When DJ Premier said “the real Hip-Hop,” he meant it. Guru was not just rapping words on their album Moment Of Truth, he was telling true stories. Premier discusses the meaning of their classic album, song by song.
On March 30, 1998, Gang Starr stepped forth with Moment Of Truth. Guru and DJ Premier had taken four years since giving the masses their seminal album, Hard To Earn, and Hip-Hop was at a pivotal place in history. "We had platinum-respect. You'd think we were platinum artists that sold millions, but we weren't even on that radar," admits DJ Premier 20 years after release. Gang Starr's fifth album helped change things.
The night before the album's 20th anniversary, Ambrosia For Heads joined Preemo in his Queens, New York HeadQCourterz Studio. There, the co-creator of Moment Of Truth shared some new information about a game-changing LP. As its title suggests, it was a crucial time for Gang Starr, both internally and within the ever-changing Hip-Hop climate. Guru and Preemo's bond was challenged (though few knew it at the time), but it refused to break. At a time when Guru was facing serious time, the judicial artwork was no accident. Moreover, two pillars of Hip-Hop opened up their cypher to outsiders and expanded their fiercely loyal family. As with any season of change, there were hurdles, hardships, and profound loss of loved ones. In the end Gang Starr achieved a gold-standard without compromising its underground royalty. They delivered a beloved, unifying, and honest body of work that rallied the supporters. Twenty years later, with a portrait of Guru over his shoulder on the boards, DJ Premier opens up about what was going on behind the scenes and shares several things that even diehard fans may never have otherwise known.
The Set-Up To Moment Of Truth & "Updating The Formulas":
"Every year we dropped an album, then we took a four-year-break [with] no album [after Hard To Earn]. I started doing more [outside] production, [Guru] did Jazzmatazz [Vol. II: The New Reality]. We got back together to do Moment Of Truth. That's always been our formula." Preemo also says that the (then) two volumes of Jazzmatazz allowed the group to step beyond its "Jazz Rap" label. The samples used for beats and the lyrical themes had evolved greatly from Gang Starr's early work. They had certain formulas, but they had been very clearly updated.
A New Group Home:
Moment Of Truth is the first Gang Starr album released at a point where Guru and DJ Premier did not live together. Between 1989's debut No More Mr. Nice Guy and 1994's Hard To Earn, the pair shared a residence. "That was not difficult," says DJ Premier of no longer sharing an address. The two men maintained their individual personal lives while using D&D [Studios] as a gathering place.
"[D&D Studios] was like a hangout. Everybody was there. We had the pool table; we used to shoot dice all the time, for thousands of dollars," Premier recalls. By the recording of Moment Of Truth, Gang Starr had been entrenched in the Midtown Manhattan fourth floor B Room for five years. It was their home away from home. Even outside of Gang Starr's recording cycles, it was commonplace to find Premier or Guru creating, relaxing, or napping on the dark green leather couch in the cramped lab. "Da Beatminerz were always there with Black Moon, Smif-n-Wessun, and Heltah Skeltah. One of them would always be in there; it was just a circular thing with us being in the same spot all of the time...Funkmaster Flex would come in at like two in the morning and start sessions." In the late 1990s, JAY-Z was still booking time at the weed-scented studio, with Philly blunts in its spindle vending machine. Founded by Douglas Grama and David Lotwin, DJ Premier would eventually purchase and renamed it HeadQCourterz, after Gang Starr's fallen affiliate. The D.I.T.C. crew and Tony Touch were also fixtures there. The building was sold, causing the studio to close in early 2015, when Preemo moved operations to Queens.
"It was a family thing. It was just normal to be at D&D [Studios all the time]. There were a lot of rappers that were scared to enter—known rappers that were scared to come there. I remember Heavy D, rest in peace; great brother—Heavy D was like, 'Yo, can we not work here when we [collaborate]?' 'Cause it was a heroin block. So there was heroin addicts everywhere [outside] just floating around, needles, crack vials, and no [street] lights. When you goin' down 37th Street with no lights in Hell's Kitchen area, it was grimy. That's when we all packed guns, back then. Those were the good ol' gun-days."
The Real-Life Moments Of Truth:
Those "gun-days" caused big problems for Gang Starr during Moment Of Truth. "[Guru] got another charge, aside from [the 1996 LaGuardia Airport] gun incident," Premier remembers. On February 22, 1996, the MC born Keith Elam made a grave mistake. "It was just a careless thing. He literally left the lab at probably six in the mornin' and had [a gun] in his briefcase. He had an early flight to catch, so he just went home to grab his suitcase and just run right back to the airport. So he's not thinking [about] cleaning up [his] bag. He's just tired [after] a late night," Premier recalls. "It wasn't like he planned to bring it. He just totally forgot from being so tired." While scanning his carry-on briefcase at the airport, Guru was stopped, arrested, and detained. He was charged with the felony act.
However, by the time trial began, Guru had amassed other charges. "He had another trial coming up that followed that one—and because of it, he was facing a five-year-bid. So he had to go to trial." Thirteen months after the airport incident—in March of 1997, Guru turned himself into New York police on felony charges of assault and criminal possession of a handgun, after a separate incident. Of the court proceedings, Preemo says, "His parents were there all the time, I was there."
