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THROWBACK: Gangstarr’s Iconic Record Hard To Earn
In a period where Hip-Hop culture was thriving, with genre defining classics being born by the second, it was a challenge to be distinctive or form any sense of notoriety in your craft. Iconic records such as Illmatic, The Infamous and Life After Death were the standard - a critical standard that was hard to pacify.
Although it is said that a musician’s greatest work is typically crafted at the early stages of their course, Gangstarr defies this ideal by producing one of the most significant and timeless rap records of all time, four albums into their career. Featuring Hip-Hop OGs Group Home, Jeru the Damaja and Big Shug, Hard to Earn is gospel- a raw look into street life in New York City and an inspiring story told through infectious rhymes and delectably jazzy beats. Though the record recites a feast of strictly personal stories, scratching beneath the surface reveals commentary on gun control in the USA, pseudo-rap and the competitive intensity of gang warfare. “Mass Appeal” and “Mostly Tha Voice” are framed like a classic one-sided rap battle, meanwhile tracks such as “Tons O Guns” discuss the frightening corruption and gang violence in New York- a pressing social issue in the early 1990s. And regardless of the fact that critics noted that this record was a little more ‘dry’ and ‘minimalistic’ compared to their previous work, the album was made with a focus on poetic content, and not intended to be commercially relevant. This album put DJ Premier at the forefront of the rap production game, simultaneously creating hype around Guru’s impeccable MC skills.
In some way, Hard to Earn is a depressing record to revisit. Guru’s battle with cancer and eventual premature death in 2010 meant he not only was not only unable to see the 20th anniversary of this iconic record, but also he was not able to reconcile with DJ Premier after their dramatic falling out back in ’05. The record also marks a period for Hip-Hop that will never return, a time when “(selling your soul) for mass appeal” was not key. For now, living vicariously through this piece of history will have to do.