B. Cox reviews hip-hop duo Gang Starr's fifth album Moment of Truth as it turns 25. After a four year hiatus from their acclaimed 4th album 1994's Hard To Earn, Guruand DJ Premierreturned to to the lab to craft their latest album among a changing landscape. Hip-hop, once thought to be a fringe fad when they debuted and when they first left, was now starting to explode commercially and was being sought after beyond the urban communities and into corporate America. In between albums, the two had their share of work and turmoil. Guru recorded another installment of his famed Jazzmatazzseries and also faced two different pending legal charges and battled some personal demons, while Premier became a recognized as one of the top producers in the game by producing for multiple acts during the break, but suffered some losses of loved ones during this time as well.
The break and the adversity both men during it faced fueled their latest effort; crafting a well balanced and rounded out piece that reflected everything which made Gang Starr one of the best groups of their time. Guru's lyrics and emceeing rose to yet another level with his wisdom and experiences of the past few years driving his narrative to sights not seen before with Premier's beats meeting his mate's effort to a cinematic, with a Premier-type grit that served the soundtrack well. They were joined by a wide variety of featured guests such Inspectah Deck, M.O.P, Scarface, Freddie Fox, Big Shug, Shiggy Sha, a young G-Dep and singers K-Ci and JoJo. The combination led to arguably the group's most candid and complete work to date.
The album featured three singles: "You Know My Steez" "Royalty" and "The Militia". Despite with no major charting singles, the album was certified gold and stands as a contender for the crown jewel of the legendary duo's catalog.
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Welcome to The Vault Podcast: Classic Music Reviews. Presented by IV Creative. Now here's your host B Cox and the crew
Greetings and welcome, ladies and gentlemen to another edition of The Vault Podcast: Classic Music Reviews, presented by IV Creative. It's a perspective of the classics from a fresh point of view. We appreciate you for taking your time and lending your ears to our perspective. You could be anywhere listening to anything but you're right here with us, so we thank you. With you today is yours truly B. Cox and we want to thank all the fans out there stateside and worldwide once again for continuing to support the show
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As we always say here on The Vault, our motto is "#OpenTheVault, #Nothingbuttheclassics or #NBTC" And today, we're going to go back 25 years ago., We're going to go to the fifth album by none other than hip hop duo Gang Starr (DJ Premier and Guru) Moment of Truth; released on March 31st 1998 on New Tribe and Virgin Records recorded between May 1997 and January 1998 at the famous and legendary D&D studios in New York City with the run time of 78 minutes and 37 seconds. A very ambitious album at 20 tracks.
The producers on this, of course, DJ Premier and Guru. Premier produced the majority of these tracks, but there were two tracks on here that were sole produced by Guru, in which he received primary producing credit and that was "She knows what she wants" and "Make Them Pay"
And also, the guest spots on here none other than Inspectah Deck, Hannibal Stax, M.O.P, Big Shug Freddie Foxx, CrumbSnatcha, G Dep, Shiggy Sha, Scarface and K-Ci and JoJo. So quite the guest list on here for featured artists on Moment of Truth. The singles on Moment of Truth The first one: "You know My Steez" released originally in November of 1997. The second one actually isn't listed here what I'm looking at, but I know it was "Royalty" featuring K-Ci and JoJo which was released in 1998 And then "The Militia" released in July 28th 1998 The third single from Moment of Truth by Gang Starr.
So, just to go into a little bit about this album Moment of Truth Now: this was the fifth album by Premier and Guru. Their album previous to this was their 1994 fourth album Hard To Earn. This arrived after a four-year hiatus and after Hard To Earn and in between this time, Guru took the time to complete another Jazzmatazz album and Premier ,at that point, began to make his mark as an elite producer by crafting beats and producing tracks for the likes of many different artists such as Nas, Notorious B.I.G, Jay Z, the Crooklyn Dodger, M.O.P, Group Home and many, many more.