Facing serious time and presumably under great stress, Guru was reportedly drinking alcohol more than usual, and lashing out when intoxicated. "Maybe a quarter of the way into the album, I left the group. We were having too much tension over his drinking and everything. I had been used to the drinking through our whole life together, but once it got to that year, it just got way out of control. I was just like, 'Yo, I'm out, man.' We were a quarter of the way into the album; we did one verse of 'Moment Of Truth,' but not the one where he said that he's scared that things might go bad and all that stuff." Speaking with Billboard last month, Preemo specifically describes coming home to a series of voicemails from his partner "cursing him out." The verbal abuse pushed him over the edge. Unbeknownst to fans, DJ Premier took a hiatus from Gang Starr. "Maybe just two weeks passed. The homie Gordon [Franklin] was like, 'Yo man, come on. Let it go.' And me and [Guru] talked and it was right back to 'I love you, brother, let's go hang out.' Guru liked to hang out. He is the king of hanging out," says Premier of Guru's happier times partying. Back in action, DJ Premier attended the whole trial. At the suggestion of Guru's attorney, the group also charged ahead with Moment Of Truth, realizing that the MC may not be in a position to promote it. "I was there 'til the very end, all the way to the not-guilty verdict." Guru was also later acquitted of the second firearms and assault charge.
The Meaning Of The Name:
"I [named the album]. 'Moment Of Truth' was right because of what's goin' on," recalls Preemo, who also named Hard To Earn. Guru had christened Gang Starr's first three releases. "If he [was found guilty], the moment of truth is gonna be that [verdict] in court. He was with it. Then, when it came to coming up with the album cover idea, I said, 'we should be in the courthouse where it matches what's really going on, win or lose.'"
Danny Hastings, photographer and designer of the Hard To Earn and Jeru The Damaja's The Sun Rises In The East covers, also designed M.O.T. "We stuck with [Danny], and he did a dope cover." Preemo' adds that one of his favorite images of his partner is the insert of Guru alone in the juror's box with a pensive expression. "When it came to albums, make a list of all the titles of the songs, then I'd make the tracks match the titles."
Porn Star/Director Ron Hightower Directed The "Royalty" Music Video:
"Ron Hightower, who is one of the biggest porn stars—in adult films, directed ['Royalty']," Preemo says. "He brought that whole vision to us." The New York City portion of the video was shot January 26, 1997 during Super Bowl XXXI (more than one year before Moment Of Truth released). Preemo says he was focused on the Times Square broadcast of the game, due to family member Johnny Holland's role with the Green Bay Packers coaching staff. Treach and Naughty By Nature never planned to appear in the video; they just happened to walk by. Noo-Trybe/Virgin Records made promotional prepaid Metrocards for the single's release.
"You Know My Steez" Is Not A Diss:
On the first single of Moment Of Truth, Guru raps "Subtractin' all the rappers who lack, over Premier's tracks." The delivery of the line caused some to think that Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal may have been taking shots at some of the outside MCs his partner had produced. Preemo says that is not so. "Some people took that as a diss...He's saying 'I do it over Premier's tracks.' It's the stop [in the delivery that raised suspicions]. So some people took that as, 'Oh, he's throwing a dart at all the other artists that [DJ Premier] has produced.' We don't even throw darts like that. Jeru The Damaja is proof of that. We will say your name. We did 'One Day' [in 1996]; we weren't afraid."
Further, Premier dismisses the notion that he gave beats reserved for Gang Starr's fifth album to other artists during that four-year break. "I always tailor the production [to the artist]. I do it with them in mind. I've even heard old rumors [from] people that didn't really know us was sayin', 'Aw man, sometimes [DJ Premier] is giving these Gang Starr beats to [other] artists.' Nah, why would I do that when I'm in the group? I'm not gonna be on the album cover with my partner and we got the weakest sh*t—[while JAY-Z], Nas, and them got the bangers. Everybody got bangers-bangers. Paula Perry got a banger [in 'Extra, Extra']; Agallah got a banger [in 'New York Ryder Music']...so it didn't really matter—Limp Bizkit got a banger [in 'N 2 Gether Now']. Gang Starr always got bangers. If I'm gonna be on that cover with [Guru], on stage with him, and in the videos, we gotta have hot ones, and we do."
How Inspectah Deck Went "Above The Clouds":
"[NYG'z member] Panchi was in prison at the time. He called [us], just on the check-in, 'How's the album comin'?' Guru, at the time, wanted to get [Ghostface Killah or Raekwon as guests]. We knew [Method Man] was too big; Meth' was the biggest thing in the [Wu-Tang Clan]. We wanted Rae' or Ghost', but [Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... took them to a whole different level]. Panch' was like, 'Yo, [Inspectah] Deck is that slept-on underground [MC] that's just as deadly when it comes to the verbals. We were like, 'Yeah, that makes sense.' We reached out to RZA, who at that time [oversaw] everything. He cleared it [and we] handled the B.I."
