I was extremely saddened about the death of Keith Elam last week and couldn’t help but think of how both he and his sidekick DJ Premier crafted and molded my musical psyche while in high school, college, and into adulthood. Gang Starr and Guru’s music was and still will be admired and dissected in the annals of rap and music history. His lyrical style and his social commentary on politics, women, being a black man in America, knowledge and consciousness, as well as raw street life; was the nucleus of Guru’s oral interpretation of black America during the late 1980’s up until his death. I vividly remember buying the cassette “No More Mr. Nice Guy” and playing it in my dad’s Olds. See, at the time my pops had the Bose factory speaker thing going and hearing “Manifest” and “Positivity” rollin’ down 38th Street was what me and my boys called “ballin.” Hearing Guru open with the lyrics on “Manifest along with DJ Premier’s sample of James Brown’s “Hipsters Avenue” opened Pandora’s Box on rap music for well over a decade.
“I profess and I don’t jest cause the words I manifest
They will take you, sedate you, and I will stress upon
You the need for, you all to feed your
Mind and soul, so you can lead your-self
To keep, I got a real objective here
I am effective here, cause I select a clear
Message to all, suckers I maul they fall from
Into the pit of purgatory
I go for glory, I take an inventory
Countin all the tough luck ducks while I narrate
Relate and equate, dictate and debate
My fate is to be, cold makin history
I use sincerity, but I’m so very deep
Doubts are questions, of all the skeptics
I’m kickin clout and, I’ll leave you vexed
It’s just true, there’s nothing so-so cause I know
Right about to spin it I’m in it admit it I did it
To you, cause this is what I’m into
So chill while I instill that we all must fulfill
The proper mission for us and yo this is a must
It’s usually lines of my rhymes I ingest
These are the words that I manifest, I manifest”
Keith Elam was born on July 17th, 1961 in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Education and knowledge of self was stressed by both his mother and father. “Guru’s father, Harry Elam, was the first black judge in the Boston municipal courts, and his mother, Barbara, was the co-director of library programs in the Boston public school system. Before beginning his rap career in earnest, Guru graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1983 and took graduate classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan. He worked briefly as a social worker.”(1)
Music was his passion as he decided to quit graduate school during the early 1980’s. As hip-hop was shaping up to become a music force which later would become mainstream, he’d rap under the name of MC Keithy E. It wasn’t until 1986 when he changed his name to Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal, a.k.a Guru. A year later he founded the group Gang Starr hooking up with DJ and producer Premier. The two ended up with a record deal on Wild Pitch Records and dropped their first album “No More Mr. Nice Guy” in 1989. Their debut single “Manifest” was an instant classic and was a hit on both radio and the new video music formats that developed during rap’s infancy. Primo’s beats and Guru’s honest and sincere lyrics made them popular at a time when the duo rap groups like EPMD, Salt & Pepa, Nice & Smooth, Outkast, and Black Star dominated the radio waves.
It wasn’t until director Spike Lee used the group’s signature record “Jazz Thing” for his 1990 movie “Mo Better Blues” that put them on the map. Premier began really using a lot of jazz riffs for break beats introducing the Hip-Hop generation to the music a lot of MCs and rappers were using as samples. When the duo dropped their second release “No More Mr. Nice Guy” was the calm before the storm. Primo’s signature production and cutting over his beats added to the gritty rhyming style of Guru. By their third release “Daily Operation,” the group recorded a classic triggering off a slew of crate gems like “Take It Personal,” and “Code of the Streets.”
My fondest and best moments of Guru is when he produced and spearheaded what would become a landmark in Hip-Hop. His 1993 release of “Jazzmatazz” volume 1 would be one of the most important crossroads in both jazz and rap. Guru recorded a record of original music along with some sampled jazz loop, along with some of the living legends of the music. The disc featured Branford Marsalis, Ronny Jordan, Courtney Pine, Lonnie Liston Smith, Roy Ayers, and Dr. Donald Byrd. Fusing both a live jazz band with rap was both ingenious and a critical success. He would also go on to record three other “Jazzmatazz” projects featuring diverse artists like Kem, Bob James, Vivian Green, and Chaka Khan.
Both he and Primo would ride high on the success of their solo projects as well as other Gang Starr projects like “Moment of Truth” in 1998 and their last record “The Ownerz” in 2003. But friction between the two as well as the change in climate of rap music took a toll on them both creatively. Guru formed 7 Grand Records with producer and rapper Solar in 2005 and released the fourth volume of “Jazzmatazz.” and in the summer of 2007 released what would be his last record before his timely illness.
Producer and friend Solar released a statement the day after Guru’s death stating:
“I, Guru, am writing this letter to my fans, friends and loved ones around the world. I have had a long battle with cancer and have succumbed to the disease. I have suffered with this illness for over a year. I have exhausted all medical options.
I have a non-profit organization called Each One Counts dedicated to carrying on my charitable work on behalf of abused and disadvantaged children from around the world and also to educate and research a cure for this terrible disease that took my life. I write this with tears in my eyes, not of sorrow but of joy for what a wonderful life I have enjoyed and how many great people I have had the pleasure of meeting.
My loyal best friend, partner and brother, Solar, has been at my side through it all and has been made my health proxy by myself on all matters relating to myself. He has been with me by my side on my many hospital stays, operations, doctors visits and stayed with me at my home and cared for me when I could not care for myself. Solar and his family is my family and I love them dearly and I expect my family, friends, and fans to respect that, regardless to anybody’s feelings on the matter. It is my wish that counts. This being said I am survived by the love of my life, my sun KC, who I trust will be looked after by Solar and his family as their own. Any awards or tributes should be accepted, organized approved by Solar on behalf myself and my son until he is of age to except on his own.
I do not wish my ex-DJ to have anything to do with my name likeness, events tributes etc. connected in anyway to my situation including any use of my name or circumstance for any reason and I have instructed my lawyers to enforce this. I had nothing to do with him in life for over 7 years and want nothing to do with him in death. Solar has my life story and is well informed on my family situation, as well as the real reason for separating from my ex-DJ. As the sole founder of Gang Starr, I am very proud of what Gang Starr has meant to the music world and fans. I equally am proud of my Jazzmatazz series and as the father of Hip-Hop/Jazz. I am most proud of my leadership and pioneering efforts on Jazzmatazz 4 for reinvigorating the Hip-Hop/Jazz genre in a time when music quality has reached an all time low. Solar and I have toured in places that I have never been before with Gang Starr or Jazzmatatazz and we gained a reputation for being the best on the planet at Hip-Hop/Jazz, as well as the biggest and most influential Hip-Hop/Jazz record with Jazzmatazz 4 of the decade to now. The work I have done with Solar represents a legacy far beyond its time. And we as a team were not afraid to push the envelope. To me this is what true artists do! As men of honor we stood tall in the face of small mindedness, greed, and ignorance. As we fought for music and integrity at the cost of not earning millions and for this I will always be happy and proud, and would like to thank the million fans who have seen us perform over the years from all over the world. The work I have done with Solar represents a legacy far beyond its time and is my most creative and experimental to date. I hope that our music will receive the attention it deserves as it is some of the best work I have done and represents some of the best years of my life.”
Guru died on April 19, 2010 at age 47 while battling cancer for over a year and a half. He suffered a heart attack that lead him into a coma. His legacy was timeless in that he invented music that will be around long after he’s gone. Raising the bar on producing great music while elevating black culture without the exploitative and negative stigma that has seeped into this generation’s Hip-Hop. A true original and a Hip-Hop icon around the world. Thanks for the memories.
The Revolution Will Be Televised,
The Pace Report