Now, the album arrived at a time in 1998 where the hip hop scene was definitely in a drastically different place than the time went Hard To Earn Landed in 1994 At this point in time the industry had become so much more commercialized It was at a point when they first dropped their debut album in 1989 with no more Mr nice guy that hip hop was still being seen in the media and many other circles is still just a fad and it was still even catching on in 1994 even though it made plenty of headway from that time when they dropped their debut.
Well, by the time that 1998 swung around, you see the corporate brands and America starting to buy into this idea of what hip hop was. That it had staying power and it had energy that it could bring to brands. So, you would see them starting to create ad campaigns and products that were boosted by hip-hop stars. You saw it with sodas and fast food chains. Everybody remembers all the different ones McDonald's and also Sprite featuring hip hop themes and also hip hop stars. And we see where we are now with that in 2023.
That was always counter to what Premier and Guru stood for. They were always the torch bearers of the underground and they stayed true to that from the very beginning all the way through until the end when Guru departed this earth and as a group that was always their calling card. After that hiatus In between '94 and '98, they found themselves in the genre that they loved kind of at a crossroads.
So the album title Moment of Truth I would think has a double meaning to it. 1) The duo and hip hop was at a crossroads as to where the soul of the music would go and this, meaning the album and the year of 1998, would be the "Moment of Truth" to see where it went. And then the second meaning, I would say would have to be that in their hiatus there had been a lot of turmoil within the group. Now family members have passed away during this time as well Guru had a couple of legal problems related to some assault and gun charges .There were a couple of different charges that happened in between that time. So there was some uncertainty regarding whether or not Guru would be facing jail time or not Guru according to Primo during this time as well also began drinking a little heavily and there would be times where his behavior would be a little erratic and there will also be a lot of times where he would call Primo and leave him voicemails and voice messages cursing him out.
And it got to the point where Primo says in his interview that he grew tired of it And for a very short period of time he actually took an hiatus away from Guru and the group before they reconciled and they started recording this album. There's a really good story about the recording of this album. As a matter of fact, I'm going to post this in our show notes an article on Ambrosia for Heads for the 20th anniversary of Moment of Truth where Premier lays down a lot of storylines that are really cool in regards to the making of this album So I wanna make sure that we give that the highlight that it definitely deserves Because this album I would say even Premier himself said it: it's probably Gang Starr's most important album to him. And that's saying something regarding their catalog. If you look at their catalog in depth. So an album that has a story and when you listen to the music, it definitely tells a story there.
Largely, the album Moment of Truth and the title was all about a crossroads; Something that could be boiled down to two questions: What are you gonna do and Where do we go from here? That is the Moment of Truth.
First Thoughts and Reflections.
So my first reaction to Moment of Truth: When I first heard it and I actually copped this album when it came out in 1998 because I was really really hyped about the two singles that I heard that being "You Know My Steez" and also "Royalty" featuring K-Ci and JoJo. Now, "You Know My Steez" actually was a track that I went out and got that single and I used to use that instrumental to record downstairs in my basement with this tape deck that I had a set up that my dad had downstairs in the basement. I used to record myself rapping over that instrumental Like I love that instrumental. I love the song itself and then when he dropped I was just like alright well this is a Gang Starr.
But then also K-Ci and Jo Jo and I think a lot of people back then would probably look back and say oh man this is probably Gang Starr's attempt to probably commercialize and sell out. But the way that the song was done it was done so brilliantly that it was just like it was vintage Gang Starr and K-Ci and JoJo just complimented the track so well to me to me that royalty to me in the back half of Gangs Star's catalog is one of my favorite tracks by them. And I love the way that they did it and it didn't seem corny, it didn't seem forced and it didn't seem commercialized.
And that beat for "Royalty", my gosh. I mean, the breakdown at the end of that song really really works, but I welcome the combination and the return of Guru and Premier this to me were a Moment of Truth when we listened to it and when I listened to the album in full was a reminder of why I and why fans fell in love with them in the first place I mean it was vintage Gang Starr, but there was something a little bit different when you heard this album as opposed to any of the previous four. Guru's bars on this album seemed to hit even a little bit harder which is really saying something because Guru is I would say a premiere wordsmith. And while he's not spectacular as an MC as far as his delivery goes, that delivery is so unique but those bars seem to hit even harder. The jewels seem even more profound than they did before. But, the stories that he told to me was the best progress from the last album.