When the Rebel I.N.S. spoke to Gang Starr on 3-way-call the afternoon before recording "Above The Clouds," Guru told the Wu MC that the song was simply about, "Your mental." Hours later, in D&D, Deck and Guru wrote their verses side-by-side, starting and stopping almost simultaneously. Meanwhile, Premier crafted the Eastern-tinged song's intro, featuring a John F. Kennedy moon speech.
Busta Rhymes Was Supposed To Be On The "You Know My Steez (Remix)":
Guru said in a 1997 interview with Tucson, Arizona's KXCI 91.3 that he wanted Busta Rhymes and Kurupt on the remix to Moment Of Truth's first single. "Nah, we never got the Busta [Rhymes] verse. Busta!" Preemo says with a laugh. Kurupt and The Lady Of Rage would eventually appear on the "Three Men & A Lady Remix."
Expanding The Gang Starr Foundation:
"M.O.P. and Bumpy Knuckles—who was [still known as] Freddie Foxxx then, we added them to the extended family, which was Gang Starr Foundation. 'Y'all are that too. Krumbsnatcha, you're that too.'" Moment Of Truth featured from Foxxx, Lil Fame, Billy Danze, and Krumb'. Additionally, a verse from crew member Hannibal (nka H. Stax) of Ill Kid Records act Forbidden Fruit made the LP. Big Shug, with Gang Starr history dating back to the 1980s, was involved. Jeru and Group Home's Lil Dap did not appear, after roles on the past two LPs. Panchi and Shabeebo (NYG'z) and Smiley Da Ghetto Child also became part of the late '90s expanded Gang Starr Foundation.
A Militia Side Project Was In Consideration:
"We thought about doing a Militia project. It just never materialized, time-wise. It was just a timing thing, but that would have been dope. It's almost like the Murder Inc. [group] with [JAY-Z], Ja Rule, and [DMX]...that's why we [continued the lineup] on when we did 'Capture,' or the ['Militia II'] remix with Rakim and WC."
Rakim's "Militia II (The Remix)" Verse Was A Fill-In For Method Man:
"That was actually a weird situation, because the original [remix] version was with [Method Man]. Meth' was there [at D&D Studios]: me, WC, Meth', Guru were working on a remix. Then, we got [an apologetic] call from RZA that [Method Man] can't do the remix. 'I got ya [Inspectah] Deck [for 'Above The Clouds'], but this can't happen right now.' We were pissed about it, but we're way past that now. We're all cool; RZA, that's the homie," he says. Apparently, during a break in the session, Method Man left the studio, never to return. RZA explained to Gang Starr that plans had changed. "After Meth' couldn't do it, I was mad. I was like, 'How can we top Meth', 'cause Meth' is that deal?—and he still is...Dub' was feelin' a certain way [about it]."
Having recently worked on 1997's The 18th Letter, DJ Premier called Rakim. "Ra' is on the biggest level; he's higher than all of us. Without lightin' up a joint, he's high. [Laughs] I called him, he was like, 'Send it to me. I go in the lab and make it happen,'" Preemo imitates. "He always talked just as cool as he rapped. He sent it back in maybe a day or two, maybe three days. We [were impressed]. We sent it in to Dub', 'cause he'd gone back to California. We were just so happy, 'cause we got a winner."
Completing The Album:
In the final hours of Gang Starr's Moment Of Truth deadline before mastering the records, there were two missing pieces. Scarface had not yet sent his "Betrayal" verse. As DJ Premier mourned the loss of his close friend and accountant Mary Coleman, another song needed to be completed for the LP. "I was so depressed that Guru was like, 'Yo, just come in [to the studio] and make whatever.' I was like, 'Yeah, but I can't even focus.' He was like, 'Yeah, you can. Just think about Mary.' I was in a mood. I don't cry in front of people; I cry by myself if anything. I was in my lil' crying mood [in D&D Studios]. Guru was in the other room, chillin', watchin' TV, or whatever. I'm in the lounge. I heard that Monk Higgins' ['A Good Man Is Gone']—I cleared it, so I can say what it is. [The part I sampled] sounds like somebody's cryin'. Guru walked in when I was playing it and was like, 'Yo, I like that. I already got a title for it, I'm callin' it 'Next Time'...I laid it down, he cut the vocal. I love that song. I love what he said [especially] 'The underground is where I dwell at / It's where I find my heaven, it's where you find your hell at,' that's how we feel all the time. He bodied that. That completed that"
Just hours before Tony Dawsey was to begin mastering Moment Of Truth, Scarface's "Betrayal" verse arrived. The album was complete and soon ready for more than 500,000 to support its sound and message.
The Legacy Of Moment Of Truth For Gang Starr:
"It's not my favorite out of the seven [Gang Starr] albums; it's the most important. Again, we went through a lot of death. We went through me leaving and comin' back, which is a big thing—'cause we didn't announce it to to anyone...and we never disbanded to this very day, even when people thought when we didn't work together [after 2003's The Ownerz]. We never disbanded; we're still under contract. We're still together," says DJ Premier. At his studio board, just over his shoulder is a portrait of his partner.