Give David Ma a fly beat and he’s all in it.
The song’s main melody, a slowed down 2-second Vic Juris sample, is what makes it a fantastically stubborn earworm. And the infinitude of Guru, his warnings of karmic retribution to sellouts through a devastating Jetsons’ reference, will never not be memorable.
Towards the end of 1993, DJ Premier got a terse phone call from the label telling him to wrap up Hard to Earn, the upcoming Gang Starr album that was nearing competition. Preemo recalls the impetus for “Mass Appeal,” one of the last ones recorded for the album. “I was looking for a sample that mimicked elevator music,” he laughs, explaining that it was meant to be farcical, a joke about “All these dudes all of a sudden making clubby shit.” It eventually charted #67 on Billboard and is textbook Gang Starr in terms of evenhandedness, feel, and cohesion.
For perspective, at this point in the group’s trajectory, video budgets were growing and things were abuzz from their prior project, Daily Operation. Hard to Earn was Preemo’s fourth credited Gang Starr album and “Works of Mart” (referencing Preemo’s real name, Christopher Martin) had become less about an album credit and more a seal of excellence. Now decades removed, Preemo reflects on his own development during that era. “I really feel like at this point I was taking my production to the next level. At the time we were just moving along but looking back I can now see why this track took off. I mean, it was meant to be a statement in the form of a joke.”
“Mass Appeal” is undoubtedly vintage Gang Starr, a standout in an oeuvre of hugely contested favorites. According to Preemo, when Guru finally heard his voice equipoised with the beat, he immediately shouted, loudly: “This is it!”
When I heard Preemo announce last week that there was unreleased Gang Starr en route, I knew I had to dig into the archives. Taken from a series of interviews recently conducted with Preemo for an upcoming book project, here’s how one of Gang Starr’s golden recordings came to be.
Tell us how “Mass Appeal” became the album’s single.
DJ Premier: Guru always used to print out track listings and paste them on the wall. It’d be pieces of paper with all the song names that were going to be on the album, and stuff he was working or whatever. My job would be to fill in all the blanks with music. Well, next to the song names would be little descriptions, and I remember next to “Mass Appeal” Guru wrote, ‘Our First Single.’ And we would always do our singles last too. It’s not like we record in any particular order or anything, but when I know something is going to be the single, I avoid it until the end, until we’re at the last two or three songs, so I can focus and make it the freshest one right before the album drops.
Walk us through the thought process behind the song.
DJ Premier: Guru and I were just talking about how everything around us was starting to sound so watered down. The sound we were doing prior, as well as what we were working on, was a sound that everyone moving away from.
Don’t get me wrong, we liked all that club shit too, but not all the time and especially not when you start phasing out cats like Smif-N-Wessun, Black Moon—even Wu-Tang started getting phased out of clubs. And we would joke and say how everything was dead.
We all thought all that club shit all the time was corny and we’d call it elevator music because it was so watered down. To me, elevator music is light and has repetitive melodies. So I wanted this to be a parody, almost a joke, so I was looking for samples that matched that. Soon as I found that main loop though, I knew it’d be perfect.
What was the label’s response? When did you begin to get a sense that it was resonating with fans? Tell us what that was like.
DJ Premier: Well, we finally turned it in and the label agreed right away after hearing it. It was actually on regular rotation on stations all over the country. And heads were bugging off it right away. At that point, we had already moved away from the hood but for the video we wanted to be right back in there with certified dudes and killers. That’s what we told the label. And that’s what we had to tell the local guys, we had to let them know that we were going to shoot in their projects.
What was the response from neighborhood guys like?
DJ Premier: Back then, the drug dealer type dudes always rooted for us and all that, but they would not want to be seen. All good but don’t fucking put us on camera [laughs]. Nowadays these guys are walking self-indictments, posting their shit online and end up doing time in jail. It was great to show love to hood after all those years and they still embraced us.
Tell us what it was like hearing Guru over that beat for the first time. And what comes to mind when you think of the song these days?
DJ Premier: At first I thought it sounded a little awkward, kind of like “Next Level” by Showbiz and AG where it seems like a weird point when the beat drops. Guru didn’t start on the ‘1.’ He came in on the ‘4.’ So it’s 4, 3, 2, “No way you’re gonna make it…” I always did what James Brown said, which was to do everything on the ‘1.’ But we just went with it and I’m still impressed when I hear it because everything just ended up so good. It turned out to be one of the biggest records of our career.