Gang Starr, Hard To Earn, 20th Anniversary, Sampling Retrospective (2014)

Ah 1994. The height of hip-hop’s second golden age. March 8, 2014 marked the 20th anniversary of a seminal Gang Starr release, Hard To Earn. While many critics wanted another Step In The Arena or Daily Operation, Guru came a bit edgier with the lyrical content and Premier took his producing formula to another level.

While we would hope to not draw the ire of the maestro, here’s the sampling blueprint for one of 1994’s timeless releases.

1. Intro (The First Step) (samples Weather Report’s ‘Scarlet Woman‘):

Guru’s time-honored classic angry rapper intro is aided by a simple Weather Report guitar swatch. Premier’s loop works well with Guru’s menacing admonitions.

2. ALONGWAYTOGO (samples Quincy Jones, ‘Snow Creatures,’ A Tribe Called Quest, ‘Check The Rhime,’ Richard Pryor, ‘Just Us‘, Melvin Bliss, ‘Synthetic Substitution‘)

Guru’s deadpan approach still speaks volumes 20 years later. For this opening salvo, Primo combines jarring keyboards from Quincy Jones‘ ‘Snow Creatures’ with the familiar drums of Melvin Bliss‘ ‘Synthetic Substitution’ (a pattern he revisits two more times on the album). The master touch is the lyrical punches from Tribe‘s ‘Check The Rhime.’ Throw in a tasteful spot-lift from Richard Pryor and the results are pure genius.

3. Code Of The Streets (samples Monk Higgins, ‘Little Green Apples‘, Melvin Bliss, ‘Synthetic Substitution’)

Premier keeps things simple here with drums from the aforementioned Melvin Bliss and the strings-and-xylophone combo from Monk Higgins‘ ‘Little Green Apples’. Elegantly simple yet masterful.

4. Brainstorm (samples Dave Maynard’s ‘Community Auditions Theme‘, Mikey Dread, ‘Comic Strip‘)

Premier goes digging on this track with the squealing high-pitch bed music from a Dave Maynard (WBZ Boston radio/television personality) broadcast coupled with a vocal sample from the intro to Mikey Dread‘s ‘Comic Strip’.

5. Tonz ‘o’ Gunz (samples Isaac Hayes’ ‘Breakthrough‘, Malcolm X’s ‘Fire & Fury Grass Roots Speech (Side One)‘, Gang Starr’s, ‘Just To Get A Rep’

6. The Planet (samples Taj Mahal’s ‘The Cuckoo‘, Steve Davis’ ‘It’s All Because She’s Gone‘, Divine Force, ‘Holy War (Live)‘, MC Lyte’s ‘Lyte As A Rock‘, Gang Starr’s ‘The Place Where We Dwell‘)

Primo’s compositions often work like concertos and The Planet, with its looped Taj Mahal intro, followed by a jangly guitar lifted from Steve Davis‘s It’s All Because She’s Gone, is a prime example. Throw in some of Premier’s patented vocal samples (MC Lyte, Divine Force) and you got another gem from this album.

7. Aiiight Chill… (samples Monty Alexander’s ‘Love and Happiness‘)

A memorable interlude track which features a quick lift of a dope Monty Alexander Al Green-interpretation (Beatnuts fans, you already know).

8. Speak Ya Clout (Weather Report’s ‘Cucumber Slumber‘, Banbarra’s ‘Shack Up‘, Quincy Jones’ ‘Up Against The Wall‘, Gang Starr’s ‘I’m The Man‘, Graham Central Station’s ‘The Jam‘, Caesar Frazier, ‘Funk It Up

Back to the concerto theme, this time with three dope beats for three very different MCs. This is masterclass beat-building at its finest. For the Jeru verse, Premier goes back to Weather Report, using the outro portion of Cucumber Slumber combined with an expert sequence of a well-known Banbarra drum break. Magic. He then transitions into a Quincy Jones horn loop for Lil’ Dap’s verse and finishes up with drums from Graham Central Station‘s The Jam and a bass guitar loop from Caesar Frazier‘s Funk It Up.

