Twenty years ago, it looked as if Gang Starr was done for good.

Just about two years after dropping off their fourth album Hard to Earn, the legendary duo comprised of rapper Guru and producer DJ Premier was in dire straits. On Feb. 22, 1996, Guru was arrested for carrying a .380 caliber pistol into LaGuardia Airport. About a year later, he caught an assault case. Between those legal hurdles and a break-up that his group-mate Premier says stemmed from the Boston wordsmith's battle with alcoholism, it looked like the acclaimed East Coast clique was about to fold. Instead, they made amends, regrouped and came back stronger than ever with Moment of Truth, an album the pair released two decades ago, on March 31, 1998.

Birthed from Gang Starr's literal trials and tribulations, Moment of Truth saw the duo adopt a polished sound that matched the times without compromising the musical elements that made it great. It's boom-bap 2.0, and with features from K-Ci & JoJo, Inspectah Deck, Scarface, M.O.P., G-Dep and Hannibal Stax, the album was Gang Starr's most crowded. The project, which includes their hit single "You Know My Steez," became the group's first to earn gold certification and cemented the clique's status as one of hip-hop's historically great duos.

"We wanted to be considered like Public Enemy, EPMD, all their albums just kept coming out consistent, consistent, consistent," says Preemo, who called into XXL to discuss the 20th anniversary of Gang Starr's seminal fifth album. "So we were using them as a model. Eric B. and Rakim. From Paid in Full to Follow the Leader to Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em. Even if you stop with those three, they were consistent. So we stuck to the same thing and we did that."

Ahead of the album's 20th birthday, DJ Premier sat down with XXL to take a look back at the time surrounding the recording of Moment of Truth, including Guru's legal battles, their hot-and-cold friendship and the redemptive story behind the album's title track. Peep the backstory of a landmark hip-hop album (also commemorated via an exclusive Gang Starr merch line), in Preemo's own words below. —As told to Peter A. Berry

Noo Trybe Records / Virgin Records
Noo Trybe Records / Virgin Records

Guru always titled the Gang Starr albums. But once it came to Hard to Earn, he wanted me to title it. I did that one, and he said, “Hey man, it's your turn again. Name this one ’cause we're going through all this shit.” I said, “Moment of truth is really what we're facing, so I think that's an appropriate title.” He was like, “I love it. Let's roll with it.”

Guru was facing five years of prison for a number of things. He had three issues going on. The lawyers had already told him [that] if he loses, and we plan on putting this album out around that time, he's gonna be in prison while the album is out. So we were preparing to finish it in enough time to get it out so that if he did go to jail, the album could do what it needed to do to—not only take care of him financially, but once he came home we'd be able to tour. It would have already been out to the fans who were waiting for our next album.

We took a four-year break. All of our other albums were consecutive year after year: No More Mr. Nice Guy, Step in the Arena, Daily Operation, Hard to Earn. After Hard to Earn, a four-year gap is a lot of not having Gang Starr music, as far as an album is concerned. That's the reason why we wanted to make sure we got it done in enough time before Guru received his sentencing or was found not guilty. Thank goodness he was found not guilty.

We rented the courthouse in 1 Center Street in Manhattan for a couple of hours [to shoot the album artwork]. One of the most dope pictures to me is the one where he's sitting by himself in the jury section, like he's contemplating and he's there for himself. A lot was going on in his mind like, "Damn man, what if I lose?" That will always be memorable.

The trial affected the album's recording a lot because he had just gotten the gun charge for bringing the gun to the airport—he forgot he had it in his bag. So even that call from the “JFK 2 LAX” skit—that was a true story. And the song "Moment of Truth" is obviously the most real because he recorded the first verse back when I made the beat. The second verse, we had actually split up. We were going through some heated situations with each other with his alcoholism. My team, we're all family. We fight like everyone else.

I left the group and went back to producing outside of Gang Starr. His trial was coming up at about that same time. Our team was like, “Preme, come on, man. You and Guru are good for each other, why don't y'all talk it out?” I told him to ease off the drinking because I didn't wanna see him keep on destroying himself. So he curved it, and we were right back in the lab the next day.

Every trial date I was there, all the way to the verdict. He was down to his last two or three days before the jury wanted to close and start deliberating—that's when he recorded the second verse to “Moment of Truth.” You even hear it, he said he's really scared and he's really going through it. Lyrically, emotionally, the tone of his voice—everything. I love the emotions of that, because you can't make that shit up.

From all those fights, we still was rocking and rolling with the music. We go from, “Fuck you” to “Damn, that shit is dope.” That's how night-and-day we've always been. Even though we had fist fights—busted lips, cuts and scars—it never changed our approach to making good records. Our fights was usually in the house, around our team or even going to a show. Once we got off stage, it was like, “Yo, I love you, man.” We'd hug and roll one up and we were good.

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