OPINION: The fifth studio album from the legendary duo of Guru and DJ Premier is full of songs that demonstrated how on top of the game Gang Starr was in 1998.
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
My freshman year at Morehouse College in 1997-98 was transformative. Obviously, being in college and away from home (and on my own) for the first time taught me a lot about who I was as a person and just how responsible I could be, but I also feel like my hip-hop headness was supercharged through the folks I met. I went to high school in Madison, Ala., and that means that a lot of my musical tastes were shaped by my peers. Southern rap was definitely prevalent, but the West Coast was also killing the game. I had a few acts from New York that I liked; Pete Rock & CL Smooth literally had me from the first time I ever heard “Reminisce (T.R.O.Y.)” and De La Soul’s sophomore album “De La Soul is Dead” has been my favorite hip-hop album since its release in 1991. But largely, I stuck to the rivers and the lakes that I was used to — until I got to college and my core group of friends included some northerners and definite East Coast rap enthusiasts.
I watched “Rap City” so I knew all of the artists and their singles but I wasn’t spending my money on those records and reading liner notes and whatnot. I just wasn’t invested. It’s almost a confession to say that I didn’t even love A Tribe Called Quest until I got to college, and right now, they’re absolutely my second favorite (if not favorite) hip-hop group. My boy Adrian, though, he was all in and he really introduced me to certain groups in a real, constant and thought-provoking way.
One of those groups was Gang Starr. I knew some of their songs like “Mass Appeal,” “DWYCK” and “Words I Manifest.” But Adrian really made me LISTEN to them. And DJ Premier, in particular. Guru, the rapper, was cool; his voice was so unique you couldn’t not listen but Premier was the gem to me. It was during my freshman year when I really started paying attention to producers not named DJ Quik or Dr. Dre and Premier quickly rose up the rankings of my favorites. He could do no wrong. So on March 31, 1998, when their fifth album, “Moment of Truth” was released, I was in line at Peppermint Music at West End Mall in Atlanta’s West End neighborhood spending my hard earned $19.98.
When I opened the wrapping and put the CD in my treasured college-budget level stereo in my dorm room — shoutout to White Hall 126 — I was in love. “You Know My Steez” was on the radio in Atlanta at the time and because of Adrian, I absolutely loved it. That song opens the album so my energy was already on 10. When I got to “Royalty” featuring K-Ci and JoJo from Jodeci, I was amped. But “Above The Clouds” featuring Inspectah Deck from the Wu-Tang Clan is the one where I was like, “WHAT AM I LISTENING TO? THIS IS THE MOST AMAZING THING I’VE EVER HEARD!” And that vibe continued with “Moment of Truth,” the title track which even today, in March 2023, is still one of my favorite beats of all time. But that feeling TRULY ran through my soul when I heard the song “Make ‘Em Pay” featuring Krumbsnatcha, which samples Five Special “You’re Something Special.” I cannot even explain how much I love that song AND the original song it samples. Every time we have a cookout at my house I always make sure my playlist includes both songs. They just matter to me.
And of course, when most folks think of “Moment of Truth,” the album, they think of the amazing song with Big Shug and Freddie Foxxx, “The Militia.” It’s as real a hip-hop record as you’re ever going to get. And that’s what I got with “Moment of Truth.” The whole album felt like that “real” sound I was looking for at the time: beats, rhymes and life. It’s an album that I still go back to 25 years later when I’m noodling around Spotify and trying to find an album to listen to and have decided that maybe I should give “Midnight Marauders” a rest. And I’m a little surprised that the album still sounds good to me. It definitely sounds and feels like a time capsule for 1998; at this point, Premier is an elder statesman in hip-hop and unfortunately, Guru — born Keith Elam, Morehouse College ‘83 — passed away in 2010 at age 48. But what Gang Starr did for hip-hop culture can never be forgotten; if anything, they’re probably underappreciated.
Whenever I feel like I need a reminder of what hip-hop sounded like at a time when I was truly coming into my own personhood with it as my north star, “Moment of Truth” is an album that I think of and pull up. Even twenty-five years later.
Panama Jackson is a columnist at theGrio. He writes very Black things and drinks very brown liquors, and is pretty fly for a light guy. His biggest accomplishment to date coincides with his Blackest accomplishment to date in that he received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey after she read one of his pieces (biggest), but he didn’t answer the phone because the caller ID said: “Unknown” (Blackest).
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