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Social Studies

What's Beef?

By Vincent Williams | Posted 4/28/2010

Full disclosure: I have never been a big Gang Starr fan. I believe that DJ Premier is the greatest DJ and producer in the history of hip-hop and that the dichotomy between his characteristic staccato cutting and scratching with the melodies of the jazz or early R&B that he tends to use as sampling sources produces the platonic ideal of what a track should sound like. However, I've always been ambivalent at best about Guru's legendary monotone delivery. I respect it, I get why people are so fanatical when it comes to his work, but it just never did anything for me. Whenever I listen to Gang Starr, I always find myself wishing that someone else was spitting over the beats. Yes, I know that's hip-hop heresy. And, while y'all are gathering firewood to burn me at the stake, I might as well admit that I think EPMD was fair to middlin' and that Run-DMC never made a whole album that was a good as its reputation. So I admit my coolness toward the group is part of the reason that, following the tragedy of Guru's death on April 19, I've been more upset about the alleged beef between the two members of Gang Starr than I am over the fact that there will be no more Gang Starr albums.

Details are a little sketchy, but apparently there were some real issues between Guru and Premier in recent years, to the point where a letter bearing Guru's alleged final acrimonious words ("I had nothing to do with [Premier] in life for over 7 years and want nothing to do with him in death.") sent shockwaves throughout the hip-hop community. My ambivalence toward the group doesn't assuage the sadness and disappointment I've felt as events have unfolded, and we fans have been exposed to some ugliness. I just don't like hip-hop beefs.

Part of it is because I take it personally. The well-documented wars of personalities between members of groups such as the Ramones or the Ohio Players are fascinating, but what are the odds that I would run into Sugarfoot somewhere? Hip-hop, on the other hand, has always been more approachable. I knew a girl De La Soul's Posdnuos was dating, and I got into a friendly argument with Ladybug from Digable Planets once over who first saw a used album at a record store. I've admired a girl's backside with Brand Nubian's Lord Jamar at the old 9:30 Club and had to convince Questlove to get the van driver to drop me off in a less sketchy neighborhood when I rode around with the Roots for this paper a few years ago. Barring the video/jewelry/super criminal foolishness of popular tomfoolery, I maintain that part of the power of hip-hop has always been the intrinsic intimacy of the form. When MCs or group members get into disagreements, it feels like some of your friends are fighting. I still get a funny feeling in my stomach just thinking about some of the things Phife says on his solo album about A Tribe Called Quest bandmate Q-Tip.

And my imagined closeness leads to the second part of my overall disdain for hip-hop beef: I don't want anyone else to end up dead. The specters of Biggie and Tupac still cast big, ominous-ass shadows over hip-hop. I know I'm not the only fan who gets a little anxious when he hears about conflict between artists, because we know for a fact that beef can lead to death. To bounce off of Chris Rock's classic observation about the difference between assassination and "getting shot," Biggie and Tupac may have died over some dumb shit but, hopefully, their deaths will always mean that hip-hop remains mindful that words can have real-life consequences. Even when someone like that dumbass 50 Cent gets into an argument with, well, whoever he's in an argument with this month, I get a little anxious. In my heart, I know the vast majority of the chest thumping in hip-hop is little more than theatrics for the suburban audience, especially now. Yet, I also understand that a lot of these cats don't seem to have the problem-resolution skills that many of us take for granted.

DJ Premier, thankfully, is not an example of the emotionally stunted dudes I'm talking about, though. In response to Guru's alleged last words, Primo rose above the fray, honored his work with his ex-partner, and offered support to the MC's family and fans. Regardless of whether or not the that letter represents the true feelings of Guru, Premier's response grants the duo's career a graceful coda. And, not for nothing, my favorite video right now is Mos Def's "History," featuring his Black Star collaborator Talib Kweli. It's a great song, but honestly, I'm just glad the two are still getting along just fine.

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