R.I.P. Keith “Guru” Elam 1966-2010
On April 19th 2010 Keith Elam, better known as rapper “Guru,” lost his largely unreported battle with cancer. After a month in coma, the Boston-born MC left planet Earth and said “Suave.” There’s been an unfortunate amount of controversy surrounding his death, namely his manager enforcing a strict list of who was allowed to see him that did not include his family and a “goodbye letter” that seems uncharacteristically petty and possibly a forgery, which has added a troubling coda to one of the genre’s most prolific legacies. In the interest of a proper sendoff, I’d like to focus instead on the music that made the man great.
Guru is known to most as one-half of seminal Hip-Hop duo Gang Starr. Along with DJ Premier, the two signed to Wild Pitch in the late-80s, releasing their first album No More Mr. Nice Guy.. While it spawned two successful singles in “Positivity” and “Words I Manifest,” the group was still defining their sound, a vision they realized on 1991’s Step in the Arena. Widely considered their official debut, Arena became the template for the often imitated rap-jazz hybrid sound of the early 90s. Back by Premier’s layered orchestrations, Guru showcased an intentionally monotone flow and simplified writing style that wasn’t a dumbing down, but rather an enforced minimalism that make the presentation of his Nation of the Gods and Earth beliefs and socio-political concerns more subtle and effective than most of his genre’s peers. This album also began one of rap’s strongest four album streaks that included 1992’s Daily Operation, 1994’s Hard to Earn and 1998’s Moment of Truth. Longevity is rare in Hip-Hop, but the two achieved it through not only changing with the times but making the times change with them.
One of my personal favorites is their song “Ex Girl to Next Girl.” Released in 1992, it’s a rare look at relationships-after-relationships that remains mature without sounding particularly soft-batch. Guru’s performance on the song is nothing short of perfection, playing up the realistic ups-and-down of both sides without overindulging in bravado or “emo” tendencies that typically ruins others’ similar attempts. The flow shows an earnest reflection, giving the song a conversational sound that conveys a recognizable familiarity to the listener. This everyman’s Superman persona heard here would remain one of Guru’s most recognizable traits throughout his career.
Another one of his most memorable performances came in the form of 1994’s Nice and Smooth collaboration “Dwyck.” One of those verses that everyone in Hip-Hop seems to have memorized, the stream-of-conscious lyrics that effortlessly change subject with every bar gives the performance an almost puzzling unpredictability while inadvertently celebrating how diverse Guru’s subject matter is. Most first-and-foremost remember the “Lemonade was a popular drink and it still is / I get more stunts and props than Bruce Willis” couplet, but remember it’s immediately preceded by a gun reference and followed by name dropping Langston Hughes. Not too many could get away with covering such a wide-range of topics in four bars, but somehow Guru made it work.
Apart from Gang Starr, Guru found success with his Jazzmatazz collection. Along with being one of rap’s few successful concept-albums, it achieved the even rarer-feat of reaching out to rappers from other countries and even other languages and still being successful. Not only a smash in the states, the international flavor of the first Jazzmatazz lead to the album becoming circulated worldwide. To this day I hear stories of people coming back from visiting everywhere from Israel to Argentina and hearing “Yeah, I was having brunch at some hole-in-the-wall restaurant when suddenly someone threw on Jazzmatazz and everybody, knowing what it was, just started vibing out.” Why does one man have such an appeal? Maybe it’s the storytelling, maybe it’s mostly the voice. Either way, it’s an unfortunate loss for Hip-Hop as one seminal catalog comes to an end and a shining talent slides into the sunset.
For further reading, please check out the homie Timlaska’s analysis of Gang Starr’s Step in the Arena and Hard to Earn.
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