“It’s mostly the voice, that gets you up/ And mostly the voice, that makes you buck/ Some got flavor, and some got skills/ But if your voice ain’t dope, then you gots to CHILL”
–“Mostly tha Voice” (1994)
The recent passing of Keith Elam, a.k.a. The Guru (1961-2010 RIP), reminds us of an era in hip hop, that for all intents and purposes has also passed. A time when the culture was still underground, but standing on the verge of Planet Rock. Gang Starr was a transformative act, bridging the gap between hip hop’s second—“golden”—generation in the late 80s, and the music’s explosion onto the world stage as a defining pop phenomenon of the 90s. And in the beginning, Guru’s was manifestly the voice of change.
His warm, burred monotone had an inherent authority, revealed an acute intellectual foundation, and built upon the broader thematic claims for hardcore rap at the time being staked out by the triumvirate of Rakim, KRS-One and Chuck D. Where these masters challenged the format of rap, Guru’s consolidation of their innovations became a proposition for the future of the form, a statement of its viability and versatility, a formula for longevity. It made of an MC of somewhat limited technical skill one of the signature voices of hip hop, but the constraints it imposed on the ambitious and apparently somewhat unbalanced Guru seem also to have contributed to his sad decline as an artist over the last decade.
“Stop! Think for a moment, okay?/ And then sway while I convey that we must do away/ With all the stress and the strife, God bless you life/ And use kindness, and never blindness/ And you will find that this perspective is best, Check it out!/ These are the words that I manifest, I manifest”
– “Words I Manifest” (1989)
Hailing from the Roxbury section of Boston, Guru co-founded Gang Starr in 1986, but it was only when its first iteration broke up and he moved to New York, where in 1989 he hooked up with Houston transplant, Christopher Martin, aka. DJ Premier, that the brand of the chain and the star would become the most trusted in hip hop and leave an indelible mark upon the culture for the next decade.
The two of them claimed for hip hop’s classic DJ/MC constellation a broader creative space at the heart of the genre than anyone before, or since for that matter. One of the greatest and most influential producers in all of hip hop, Premier perfected a chopped breakbeat-based sound laced with precise vocal scratches—too voluminous and resonant to be called minimalist—which distilled a world of music into compact street symphonies. A telling example is how he pioneered the use of jazz samples, but gradually integrated this foundational influence into his rich, hardcore boom bap sound.
And while Premier has successfully produced for almost all of his greatest contemporaries, Guru remains the perfect MC for his beats. He had the rare talent of blending unobtrusively with the music, while nevertheless remaining distinctive. He was one of the most unpretentious MCs in hip hop, always working with Premier to create music rather than rap, and stimulating whatever co-star was appearing on their tracks to shine—people like Nice and Smooth, Jeru the Damaja, Inspektah Dek and Freddie Foxxx all spat career-defining verses over Gang Starr beats. Also, his gradual eclipse by Premier’s rising fame has tended to obscure his crucial role in the constitution of Gang Starr as a group, as well as much of the production, especially in the early days, when he surely contributed much of the jazzy inflection.
On their first three albums, No More Mr. Nice Guy (1989), Step in the Arena (1991) and Daily Operation (1992), Guru and Premier were in perfect constellation, living and partying hard together in Brooklyn, developing notably with each record, and crafting one of the best live shows in hip hop. The first album, recorded in a two-week flurry, had a conscious quality to it, but at the same time carried more of an edge than most other artists mining that territory, but it was first and foremost Guru’s distinctive voice that made it. It seemed to be promising the future. And indeed, that’s what Step in the Arena delivered—Premier’s production had matured considerably, forming a more complex and coherent whole, and a streetwise intelligence informed every track, uniting what remains a stunningly diverse record to become one of the masterpieces of the form. On Daily Operation, the jazz had receded somewhat, creating a dustier, darker sonic collage, in the context of which a more politically righteous and supremely self-assured Guru spoke with greater authority than at any other point in his career.
“Shorty said ‘now’, pulled the trigger and stepped/ It was nothing—he did it just to get a rep”
–“Just to Get a Rep” (1991)
It was around this time that he embarked upon his Jazzmatazz project, which would end up becoming his labor of love as his passion for Gang Starr waned. The first album in the series, released in 1993, brought together a lot of fine musicians, including a few older legends—Donald Byrd, Lonnie Liston Smith, and Roy Ayers—who were still sufficiently on point to bless individual songs. It remains a remarkably coherent and well-produced record, and although its influence has probably been overstated—it was part of a larger trend in hip hop at the time that notably also included such acts as The Brand New Heavies The Roots and Digable Planets—it retains an important place in the development of jazz hip hop and fusion, as well as live instrumentation in hip hop.
Sadly, what it also did was reveal Guru’s limitations as an MC. Without Premier’s beats he suddenly came off lackluster, if not straight-up lazy—this is most egregiously apparent on “Le Bien, Le Mal” where the French MC Solaar’s hungry, yet effortless performance outshines his older colleague to the point where it’s almost embarrassing. To be fair, Guru’s approach to the album was simpler and more laid-back, both in terms of writing and flow. But at the same time this underscored his lack of natural talent in these areas and was a strong indicator that his triumphs as an MC had come through deep concentration and hard work as much as anything else—something that only makes his achievements more impressive.
