Hip hop music in its purest, oldest form was always about the DJ. Long before rappers grabbed the limelight it was the light fingered turntable rockers which held the genre together, and the eighties was just as much about the likes of Jam Master Jay, Eric B and Scott la Rock as it was KRS-One and Rakim.
Arguably the finest example of DJ and emcee coming together was the legendary Gang Starr, with the monotone master Guru joined by one of the genuine hall of fame producers hip hop has ever produced, DJ Premier. An extension of the group was the Gang Starr Foundation, a collective of rappers that has over the years included Jeru the Damaja, Afu Ra, Big Shug, Group Home and M.O.P.
Gang Starr ft Lil' Dap & Jeru The Damaja 'I'm The Man' (1992)
1992 Gang Starr LP Daily Operation was a stone cold classic, and in the midst of it came the debut turn from two of the foundation's most prominent early artists, Group Home's Lil Dap and Jeru the Damaja.
Premier shifted the beat for all three artists to do their thing, a tactic he repeated for the same cast two years later on 'Speak Ya Clout' from the follow up release Hard to Earn. The foundation was in the building.
Group Home 'So Called Friends' (1993)
The first released music from the collective as a unit came in the shape of the three track Gangstarr Foundation Sampler in '93, Jeru's 'Come Clean' the most recognisable track lifted from the 12" which was then followed by his excellent debut album The sun rises in the east.
It was also Group Home's first entrance as a duo, the then teenage rappers coldly opining on the hardships of betrayal - puberty is clearly more difficult when equipped with bleak NYC winters. It's done over one of Premier's trademark melancholy beats, in this instance he flipped a section of the upbeat 'Sweet Sticky Thing' from Ohio Players into a mournful boom bap classic.
Jeru the Damaja 'Ya Playin' Yaself' (1996)
Jeru's sophomore album Wrath of the Math dropped in 1996 and amongst it's themes was the misuse of hip hop by the likes of Bad Boy and Death Row records on the track 'One Day', also prevalent on lead single 'Ya Playin Yaself'.
The beat was extremely similar to Junior Mafia's Notorious B.I.G featuring 'Players Anthem' (both riffed on The New Birth's 'You are what I'm all about') and it resulted in a response from Biggie on 'Kick in the Door' - also produced by Premier - on one of the few most direct disses the late rapper ever did. High praise indeed.
Gang Starr ft Big Shug & Freddie Foxx 'The Militia' (1998)
If there's a genuinely more fearsome rapper alive than Freddie Foxxx, they've yet to reveal themselves. An amateur boxing champion who can walk the walk, the verse he delivers on this track is brutal evidence of talking the talk too, where clever double entendres (note the dual meaning of tech mid verse) combine with straight up scaremongering - "while your, nose is drippin, and drainin blood, I'll be standing over you screamin, "N!££a, WHAT, WHAT?! N!££a WHAT?!".
He's set up for this onslaught brilliantly though by a scene setting opener from Big Shug and a typically masterful verse from Guru, whilst Premier crafts a head nodding beat punctuated by Orson Welles' War of the Worlds that beautifully frames the aggression of the lyrics. Hip Hop gold.
Afu Ra ft Kymani Marley 'Equality' (2000)
Afu Ra's Body of the Life Force is one of hip hop's most underrated of releases, punctuated with production from the likes of Da Beatminerz, DJ Muggs and, of course, Premier.
The two killer cuts from the duo was 'Defeat' and this gem, featuring one of Bob's sons crooning brilliantly as Afu drops science on how spirituality and meditation helps him deal with strife - "pledging allegiance to hip hop" as part of the process.