PREFACE: Gang Starr is and will always be one of my favorite groups. I had the pleasure of interviewing Guru and Premier on several occasions over the years – for magazine features, and record company bios primarily. And I’ll always consider being invited by them to write the liner notes for their 1999 ‘best of’ anthology, Full Clip, to be one of the true honors of my professional career.
When Guru passed away exactly one year ago today it was with a heavy heart that I accepted another invitation – the chance to eulogize him in the pages of Wax Poetics. The mystery and intrigue that clouded his final days had become the talk of the Internet, leading to a lot of unsavory rumor and speculation. It all felt really wrong. Yet all it took was listening back to Guru’s performances on so many classic Gang Starr recordings – his casual delivery and lyrical emphasis on self-worth – to wash away all that nonsense and chatter. At least long enough for me to put together what I felt were the proper words to honor his memory. Keith Elam, Rest In Power.
Originally published in Wax Poetics #41, May/June 2010.
The voice: instantly recognizable, gravelly and flatly gruff, but also capable of great warmth. For so many hip-hop fans it’s the characteristic that defines Guru – rhyming half of rap’s most beloved purists Gang Starr, the owner of an instrument unlike any other in the music’s history. Though commonly described as “monotonic,” Guru’s vocals were personable and forceful in ways more exaggerated deliveries couldn’t match. His was a voice of authority. Not in a thunderous Chuck D fashion. But like that of a benevolent big brother – someone experienced with the ways of the world yet still down (and down to earth) enough to tell you which way was up.
Sadly, that voice was silenced on the morning of April 19th, 2010, when Guru (a/k/a Keith Elam) succumbed to cardiac arrest after a yearlong bout with multiple myeloma that left him in a coma since mid-February. He was 47.
For those of us whose formative hip-hop years are unthinkable without Gang Starr’s music it’s a particularly painful loss. One that only grows upon revisiting the series of compositional masterworks that proved Guru’s pen to be as distinctive as his timbre: a stick-up kid narrative, “Just to Get a Rep,” that memorably turns the tables on its protagonist in its final verse; a defiant declaration of artistic purity, “Mass Appeal”; a chronicle of a rap show aborted by senseless violence, “Soliloquy of Chaos”; the brilliantly free-flowing “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight,” through which Guru’s words move seamlessly from Islamic motifs to gun similes to a plainspoken plea for “direction through introspection.”
On these and a multitude of other classics from six acclaimed Gang Starr albums bridging 1989 and 2003, Guru’s lyrical persona is as much everyman rap fan as we, his listeners, are. He’s someone as eager and giddy to celebrate hip-hop’s visceral energy as lament its self-destructive impulses, or condemn anything diluting its creativity. It’s no wonder then so many of us naturally took to him. While most rappers spent their careers trying to sound superhuman, at his best Guru simply came off super human – unafraid to playfully play the fool in a relationship yarn (“Ex to the Next Girl”; “Lovesick”), or express vulnerability and admit his flaws in his most moving autobiographical verses (“The Planet”; “Moment of Truth”).
“I always tried to write in a way that wasn’t preachy but it might teach you something,” he told this writer in 1999. “I look at writing lyrics as almost like therapy because you can channel things through that form of expression.”
Born July 17th, 1962, raised in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts, Keith Elam was one of four children to Barbara and Harry Elam (the first African-American judge in the Boston municipal courts). Graduating from Atlanta’s Morehouse Collage in 1983, Keith stepped in rap’s performance arena as “MC Keithy E” with a short-lived Boston-based incarnation of Gang Starr before migrating to the Big Apple. He worked day jobs as a temp and social worker and recorded singles (two produced by 45 King) for seminal “golden era” indie Wild Pitch Records.
But it wasn’t until Elam encountered one Waxmaster C – a Texas-based producer whose demo landed at Wild Pitch’s offices – that he’d find his musical soul mate. After cutting one stellar track together in late 1988, “Words I Manifest,” “Keithy E” became Guru (an acronym for Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal), the Waxmaster relocated to NY and changed his name to DJ Premier, and the Gang Starr we’ve come to know and love was officially born.
Despite years of unwavering critical support, Gang Starr did not register a gold-selling album until 1998’s triumphant Moment of Truth. Arriving on the heels of a tumultuous period of legal turmoil for Guru (weapons charges addressed on Moment’s “JFK to LAX”; an assault case lithely touched upon in the title track) and rumors that Gang Starr was no more (accelerated by Guru’s popular Jazzmatazz spin-offs and Premier’s outside productions), it proved to be the most important recording of the group’s career. Moment of Truth served notice: real hip-hop – the kind Guru often referred to on wax as his “religion” – couldn’t just survive, but thrive amidst all the champagne popping dominating the charts. Weeks before its release in an interview for Vibe magazine, he appeared rejuvenated and re-focused for what lay ahead, determined that his art remain the portal through which all must pass:
“This is the main thing. This is all I got. Whether my relationship works out with my girl or if this and that happens to me… All the personal things that I got goin’ on revolve around my music and the statements I wanna make lyrically. And the fact that Premier is my best friend in life. And we make good music together.”
This is the Guru we’ll always remember. Thoughtful. Committed. Life-affirming. Forever a voice of his own.