How To Make It Big

The Planet (from Gang Starr’s 1994 release Hard To Earn) is about achieving success, a coming-of-age story about moving away from home to the big city. In this post I want to look at how the rhyming and beats deepen this theme and possibly connect it with older black cultural traditions.

The song starts strikingly: a two-bar blues-rock sample loops a few times and then fades to silence. No development, no transition. I think producer DJ Premier is foregrounding the in-the-moment “how” of the music, its feel and texture. We’re forced to notice the laid-back drums, swooping grainy vocals and seamless looping. Execution over content, as in James Brown’s catchphrase “doin’ it”. This aesthetic of continual process informs the title of Gang Starr’s 1992 album Daily Operation, and Miles Davis’ classics Steamin’, Cookin’ and Workin’.

Any intro is a place to set out from. This loop of Taj Mahal’s “The Cuckoo” provides a multi-faceted opening mood. It’s got attitude. The snare drum feels “in the pocket” – funky. The singer strains to hit high and low blues notes – effort. The lyrical snippet is “in the cold” – hardship. It sounds like downhome blues – old-fashioned.

After the fadeout, Premier’s main beat kicks. To make these beats, Premier interpreted brief written sketches from the vocalist. In this case, he worked off the song title, and the note “My reason for me moving from Boston to Brooklyn”. Head-nodding and physically driving, the resulting beat feels toilsome. That’s due to the dragging shuffle of the drums against a chugging organ (stabbing 1/8th notes at 84bpm). The bass emphasises a syncopated rhythmic snarl-up around every beat 3 that further pulls us back. (The same construction as the pattern from Funky Drummer) A lead guitar fragment provides a sonic link to the intro, while sitting way back on the beat. All this conveys physical effort – while the pitch-shifted snares evoke the metal clangs of hard labour. (Workin’.)

Guru picks up on the heavy drums with his vocal entry, calling back to jive and rock’n’roll: “Boom bash dash, I had to break I had to get away”. This verse is skilful storytelling – check the emotional kick of these slightly unexpected juxtapositions: “Kissed my mother, gave my pops a pound/Then he hugged me, and then he turned around” (sentimental, cool, sincere, cold). Throughout the verse Guru trickily shifts point of view. The final phrases “last of my loot” and “if I stay I’ll go crazy” reinforce the urgency of the opening line and the conflict driving the plot.

The song’s chorus is an incredibly dense field of references. I’ll take them at a run. The first line states the main theme. “I’m gonna make it goddamnit/Out in B R double-O K lyn, The Planet/They never fake it just slam it/Out in B R O O K lyn The Planet.”  Guru spells out his adopted home town in a traditional technique, forming a tasty rhythm. The song title comes up carrying paradoxical meanings: Brooklyn is of world-wide renown, or Brooklyn is just a tiny part of the whole world, or Brooklyn is a world unto itself, or Brooklyn represents the planet and all human existence. Multiplicity of meanings is central to Signifyin(g).

Premier’s scratching in the chorus goes deep. His first scratch is a rap fragment of Divine Force’s “Holy War“, with the words “From Medina that is Brooklyn”. Medina is a holy city in Islam, a religion Guru sympathised with. So Premier’s sample suggests a spiritual side to the material struggle. Next he cuts a Brooklyn-repping line from an earlier Gang Starr release – a characteristic gesture of continuity and riffing on tropes. Finally, we get a clue as to the song title: a line from MC Lyte’s “Lyte As A Rock“, “And now, directly from the planet [of Brooklyn]”. The last two words are cut off, a coded reference that would’ve been harder to break before whosampled.com.

The second verse tells of more hardship, “sick and tired”, “paying all these fucked up dues”, “I wasn’t happy”, “East New York is no joke”. The narrator is struggling to succeed. Standard rap tropes appear: nostalgia and boasting of multiple girlfriends. The last line before the chorus connects work with ambition: “Seconds away from just quitting/But fuck it I’ll maintain, one day I’ll be hitting.”

In the final, tense verse, the narrator achieves some independence, “I got my own place in Bed Stuy”, creating a simple three-act structure. More placenames, “Malcolm X Boulevard and Gates avenue”, show Gang Starr’s dedication to their particular locality. Against that, remember that this is a song about moving away from home, with a title emphasising universality. I think this shows the “creative tension between locality and dissemination, rootedness and displacement” that characterises the Atlantic African diaspora, according to Paul Gilroy’s “The Black Atlantic“.

We’re getting near the end! Verse three mentions haircuts, deals, dates, getting high… everyday reality in Guru’s Brooklyn. It has one of (I think) only two uses of the word “bitch” on this album: “Then I stepped, cause I found out about her rep/And I ain’t going out being no bitch’s pet”. I could say that the speaker is expressing anger at being humiliated, and that the woman in question is referred to indirectly (he’s not speaking to her), but all the same I don’t like it. However, it’s a world away from Snoop Dogg or LL Cool J. (The other “bitch” is in a threat addressed to a man, on “Suckaz Need Bodyguards”.)

The last four lines are masterful. Once again, the mother character signifies emotion, and once again this emotion is used as a springboard for powerful images. “Sometimes I used to miss my moms/Gunshots in the twilight, people fighting every night”. The unexpectedly naive rhyme scheme adds poignancy to the young man’s fear. And now we get to the master-level stuff. The unusual off-beat “-ight” rhymes continue, but their meaning is flipped from fearful darkness to security – “be aight” – and then the creative activity that brings Guru security: “writing”. “But I’ma be aight still/Cause I’ma keep writing shit and perfecting my skills.” Achieving success (security) is tied to the underlying theme – work. Meanwhile the end-rhymes return with: “still” and “skills”, representing as clear as day the theme of continual process. The dual images of “gunshots” and “fighting” are paralleled with “writing” and “perfecting” – implying that hip hop can replace violence with creativity. And slang evokes the black street culture that has upheld the entire story. It’s so good it brings tears to my eyes!

After one more chorus, Premier quickly strips back the beat, revealing the sampled elements in a last processual gesture, and leaves the song title echoing.

“The Planet” is the most heartfelt track on the album. For me, it’s an incredible demonstration of how to embody values in music. Gang Starr leave no doubt that they’re “doin’ it”. And as a final thought to chew on, the story of escaping hardship by moving to the city to be your own master seems to me a reflection of the whole history of secular black music.

Thanks for reading my first proper post, please comment, especially if you can correct or improve it somehow. “Stay tuned“!

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