How Gang Starr's 'Moment Of Truth' Achieved Success & Stayed True To Its Roots
A look back at the impactful album on its 20th anniversary.
“THEY FORGOT GURU!” That was the resounding cry during the “In Memoriam” segment of the 2011 Grammy Awards, which typically honors those in the music industry who had passed in the year previous. Guru—the effortlessly talented mouthpiece of Brooklyn-via-Boston hip-hop luminaries Gang Starr—had died the previous April due to complications related to a battle with cancer, and the hip-hop community’s collective outpouring of grief was only matched by the familial confusion that followed his passing.
So it wasn’t surprising that modern hip-hop icons ranging from Kanye West to ?uestlove and Q-Tip registered surprise and anger at the Grammys’ bizarre omission: Guru and, by extension, Gang Starr were hip-hop, with a career that spanned several decades and rarely felt out of step with what was going on around them. Squint a little, and you’ll see traces of master turntablist and producer DJ Premier’s sample-magic sound in corners of modern-day hip-hop (inarguably, Joey Bada$$’ dusty Flatbush boom-bap wouldn’t exist without Gang Starr), and the same goes for Guru’s rhyme skills; when Jay-Z rapped “Lemonade is a popular drink, and it still is” on the remix of Fat Joe and Remy Ma’s “All the Way Up” in 2016, real heads looked past the Beyoncé allusion and saw the hat-tip towards Guru’s quotable on “DWYCK,” from 1994’s Hard to Earn.
Although Gang Starr’s legacy isn’t easy to identify within current strains of rap, during their heyday—six albums over the course of 14 years, a practical century in the always-changing world of popular music—the duo proved astoundingly adept at tweaking their own formula to fit the times, more so possibly than the lion’s share of their late-'80s peers. And no record in their catalog is more apparent of Gang Starr’s ability to sound like themselves while remaining current than 1998’s Moment of Truth, which turns 20 years old today.
Tonally, Moment of Truth picks up where Hard to Earn—the first Gang Starr album to feature the oft-dubious Parental Advisory sticker on the cover—left off. Premier’s love for jazz and soft-rock samples is still more than present, with flips of artists like George Duke and Fleetwood Mac to be found in equal measure; but similar to its predecessor, Moment of Truth took on a darker, slightly harder edge that was in vogue in the time, standing in opposition to the more sprightly beats found on the albums that comprised Gang Starr’s initial late '80s-early '90s run. At a compact-disc-busting 78 minutes and change, it also represents the unfettered largesse that was late-90s hip-hop full-lengths, when lengthy statements served a greater purpose beyond juicing streaming stats.
At the time of release, Moment of Truth also represented Gang Starr’s most guest-heavy album yet (only topped by the duo’s swan song, The Ownerz from 2003), with a coterie of voices ranging from Gang Starr Foundation regulars Krumbsnatcha and Big Shug to NYC contemporaries like Inspectah Deck and Brownsville’s frequent Premier collaborators M.O.P., who brilliantly lace the punchy “B.I. vs. Friendship” with their trademark megaphone-volume energy. But despite all these welcome cooks in the kitchen, Guru and Premier are front and center throughout, pulling off the dual feat of achieving peak commercial potency and furthering their aesthetic on their most expansive release at the time.
The first prong of that achievement is owed greatly to Premier’s wizardry. It’s impossible to understate the legacy his sound carries within the history of hip-hop, and it’s similarly astounding that a decade into his career he was still finding new shades in his style without diluting what made it special. As an album, Moment of Truth often just pops with color in a way that the previous Gang Starr records only hinted at, from the schoolyard gait of “Work” to the title track’s city-skyline elegance. “What’s the deal with you break-record cats putting out all the original records that we sample from and snitching by putting us on the back of it saying we used stuff?” Premier issues as an angry invective on the tail end of “Royalty”—and setting aside the very understandable aggravation of having sample-spotters potentially open him up to retroactive litigation, can you blame him for railing against those so willing to give away the secrets behind his brand of mixing magic?
Even as they adapted capably to the marketplace, the aforementioned invective also marked one of the first and most notable instances of Gang Starr’s members criticized the trends in the hip-hop community that they now regarded themselves as elder statesmen of. Such expressions of frustration and anger would become more pronounced on The Ownerz, taking on explicitly homophobic tones from both Guru and Premier; but Moment of Truth finds the former using his veteran status for prescriptive means rather than devolving into hateful rhetoric. He bemoans crowd violence on “It’z a Set Up” and speaks candidly about mental health and substance abuse on the title track: “Don’t even feel like drinking or even getting high / Cause all that’s gonna do really is accelerate / The anxieties that I wish I could alleviate / But wait, I’ve been through a whole lot of other shit before / So I oughta be able to withstand some more.”
“[It’s] a moment of truth for Rap and for people who are conscious in society,” Guru told Beat Down Magazine in 1998 about Moment of Truth, later answering when he’s asked how he’s kept his career going, “You have to be God minded.” And despite the noticeable artistic evolutions showcased on Moment of Truth, that sense of consciousness—a sense that explicitly earns rap like Gang Starr’s the “conscious” tag itself—is perhaps the album’s element that calls back to their legacy as a whole. Rap as a culture is often obsessed with the “new,” so the fact that Guru and Premier were able to make an impactful album on cultural and commercial levels while maintaining the same elements that brought them to initial prominence speaks to what made Gang Starr special in and of itself—and that’s something no one should forget.