in the Arena (“Why bring ignorance/where we’re inviting you to get advancement,” he intones on “Form of Intellect”). Step in the Arena was the first real mature flowering of his street-wise sagacity. His voice would grow more assured by the next album, but here Guru imparts urban wisdom of a strikingly visible variety. It’s easy to allow yourself to get caught up in the fantasy of hardcore rap, but it is somewhat more involving and disorienting to hear truth that avoids exaggeration or glorification. Guru is not easy on any aspect of the inner city, from the “snakes” that exploit the community (“Execution of a Chump”) to those that are a product of it (“Just to Get a Rep”), and the result is a surprising but hard-fought compassion (“Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?” pleads for the acceptance of responsibility, for not taking the easy path). He seems to have somehow developed a hopefulness out of the bleak surroundings. DJ Premier was already near the top of his game at this early point. His production seems less jazz-fueled on Step in the Arena, opting more for spare guitar lines and tight beats, as well as his unmistakable vocal cut-up style of scratching for a slightly warped and out-of-phase soundscape.

On Step in the Arena, DJ Premier and Guru hit upon their mature sound, characterized by sparse, live jazz samples, Premier’s cut-up scratching, and Guru’s direct, unwavering streetwise monotone; but, with Daily Operation, the duo made their first masterpiece. From beginning to end, Gang Starr’s third full-length album cuts with the force and precision of a machete and serves as an ode to and representation of New York and hip-hop underground culture. The genius of Daily Operation is that Guru’s microphone skills are perfectly married to the best batch of tracks Premier had ever come up with. Guru has more of a presence than he has ever had, slinking and pacing through each song like a man with things on his mind, ready to go off at any second. Premier’s production has an unparalleled edge here. He created the minimalist opening track, “The Place Where We Dwell,” out of a two-second drum-solo sample and some scratching, but is also able to turn around and create something as lush and melodic as the jazz-tinged “No Shame in My Game” without ever seeming to be out of his element, making every track of the same sonic mind. For an underground crew, Gang Starr has always had a knack for crafting memorable vocal hooks to go with the expert production, and they multiply both aspects on Daily Operation. Every song has some attribute that stamps it indelibly into the listener’s head, and it marks the album as one of the finest of the decade, rap or otherwise.

-Stanton Swihart,



One Comment

  1. Awesome!

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