Anyone who’s followed East Coast hip-hop can go on-and-on about Gang Starr. Originally formed in 1987, the group was seen as the scion of another land-mark East-Coast duo, Eric B. and Rakim. Comprised of Guru and DJ Premier, the group released several classic albums in the early '90s including Step in the Arena, Daily Operation, and Moment of Truth. The recipe of DJ Premier’s inspired jazz-samples and Guru’s slick-rhyme skills established the group as hip-hop giants on the same tier as A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul.
Although Gang Starr kept recording together (the group's latest CD was released in 2003), the Guru started to branch out with his own solo project – The Jazzmatazz series. Beginning with the first volume in 1993, Guru has released three more volumes of the series to date. The Best of Guru’s Jazzmatazz culls the best 15 tracks from the first-three volumes, along with three remixes.
The production throughout the CD is top-notch. Fully realized arrangements replace the jazz-samples that represented the iconic sound of Gang Starr. As the title indicates, each track is infused with jazz instrumentation. An eclectic mix of jazz artists contributes their talents to the mix including Donald Byrd, Ronnie Jordan, Lonnie Liston Smith, and Branford Marsalis. As the list suggests, the instrumentation on the CD is diverse: trumpets, alto and soprano saxes, flutes, and electric keyboards flow throughout the proceedings. And each track hosts bouncing-drum tracks and sleek bass lines.
However, jazz artists aren’t the only guests at the party. Erykah Badu, Chaka Kahn, Angie Stone, Jamiroquai, and The Roots, as well as many contemporary R&B singers and rappers, effectively lend their talents to the collaborations. The R&B singers that appear on some of the tracks are a welcomed surprise. Their work is fresh and melodic, offering a reprise to the annoying R&B-rapper collaborations that sustain talent-less hacks like 50 Cent.
But of course the real star of the show is the Guru. His laid-back, syrupy delivery, combined with his intelligent, introspective rhymes, maintain Guru’s prominence as one of hip-hop’s top lyricists. His storytelling technique is in full display on one of the album’s standout tracks, “Sights in the City,” as he interweaves several tragic tales of lives lost to the seedier aspects of big-city life. Other highlights include the Chaka Kahn-Branford Marsalis track “Watch What You Say,” The Roots’ appearance on “Lift Your Fist,” and the Erykah Badu collaboration “Plenty.”
The Best of Guru’s Jazzmatazz is a great collection from an immensely talented hip-hop artist. Guru has a full understanding of the roots between jazz and hip-hop, which is on full display throughout the album. I’d highly recommend this album for any fan of Guru’s work, or any hip-hop fan looking for something fresh.