By Brian Coleman
AUTHOR’S PREFACE: The interview used for this piece was done with DJ Premier many years back, in 2001, when Guru was still alive. The intention – beyond the initial, much shorter piece done for XXL’s “Classic Material” – was always to have a Step In The Arena chapter in one of my books. But I was always blocked from getting to Guru by the justifiably vilified Solar.
It didn’t seem right to do a Gang Starr chapter without input from both men (or without all songs discussed), so it never happened in print. But as that incredible album turns 25, I still wanted to get a fuller story of the album out there. I don’t like to keep knowledge from legends like Premier tucked away in my file cabinet. Considering the context above, I hope everyone enjoys this. Long live Gang Starr and R.I.P. Guru [Keith “Keithy E” Elam].
Many thanks to Bill Adler, Ben Ortiz and Katherine Reagan for the use of selected visuals taken from the Adler Hip-Hop Archive at the Cornell Hip Hop Collection.
Gang Starr — Step In The Arena
There have been worlds of change in the hip-hop game since 1991, but one thing remains the same: Gang Starr’s Step In The Arena still sounds amazing.
The group’s accomplished sophomore platter was stripped down, but sophisticated. MC Guru’s poetic, sometimes abstract battle rhymes, and DJ Premier’s savvy, street-honed beats and hugely influential DJing combined that year for 18 tracks of pure, no-nonsense rap heaven.
Both Guru and Premier made New York their home in the late ‘80s, but neither one was a product of the five boroughs. Preemo [Christopher Martin] was raised in the Houston, TX suburb of Prairie View. His father, a biologist, taught at Prairie View A&M University. Premier explains, “A&M was a black school that produced some of the best engineers around. And we had one of the illest marching bands around, too! Our marching band was dangerous.”
He says, of his hometown, “Prairie View was country, but it had a city side, too. There was an urban social structure, just like in New York or LA, but on a smaller scale. Everyone there was very independent and did things for themselves, and I think that helped give me the drive to come to New York and do it on my own without any help. People are definitely nicer in Prairie View than New York, though [laughs].”
By the time that Premier hit New York for good, he wasn’t exactly a hayseed right off the farm, though. Since his earliest teens he had been traveling to the Big Apple consistently, so he had already soaked in a bit of BK atmosphere. Preemo recalls, “My grandfather, William Manuel, lived in Brooklyn, so we used to come to visit him on holidays. By the time I was 12 or 13, I was coming to visit him on my own, which was always an amazing experience for me. He was an upright bassist, and played trombone and electric guitar in jazz bands. He toured a lot, and he’d always show me his photo albums and tell me about his life in music. I was really interested in what Grandfather Bill – that’s what I called him – was doing, I was fascinated by his life. I have a tattoo of Bill, because I feel like I’m a duplicate of him. Hip-hop is my era, jazz was his era, and I appreciate his era, even though he didn’t really appreciate hip-hop. He just didn’t understand it, he looked at it as noise.”
Premier continues, “Earlier on, I also remember seeing hip-hop going on in the Bronx in 1977 and 1978 when I went to New York. Grandfather Bill had friends in the Bronx, on 183rd, so we’d go to visit them and I saw the sound systems and people in the park, breakdancing, all that. Then, when I started going to Brooklyn more often in the early ‘80s, [hip-hop] was more full-blown, it was everywhere. The music had grown so much, and I always loved that with hip-hop, you would let the music fight for you, instead of using your fists, like with DJ and MC battles. I brought all that with me when I’d go back to Texas and DJ parties and start working on demos. Music definitely has a way of travelin’, and I guess I was part of that, in my own way.”
In the mid-‘80s [he says from 1984 to 1986], Premier had a local crew in Texas, and they went from MCs In Control to being called ICP (for Inner Circle Posse). The group included Premier, then going by Waxmaster C, and MCs Top Ski, Sugar Pop and Stylee T. Sugar Pop and Stylee were from Texas, and Top Ski was from Boston, but going to school with Premier at Prairie View A&M. Premier explains, “It wasn’t too serious, but we were trying to do our thing. Stylee T was a really unique dude. I swear to God, before I ever saw Flavor Flav with Public Enemy, Stylee was exactly like him. He dressed and danced crazy and he was just so original.” The group never put out anything on wax, although they had a name around the area, in part because of Premier’s rep as a DJ.
In 1985, Premier decided to give the home of hip-hop a try for real, so he left Texas and his studies at Prairie View A&M and headed to Brooklyn. He remembers, “I said: ‘I’m gonna try the music thing, and if it don’t work out then I’ll just go back to school.’ Top Ski moved to New York when I did, so we gave it a shot as a team. When I got there, I lived in East New York [Brooklyn], with a family named the Franklins. They took me in like I was their own son, but they also wasn’t gonna let me stay for free. I had to work. That summer I worked at a young peoples’ camp in Prospect Park to earn my keep. It was definitely a new thing to be there in New York coming from Texas, but I had been there many times before, and was already used to it by then. I met a lot of the friends that I still hang with today during that time.”
The earliest seeds for the Gang Starr partnership were planted in the mid-to-late ‘80s during record label demo shopping that Premier had begun. He had worked on music even before he got to New York, but once he arrived, he picked up the pace with dreams of landing a deal. He says, “All my demos back then were getting turned away. I even had a meeting with [super-producer and head of the famed Juice Crew] Marley Marl back then, face to face, but it didn’t come to anything. The demo I gave him at the time wasn’t that tight, though, so it’s not surprising. It was my first one.” Years later, Premier would go on to work with Marley, on his Future Flavas radio show out of New York.
Preemo knew (and worked for) Carlos Garza, who promoted parties at Prairie View A&M and also owned a hip-hop record store in the Houston area called Sound Waves. Carlos bought plenty of New York hip-hop, of course, and knew Stu Fine at Wild Pitch Records, who had put out records like Chill Rob G’s “The Court Is Now In Session”; Latee’s “This Cut’s Got Flavor”; and Gang Starr Posse’s “Believe Dat!”.
Premier remembers, “Carlos got me to send an ICP demo of mine to Stu, and Guru [real name: Keith Elam] was working at Wild Pitch at the time, helping Stu with A&R stuff. Basically, everything that got to Stu went to Guru first. He’d tell Stu what was good, like Lord Finesse [a Wild Pitch artist who debuted in 1989]. At the time of that demo, which I recorded at a basement in East New York, I was still with Top Ski. It was just me and him back then, because Sugar Pop didn’t come to New York.”
He continues, “Basically, Guru and Stu liked my music, but they didn’t like Top’s vocals, the way that he sounded. I did another demo after that, and they still didn’t like Top. Top got really frustrated with the situation at the time, and he had an opportunity to go into the Navy, so he went for that. At first, I had told Wild Pitch that I wouldn’t sign without Top, but once he went into the Navy, that was a totally different situation.”
Originally from egotripland.com: DJ Premier Looks Back at Gang Starr's 'Step In The Arena' with Author Brian Coleman.