“I got tenacity, because I have to be
The brother who must live and give with much insight
Foresight to ignite, excite and delight
And you might gain from it, or feel pain from it
Because I’m ultimate, and I’m about to let off
Knowledge, wisdom, understanding
Truth’s the proof, so won’t you throw a hand
In the air, put up a peace sign and be fine
If so we’re feeling good we should we could we would
Stop… think for a moment – OK?”
If there’s a forgotten record in the Gang Starr catalogue it’s definitely “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” In fact going back to my own childhood the first exposure I had to Gang Starr was seeing a VHS tape of the “Just to Get a Rep” video and subsequently tracking down a copy of “Step in the Arena” at the local record store. Imagine my disappointment that the album version of “Just to Get a Rep” was a full minute shorter than the one from the video – but I digress. The point was I didn’t even discover that Gang Starr had another album for at least a few months or more. It wasn’t like you could get online and Google their name in the early 1990’s (that search engine didn’t even exist until the LATE 90’s). I eventually stumbled across a video for the “Manifest (Remix)” that I realized there was more of DJ Premier and Guru than I was aware of. This time I mailed a check and an order form to Upstairs Records. It really was a different era. In the pre-Amazon and pre-iTunes era this is how we all acquired new music.
I was a little bit perplexed by “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” especially after the extra effort I went to in researching the fact they had an album I had never seen in record stores and placing a mail order just to acquire it. Sure the “Manifest (Remix)” was on there, along with a less jazzy and slightly shorter version, and it was pretty fresh to have two different takes on a song I already liked (neither one is bad). The album had a very strange feel though, one which I can only describe to you as “proto-Gang Starr,” as though the group was not yet fully formed and I was somehow listening to a demo as opposed to a real album. I know that seems harsh but bear in mind that I didn’t know the group’s history before DJ Premier, back when Keith Elam went by the awkward moniker “Keithy E. The Guru” and the Boston-based crew was dropping twelve inch singles on the East Coast. I wasn’t there to see the evolution, so what I experienced on “Nice Guy” was a DEVOLUTION. Primo was new to Guru and vice versa at this point, and while they were getting to know each other back in the late 1980’s, Keithy E. was still working with producers like Mark the 45 King. There’s nothing wrong with the song “Gusto,” but you can clearly tell it’s not that signature Gang Starr sound.
Even though Premier produces the majority of “No More Mr. Nice Guy” it’s clear he hadn’t gotten down that signature sound either. Songs like “Conscience Be Free” tease it, offer a tantalizing taste of it, but don’t quite fully achieve it. It’s not just Primo though. Guru hasn’t quite achieved his signature vocal delivery as the frontman of the duo, and he sounds incredibly young in his pitch (ain’t that wild). He lacks the swagger of his years dropping gems, the sophistication of his more philosophical musings about life’s ups and downs, and the writing style that showcased his intellect. There’s just something overly simplistic to his writing here that comes across with stilted and awkward attempts to rhyme lines like “We can create our own fate, great, let’s get into it now / Ain’t nothing to it now but to do it now.” It’s somewhat painful to hear Guru rap like this.
Let me be perfectly clear here that it’s not a “bad song” per se. The EPMD scratch is a nice touch, the verses aren’t straight up awful, and the delivery of those verses wouldn’t get the two of them bumrushed and thrown off a stage performing it live. I can also tell you that I saw Gang Starr perform live before Guru’s untimely demise, and he and Primo weren’t busting out tracks from “No More Mr. Nice Guy” to surprise the fans – nor were they clamoring for such a surprise either. The real reason “No More Mr. Nice Guy” became a forgotten record is because of their own realization that the “Manifest (Remix)” pointed the way to the group’s future and left the rest of their records in the dust. The irony is that the group’s hip-hop sound became tied to and identified by their heavy use of jazz loops and samples, yet there’s a song on “No More Mr. Nice Guy” called “Jazz Music” that lacks the funk and soul of “Jazz Thing” – which they would compose just a year later for Spike Lee’s soundtrack to “Mo’ Better Blues.” The topic matter of both songs is the same, but Guru’s flow and lyrical construction grew so much over a year’s span the two songs might as well be day and night. “Jazz Music” sounds slow, plodding and sluggish in comparison.
All of the elements of what ultimately led to Gang Starr being one of the most powerful and prominent hip-hop acts of the 1990’s were there on “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” but those elements just didn’t achieve their potential. There wasn’t enough time in ’89 for either Primo or Guru to figure out just how much talent the other had, and the whole thing feels like skipping courtship and going straight to marriage without getting to know your partner first. There are hints, oh yes there are hints, that they’d make beautiful music together. Even the solo track “DJ Premier in Deep Concentration” hints at much more Primo had in store, and the “Positivity (Remix)” sounds like it could be a “Step in the Arena” single B-side. I probably appreciated this album more in my teenage years because of the effort that went into getting it, but even today when I go through my Gang Starr catalogue it just doesn’t get that much play. It’s essential if you want to know their whole story, but if you only owned their albums from the 1990’s you wouldn’t be missing out on a whole lot here – just a few gems and a lot of material that needed more polish to become them.