9. DWYCK (samples Clarence Wheeler and The Enforcers’ ‘Hey Jude‘, Melvin Bliss, ‘Synthetic Substitution‘, Nice & Smooth’s ‘No Bones In Ice Cream‘, Red Fox’s ‘Side One’).

Do What You Can Kid. Yeah, that sounds good but Guru explained the title was some juvenile “my dick” shit that Biz Markie/Greg Nice (h/t used to fuck around with. While this seems like one of the simpler beats in Premier’s catalogue, there’s a few elements here. The bass is derived from Clarence Wheeler and The Enforcers‘ Hey Jude with drums once again from Melvin Bliss’ Synthetic Substitution. Throw in vocal lifts from Nice & Smooth and Red Fox and you have a jam that’s been classic since it dropped in ’92.

10. Words from the Nutcracker (samples Grover Washington, Jr.’s ‘Lock It In The Pocket’, The Crusaders’ ‘Journey From Within, ‘Mountain’s Long Red‘)

Premier’s interludes are better than most producers’ full compositions. The guy uses three samples on a track that is less than 90 seconds, talk about detail-oriented. For the instrumental intro he uses Grover Washington, Jr.’s ‘Lock It In The Pocket’ then follows suit with a drum kick from Mountain and a Crusaders piano loop.

11. Mass Appeal, (samples Vic Juris’ ‘Horizon Drive‘, Da Youngsta’s’ ‘Pass Da Mic (Remix)‘, Big Daddy Kane’s ‘Raw‘, EPMD’s ‘You’re A Customer’)

One of the illest loops in the hip-hop canon taken from Vic Juris‘ smooth jazzy Horizon Drive. Throw in an obscure vocal sample from Da Youngsta’s and you got arguably the best cut on the album.

12. Blowin’ Up The Spot (samples Gang Starr’s ‘I’m The Man,’ George Clinton’s All Night (Full Mix), George Clinton’s “I Didn’t Come Rhythm”)

Preem digs into George Clinton’s sample discs for this one.*

*Shout to reader Marco for doing the knowledge on this.

13. Suckas Need Bodyguards (samples The Fatback Band’s ‘Put Your Love (In My Tender Care‘), Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock’s ‘It Takes Two‘)

Premier took a drum break from The Fatback Band and combined it with a vocal sample from Rob Base’s “It Takes Two.” Done and dusted? Not quite, we’re not sure about the piano loop, probably not a sample but if it is we trust heads will find it at some point.

14. Now You’re Mine (The Treacherous Three, ‘Feel The Heartbeat‘, Run-DMC, ‘Rock Box‘)

The horns and drums are still something of a mystery though we’ve seen Ahmad Jamal‘s Poinciana (Live) listed as a sample by Kevin Nottingham and others. After listening to two versions, there are some similar refrains but nothing conclusive. Primo does employ his patented hook scratch using both The Treacherous Three‘s Feel The Heartbeat and Run-DMC’s Rock Box.

15. Mostly Tha Voice (samples The Meters’ ‘Hey! Last Minute‘, James Brown’s ‘Give It Up or Turnit A Loose‘, Sister Nancy’s ‘Bam Bam‘, EPMD’s ‘You Gots to Chill‘)

One of Guru’s signature cuts informed by drum breaks from The Meters and James Brown. Throw in a tasteful vocal sample from EPMD and a syncopated horn loop (a technique Pete Rock also used in the early 90s) from Sister Nancy’s Bam Bam and you got a nice album track.

16. F.A.L.A. (samples Freedom’s ‘Get Up and Dance‘, Das EFX’s ‘Hard Like a Criminal‘)

Another as-yet undiscovered piano loop is the driving force behind this sleeper cut but Primo also adds to the composition with a whistle from Freedom‘s well-trodden ‘Get Up And Dance’ and a well-timed vocal sample from Das EFX.

17. Comin For Datazz (samples The Emotions’ Blind Alley, Run-DMC’s ‘Here We Go (Live at The Funhouse)’

Primo chops The Emotions‘ Blind Alley into stuttering shreds and scratches Run-DMC into the mix for a frenetic, punctuating close to the album.

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