If it was even possible, it seemed like to me on Moment of Truth that he went to a new level lyrically. And I would have to say, sometimes you could look and say that his experiences from those arrests and all of the problems he faced in between those two albums and that hiatus probably gave him some new perspective, which gave him the fuel to go to another level lyrically. And sometimes we see with emcees when they go through turmoil, it even gives them the fuel creatively to be able to tell those stories of that turmoil they went through.
Not to be outdone, however, Primo's beat making to me went to a whole another level here as well. I mean, the grit and the grime as custom with Primo beats were always there as were the jazz elements. And you saw that on Daily Operation, which we did last year, you saw it on Hard To Earn and of course Step Into the Arena. But, to me, so many of these beats seem cinematic and I felt at times when I was listening to Guru spit over some of these Premier beats, I felt like I was watching a movie. That to me, is what made a huge difference in regards to listening to to this versus any of theprevious Gang Starr albums.
And this is a complex album. It is a mix of skill braggadocio, staying true to the underground, storytelling and concepts; everything all mixed together all in one and you can see all the guests that are on here complimented this so well. I mentioned, you know of course, the Inspectah Deck. We'll get into that in a second when it comes to Above the Clouds. We talked about K-Ci and JoJo, but even seeing the performances on here from the likes of Hannibal Stax and M.O.P Big Shug and Freddie Foxx on "The Militia" and then hearing the likes of a early G-Dep, Shiggy She and then to round it out with someone like Scarface on Betrayal.
It almost seems like everybody who was a part of this album knew that Primo and Guru were taking it to the next level and they sort of sense the urgency to step the game up. Sometimes when you have albums like this and an album where there are 20 tracks there are no skits; the skits and everything that happened happens in between here are all things that are part of tracks. There are no skit tracks on here. When you have 20 tracks on here and you have that many guests Sometimes, the guests can drag down the quality of an album. But here, they did nothing but elevate the album up to the next level.
It's earned a certain place among albums for me among that complex landscape of 1998. As we stated rap definitely was at a crossroads during that time. You sort of had this dichotomy of 1998 as you could possibly say as well in 1997; where you had sort of one side which was sort of staying true to the underground nature of hip hop, boom bap, all of that then you had the other side which was more commercial which was starting to capitalize on this corporate interest in being able to get hip hop and your stars involved and brands and advertising and all that stuff/ So you had this complex landscape in 1998 and then Gang Starr fits in where only they can fit in. And that to me is what makes this album so unique. Because here they were; kind of battling amongst its landscape of two different philosophies ,if you would, but they did only what they can do and that's definitely to make good quality music and they took the music to a next level.
Highlights and Lowlights.
So my highlights on here for a Moment of Truth. Um There's so many of them as we stated almost 80 minutes of music 20 tracks on here all the songs produced by Premier and Guru
So I'll just go into just a few of them and let you know the reason why. I told you of course about with "You Know My Steez", love that song. That's what really got me into this. The third track on here "Work" is probably one of my top three tracks on here. It's one of the shortest ones on here, but that beat by Premier and Guru definitely flexing on there lyrically. "Royalty", I mentioned, of course, why I love that. Now I love "Royalty" and then the message by Premier at the end of "Royalty" talking about what gets on his nerves as far as like the hip hop game and people basically hustling backwards when it comes to sampling and scratching and also the credit to who goes to what and what they're doing in regards to that. Yeah definitely.
A top three highlight on here for me is "Above the Clouds" which is track number five. You want to talk about lyrical mastery on here by two guests? Guru definitely brought his A game on here, but when you get to the second verse with Deck - this to me was right near the point where I thought "OK, Deck is in his prime This was at the moment" coming off of that Wu-Tang "Forever" album and he's doing his thing on that album. This is at the time when I thought that if Deck was going to drop an album it would have been right there in that pocket after Forever and in between the new millennium. Because to me, I thought that was no better than right there during that time. "Above the Clouds" is a phenomenal track. I mean it's something that when you hear that beat with those harps and also that sample it's just incredible.
