Some albums cast such a large shadow over popular music that it's impossible to imagine a landscape without the indentation of their impact. Gang Starr's sophomore album Step In The Arena provided a blueprint for East Coast Hip-Hop that would reverberate throughout the remainder of the 1990s. It set the standard by which Gang Starr's legacy was forged; the first in a string of classic albums that would soon include 1992s Daily Operation, 1994s Hard to Earn and 1998s Moment Of Truth. And, perhaps most significantly, it revealed just how potent the musical kinship between rhymer Guru and producer DJ Premier would be.
The duo of Gang Starr had seen early success with their debut album No More Mr. Nice Guy, a modest hit for Wild Pitch Records in 1989. A year later, they'd also been featured on the soundtrack to Spike Lee's jazz melodrama Mo' Better Blues. But it wasn't until their second album, released after they'd engineered an exodus from Wild Pitch and just before the resurgence of East Coast hardcore Hip-Hop they initiated, that the world fully came to see the genius Premier and the Guru.
"Whenever I produce, I do it with a deejay mentality," Preemo told HipHopDX in 2011. "When I say a deejay mentality, we pay very close attention to everything that comes out on a record. We dissect it. And in the Hip-Hop format, when it comes to sampling, I’m always trying to find a way to be unique with my drum sounds, and the way I chop. Sometimes you just can’t get enough of the parts to make it whole. So that’s when you have to really brainstorm to force it. Sometimes I force things to work, and they just happen to come out. But that’s just me understanding the science of sampling and piecing together breaks. I loved those drum sounds and those claps in the Marlena Shaw record and I just said, 'Hey, I’m gonna chop it.' Thanks to Showbiz and Large Professor, I learned how to chop samples. They taught me early on before I even was doing it – I used to just do straight loops."
Premier's distinctive sound became the perfect sonic backdrop for Guru's deadpan delivery; his monotone distinctively complementing Preemo's jazzy boom-bap on indelible tracks like the title track, and the street classic "Just To Get A Rep." But their situation with Wild Pitch had to change for the group to move forward.
“We pretty much got a record deal on the strength of one song, ‘Jazz Thing,'" Preemo would say in 2001. "But the problem was that they was expecting us to do more records just like that one. As most people know, most of what we do in Gang Starr is straight, raw Hip-Hop. We had a good relationship with Chrysalis overall, but I think that what we were versus what they expected was why we didn’t get promoted as much as we could have.”
They'd had to leave Wild Pitch Records to find space to nurture their distinctive sound. Moving to Chrysalis from Wild Pitch liberated the duo, and even though ...Arena was Gang Starr's second LP, it felt like a fresh beginning for Preemo and Guru.
"We just needed more space to do our stuff. They had me kinda frustrated, as far as creativity," Guru would explain to Adisa Banjoko in 1991. "I did not want a mansion and a limo to take me everywhere. But I did want my own space to create more. I wanted to be able to not take the train and have people pointing at me. I did not want to have to go to a nine-to-five job. When we had two videos out, the “Positivity” video and “[Words I] Manifest,” I was still working. I was working with foster kids through New York City."
Effortlessly balancing dedications to the ethos of hardcore Hip-Hop ("Here Today, Gone Tomorrow") with romantic themes like "Love Sick," Guru announced himself as an emcee's emcee, no frills but ice cold in delivery and stance. Street wisdom and intelligence were cornerstones of his persona, highlighted on masterful cuts like "Beyond Comprehension."
“He can do thugged-out ghetto records and radio records, whatever you need," Preemo would say of his partner a decade after Step In The Arena made Gang Starr a household name. "And he always takes his subjects and relates them to what’s going on in the world today. He’s just so versatile with his subject matter. And that record [Step In The Arena] was the first time that I think both of us really got our chance to shine for the world.”
Guru's rhymes were serious; preaching knowledge of self and street awareness simultaneously on "Who's Gonna Take the Weight?"
Step In The Arena showed Gang Starr to be unpretentiously versatile; as political as Boogie Down Productions, as jazz-driven as the Native Tongues; as unapologetically purist as Eric B. & Rakim.
The stripped-down grooves of Step In The Arena pointed the way to post-Bomb Squad East Coast hardcore's sonic trademarks; from Da Beatminerz to Havoc of Mobb Deep, Preemo's beats here are a jumping off point for the rest of the 1990s.
“I’m still fascinated by how we made that record, how it sounds today," said Preemo in 2001. "My thing back then, just like it is now, was to make my music as a fan. I make stuff that I myself would want to buy. And that record fits the criteria. It fit perfectly into the era when it came out, and it didn’t follow any of the guidelines. That’s what will always make Step In The Arena a classic to me.”