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Ed Note: The following is an essay remembering Gang Starr’s classic album Hard To Earn, which celebrates its 20th anniversary tomorrow, March 8.
In the spring of 1994, Gang Starr’s booming system classic Hard To Earn was my favorite album. I played the first single, “Mass Appeal,” while throwing on my clubbing gear, I jammed the spooky “Code Of The Streets” while puffing blunts and blared the ghetto afro-futuristic “Tonz Of Gunz” through my walkman as I sat on the D train headed towards Brooklyn to hang with my crew at Frank’s. Coming out at a time when folks still called them streets Crooklyn, the seminal Hard To Earn represented those BK blocks when crack was still en vogue, Myrtle Avenue was known as Murder Avenue and dead bodies were occasionally found in Fort Greene Park.
Consisting of the late rapper Guru and producer/turntablist DJ Premier, the dynamic duo provided one of the most intense shattered glass soundtracks of the season. “Kids pullin’ triggers, niggas killin’ niggas, five-o sit and wait and tally death toll figures,” Guru proclaimed on “Tonz Of Gunz.” With lyrics that could be as piercing as hollow-point bullets, he was both streetwise and literary. Although both Gang Starr members were out-of-towners—Guru hailed from Boston, Primo was outta Texas—they quickly shed their hick skins and submerged deeply into the murky waters of New York City hip-hop culture, and Hard To Earn was their brilliant manifesto of those times.
A week before Hard To Earn would celebrate its 20th anniversary, director Spike Lee spoke out on the ills of gentrification that have turned the streets of his native Brooklyn into, to quote the man himself, “the motherfuckin’ Westminster Dog Show,” where shaggy bearded hipsters and rail-thin girls sip their lattes in front of gleaming boutiques that were once grimy bodegas. Although brother Lee left those streets behind many years ago, he remembered a time when Brooklyn could be a simultaneously wild and inspiring landscape for young Black artists. Rock stars (Lenny Kravitz, Vernon Reid), writers (Carl Hancock Rux, Lisa Jones) and jazz musicians (Branford Marsalis, Steve Coleman) all populated the borough at one time as they climbed the ladder of success.
Yet there was also another element many of us old schoolers remember much too well from back then, a more dangerous component we often confronted on those sketchy streets. Too broke to be boheme, they still had big American dreams of “clocking dollars” and succeeding in the crazy world by any means. There were the Polo-clad Lo-Life street gangs, crack-slinging shorties, hoodie-wearing bad boys and posses strapped with gats. Dressed to kill, or perhaps just hurt, these were the boys that populated the night as they bought chicken wings at local Chinese joints, chilled on their stoops gulping 40s and hollered at the girls that switched pass them.
Some of them dudes came from broken homes and were already been behind bars before the age of 21. Others might’ve done well in school, but still weren’t sure how to input the master plan of escaping the harsh hustle of the hood. Meanwhile, in the back of a pissy housing project staircase, a posse banged out beats on concrete walls as their homeboys freestyled about their world in peril inside the projects.
It was that gritty world, as well as the diverse characters that populated it, that Gang Starr documented, both lyrically and sonically, with their eerie music. By 1994, having already released three studio albums, it was Hard To Earn that put them on the forefront of the then-emerging boom-bap movement in the mid-1990s. Primo was already one of the chief dirty boom-bap architects, contributing to KRS-One’s dope Return Of The Boom Bap, lacing the wondrousness of Jeru Da Damaja’s debut “Come Clean” and working on Nas’ instant classic Illmatic. By the time of Hard To Earn, he was more than ready to take things to the next level.