The stretch on here "JFK to LAX" "It's a setup" and "Moment of Truth" to me I would say is a prime example of art imitating life. Now, we talked a lot about Gurus troubles and legal troubles with the gun charges and assault charges. You can see with these tracks right here as he talks about, you know, there was a mention, of course, that he got knocked that he had a charge and then also talking about the whole thing about a setup and how about who you can trust and then talking about ending it up with that Moment of Truth and Moment of Truth to me as a track is one of my favorite title tracks on the hip hop album in the 90s. And I love that beat just one of those cinematic beats that we talked about that pretty much makes. And then Guru really kind of conveying his emotions as if he only can. Guru has a very, as you said, kind of very level voice sometimes even monotone. But that delivery is so unique It gives him a unique proposition he only gives it to you the way that he can and being able to explain the situation that he was in, I can't help but think that the things that he went through drove this title track of "Moment of Truth."
And you get the "B.I. and Friendship": another hard hitting beat by Premier. Guru out there pretty much again raising his level knowing that who he has coming on the track with him And then M.O.P during this time definitely in their pocket I kind of feel like that 96 to 2000-2001 era was M.O.P at their finest And you have M.O.P Danze and Fame out here just absolutely ripping the track up on a hard Premier beat right next to Guru. It just fit and it worked.
"The Militia" What else can you say? Probably if you talk to many Gang Starr fans that are fans of this album you ask them their favorite track, venture to say a lot of people will put this within their top three or four tracks. "The Militia" a great track. Shug G leading it off doing this thing, Guru kind of setting things up in the middle. But then .Freddie Foxx ending the track out just completely killing it.I mean, just going almost I wanna say Cappadonna "Winter Warz" at the end of it. Not quite to that extent, but definitely killing the track with that extended verse to a great song And "The Militia" is really one of the best tracks on here.
But then getting into the second half of the album some of the highlights on here. What I love is "She knows what She Wants" And Guru, to me, like I said has never really been the guy When you think about the one who makes tracks for the ladies, you think about a lot of other rappers during that time, But Guru, when he does make these tracks like "Ex-Girl to Next Girl" and a track like this gives you a track where you can talk things about the ladies that he's very unique at and one of the tracks that he produced, I love it.
Tracks like "New York Strait Talk" and "Make Them Pay" with Crumbsnatcha just to me almost like vintage Gang Starr, underground, grimy-type stuff. But then in "The Mall" "The Mall", to me, is such an underrated track on here and being able to hear an early G-Dep and Shiggy Sha, to me, I would say one of the most well-rounded lyrical performances on here. With the guests, I mean, you have great performances on "The Militia" with "Above the Clouds", but because it was so unexpected because these were two names that I did not know listening the first time around and listening and hearing to that track "The Mall" was, with that beat, Incredible.
When you get into "Betrayal" by Scarface: Talk about an unexpected pairing. At that time, it seemed unexpected. But now knowing what you know knowing that Primo is from Houston and that he wanted to do work with Scarface and seeing really the the contrast in style between Guru with Scarface talking about betrayal on one of my favorite tracks on here as well. And I'm glad that time did not pass where we had a Gang Starr album that did not feature Scarface and that we got to experience that before time ended.
And then the album closes out great with "Next Time" And "In Memory Of"; great track there, man. There are no low lights on here. I didn't mention every track on here but tracks like the "The Rep Grows Bigger" and "What I'm here for" And "My advice to you" are all songs that are songs that hold their own weight with this album. "Robbin Hood Theory", as well. There are no low lights on here. There's not even something that I can really nitpick on this Gang Starr album. I mean, to me, for an album that's almost 80 minutes long to sit there and think about "Oh ok. Yeah. Well, this track was a little too long. I didn't like this or was boring or this seemed out of place." No. It was like; if you wanted to take four years off from an album after coming out with an album in '94 with Hard To Earn coming out with this, it's like you saw the time, the care, the crafting of this album to make it what it was. That's how you follow it up. If you're gonna take a hiatus and how you come back: Not a low light on here from me. All definitely highlights from Guru to Premier to all the guest spots on here. Gotta love it.
