Gang Starr’s album cover for ‘Daily Operation’
A crazy day becomes a classic artwork
By 1992, Keith Elam — aka Guru — and Christopher Edward Martin — aka DJ Premier — had laid down their sonic footprint in New York, but hadn’t reached mainstream status. Rookie photographer and native New Yorker Matt Gunther was excited about the opportunity to photograph the duo for the cover of their third studio album, the gritty Daily Operation (EMI Records). Daily Operation, with songs such as “Ex Girl to Next Girl,” and “Take It Personal” and “I’m the Man,” is the album that elevated the duo from Tristate heroes to East Coast luminaries. Little did Gunther know that getting to the final image — to take a page from the Daily Operation track list — would become a “Soliloquy of Chaos.”
“I remember going out to dinner with Guru beforehand,” says Gunther. He still lives in and runs a photography studio in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City. “He was very political, and [into] the history of the civil rights movement. The first concept was a ‘mafioso’-related theme. Guru was into the imagery of rappers wanting to get paid — but also about making a statement.”
As happens in the creative process, ideas changed. Soon it was decided that the cover would have a Last Supper theme — as Gang Starr affiliates Group Home and Jeru The Damaja were featured on the project. “We rented an old mansion on Madison Avenue [in New York City] because we … needed a big space,” says Gunther. “We were supposed to shoot during the day … had the venue from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.” Gang Starr and their crew of about 20 didn’t show up until 6 or 7 that night. Label representatives fumed. “We slept during the day while waiting for them,” he said. And when they did arrive — Gunther wasn’t caught off guard by the amount of marijuana smoke and malt liquor that followed the crew into the mansion. “It was,” he says, “a fun, s— show.”
Still recalling what Guru mentioned during their dinner — mafioso — as well as the Renaissance-y theme some at EMI had communicated to him, Gunther and his crew moved elements into a frame. Everything was carefully positioned. A Malcolm X portrait at top center. In the foreground was a briefcase with bundled money spilling out. The globe, the wolf’s head, a Remington Rand typewriter, a paperback copy of Elijah Muhammad’s Message To The Black Man in America, a closed turntable case, and a replica of a human skull were painstakingly placed to layer and enrich the space. A Gang Starr version of tough-guy renaissance. “DJ Premier and Guru were professionals, no matter how blitzed they were,” Gunther says with a laugh. “They were great guys who were into it.
The photo that made the final cut is precise but lush. Guru’s bomber jacket delicately leans off of his left shoulder as the emcee’s blunted eyes — under razor-blade sculpted eyebrows — glare into the camera. The shot captures the coolness of Elam while DJ Premier’s relaxed yet stunting energy distracts, with a cigar dangling from his mouth.
As we approach July 17 — what would have been the late Guru’s 55th birthday — the image has come to epitomize a two-decade bond between brothers who shared everything but blood. Although their relationship became strained, and the two weren’t on speaking terms when Guru died in 2010, the love was real. DJ Premier carries on the Gang Starr legacy via his work with superstars from Jay Z to Christina Aguilera. He is considered by many to be one of the greatest producers in the history of hip-hop. No matter what Preemo does, the Gang Starr sound is always attached to his being. Daily Operation was a turning point for Gang Starr and also helped Gunther go on to secure placement in publications including The New York Times, Newsweek and GQ. As legendary designer and illustrator Bill McMullen has said of the cover, “It’s like hip-hop was maturing a little bit … more of the artists could adopt a weirdness that primarily had been reserved for artists in other genres.” Exactly.