On March 8, 1994, DJ Premier and Guru, or Gang Starr, released their fourth studio album, Hard To Earn. Hard To Earn was produced entirely by DJ Premier, cementing his status as one of Hip Hop’s main influencers. Similar to his work on KRS-One’s Return of the Boom Bap, Premier stuck to his formula of unique melody samples and his signature hard-hitting drum sequences.
The most recognizable track from the project is undoubtedly “Mass Appeal”. Meant as a gag about what commercial rap had become, the song became quintessential 90’s rap listening:
This song serves as a pretty good introduction to the lead MC’s delivery. A close listen will show Guru’s carefree flow and how he breaks ideas down over a span of a few lines to keep the rhyme. He even references his “monotone style”. Even in 1994, Guru and Premier could see how the blueprint for rap was changing and shame sell-outs for 36 headnotic bars.
It’s important to note here that the name “Gang Starr” is only a play on words, as the group does not promote violence. Guru spends many of his bars warning listeners about the perils of street life:
They might say we’re a menace to society
But at the same time I say “Why is it me?”
Am I the target, for destruction?
What about the system, and total corruption?
– Guru on “Code of the Streets”
“Aiiight Chill…” was a cool posse cut that featured a young Nas just before the release of his solo debut, Illmatic. “Now You’re Mine” made it onto White Men Can’t Jump’s second soundtrack, but it was the upbeat “DWYCK” that might’ve been the albums biggest single. Anchored by a feature from another rap duo, Nice and Smooth, the song was a banger.
The album earned excellent reviews from AllMusic, Rolling Stone, and The Source. “Code of the Streets” made it into the film Freedom Writers. ABC can be heard spinning Gang Starr instrumentals from this album over highlights during their NBA broadcasts. ESPN’s Jalen and Jacoby play select Gang Starr instrumentals during their radio show/podcast. The Boondocks even slipped a line from “DWYCK” into an episode. Premiere’s hard beats and Guru’s smooth rhymes have left an indelible mark on the rap game, and no project of theirs is more representative of that than Hard To Earn.