Announcer: Notable Quotables
So my notable quotable all boils down to one song and I wanted to go with a verse during "Moment of Truth". I wanted to go with a verse on "Work". I wanted to even go with the verse on "Betrayal", either Guru or Scarface. But when I talk about my notable quotable it has to be "Above the Clouds"
And I couldn't just pick one verse, right? Because I feel like if I pick one verse like if I pick Deck's verse I'm ignoring the greatness of Guru's verse And I have to go ahead and I included both of these on there. So my notable quotables: "Above the Clouds" starting with Guru's first verse where he says:
(B.Cox spits Guru's first verse from "Above The Clouds")
Like what? (laughs). That's that's crazy right? That verse right there by Guru is absolutely crazy. Which is saying something, because Guru has a laundry list of verses that are absolutely insane. This is right up there. But then you follow that up with Deck and Deck does what Deck does
(B.Cox spits Inspectah Deck's verse from "Above The clouds")
(laughs) What? This track is just ridiculous, man. You can't get a lot better than two verses right there by Guru and Deck.Absolutely crazy. And the story about this when Primo said that he wanted to work with a member of the Wu what he says is that during that time he knew that he wanted to feature a Wu Tang member So he wanted to either Rae or Ghost. So he went to Rza, Primo did, and said, like, "Yo, this is what's happening ."He's like "Yo it's like that is the most slept on underground MC. He's deadly when it comes to the verbals". And so they reached out to Rza and Rza pretty much was overseeing everything and he said all right cool. Yeah, we can have Deck on that. So they handled it.
And then they said that when Deck spoke to Gang Starr on a three way call before recording "Above the Clouds" that Guru told Deck that the song was simply about "your mental". And then hours later, when they went to D&D, he and Guru wrote their verses side by side So they start stopping pretty much almost simultaneously going through and just writing their verses down. In the meanwhile, Primo was working on the beat and you know the rest is history. It's crazy. So "Above the Clouds" just an absolutely bananas track, man. You gotta love it.
So, my final verdict on the Moment of Truth and listen, this is an incredible album to me. It is I would say right up there were Hard to Earn with my favorite Gang Starr album. So I will say that this is a Certified Classic and I say that because the quality of the album, the fact that they took four years off in between then; the rhymes, the production, the guest spots: there's nothing here that you can deduct points for. I mean. that's just me.
I know there are some hardcore Gang Starr fans out there. Some of them were like "Oh, Daily Operation is my favorite." "Oh well, Hard To Earn is my favorite" "Oh well, Step in the Arena is my favorite" "The Owners or One of the best yet". Whatever. Lots of folks will say "oh well, this is probably not their best album". I don't necessarily think that it's their best album. I think Hard To Earn may be their best album, but this is a close second, if there is a close second. And I do think that both of those albums are classics.
You cannot deduct any points on the card for this album and the fact that it stood in such a landscape where there was such a dichotomy in the game that they stayed true to themselves once again. And they did different things. I mean, featuring M.O.P featuring Inspectah Deck, K-Ci and JoJo, and the likes of Scarface on here. Something that they didn't do very often as far as when it came to collaborations with folks of that nature on a Gang Starr album. But being able to do that and then knowing that it still was a critical and vintage Gang Starr album, nonetheless. Like Guru said on the first track: When they do things, they do it so that they make sure that they elevate. They elevate whatever it is that they're doing and that what Moment of Truth was to me it was the fact that they took their music and making it appropriate for the time while still staying true to themselves.
So that's what I'm gonna say: Certified Classic for a Gang Starr's Moment of Truth. Make sure y'all go check it out, turning 25 years old. Go check it out, go listen to it, and of course, we want to hear from you.
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