Gradually, Jazzmatazz, as it went through its second and third outings, the bloated A New Reality (1995) and the polished Streetsoul (2000), saw an ambitious Guru failing to innovate as a vocalist, his very basic rhyme structures—additively and often incoherently building discrete lines into verses—coming off as increasingly anachronistic. He was still a great live performer, however, and his vocals on the fourth Gang Starr album, Hard to Earn (1994), can hardly be faulted. Here, he consolidated his position in hip hop with a number of signature songs—“DWYCK”, “Mostly tha Voice”—but at the same time did not bring much new to the table. The same cannot be said of Premier, whose sound was more resonant than ever, starting to coalesce into the unmistakable signature that would launch a thousand imitators.
“Can we be the sole controllers of our fate?/ Now who’s gonna take the weight?”
–“Who’s Gonna Take the Weight” (1991)
After this, several years went by, and it became apparent that Gang Starr was flailing. We have since learned that Guru had serious problems with alcohol, and that his arrest around this time on a gun charge, with its risk of an—eventually averted—five-year bid, worsened matters to the point where Premier briefly ended their collaboration. Thank God they nevertheless managed to put their heads together to create what is arguably their most refined and unquestionably their most mature album, Moment of Truth (1998).
It’s a little overlong and suffers somewhat from padding (of the kind that would stand out on most other artists’ records, but still…), but it also contains some of their best music, and notably some of Guru’s most stirring performances. Not only did he convincingly reclaim his position in hip hop with the blistering vocal manifesto “You Know My Steez”, but he also went introspective in ways previously unheard, on the angry yet resigned “JFK 2 LAX”—on his courtroom ordeal—and on the legacy-building “Moment of Truth”, in which he addresses his private crises implicitly through carefully calibrated self-assertion, his voice taking on a slightly broken rasp.
Although Guru’s subsequent solo effort Baldhead Slick & Da Click (2001) is best forgotten, he and Premier still had their moments on their tenth anniversary compilation, Full Clip (1999), and their last, rather unfocused album, The Ownerz (2003). But things were falling apart: the duo was experiencing trouble with their label, Virgin/EMI, and perhaps Guru was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with being second wheel to his star producer. In any case, he abruptly left the group while they were still on their Ownerz world tour. The following years saw him sobering up and getting involved in a Black Muslim offshoot, the Nation of Gods and Earths, under the apparent guidance of his new partner, Solar (not to be confused with the French MC), with whom he launched an independent label, 7 Grand Records.
“Scandalous, money, greed and lust/ In this trife life, there ain’t nobody you can trust/ Plus, there’s no justice, it’s just us/ In fact, watching your back, it be a must/ And each and every day around the way gats bust/ And jealous so-called friends will try to set you up/ It’s called betrayal”
From Guru’s point of view, the work with Solar—which combines the street edge of Gang Starr with the more soulful approach of Jazzmatazz—is solid but repetitive of earlier work, as if he was locked into the formula he had created. They released three albums together: Version 7.0: The Street Scriptures (2005), Jazzmatazz 4: The Hip Hop Messenger (2007) and Guru 8.0: Lost and Found (2009). Of these, the Jazzmatazz record stands out because of a number of inspired collaborations, but overall the material rarely rises above the competently mediocre and is marred by Solar’s derivative and dull production.
The circumstances around Guru’s cancer (multiple myeloma) and eventual death have made public private matters of harrowing nature. His split from Premier and his former friends and colleagues in the Gang Starr Foundation was definitive and he eventually also distanced himself from his family, laboring in relative isolation at 7 Grand while taking care of his young son KC. A number of sources describe his relationship with Solar was an abusive one—at times physically so—with Solar taking advantage of his asthmatic, psychologically distressed and increasingly ailing partner to control not only his career but also his life.
It remains unclear—and is ultimately none of our concern—to what extent Solar can be blamed for these unfortunate developments, and the situation in any case primarily speaks of Guru as a troubled man, harboring ill feelings towards his former collaborator and, apparently also his family. But it is hard to shake the online video pleas by his nephew Justin, describing how he and his family were barred from seeing their sick relative by Solar, who clearly considers himself the sole executor of Guru’s will, or the highly suspect, harsh letter released by Solar upon Guru’s death, purporting to be the MCs last words. And Premier’s recent account of having snuck into Guru’s hospital room and seen him there, comatose, dirty, and with hair, finger- and toenails unattended to, is a heartbreaking insight into his last days.
With these events in mind, it seems doubly poignant that so many of Guru’s raps—from his earliest to his most recent, from “No More Mr. Nice Guy” to “State of Clarity”—are pervaded by themes of deceit, betrayal and conspiracy. Taken together they describe a depressive, almost paranoid, subtext in a body of work always concerned with moral virtue. For Guru, there was—as he said—always a message involved, and many of us listened attentively, even if the musical era that he helped shape did not, ultimately, live up to his ideals. His pessimism was more than posturing—it was a check on his heartfelt hope for a new reality, spoken in a voice that helped define a generation in hip hop.
“The rejected stone is now the cornerstone/Sorta like the master builder as I make my way home”
–“You Know My Steez” (1997)
For a solid, traditional obituary, check the New York Times. Also, read Guru’s brother Harry Elam, Jr. on their relationship, and check out the tributes by DJ Premier, DJ Mister Cee, Tony Touch, and the Diaz Brothers. For Solar’s side of the story, check this long one with Conspiracy Worldwide Radio. Finally, check these live shows with Gang Starr and Guru & Jazzmatazz.