Paragraphs, portraying my viewpoint
So stay attentive, cause this is a new joint
From the G-A-N-G with the info
Lyrical elements emerge from the intro
Forming a poetic mass over pathetic trash
Other writers are outclassed
Surpassed by the words and the wit
Rhymes fit and hit ’cause that’s how we designed it
(“As I Read My S-A”)
This past weekend marked the 26th anniversary of Step In The Arena, the stellar sophomore studio album from iconic NYC-based hip hop duo Gang Starr (consisting of DJ Premier and the late, great Guru) and their first of three album releases on Chrysalis Records. With Premo’s uniquely jazzy and funky sample-driven beats and Guru’s signature monotone voice and flow kicking thoughtful and intelligent lyrics, the formula for the classic Gang Starr sound (and the sound of NYC hip hop at large, despite the fact that Premier and Guru originally hailed from Houston and Boston, respectively) was merely hinted at on the duo’s 1989 debut album No More Mr. Nice Guy, but it was presented more skillfully and noticeably on here and would just keep improving, growing warmer and hitting harder as the years went on.
Several of Guru and Premier’s finest moments on wax can be found on here; in addition to the singles (the cautionary tale “Just To Get A Rep”, the smooth but bitter love story told on “Lovesick”, the hypnotic and uplifting social commentary on “Who’s Gonna Take The Weight?”, Guru’s unique battle rhymes on the bouncy title track and its B-side “Check The Technique”, respectively), some of my other favorite joints on here are the verbally dense and intellectually stimulating “Beyond Comprehension”, the lyrical assassination detailed on the brilliant “Execution Of A Chump (No More Mr. Nice Guy Pt. 2)” and “Take A Rest”, “What You Want This Time?” (an amusing message for the ladies), Guru’s philosophical vision on the infectious short tracks “Street Ministry” and “Say Your Prayers”, his taking wack emcees back to school on “As I Read My S-A” and his breaking down of what Gang Starr represents on the album closer “The Meaning Of The Name”.
Every Gang Starr release is essential for any hip hop head, and Step In The Arena is certainly no exception; to be honest, I used to sleep on it so hard but it has truly grown on me over the years with repeated listens. It blows my mind to hear how ahead of his time that Guru truly was as a lyricist even back then and also to see how incredibly far Premier has improved and endured as one of hip hop’s top producers for the past 25-plus years (and counting!).
This joint is far from being my favorite Gang Starr release, but let it be known that each and every inferior emcee that decides to step in the arena with Step In The Arena is sure to get knocked the fuck out.
R.I.P. Keith Edward “Guru” Elam (1961-2010)